FICTION : One Flight Together by Anjana Dhanavanthan
“What is it about airports and the drama?” thought Ashima as she entered through terminal 2. Airports were part of her life these days. She spent more time there than at home, but she had no regrets. Barring her house plants and the occasional visits from friends, she actually had no one to go back to. Her mother however, felt that it was high time Ashima took a decision about her life.
“How long will you live this life of a hermit? Is this what you learnt from your father and me?” she used to say at the end of every video call with Ashima. She tried her best to not roll her eyes when her mother used emotional blackmail to get her into marriage.
Today, the airport had more travellers than usual. Ashima had to wait in line for a good 10 minutes before she could get herself a cup of hot chocolate. This had become such a routine that she didn’t even have to second think her moves. Grab a cup, walk to gate 23 and take ‘her’ seat by the window. This time though, there was way too much rush. Ashima almost spilt her hot chocolate on a child who appeared out of thin air. Carrying a bright yellow auto rickshaw toy in his hand, he cried “Beep Beep! Aunty moooooooovve!” before running away towards another unexpecting person nearby.
Thanks to her assistant who had booked an earlier flight that morning, Ashima had a lesser wait time. Sipping her hot chocolate, Ashima watched the flights on the runway, arriving and departing in synchronized fashion.
“Calling all passengers boarding AirHind flight AH110 from Delhi to Dehradun. We are now inviting passengers with small children, and any passengers requiring special assistance, to begin boarding at this time. Please have your boarding pass and identification ready. Thank you!” came the voice of a bored ground staff.
Finishing the last of her hot chocolate, Ashima turned to make her way to the gate when she saw him across the waiting area. A drop of hot chocolate fell on her pristine white blouse, which she didn’t notice. “It can’t be,” she thought to herself while picking up her pace to move farther away.
By the time she had deposited the empty cup into the dustbin, her heart was ringing in her ears. She had to lean onto the dustbin to catch her breath. After a minute she realized that passers-by were staring at her. A 30 something well-dressed woman leaning against a dustbin was not a common sight. Ashima removed her hand and stepped back, feeling embarrassed.
“Don’t do it,” said the voice in her head, but she turned to look again at the spot where she had seen him. She only saw a mother with a sleeping baby in her arms. Telling herself that she had imagined Sharad there, she began to walk towards the gate. She was wrong, standing before her on the line was the man she least wanted to see at the moment. A huge party stood behind her in the line making it harder to stay unnoticed. Thanks to the loud ruckus they were creating, he turned back.
There she stood face to face looking at Sharad, her ex-boyfriend. Pictures of them from the past whizzed past her eyes like the View Master she owned as a child. Click, click, click! Memories, memories, more memories! Ashima had gone as white as her blouse, staring at him in shock.
“Hey, Ashu! What a surprise!” boomed his voice somewhere in the distance. He was still as charming as she last remembered him. He was wearing a checked shirt and a pair of jeans (“Why does he always wear checks?” she thought). People swarmed him, every now and then, requesting selfies and autographs. Now a recognized actor, Sharad once was struggling to make his way into the entertainment world. That is how she remembered him and their times together.
The line soon grew shorter as people walked towards the plane. Ashima now understands what the drama around airports was. It was the place where the least expected things could happen and it happened to her today.
Ashima took a minute to register the boarding pass being handed back to her. “Goofball!” she said to herself, walking into the plane looking for 8D. Dumping her laptop bag in the compartment above, she sat in her seat, sinking down further to avoid him.
Funny thing about life is that what we least want, comes to us in a full blow. Sharad took the seat next to hers and while buckling his seat belt in place, looked at her with a mocking smile.
“So, you plan to avoid me for the rest of the flight?”
“Wha.. me? No, I wasn’t avoiding you! It just… uhm, I didn’t sleep well”, she lied.
“I believe you,” Sharad said, raising both his hands against his chest. “I’ll let you be,” he said before putting his headphones on.
Now Ashima felt worse. She had always wanted to get a chance to talk to Sharad again, but here she was avoiding him. Things had gone downhill between them and they both had moved on after the breakup. Sharad had done well in his career and now was an emerging star. He went on to marry Shweta, a family friend of his. Ashima had accepted this and had moved on in life. She dated random men while committing to no one in particular. This was her way of keeping the score even, she thought.
“I can’t do this yaar, Ashu!” he said into her ears. She almost shivered at the proximity between them.
“We meet after so long and you decide to avoid me? Not cool! Sleep in longer tomorrow or take a day off from work. But don’t do this yaar!”
“What do you want me to say, Sharad? This is so random. I had worked so hard to be okay with how life was. What do you want me to say?” she almost snapped back.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just happy to see you after what seems like a long time”, Sharad said, rubbing the back of his neck.
"I am sorry, I know you mean well. Forget that, how is work? How is your wife?”
“All good! Hey, we are expecting our first baby this September! I am so excited.”
“Wow, that is just wow!” Ashima smiled, though she couldn’t speak another word. She made a mental note to fire her assistant for booking the wrong flight that put her in this unnecessary situation. Ashima could never forget the two years they had been together. She woke up with texts from him and went to bed with the phone to her ears, Sharad waiting until she fell asleep. It was a surprise to her best friend Shruti, when one day Ashima broke down about their breakup. She could never say what it was that drove them apart, but his marriage, stardom and him being cool about their breakup stung her every day.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Sandra, your chief flight attendant. On behalf of the entire crew, welcome onboard AirHind flying from Delhi to Dehradun. Our flight time will be of approximately 55 minutes…” continued the flight attendant, but Ashima could hardly hear a word.
The man that she loved the most was sitting right next to her. For a minute, she closed her eyes and everything felt the same. The smell of his perfume, his calm demeanour and the fluttering in her stomach. But she knew that nothing was the same. It hurt her more to think that even though they were together at that moment, they lived in two parallel universes.
“.. All your portable electronic devices must be set to ‘airplane’ mode until an announcement is made. Thank you,” finished the attendant. Ashima let out a deep sigh, reclining her seat and shutting her eyes tight to stop the stinging tears.
“Our life wouldn’t have been like how we had imagined it, Ashu,” Sharad said after what seemed like an eternity. She turned to see that his head was almost in line with hers. She knew that everyone in the flight was aware of Sharad’s presence there and she couldn’t afford to say anything, lest it became paparazzi dope.
“My wife is the only person who knows how it feels to marry to someone who is hardly ever there. I missed our first anniversary. I have never been able to travel anywhere with her because of all the cameras and fans. We never get a private moment and even then, she has never once complained,” he said in a voice that only she could hear.
Ashima wanted to tell him that she would have made that effort and things would have been as they had once dreamt. But even she knew it was a lie. Ashima knew that she wanted much more out of life than just being a celebrity wife.
“Gosh, Ash! Imagine! If you had ended up with Sharad, you would be like her. Talking about holidays in UAE and manicures in Paris!" echoed Shruti’s voice while they were watching a show about celebrity wives. Shruti was the only person who knew about the two ever since they got together after a chance encounter.
Bringing herself back to the present, Ashima nodded. “I know, Sharad. things happened for the best. It is just that some things in life need closure and I don’t think we got one.”
“Closure is a fancy term that people keep throwing at others these days. There is no actual closure in life.”
“Easy for you to say, you moved on literally and figuratively!”
“Nobody moved on. We were in completely different phases in life! Us being together was catastrophic. Amazing, but catastrophic!”
“Yep! Give me more stuff to feel horrible about!”
“Stop sounding like a kid. Ashu, you have no idea how much every move of mine hurt me in the past. My decisions were not mine. I miss you every single day, but there’s nothing more I can do. Does that make me the villain in the story?”
Ashima could feel the tension in his voice and worried that they would attract attention. She brushed her hair aside, let out a breath and said “I guess you were right. We wanted different things in life and at different times. But that doesn’t make what we had anything less special.”
Sharad turned to look at her, lowering his sunglasses for the first time since he got on board. His eyes had the same puppy dog looks that once tugged at her heart. But she didn’t feel that tug now. It just felt like some faint recollection of a long-lost memory.
“We are fine, Sharad,” she said with a small smile, squeezing his hand. While it hurt to see how calm he was about this, she knew that he was right. As much as she wanted closure, Ashima knew that some things left unsaid are better in life. Knowing that Sharad too felt the way she did, in some way made her feel less broken.
“Ladies and gentlemen, as we start our descent, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. Make sure your seat belt is securely fastened and all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins. Thank you.”
Disembarking was one thing Ashima hated about flights. People had no patience and would be ready to scramble over one another to get out first. But today, she was happy to wait until the crowd had cleared off. Sharad and she were the last to leave the plane. They took deliberate slow steps, savouring the few moments they had with each other. They walked past the huge family at the conveyor belt waiting to collect their luggage. In the middle of the crowded airport, Ashima and Sharad felt like they were the only two beings on the planet.
“Ashu, remember what we shared will always be special regardless of where we are in life today,” Sharad said before a crowd of fans whisked him away. Ashima smiled as she walked out of the gates, for airports will never be the same for her again.
About the Writer :
Anjana Dhanavanthan is a mother of two energetic children. A radio jockey turned podcast host, Anjana has been dabbling in writing for years now, working on projects of various kinds. An avid crocheter, she enjoys making dolls for children and finds her zen in the process. On a regular basis, you can find her cleaning up an already clean spot with a piping hot mug of filter coffee by her side or experimenting in her kitchen. Anjana believes that the world is a good place and so, doesn't stop herself from sharing way too many emojis with people who talk to her