She watched the rhythmic fall of raindrops on the flooded pavement, and the jagged ribbons of lightning striking the sky. It poured. It rained as if the heavens got wind of the dilemma that was tearing at her; the hollowness of her heart – an abyss like depression – premised with some form of impending doom. The grayed clouds spoke so well of her sorrow, her sweat, her weariness – the tale of fruitless toil. Lightning struck again.
Startled, she almost knocked down the crockery.
‘No. Thank you.’
She watched as the waitress walked away smiling gently – an effort to pacify her. She checked the time by her watch. Quarter past eight. Faraja was late. She sighed and once more gaped at the scenery outside. Rubbing her tensed neck, she felt mild scraping from her ring finger. She placed her arm back on the table and looked at the back of her hand. A hefty ruby contrasted with the gold ring and showed off against her chocolate skin.
She let a tear roll down her cheek. She was so tired. She touched the stone and gazed at it. Her memory helplessly sipped through her weakening wall of resilience to times in her past. Better times. Where do they fly to?
They had been laughing and playing, chasing each other like children in kindergarten, in the woods at a picnic they had both organized and looked forward to for weeks. She had slumped on the grass, out of breath from laughter and sweet strain of running from John’s grasp. But before she could wave the white flag, Jabali had already gone down on bended knee, ring in hand.
‘Yes!’ is all she had managed to say, as Jabali picked her up in a twirl of delight. She had loved him for so long, and he had now made their love official.
Where did time go?
Now all she heard were whispers in the streets, at their church, at his work place and hers. She went to a favorite club with the girls the other night, and she could have sworn she had spotted him – a man garbed in a blue suede jacket just like his, in the company of a woman with long jet black hair, whose face she could not quite place. They were quickly lost in the crowd. She had walked in on him many times, taking late night phone calls, talking in soft reassuring tones. He had explained that it was his mother, that she had gotten sick again, but had been very reluctant about taking her along when visiting her. He had started staying up late at work. And just the other day, she had heard the voice of a female on the other end of the line, who quickly hung up after hearing hers, when she picked up a call on his behalf while he was in the shower. She thought it strange, but never brought it up.
And then came d-day, the day life hit her with an excerpt from reality. She had stumbled onto them in a restaurant, sitting together, hands clasped across a table for two. They may as well have been the only two people in the world.
At first her eyes had refused to take it all in. She eagerly thwarted doubts lurking her imagination and pleasantly started towards them on an amicable quest for answers – but then halted. He had leaned over for a kiss – a slow, stretched, tender kiss, ending with a smile that etched glee and contentment on both their faces.
She had ran back to her apartment where she had lived before she and Jabali had started spending so much time together, which still had a few of her possessions, now gathering dust. She had cried herself to sleep and taken leave from work to try and nurse herself discretely, intending to break clean without following him up with any sort of scene.
But her sister would not have any of it. She paid him a visit in her stead and gave him a piece of her ill tempered mind, cuing his phone calls and tones of voice mail, and flowers, and cards, and chocolate, some staying at her doorstep for days, and follow ups, and apologies, until her resolve finally shook. But second chances had lead to thirds, and thirds to fourths, each given to her own demise, and to the disapproval of her family and her childhood friend.
Faraja had just about had it. It sometimes surprised even him how he had stuck by her side through the good and bad. He had been the pillar she could always rely on. He had developed an attraction for her, but any potential for romance between them had been obscured by decades of familiarity. He had always been there for her, even while they dated other people. In past incidences, on the verge of losing her job when John had been up to no good, he had helped her get off her couch just so she could hit the shower. She had brushed off his propositions, yet he remained by her side when she agreed to be John’s girl. She had not allowed herself to view him as more than the boy next door. He in turn had felt restrained. As close as they were, he was wary of jeopardizing the friendship they were already enjoying … until last night.
Last night Faraja made his first bold move. Refusing to be hindered any longer by her limiting perceptions, he had taken her by her arms and kissed her – a kiss that sent a rip straight through the earth, and shot stars for miles in the galaxy, finally making her pay him due attention, and changing their friendship forever. She could not deny their possibilities any longer.
So now he asks to meet her. They both had. Jabali, as if sensing that he was losing her for good this time, had requested her to pass by his place at seven. Faraja was to meet her at eight. Never had a heart and mind been in so much tousle. Her affections were still tagging at Jabali, but in her head she knew that she had better chances of a brighter future with Faraja, if only she would give him the chance… right?
Twenty past eight. She rubbed her palms together and looked at the increasing rain. The room temperature was dropping fast. She pulled her shawl back over her shoulders. It was going to be hard to shake off Jabali from her system. Five years is no child play. She remembered the many nights they had snuggled together by the fire in his living room, the food they ate, the intimacies they shared…
Just then Faraja burst through the restaurant door, quickly spotting her and hurrying towards her. He kissed her cheek, before sitting down across from her.
‘I am so sorry. Traffic was messed up. I left the office early, but this rain… how unexpected! Crazy, huh?’
He removed his drenched coat then looked at her, relieved. He reached out and then spoke softly.
‘I’m so glad you’re still here. I would have gone crazy if…’
She looked at her watch again as her thoughts trailed off, then She pulled her hand away to rub her neck again.
‘Hey. Are you okay? I’m here now.’
‘Faraja…’ She rubbed her eyes then looked down at the table, trying to calm herself enough so she could find the right words to say.
‘Hey. Tell me what’s wrong.’
He touched her elbow and tried to read her face. Concern suddenly engulfed him.
‘Is he bothering you again?’
She fumbled, then stopped herself. There was no point. She sighed in resignation.
‘Faraja. I am sorry.’
She made as if to leave.
‘Wait… where are you going?’
She shook her head into composure.
‘I have to go.’
She left in a huff, her raincoat trailing behind. He wanted to pursue her but knew better. He could tell where she was headed. He instead chose to watch through the glass pane as she leapt into the rain and into her car, and as crackling thunder cut through the sound of her speeding engine.
She could not see very well. It took a while before she realized she had not turned on her wipers. By the hooting from other drivers she was sure she had broken several traffic laws. It barely registered. She cried in desperation. She looked at her watch again – half past nine. She hoped she was not too late.
Jabali’s apartment building came into view at last. She sprinted past the doorman she had grown so fond of over the years, barely hearing his hallo. She jumped into the elevator and almost knocked down those who were exiting. The carriage could not be slower.
Up fourteen floors and steel doors opened for her. She ran down the hallway, key in hand, but was glad to realize she would not be needing it. She hastily walked through a swinging door into a vast apartment.
She searched the house, unwrapping her wet scarf.
‘Jabali, are you…’
She had not needed to call out.
‘Jabali!’ She gasped.
Long jet black hair popped up from the cushioned pile on the floor, above jet black brazier straps. She needed no other word. She broke into tears and fell on her knees wailing. She clasped her wet face trying to contain her compounding despair while Jabali remained there standing, helpless and bare-chested, in the living room, by the fire.
She took one last look in the mirror. Her knee-length peach dress complemented her figure. Her glistening hair was trimmed just below her ear, as she had always liked it. Her shoes, a brand new pair, added confidence to her posture. She looked good, and she knew it.
‘Umm… We’re running late!’
‘I’ll be right down!’
She dubbed a bit of scent on her arms and neck and, taking her clutch bag, she had one more look in the mirror and smiled with approval. She felt young, and free, and alive. It had taken a while but the light at the end of the long dark tunnel had finally come to her, and she was basking in it. She glowed from the inside out.
She sped out of her room, and then slowed down at the stairs, to the marvel on Faraja’s face. He almost dropped the bouquet from his hand. She reached at the end of the staircase and smiled bashfully.
‘These for me?’
‘Yeah! Sorry… Here.’
He handed her the flowers, still getting over the scene before him.
‘You are stunning!’ he managed to say. ‘Happy birthday.’
She smelled them and put them on the coffee table.
‘I love them. I’ll put them in fresh water once we get back.’
‘Good idea. Let’s go.’
He headed for the door and reached for the knob for her. Thanking him again, she grabbed her coat and walked out, followed by Faraja. He opened the car for her before getting in and turned on the engine.
She searched her clutchbag almost pouring out the contents, then looked at him apologetically.
‘I have to go get my phone.’
Faraja sat patiently as she dashed back in the house. The show would have already started. He hoped they would not have missed much. He counted a minute too many before he figured he should go after her. He turned off the engine then followed her into the house, trying desperately to restrain his anxiety. He opened the door and was about to call out when he saw her standing in the kitchen, her phone vibrating in her hand. She was staring at it, paralyzed, but then looked up to a baffled Faraja.
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