Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Bakery

I felt like an old poacher, without a gun, on unfamiliar territory. It used to be a hunting ground, when it was a hideaway, before it became a copycat coffee-shop, before there were too many friends, virtual and real, when communication needed thought. Casual encounters must have been rare even then. I can recall, at best, a look or two, a rare smile. Now, that is not even a dream, the weight of experience is a drag on such quick wit.
It’s been a while since my last visit. It hurts to be here, why, I do not know, I do know. The owner nodded at me, asked about my family, I enquired about his health, his son stood near, scowling, he should smile more at old-timers. As I stood in the queue, I eyed my old standing space, waiting for me, or another.
I saw a best friend of old; she looked through me; that was not unexpected. Most people there seem busy, that’s not new; it’s always been a crime, a shame, to have time. If we had talked, we would have promised to meet again, not really a false promise, with too little hope. If we met again, we would have wondered when we became strangers. Or not wondered at all.
A young lady at the counter seemed familiar; she reminded me of a girl I knew, not too well, a dusky fickle Gemini with deep dimples. She moved away, looking uncomfortable with my attention; how could I clarify. 
I smiled, inwardly, at two couples. There was always a Che Guevara and a Joan Baez, in t-shirts and old jeans, with wild hair and borrowed air. In a few years, they would become the other, dressed in formals, talking softly between clicks on their laptop or smartphone. Some will be sad, disillusioned and lost by then; most will have dreams, opportunities, expensive lingerie and a vacation at the Majora in the Maldives. The bakery always had a privileged touch, even when the puffs were five rupees and two could share couple of parotta and beef curry for twenty. There is too much body-spray now, yet the body stinks, too little cigarette smoke, not enough soda. How do they rebel now–by going organic, by exchanging a few characters as protest, wanting to be a billionaire by twenty five?
Don’t get me wrong. I would not have noted all this if I had not met her.
She was two years my senior in school. Her younger sister was my classmate and a good mate. It was the younger one who spread the rumour that I was deeply in love with a girl in our class, the last one I would go after, but the rumour stuck. We acted in a drama once, the older one and me. She was my mother, I the black sheep of the family. She slapped me, hard, the audience went quiet, it was that real, she got the best actor award and I nearly cried. Was that before or after that day I jumped out of a bus, ran to her and offered to carry two heavy bags of shopping? She had let me. That was fine then. We walked side by side, hardly talked. I deposited the shopped bags, she invited me inside, her parents and that imp of a sister stood by her. I said, next time. She said, thank you.
We noticed each other at the same instant. She said my name, without hesitation. I smiled, raised my hand to my cheek. She laughed. She asked about the old love that never was. I asked about her sister. She collected her coffee, I a chocolate pastry. I took her to my old spot. We hardly talked. She sipped her coffee. I took a bite of my pastry. I looked at her. How did I offer the pastry–a gesture with my eyes? Did we think about the baggage we carried, or about the weight of indiscretion? Did I make a move to get her another spoon, or did I not? She took the plastic spoon from my hand and had a small portion. I watched her lips and tongue take in the rich chocolate, the spoon in her mouth, the delicate suck on that. Back to me, then to her, we made the pastry last a dozen or more small turns.
Someone there must have noted our few-moments-stand. They might say we thanked each other at the end. She did not. I did not. I did.
The message in parenthesis, the present isn’t bad at all, or the future, with hope in such a past.

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