I unplugged the charger and picked up my phone from the bare table. I had removed the tablecloth some time ago and the peeling paint revealed patches of rust, like scars suddenly thrown open to the world.
My bags were packed; the huge suitcase was full and locked, and my abandoned mattress lay in a corner of the room. It was too much of a bother to lug it all the way home, and anyway hostels could do with spare mattresses. The warden would find use for it.
I made to walk out, but then turned and looked at my room again. It was like I’d found it when I first opened the doors two years ago – empty and clean. Except it had been bright when I’d arrived, the cheery sunlight painting the floor tiles orange.
It’s dark today when I’m leaving, the mountain wind blowing in with the night.
I carried my luggage down the stairs, having to do it twice to get all my stuff down.
Everything was done, then. The hostel formalities, the farewells to the professors, the promises to friends about meeting soon, the packing, the last walk through the campus, the last dinner at the mess, the last class, the last exam. I had in my hand the piece of paper that declared that my post graduate studies were over and that I could leave.
That was it, then. I could leave.
I sat down on the suitcase at the hostel door, my knees bending with the weight of hundreds of memories.
There was a mountain there right in front of me, but I couldn’t see it. It was hidden by the night. Everyday, I had opened my eyes to the mist on this mountain, unconsciously taking an indelible picture. Tomorrow morning, it would still be there, but I wouldn’t see it.
I couldn’t put it away anymore. I took the phone out.
The ringing. To my ears it seemed a shrill, foreign sound. It unnerved me.
I hadn’t talked to her in ages. I didn’t know how long it’d been. I didn’t even know if she wanted to say goodbye. But I had to tell her I was going; it seemed the right thing to do.
I would never think of my time here without thinking of her, and she would never be able to think of her time here without thinking of me. I couldn’t leave just like that. We owed that much to each other.
She picked up.
“Hello”, she said, and the blowing wind paused to hear her voice.
“Hey”, I said.
Silence. It must have been five seconds or so, but it felt like more. A lot more. Like when you sit on a bus and think about something in your past and you travel across time and space and pain and memory and are lost and when you look up again, you realize you are still in the bus. That kind of a silence.
“I’m leaving”, I said.
“Now?”, she asked.
“I’ll wait at the gate”, she said.
She hung up.
Wait at the gate. Okay.
The cab arrived and I threw all that I had inside. I stole one last look at the hostel and the volleyball courts and the invisible mountain as the driver sped up. It’s strange how the things you’ve been seeing for days and months, things you know well but don’t really notice, how they suddenly seem so different and beautiful when you know you won’t see them again.
As the bend opposite my department arrived I asked the driver to stop.
I needed to go back there one last time.
Something that belonged to me was still there.
The lawn had just been watered, and my shoes made squishy sounds as I walked towards the entrance. No one was there, and in that darkness, the greenery looked richly desolate.
I knew where I had to go.
The student board had one of my hand written poems in it. I wanted it back. Taking it was my way of signifying that my life was moving; it was going somewhere else, though I didn’t know where yet.
It was then that I saw that there was nothing there. The board was empty, save the small glinting brown pins.
I turned back.
The empty board was telling me something too. I didn’t have to take anything back. My poem was already gone; it didn’t belong here anymore.
Nor did I.
I sat in the cab, the dull thud of the closing door startling me.
This was it.
I didn’t know if I had it in me. To say this goodbye. I’d thought about this so many times, what I would say to her, what I would feel, how we both would explain to each other what had happened to us in this university between the mountains, where our romance had threatened to burn forests down.
Once upon a time we’d been in love, and we’d screwed it up beautifully, she in her own way, and I in mine, and we’d lost each other to each other, if that makes any sense.
And now I was going to see her, perhaps for the last time.
I told the cab to stop near the gate, where the railway crossing was closed for the train, and walked back towards the ATM on the side road, the asphalt crackling under my feet.
She was where I knew she would be, near the tree with the huge yellow flowers; she was reading. I stopped, I couldn’t go on. She saw me, stood and walked towards me. I just stared.
I remembered kissing her in that very ATM, remembered her running into my arms in the backstage darkness after our super-successful fest, remembered putting her to sleep on trains when we travelled, remembered looking into her eyes during presentations, remembered watching her order all the food that I would have to finish.
I remembered so much.
I hated it that I remembered everything.
She had come up to me, soundlessly, like only she could.
“So”, she said.
She was all of five feet, and once she’d been half of the rest of me.
I looked into her eyes, beautiful and not sad at all, and I knew she was. She was like that, she was the opposite of what you saw in front of you. She was beyond gorgeous, and even in that darkness, she could not help but glow. That was why she was so beautiful, because she never paid attention. She had other things to do in life.
I didn’t say anything.
“When is the train?”, she asked.
“Mine is early tomorrow”, she said, even though I hadn’t asked.
I had lost her, and it was a loss that I would never be able to reconcile with. Maybe later, years later, but not now. Or maybe never. It was that kind of a love. We’d been that kind of lovers.
The night train passed the crossing in a deafening rush, the ground vibrating beneath us, and the gate opened with the familiar mechanical rattle.
“I love you”, I said finally, my voice breaking just when I did not want it to.
When we were together, I always kept my hand on her head when she was worried or upset or when I felt she needed me. It calmed her, and sometimes she herself asked me to do it.
It was our own little gesture of understanding and commitment, our own small secret.
She took my hand and placed it on her head, her eyes holding back tears of her own.
The cab driver honked.
“Take care, baby”, I said.
“You too”, she said, and before I could say anything more, she turned and started walking back.
I stood there, looking at the girl I’d loved and lost. And it took me some time to realize what I’d seen in her other hand, what she’d been reading.
I’d called that poem ‘the wind in her wake’.
The line ‘She was all of five feet, and half of the rest of me’ was inspired by this post on Alfaaz ki Barsaat, and another post of her’s gave me the words ‘burning forests down’, which I use in the beginning of this story. Y’all should go read her poetry. She’s just amazing.