The door swung open and a young woman in an elegant black cocktail dress entered the room. She had a cigarette pack and a lighter in one hand, skillfully balanced along with a clutch.
“Hope you don’t mind,” she said lighting up, even though it was a smoking room. “If I don’t have one right now I will lose my mind.”
Neeru grabbed Sanjay’s glass and gulped down whatever little remained of his beer, wincing at the bitter taste. Her own wine glass lying empty on the table. She glared at her as if willing her to leave the room by the sheer power of her venomous stare. She didn’t like the intrusion. Wanted to be left alone. It was enough that Sanjay was here, trying to placate her. Playing the trusted family friend. It isn’t true, Neeru. He still loves only you. You are reading too much into things. Right. Reading too much into the late night messages, the scent of jasmine on his collar, his impromptu book tours, and that no-reason-smile on his face.
She made a move to get up, but there was nowhere else to get away from the gossiping crowd. Besides, he was downstairs, with her. Whom she thought was “her.” And she didn’t trust herself to behave.
“I just ran into my ex,” the woman said, dropping into an armchair, taking a long drag. She clearly was no good at reading moods in the room. “He still gets on my nerves,” she blabbered nervously, “even after all these years.”
Neeru frowned at her and Sanjay shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.
The woman giggled self-consciously and exhaled in short nervous spurts. “By the way, I am Reema Saini. And you look so familiar. Like I know you from somewhere.” She took another drag and leaned in across the table to study her more closely. She was not so young as Neeru had pegged her to be at first. The woman had crows’ feet for God’s sake and was closer to her in age. This somehow made her feel even worse and more resentful toward this intruder.
She eyed her suspiciously and smirked. “If you’re looking for some scoop, you can try elsewhere. I don’t give interviews or comments. That’s my husband’s job.”
“Oh, is he famous?” asked the woman looking genuinely surprised. “That’s great. Who is he?”
“Manav Sikand. The famous author? Rockstar of literary events? It’s his book launch you’re at.” Neeru rolled her eyes at Sanjay, who shrugged genially.
“He is quite a catch.”
“Great for you,” said Reema, grinning at her and Sanjay. Like she was high or very pleased with this bit of news. “I’ll make sure to get a signed copy from downstairs before I leave.”
It wasn’t the reaction Neeru had expected. She was used to awe and envy guised as compliments. And it baffled her. This woman was so unfazed by her “good fortune” as most people would put it. Despite the fact that it was she who had discovered Manav as an author in the first place. Before anyone even knew of his existence.
“But that’s not it. No, no, no,” said Reema, squashing her half-smoked cigarette in the ash-tray and leaning back into her armchair. She exhaled the last of the smoke in her lungs and watched it spiral upwards towards the ceiling and scatter away. “You’re Neeru Malhotra, aren’t you? From St. Xavier’s. We went to college together, remember? Journo-lab partners for three years? Or maybe I am mistaken,” she said. “In which case I’ve made a complete fool of myself. And you must think I am some wannabe celebrity wife groupie.” She chuckled at this and dropped her gaze to study Neeru’s face as it moved from confusion to conscious recollection to awareness and recognition.
It took Neeru a few anxious moments to figure out who Reema was. Her state of inebriation was not helping. Besides, she didn’t want to be accused of forgetting her old friends just because of her improved station in life, now did she? The grapevine would have a field day with that one.
“Ray,” she yelled. “Why, you look so different … almost a girl.”
She rushed to hug her and then turned to Sanjay. “This is my friend from college,” she said smiling brightly. “She was such a guy back then. You wouldn’t catch her dead in a cocktail dress. Or coiffured hair.”
Reema gave a lopsided grin, straightening her dress. “And she was the best at everything. And would not stand losing to anyone. Period.”
“And this is Sanjay, my husband’s agent.” Sanjay nodded, a brief smile. “Manav is downstairs, mingling. He is quite the literary rockstar, as I mentioned just before … Nevermind. How have you been? It’s so good seeing you after all these years. Sanjay, get us some drinks will you? Make it wine. And tell Neha to quit hovering on the other side, expecting our mélange to turn into a threesome. She is giving me the death stare.”
“Sure,” said Sanjay, getting up almost instantly and clearing his throat. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said to Reema, bowing slightly, like an old-fashioned gentleman, before he headed out.
“That man gets on my nerves,” Neeru declared when he’d left the room. She kicked off her heels and sank into the armchair. Reema considered this for a moment, then sat down on the edge of the table. Heels still on.
They looked at each other and smiled.
“It’s been so long, hasn’t it?” Neeru said, running her fingers through her shoulder-length hair. Now that the initial euphoria had subsided, she was uncertain of what to say.
“It has,” nodded Reema. “And I see that life has been kind to you.”
“Yes, indeed, it has,” smiled Neeru, playing the hostess in their little parlor charade. “You know me. I am quite the go-getter. Could never settle for anything less than the very best. Right after college, I started working in my uncle’s publishing house. Broken Quill. You’ve heard of it. It’s a global brand. Has all the A-listers. Anyways, I did pretty well for myself. Became Managing Editor at 28. Had a slew of bestsellers under my wing. Won awards-shawards … And then I met Manav. When he was just a struggling writer. But I knew he had something special about him. That spark of greatness. Here is a man, I said to myself, who could someday be someone who matters. And I found him, you know? He is my find. We started this imprint together. Ascend. Great success. Personally, I think all his books are bloated, self-important monologs with himself. But he did sweep me off my feet, and he was quite the catch … back in the day.”
“Sounds like you’ve been living the dream.”
“What to say, Ray? I have a charmed, glitzy life. A loving husband. A successful career. The whole shebang. No kids though. Who needs them right? A whole lot of work and not much else. How about you? What’s the story with your ex? And where did you go? You completely fell off the radar after college. We thought you’d died or left the country. Why are you laughing?”
“Nothing,” Reema said. “You haven’t changed at all.”
“Everybody tells me the same thing. And I say, is that such a bad thing? After all, you can’t improve on what is already perfect, now can you?”
“How is everybody? Racha, Kaveri, the whole gang?”
“Great, I suppose. You can hardly ever tell. But on the surface they all seem blessed. You won’t believe but Rachna, the poster child of feminism, is a stay-at-home mom of two boys. And Kaveri. She’s an artist. The girl couldn’t draw a stick to save her life. And now she’s selling paintings of, well, turds if you ask me, for a sweet price. Of my god, you must think I am such a chatterbox. You’ve hardly said anything about yourself.”
“Me, I’ve been okay. Bouncing through jobs. Relationships. I have a daughter to show for it though.”
“Oh, cool. So how old is she?”
“Old enough to not listen to her mother, that old.”
“I know what you mean,” she said knowingly. “Weren’t we all the same!”
Reema rolled her eyes and laughed. “So … things didn’t work out with Rajeev after all, I gather.” Her hands absentmindedly smoothed the folds of her dress. Her eyes fixed on Neeru’s face.
“Rajeev who?” said Neeru, straightening her cuffs. Flicking some imaginary lint off her trouser crease.
Reema cocked an eyebrow. “The guy you were so in love with? The best thing to ever happen to you? You couldn’t wait to start a life with him, as I remember. It didn’t even matter that he was my high school sweetheart, or that we were still seeing each other at the time. Ring a bell?” She looked her straight in the eye but saw not a glimmer of recognition.
“Oh, you mean that dull, colossal bore of a man!” said Neeru, slapping the armrest. “You were into him? Really? That’s news to me. Well, I saved you from that one, didn’t I? You should go down on your knees and thank me. All he could ever talk about were communism and ideals. The man had no interest in moving up. No appreciation for the good things in life. Trust me: it’s all well and good to be idealistic when you’re in college, but you have to be practical in the real world. Being a socialist won’t pay the bills, you know.”
“But a bestselling author would.”
Neeru shrugged. “That’s the way life works. I didn’t make the rules.” She looked past her, across the floor-to-ceiling window, at the thinning crowd. Some with dinner plates. “What’s taking him so long?” she muttered aloud, tapping the armrest with her fingers impatiently, keen to get off the subject. “He should have been back with drinks three times over by now. Am I right or what?”
“You know I loved him,” said Reema in a quiet voice.
Neeru threw back her head and laughed. “Don’t be silly. You have done quite well for yourself now, haven’t you? Gucci clutch, Prada shoes.” She noticed Reema’s face tighten and deep lines bracket her mouth. “Must have been quite a settlement,” she said offhandedly, trying to lighten things up. Despite her better judgment.
Reema smiled wanly. “There is no ex, you know. I made him up. I needed an excuse to talk to you. It’s been so long and I was a bit nervous.”
Neeru laughed. She wasn’t shocked, but rather flattered. “You were always so scared of confrontations. Especially with me.”
Reema could never demand that she stop seeing Rajeev. Even when they got into thinly veiled arguments, she knew Reema would back out. Each and every time. Besides, she didn’t think Reema had anything serious going on at the time. With him or anybody else. Who would date a tomboy? she had often teased her back then. And she had liked Rajeev, and liked all the attention he gave her. He was funny, cute, a good listener, and good company. Not like other boys she knew back then, not even like Manav now, all about themselves.
“Maybe you are right,” said Reema. “Maybe I was weak back then. Maybe I should have fought harder for him. And maybe If I’d never introduced him to you, he’d still be alive.” She lit another cigarette and smoked in silence.
“What do you mean alive?”
“Oh, you don’t know? The poor man killed himself after you broke off your engagement. Not immediately, of course. He called me up first and we tried to give it a shot. But he was a broken man with a broken heart. And I was never ever good enough for him. Always the second choice. No matter how hard I tried. No matter how long I stood by him.”
Neeru sat up straight. “Wait a mute. You two were together? As in a couple? And you are telling this to me now? After all these years? And when did you get back together, eh? Was it really after we broke up? Nevermind that. So what do you want from me now? An apology?”
“That would be a start.”
“You think I’m guilty, responsible for what he did? Well, let me put you straight. I’m not. I’m sorry that he’s dead. Listen, I truly am. But this just proves my point. He just wasn’t strong enough for this world. Folded the first time he faced rejection. And I’m not going to apologize for wanting more from life than he could offer. We were too different, Ray. I wanted more. He didn’t. And I had options, better ones. It would have been foolish of me to have settled for anything less than the best. I’m not responsible for what he chose to do or not do with his life.”
Reema nodded unhappily, brushing her cheek with one hand. She got up and walked toward the window looking out into a part of the upper hall, and studied a group of partygoers in black and white getting drunk and joshing about.
“My daughter is a go-getter like you,” she sighed, shaking off the ash from the cigarette tip, letting it scatter on the floor. “I told her that man’s too old for her. Too narcissistic. Too self-important. Too married. But the heart wants what the heart wants, right? He is charming, though, I’ll give you that. Quite the catch, even today.”
“Good for her,” said Neeru, feigning disinterest, and Reema smiled at her reflection. “Personally, I always thought you were too much of a prude.”
Reema waved at someone coming up the stairs. “I knew you’d approve,” she said as the trio of Sanjay, a petite girl in a black frock and a colorful bracelet, and an older, yet handsome, distinguished-looking man arrived at the upper floor.
The door opened and Sanjay walked in with their drinks. “Sorry, got held up at the bar. What’s going on?”
Neeru’s face had turned ashen. Her hands shook, her lips quivered. She saw the girl with her husband smiling at Reema from across the hall, and she suddenly noticed the resemblance. The same square jaw, those bright brown eyes, that annoying button nose …
“Let’s drink to youth, shall we?” said Reema, handing her a glass. “To being young and pretty, with the world at your feet, with willing hearts to trample on, and an entire lifetime to decide.
“Or better still: let’s drink to being second bests. You’re about to get a taste of that.”