“Vinu, Vinu! Wake up!” Alka shook him hard. “Did you not say you had an important meeting? What happened to your alarm?” she asked him agitatedly.
He stirred in his sleep and muttered, “I won’t betray my friend…”
“VINU!” Alka yelled. Vinay woke up with a start.
“You were talking in your sleep like a kid.”
“Was I?” Vinay hid his clammy hands. “What did I say?” he asked, nervously scanning her face.
“Like I could make anything out,” she snapped. “I was worried about your client meeting more than you seem to be, apparently.”
“Oh, it got canceled. So I went back to sleep. And had this weird dream…” Vinay shut down suddenly, realizing he could hardly describe the dream to his wife.
“Aren’t you lucky? You get to oversleep on a weekday and also dream. I have to get to work now, so see you in the evening.” She took her handbag and vanished from the bedroom.
Vinay sat up against the pillows and pulled the blanket over his face. “Yeah, of course, I will see you in the evening. This evening and every evening for the rest of my life.” He sighed with resignation. What the heck was that dream all about? It was so vivid, no wonder he could recall it in such detail. Naina was so beautiful and was pestering him to tell her about her husband’s liaison. She was so mad and he was trying to flirt with her! It was so bizarre!
He slid out of bed and padded to the bathroom. He stared at himself in the mirror and contemplatively took his razor out. As though it were sentient, he said, “I sincerely hope Naina doesn’t actually ask me about Gaurav and …Some dreams are better off not coming true.” He stopped to look at his watch and suddenly started shaving quickly. “Obviously, you are bound to know about your close friend’s affairs, but you don’t want to be the one to tell his wife.” The razor went under the faucet and came out clean. He smoothly proceeded on to his chin and reprimanded the razor, “at least, I certainly don’t!” The razor responded with a nick. “Ouch,” he yelled.
Vinay drove to work, putting the dream as well as Naina out of his head. He reached his office and soon got lost in his world. Two frustrating hours later, he was still slumped over his computer. Just then, Nirav, his team-mate walked up to him, “hey man, I wanted to ask you something.”
“Not a good time. I am trying to fix a damned bug,” Vinay responded unhesitatingly.
Nirav dragged his feet back to his desk, which was not too far away. Ten minutes later, he noticed Anjali walking with a deliberate sway. “Here comes our entertainment,” he muttered under his breath. Anjali swept past Nirav, not giving him a second look. Nirav thought to himself, how does he do it? And dammit, he is married.
“Hi,” said Anjali, with a shy smile. Vinay looked up, his frown quickly transforming into a happy smile. If he had a weakness, it was for a pretty face.
“What’s up, Anjali?”
She put her arm on his chair. “I was stuck on an issue. Need your help and need a break too. Shall I show it?” she asked, pointing to his screen. He moved his chair slightly but watched her keenly, inhaling her perfume, as she bent further to reach his keyboard. She finished typing and he reluctantly turned his attention towards the monitor. He suggested two solutions after she explained her problem.
“Thanks. You are a gem, Vinay!” she beamed, straightening.
“We can talk about gemology over coffee then.”
“Ah, is that your hobby?” she asked, opening her eyes wide.
“It is now,” he returned with a smile. She accompanied him out of the office.
Nirav who had been staring at them all the time, swore. “Bloody hell! Bug indeed.”
It was six o’clock in the evening when Vinay sat with his manager to give him a status update. “Great progress Vinay. Looks like we might just make the deadline.”
“Of course, sir. Though there was just one thing.” His phone rang intrusively. “I am sorry,” he said quickly silencing the phone, but not before he peeked at the caller id.
“Is it your wife?” asked the manager.
“Yes, sir,” lied Vinay glibly.
“Let’s talk tomorrow, you had a long day anyway.”
Vinay thanked his manager and sped off to return the call.
“Can you come over?” pleaded Naina.
Vinay was in a dilemma. He had no wish to discuss Naina’s marital problems, assuming his hunch was right. On the other hand, he had a soft corner for her, and he didn’t believe in dreams, of any kind. “Sure thing,” he replied obligingly.
A half-hour later, he was seated on Naina’s leather sofa. To his surprise, though, he was not the only invitee apparently.
“It’s great to see you again, Vinay,” greeted Sangeeta. He had met her recently at a party. She was a new addition to Naina’s ever-expanding social circle.
“The pleasure’s all mine,” returned Vinay.
Naina watched the two and shook her head. “Sangeeta just dropped in unexpectedly to say ‘hi’,” she explained. Vinay heard the emphasis but continued to stare at the young woman.
“I’m so glad you did, at this time especially.” There was no mistaking the smile that went along with it.
Sangeeta smiled back, all shy, “I know, right? I could have gone to any number of places, but instead I am here.”
Naina disgustedly got up from her seat, and announced, “let me get you guys something to drink.” She walked to the kitchen slowly, but suddenly turned back, “by the way, how is Alka?” Vinay looked at her silently. “Alka, you know, is his wife, Sangeeta. She is a charming woman. You should meet her sometime.” Naina walked away satisfied.
“I didn’t realize you were married,” Sangeeta tried hard to cover up her disappointment.
“Oh, I am sorry, I thought I mentioned it. I usually announce my marital status along with my name, whenever I meet new people,” said Vinay.
Sangeeta giggled. “You don’t wear a ring either.”
“Obviously, it is at the jeweler getting fixed.”
“Obviously,” she echoed.
“What do you do for a living?” he asked.
“I’m a financial analyst.”
“That’s wonderful. Brains and beauty. And probably other hidden talents as well?”
Naina returned empty-handed, and realized her ruse didn’t work. She watched them with rising impatience as Vinay continued, oblivious to her body language.
“Do you praise all women so much? In the same fashion?” Sangeeta asked coyly, trying not to look pleased.
“Not all, obviously. And I have a wide vocabulary.”
“God, you are impossible!”
“I have that reputation too.”
“Amongst others, I guess,” she hinted broadly.
“Ah! How well you read me!” said Vinay with a smile. He was always happy to meet a woman who understood the rules of the game.
“You guys should both stay for dinner,” interrupted Naina. “Gaurav is going to come in anytime. And I’m sure Sangeeta won’t mind helping me in the kitchen.”
“Let’s do that some other time,” she replied politely, getting up. “And I get the feeling, Vinay is itching to get back to his charming wife, right, Vinay?” she said not bothering to hide her revenge.
“Of course,” he smiled and walked towards the window.
Naina stopped herself from slamming the door on her. “Damn her! And what’s with you? Always the same stuff, drooling over every woman you see.”
“Just shut up, and tell me why you called me,” he snapped. He stopped flirting with Naina a long time back, though he admired her beauty. Now, she was just getting irritating and interfering, he thought bitterly. I shouldn’t have come at all.
Naina looked nervously at the clock. “I think Gaurav is going to be here any minute. “
“Isn’t that a good thing?” he asked pretending to be innocent.
“No, it’s not! I need your help.”
“Where was that drink you promised?” he tried to stall the inevitable ranting.
“You are thinking of your drink, while my life is in such a shambles?” she asked.
Vinay stared in shock. So she knew, and here he was, dreading questions. “What’s the matter?” he asked very gently. There was so much sympathy in his voice that involuntary tears sprang to her eyes. He couldn’t watch her and turned away. Before she married Gaurav, he had a thing for her. They remained good friends, irrespective.
She started to sob softly, and Vinay took two steps towards her but pulled up short when he heard the key turning in the main door. Naina brushed aside her tears just in time.
“Hey buddy,” said Gaurav.
“You look tired,” was Vinay’s reply.
“I am and if you don’t mid…” Gaurav paused gently.
“Of course,” He reached the door immediately. “Bye, Naina.”
He had to wait a little bit for the elevator and darted a disturbed glance at the apartment he had just left. When at last, the elevator reached him, he was quite thankful to escape the loud but familiar voices.
It was dark when he joined his friend at a bar to take his mind off his issues, but the restlessness didn’t leave. Why couldn’t he stop flirting, even after getting married to Alka? He downed a glass of whisky. He had fallen in love with her, got married, but apparently he still needed validation. That he was still attractive. That women still found him charming! And it boosted his self-image. Doesn’t that make you a better man? he asked himself.
Another whisky later, he told his friend, “The high doesn’t last, though.”
“That’s why we keep drinking,” his friend answered slurring most of his words.
“And it could ruin other stuff,” Vinay said.
“What stuff?” his friend asked.
“Stuff. Never mind.” He brooded over his glass. “At what cost?”
Vinay’s friend first stared, trying hard to focus, then he snapped. “Yaar this is not ex-expensive. Are you broke?”
After ringing the doorbell in vain, Vinay hunted for his keys in his laptop bag. “Alka probably slept. It’s so late anyway,” he thought aloud guiltily. He unlocked the door and stepped into a dark house. Puzzled, he turned the lights on. His eyes instantly fell on the console table. The magazines and clutter were pushed to the back and a letter lay there. He stared at it quite sure that it bore no good news.
He picked it up nervously and read it super fast. “Dear Vinu,” Alka had written. “I am sorry I lied this morning. I had no intention of seeing you this evening or any more evenings perhaps, for that matter. By the time you read this, I would have reached my mom’s place. No, don’t call me. I need space and time from you, from us. You and I both know nothing is the same anymore. The magic is gone from our marriage. I don’t know what I did wrong but I can see clearly your heart is elsewhere.”
Vinay wiped his brow, walked to the sofa and collapsed onto it. He felt numb, too numb to digest this. This is not what he had planned or wanted. What’s the matter with Alka?
“You must be wondering why today. My friend joined your office recently and told me things I don’t care to repeat. I know your opinion about flirting with other women but never knew what all it hid. You’ve denied or laughed it off as my jealousy. I am neither stupid nor blind and I can’t stand it anymore. –Alka. P.S. One word was clear when you were ‘sleep-talking’. It was ‘Naina’.”
Vinay was livid. “Who is this idiotic friend of yours? And you are ready to believe her crap?” He sprang from the sofa and quickly called Alka. He had no luck. He tried repeatedly, but got a busy tone every time. He sat back and stared at the TV. His future seemed darker than the black screen.
Suddenly, the morning’s events raced through his head. Damn his dream! Apparently, he was projecting his subconscious thoughts onto Naina and he never felt more unhappy. How ironic that only this morning, he thought there was no escape from Alka. How could she leave him? They married for love. And he never changed. She knew what he was, did she not? She got carried away by some venomous gossip.
The phone rang and put an end to his perturbing reverie. He grabbed it eagerly but it was Naina, not Alka. “Shit!” He threw it aside. But Naina had never been one to give up. He decided to get it over with and answered the third call.
“Hello…” he dragged. But Naina was as usual impervious to the discouraging tone.
‘Vinay, do you know what that bastard did?” she frantically launched.
“Are you referring to your husband?” he asked quietly.
“He threatened me with a divorce.”
“I don’t get it,” Vinay was only half attentive. His eyes fell on Alka’s letter again. “And I don’t see how I can help you.”
“You have to. He thinks I don’t know anything about his affairs and he had the nerve to go ballistic about me and Rohan. He is such a hypocrite. In fact, I don’t know why I’m asking you for help. You men are all the same.”
“You and Rohan?” Vinay echoed blankly. “You and Rohan!” he repeated, feeling sick in his stomach.
Naina was zapped. “I thought you knew. Oh shit!”
“You thought my brother would tell me about the women he sleeps with? Aren’t you contemptible?”
“At least, I am honest,” Naina retorted, on the defensive. “You turned a blind eye when Gaurav was unfaithful to me. Because you are no different I guess. You have always tried to hide behind your reputation – The Diehard Flirt!”
“What has that got to do with anything?” Vinay shouted, touched on the raw.
“Well, I should have known you would have double standards. Poor Alka!”
“You know something?” began Vinay venomously. “You and Gaurav are made for each other. And for all I care right now, you can both go to hell!” so saying, he flung the phone.
He paced around the room restlessly. Finally, he halted at the sofa for his phone and swiftly texted his wife: ‘I am catching the late-night flight and I am not returning alone, that much I know.’ His finger hovered on the Send button. He typed some more before hitting it, though. ‘Yours and only yours, Vinu.’