They spoke once a year. He never failed to wish her on her birthday. Whichever time-zone he was a part of, in whichever part of the world, he never let her down. He made it a point to call post 4 pm. Chances of being on hold and having to play phone tag were minimal then. He also liked listening to the growing excitement in her voice as the evening approached. They never spoke longer than ten odd minutes. But she always hung up with a smile, without much ceremony. A tinge of regret, maybe; but she didn’t brood over it. She didn’t have a number saved for him. It was always a different set of numerals put together that set her heart racing year after year. She never asked and he didn’t volunteer. They both knew she was better off without it.
Their story lay hidden in a wooden box placed on the bottom shelf of her cupboard. On most days, it felt part of a different life. She was 18, he was 22. They bumped into each other at an art exhibition. Art, culture and politics fuelled their conversations for more than year. In between, they exchanged vital information like their digits, email ids and dreams for the future. This fairy tale came to a blinding halt there. He wanted to globe-trot the world and never spend more than a year in any city. She, on the other hand, sought sedate domesticity. Baking, designing, writing. She had found her world within the four walls of her studio.
He hoped there would be an easier solution, a possible middle ground. But he loved her too much to ask her to compromise. And he couldn’t let go of his dreams either. He sat her down across the table, attempting to provide some perspective. Rational conversation eluded them both. She sobbed like a child but nothing that he said came close to what she wanted to hear.
It was agony to sever all ties with her. But he knew time would heal them both. That one day, their paths would cross in another art gallery and they’d catch up over coffee and cake. In the meantime, he continued wishing her on her birthday. Never slipped for a single year. He occasionally needed to be reminded for his mother’s birthday but never hers. The calendar in his mind had been programmed for life.
The call in the first few years came as an unpleasant surprise. But she got wiser over the years. More rational, he had hoped. She began to look forward to those conversations. Called them her best birthday present, much to the chagrin of the husband. The conversations were easy and routine, like they had spoken only the day before. He had a knack of putting her at ease. He never allowed her to forget that. She had never asked if there had been others after her. She didn’t care. For a while, it had just hurt that there could have been. Their number and presence was irrelevant. She simply savored his drawl and the voice. She knew this was all there was to it. All that ever will be.
“To rest within the unknown arms and know / That this is all there is; that this is so.” – Unclaimed by Vikram Seth