Crossroads

Mihir Seth lived for weekends. Every Friday evening, he rode high on the feeling that the following couple of days were all his own - two long days stretching ahead, full of freedom and promise.

Mostly his routine never wavered. He got up lazily on Saturdays, dawdling over the morning newspaper with a steaming cup of tea. Normally he wasn’t much for cooking, but it all changed on this day. He experimented and cooked up all sorts of delicacies, with the keening sounds of jazz, mostly, wafting in the background. He dined like a king on these days, even if he might say so himself. In the evening, he usually made it a point to catch a movie with his good friends Alok & Prashant - then a visit to the local pub and have at least one Margarita, before treating themselves to a splendid meal at one of the better places in town.

Sunday mornings, he rose early, simply because there was no need to, and went out to the park just across the street for a morning jog. Then there was the pesky weekly parental phone call that he had to suffer through before lunch. But if he managed it right, he could normally talk his way out in no more than 20 minutes tops. Another kingly lunch and a much deserved afternoon slumber was followed by a bout of Monday blues that invariably hit early, on Sunday night itself.

It was usually through these bouts of blue that he used to wonder about his whole existence, life and such greater issues. Day after day. he was wading blithely through his rather colorless life with no blissful happy ending that he was aspiring for. Not that he was at all unhappy with his life – but in such times all he could do was glumly despair about the pointlessness of it all.

This Sunday night, a phone call jarred him out of his bleak musings. He tried to shake himself out of the funk he had crawled into and answered.

A cool female voice at the other end asked, “May I speak to Mihir?”

A little startled, he confirmed she was.

“Oh hey Mihir, this is Sasha!” her voice changed completely, and was now girlish and bubbling.

At his silence, she prompted “Remember from Maya’s birthday party?”

Maya – there was a colleague named Maya who had indeed celebrated her birthday a couple of weeks back. Mihir had dragged himself rather reluctantly to her party – he didn’t consider himself much of a party person since he left college – and had spent most of his time sipping cocktails by himself at the bar. Regrettably however, he still couldn’t recollect meeting this Sasha.

“Aw come on – I only served you all those countless martinis and lent you my pink hanky when you cried your little heart out about missing your poor mama!”

Oh that Sasha! “Hey I never cried about missing my mom”, he replied indignantly.

She laughed, “So you do remember now. Well I just called to ask if I can have my hanky back.”

“What are you talking about?”, he asked nonplussed, wondering just how drunk he had really been. “Hey how did you get my number?!”

She laughed again, “My you do catch on fast! All right I’ll cut the crap. Meet me right now at your usual pub – it shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to reach there – and you’ll have your answer. I might even tell you how I know your address too.” She hung up before he could even think of any reply.

Ten minutes later, as he entered the pub, Mihir couldn’t come up with one good reason why he was waiting for a mysterious bartender he barely remembered and wasn’t sure he wanted to.

“Waiting for me?”, Sasha was right on time.

Mihir took a good look at her and wondered why he had trouble remembering her before. Sasha was strikingly beautiful. “You look different somehow”, he said., rather blandly

“Yeah well - standing behind a dingy bar for 6 hours kind of takes its toll. Coffee.”, she said to the bored looking waiter who had appeared at their table.

“Same”, Mihir told him. “OK - so why the big mystery”, he asked her.

“Oh come on – I just got here! Do you seriously expect me to spill the beans even before our coffee gets here?”, she replied. “Get to know me first wont you. I kinda feel at an advantage here…knowing all that I know about you. And I bet you don’t even know my last name!”

“What do you know about me?”, he refused to be distracted.

“Your last name, for starters”, she replied. “Seth.”

“What else? Nothing you’ve told me so far is particularly hard to find out – if you have a decent phonebook”, he said.

She smiled, “True. But what phonebook will list that you’re still single, living by yourself and with a particular fondness for cooking Italian pasta to the beat of Kenny G, on weekends?”

That stumped him for a minute. He racked his brains, again trying to remember how much of himself he had revealed to her, over those ‘countless’ martinis. “Just how drunk was I, that night?”

Her eyes danced. “Drunk enough to tell me that you’re nick named 'Chiku' which your mother insists on calling you even now when she calls up on Sundays”, she replied.

Mihir felt himself going red and was grateful for the distraction provided by the waiter, who had appeared with their coffees. “What do you want from me?”, he asked her, fortifying himself with a sip of coffee.

She leaned back in her seat. “I have a proposition for you.”

Now we are getting somewhere, Mihir thought. “What kind?”

“From our – er – talk the other day, I gather that you have passed out of a prestigious college – ranked second in fact. Currently you are extremely gainfully employed, single and with no responsibilities whatsoever. You have your own apartment, you got your own car, you got plenty of money to splurge. Well – plenty of money, period. However, you are also somewhat bored with this cushy life that you have and wonder what happened of all that potential you thought you possessed when you stepped out of college. How am I doing so far?”, she asked.

“Not so good - I am nowhere near figuring out the ‘proposition’ yet”, he retorted. He didn’t want to react to her assessment of his life, but he had a uncomfortable feeling that she had nailed him perfectly.

She smiled. “So – what are you going to do about it?”

“What do you mean?”, he asked.

She sighed, “Because, Chiku, you need to take a step. There’s something not quite so well with your life - whether you know it or not. You need to find that zing back in life. And I’m just the right person for it.” She cut him off, when he started to speak.

“Look we can skip the part when you can go into denial and I convince you by telling you some of the things you told me the other day, right in your own words. The truth remains, you need something from your life. I can help you find it. All you need to do is put together some money and let me help you use it.”

Mihir had to admire her – for sheer nerve. He thanked his stars he had led a fairly honest and straightforward life so far, that she had nothing much she could hold against him - as a result of that one indiscreet confession. He got up and put some money on the table. “That should cover our bill. I think I’m done for tonight.”, he said.

She stared at him, “You are just going to leave? You know, you are so typical. – you think you have it all figured out right now, but you’re so wrong. You have a job which you aren’t happy about. But you’ll still stick to it, because it pays. And because it does, you will never find the courage to leave it. Few years down, you might get married to a nice girl you mama picks out for you. You won’t be happy then either, but you wont refuse and you will still stick to that marriage. You will continue doing all those things that you came by easily, develop a strange dependency on it and refuse to look for anything else, simply because you are comfortable with them and scared to let them go. Doesn’t matter if they make you happy or not.”

“Man you are unbelievable”, he exploded, “Just because you served me a few drinks the other day doesn’t give you the right to comment on my life. God! I should never have agreed to this stupid farce in the first place. Don’t know what the heck I’m doing here!”

“You came because you were intrigued”, she replied quietly, “You were bored and I offered you a welcome distraction from your boring repetitive thoughts.”

She had him there. He sighed, “Look if it’s money that you want - ”

“It’s not”, she interrupted him, “I don’t really go around asking my clients for money in exchange for lending an ear. I know I’m just a poor bartender. A poor female bartender. I messed up - I barely got through school and never made it to college. I don’t expect anyone else to make up for my mistakes. You on the other hand, seemed to have done everything right. You were exactly how I could never hope to be– smart, successful, rich. But you still were so - discontented."

She continued,"Me – mostly I am pretty easygoing about my life. I’m usually cheery - except when it comes to paying my bills. I know my choice of occupation isn’t exactly ideal – and is generally frowned upon – but I’m happy with it – and that’s what matters. I got plenty of friends and we end up doing crazy things all the time. But we always end up having fun. Can you remember the last time you had fun? I bet you can’t.”

She paused, as though searching for the right words, “It’s almost like I’m skipping my way through life with nothing in hand and you were dragging your feet through yours, in spite of having it all.”

Mihir was quiet. Finally he asked, “What do you want, Sasha?”

“You don’t remember that evening at all – do you?”, she asked smiling rather sadly.

“What exactly do I need to remember?”, Mihir was growing anxious now.

“There were – some promises made – by both of us”, she said, ”Promises for a better tomorrow.” Seeing his nervous look she took a deep breath and began, “You were starting to get drunk - really drunk – and it was nearing midnight which ends my shift. You were in no shape to drive. So there you were standing helplessly next to your car with no clue how to open your car door. I helped you out and all this while I was wondering why none of the other folks at the party had shown the slightest bit of concern for you – instead of just letting you leave by yourself. But all evening I’d heard you mope about your restlessness with your life – loneliness was oozing from every word that you spoke – and I understood then what it meant to be alone in a room full of people.”

“Anyway, I offered to drive you home – and we got talking. Only now we were talking about me, for a change. You were curious to find out how a nice girl like me got into being a bartender of all things – and I started telling you it wasn’t so bad – how much fun I had doing it. I told you some of the interesting people I had met bartending. Then somehow talk turned to how much it ‘paid’ to be a bartender – and I ended up telling you how my biggest challenge then was to decide whether I should pay my rent or use that money to travel home and visit my dad in the hospital.”

“And even in the state you were – you gave me the money. You emptied out your pockets –just like that. I was so touched - I said ask me anything right now and I promise you it’s yours. And you know what you said?”

“That better be a rhetorical question”, Mihir said, rolling his eyes.

She smiled. “You wished you could be a bartender.” Her smile widened at his incredulous look and she added, “I took that to mean you wished you could be someone else, than what you were. And then I replied if we were wishing things I wish I could be rich like you. Then you took my hand and very seriously said, lets make a promise to make our wishes come true – right before you passed out.”

She sighed, “I didn’t have a clue what to do with you – but luckily your building watchman helped me drag you to your home. And I left for my home the very next day - came back last Sunday and all week I wondered what you made of the whole incident – but then happily it turned out you had forgotten about the whole thing! I might as well have never existed for you”

“True”, Mihir said thoughtfully, “I thought the watchman looks at me knowingly every time I see him – but all this while I thought I was imagining it.” He sighed, “You could have vanished with the money and I’d have never known.”

“At some point you may have noticed you were missing some cash”, she pointed out.

“Well that happens to me so many times – I take out money from the ATM and never realize how I spend it”, he replied, smiling ruefully.

“Oh to have that much money”, she sighed rather wistfully. “So – all that talk that night was just talk I guess. I suppose – I could repay you the money when I get my next paycheck and we could forget all about it.”

She was offering him a way out, he realized. He couldn't help but feel somewhat fascinated with her - her unique lifestyle - her honesty - her seeming optimism - it all made him feel a little bit small and ashamed of himself. She was right, he realized, he did need her in his life.

---

Mihir Seth still lived for weekends. And for weekdays. He worked at 'Crocevia' - the new Italian restaurant & bar in town - which he partly owns - along with his business partner Sasha. Sasha had been a huge help - with her numerous friends and contacts in that area - he couldn't have done it without her.

It had been tough year all in all – quitting his job, convincing his parents - convincing himself first of all. It hadn't been easy - opening a new restaurant. But it had been worth it – while it had been challenging – most of all - it had been fun. More challenges lay ahead, Mihir knew, but the biggest one was convincing Sasha to marry him.

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