Those days when Sanaa was away, Nikhil changed. In a way that was more than noticeable. His normally calm and shy self metamorphosed into an irritable, snappy and weird character that people started to avoid. When she returned, his change back was noticeable. People actually saw him smiling in his shy unassuming way. In fact the times when he would have his coffee breaks with her, he was positively bubbly or as close to bubbly as a shy antisocial wallflower could be. Sameer came up to him one afternoon and commented about the changes in him. Nikhil, uncharacteristically blustery, brushed it all off. Trying a different tactic, Sameer asked about Sanaa and got a shy smile and no comments. He jovially kidded Nikhil and left it at that, understanding his friend’s need for privacy about his feelings.
Sanaa seemed the same that she always had been with him, laughing and talking all the time. Only now, she felt a slight change in Nikhil, a slight consciousness that had earlier not been there, a kind of holding back. She tried to make him come back to normal, the more he retreated into his corner. Finally, she gave up and decided to just be herself with him. They continued their occasional coffee chats over the next few months. And the habit continued with Nikhil getting in deeper and deeper over his head. Yet he never so much as said a word to Sanaa.
Then came Nikhil’s sister’s wedding. It was in his hometown and he had to go for three weeks to get things ready. He had obviously invited Sanaa for the wedding itself but she couldn’t make it in the run up due to client meetings and reviews that had been set up then. She missed the coffee breaks then and the conversations. Nikhil was busy with the arrangements back home and so the phone calls were infrequent at best. Sanaa missed him through her client meetings, the luncheons and the dinners. When finally she realized what was happening, she had been dreaming for a while in the middle of a client presentation and had missed a question directed at her. Sheepishly covering up, she answered. She suddenly felt relieved at the realization of her feelings for Nikhil and the depth of it all. She couldn’t wait to tell him to his face and imagined his smile lighting up his face when she told him what she felt for him. When she finally landed up at his place, she missed him so much that she hugged him as soon as she saw him. A stunned Nikhil did not even respond and a few seconds away, Sanaa stepped back in obvious embarrassment. They both didn’t know where to look and were thankful for the intrusion of his mother and the round of introductions that started then.
The wedding went very smoothly. Nikhil made sure of that. The hugging episode had somehow made both of them a little distant and the fact that Nikhil could hardly get time to even talk to her properly during the lead up to the wedding, made sure that they didn't actually talk about it at all. Sanaa spent time with his mother and sister and family and found them to be a loving caring environment that she completely got immersed in. The fact that Nikhil said nothing about the hug or even tried to talk to her alone made her feel that she had actually got it completely wrong and had overstepped the extent of being a friend. She felt like she had lost something in the bargain, the emptiness threatening to overcome her taking part in the celebrations there. After a couple of days, she realized that this emotion was mainly linked to his reaction to her, as if she had been expecting something that wasn't there. While the disappointment was surely there, she also realized that if she continued on this path, she would lose Nikhil completely. He obviously had never thought of her as more than a friend and she decided that it’s what they would be.
When it was time to go, Sanaa decided that she wanted to make it all normal again. So she cornered Nikhil in a room in the house, alone on the pretext of saying good bye. When alone, she spoke first, like it had always been between them. She said, “You know you’re probably my best friend and I just want to make sure that there are no misunderstandings between us.” She went on to explain in her frank and forthright manner that the hug was nothing at all, it was just her happiness at seeing him. She went on and by the time she finished, she had made it very clear that they were friends and nothing more. Slightly panting for breath, she was puzzled to note Nikhil looking stricken, like he had been struck in the face.
Nikhil couldn't believe what he had heard, still reeling from what she had said. The hug had surprised him for sure and had made him think that Sanaa actually felt the same way that he did. He had become happier at the thought and was quietly comfortable in the thought of their shared joy. The wedding continued to take all of his time and though he wanted to talk to Sanaa about it all, he couldn't find the time. And besides, he didn't know what to say and didn't want to appear tongue tied in front of her. The sight of her with his family made him even happier and he actually caught himself imagining a life between them and then realizing that he was going way ahead of it all and shaking his head wryly with a smile. And when he thought she was going to say something about how things were going to be so much better between them, he was hearing just the reverse. He felt like he was being sucked up in a whirlpool that threatened to black him out. He could hear Sanaa calling his name and asking if he was OK. And that brought him back to reality like a bucket of icy cold water thrown at him. He woke up to reality, stuttering and stammering from his swim in the pool of delusion. His only answer was, “Of course, we are the best of friends and will always remain that way.” And she left and that was that.
Truthfully, he couldn't imagine Sanaa being just a friend any more, his treacherous mind kept slipping back to the happy memories that he had created out of thin air, sticking like glue to those moments, not letting them slip into the crevasse that he wanted to bury all those thoughts in. He decided to stay back a couple of more days at home, not sure about how he would face her, the very thought turning his stomach and leaving him gasping for breath. He chose to spend the time at home by himself, making his normal shell more like that of a hermit crab now. His family knew him well and chose to leave him alone, except for his mother’s anxious questions that he could not face. Finally he told her the truth, and lost himself in the comfort of her embrace. It gave him strength and finally he realized that no matter how he felt about Sanaa, what was important was that he be there for her as a friend.
He went back to work the next day, somehow changed, no longer the same. Like a cracked vase that had been glued together. He went through the day like he was on automatic mode, making all the expected moves and noises. Until it was evening and suddenly he felt like a deer in the headlights. He looked up and saw her coming over. He quickly ducked to cover up the irrational joy that he felt on seeing her and composed himself as much as he could, feeling himself slipping even as he stood up and said as coolly as he could, “Coffee Time ?” And off they went, trudging off to their routine, as normally as they could, each a little different and the other, too caught up in their difference to mention it. However, being normal was as easy as walking bare feet on glass shards and not getting cut. Nikhil spent his time alone brooding over what was happening and how he would continue to go through the motions.
Sameer noticed Nikhil around the office, distinctly worse for the wear on more than one occasion and tried to get to Nikhil but the hermit crab would just go back into its shell. He caught Nikhil after a coffee break with Sanaa, looking wounded and vulnerable, ready to crack into a million pieces and realized that something was going wrong between them. He remembered his own experience and wished there was something he could do for Nikhil. But the moment was too fragile and he simply decided to pass it by, choosing to just walk by. Something in Nikhil’s look got to him and he couldn't shake the feeling that he had done wrong.
Then the inevitable happened, the only surprise being that it took so long to happen. Sanaa met Mark at her office, a new intern who was the complete opposite of Nikhil, outgoing and full of laughs. He kept coming across to her any time that he was at a loose end and he was incredibly easy to talk to. She felt strangely reluctant to share this with Nikhil, choosing not to mention it until they finally crossed paths at the coffee shop. Sanaa and Nikhil were sitting at the coffee shop, her talking and him listening, just the way it had always been. And suddenly, Mark entered the coffee shop and yelled across to Sanaa. Nikhil was surprised and showed it in his face. Sanaa was suddenly caught in between. She wished to heaven that she could have just disappeared from there. But luck wouldn't have it any other way. Mark walked up to her and pulled up a chair at the table, seemingly as normal with Sanaa as he was in office. Nikhil’s face first registered surprise and then slowly changed to normalcy as he understood that Mark and Sanaa knew each other. Sanaa, who normally monopolized all of their conversations, suddenly found herself tongue tied while Mark continued his description of an office meeting. Suddenly not wanting to intrude, Nikhil made an excuse and paid up for the coffees and left. Sanaa had half a mind to go after him and explain that it was nothing, just an office colleague. But knowing that if it had just been that, she would have told him already, she hesitated and stopped.