The restaurant and table selected was after much deliberation. Considering so many factors like distance from the next table, how loud the music will be, what the music would be on a Friday night, how long it takes for the food to come, do the waiters linger around tables or allow you the space to breathe and countless other things that needed to be right. Everything just had to be right. Neal wasn’t really a perfectionist or obsessive otherwise in life, but this was colossal. Asking Ayesha to marry him was not just a tough decision but it was extremely liberating too. And when great joy is accompanied with a sense of struggle, the mind starts doing funny things to you. This was going to be one of those nights..
Ayesha was coming in from work and she obviously had no clue. Or maybe it wasn’t that obvious because after dating for close to two years, the two of them were clearly capable of reading each other pretty well but at the same time they were constantly moving along parallel lanes in their relationship. The lines may never meet but would peacefully co-exist. They both were ambitious and aware that one’s life could not take over the other’s but at the same time they both believed that their relationship wasn’t just a priority but it was made for great things. Neal used to always tell Ayesha, that they both were together to change the world and bring to it a greater sense of balance. He always made her believe that there was something greater than them and at the same time that greatness lay in them, but only when together. They would have long conversations about the world at large and their little world and how they both collided. It almost felt that their love wasn’t meant to just be timeless, it was purposeful, and that for Ayesha, made it beautiful. She always looked forward to dates with Neal, because she knew that she could be sure to never expect the same conversations or even the same conclusions to the evening. With him, things could and always would lead to absolutely anything which is why if it was dinner with him, she knew to let her flat mate know that she will be late and let her colleague know that she could be late to work the next day. There was just no knowing. Tonight would surely need more than a call to the flat mate and the colleague.
Ayesha walked up to Neal and he looked fidgety, almost uneasy. He quickly blamed a cocktail of the traffic, weather and work, which was an almost irrefutable argument or merely so uninspiring that it didn’t require inspection. Neal was clearly nervous. He had always had a way with words, a great sense of humor, way above average that is. But this was different. It wasn’t just about having the right words and the conviction, that was already there, the problem lay in the fact that both Neal and Ayesha had their own unique baggage. Ayesha had dealt with hers and had chosen Neal in a space and time when her mind allowed her to make decisions that weren’t guided by the past and while there were scars from bad breakups, obsessed boyfriends and the ilk, Ayesha had managed to break past them all. Neal, on the other hand had had rather uncomplicated relationships. The two women he had dated were wonderful people who hadn’t broken his heart or left him disillusioned. They had just moved on and on both occasions, Neal had moved on comfortably but with some residue, some sense of regret which had clearly built itself up over the years. And today as he sat across the table from a girl who he believed had changed him forever, he sat confused and a little divided. He knew he wanted to be with Ayesha, there wasn’t the slightest doubt. But at the same time it felt like all of the time before Ayesha suddenly started to weigh on him. It came all of a sudden and washed across him. How could he be sure that this was it? What if they both moved on from each other like he had in past relationships? Has Ayesha ever wondered why he was that inert about his past and worried about that? The questions were many and in that moment he began to wish he had closed his previous chapters with a better semblance of what had changed, so that he wouldn’t have been sitting here wondering what was troubling him.
They were on their second cocktail and third starter. She loved her Whisky Sours, he just preferred his whisky with water. The prawns were better than usual, the music was mostly her current playlist and the conversation was all about how short term thinking was killing the world, what with Brexit and the US elections and the Indian Olympic contingent, there couldn’t have been a better setup. But Neal just couldn’t shift through the gears. It was falling apart and maybe he was going to abort this one, this time around. And then it happened. You know that moment, that moment from all those movies you have grown up on. There will be this unexpected breeze, a few misplaced words, the sounds around you begin merging into one and the voice in front of you begins to sound muffled. All those or things similar to that began to happen to Neal. And then he was back in the room. There was Ayesha still talking about politics at work and her love for creating cocktails with her flat mate. But then right next to her were Dipti and Shefali. They sat right next to her, not like ghosts but with a complete presence about them. It’s like everyone else saw them, but Ayesha didn’t.
Neal was at a table with the girl of his dreams who he wanted to marry and the two women he had dated not many moons ago. This was surreal, obviously unreal, but it was happening and as the waiter brought two more menus to the table much to the surprise of Ayesha, this was happening.
Both of them sat quietly waiting for Neal’s next move. Neal was now in a positive state of disbelief and Ayesha was getting restless considering the mains weren’t ordered yet and she was devastatingly hungry. As she picked her course and laughed at the waiter’s decision to bring more menus, to maybe hurry them up, Neal chanced a few words at the surprise visitors and realized that Ayesha didn’t hear him at all. And then he got the confidence to expand the conversation and understand what the hell was going on.
‘What the hell!!?’
Shefali started, ‘ Neal, this is an intervention. Wish we could actually be here but we know that it would have messed what you actually have in mind for the night, so we thought we would make a rather discrete guest appearance.’
By this time Neal had ruled out the alcohol as a co-conspirator and was desperately trying to balance the conversations here between the two of them and Ayesha.
Dipti chipped in. ‘Neal, you have spent way too long being safe and careful. It’s why we didn’t work out. I wasn’t scared that we may never end up together, I was just worried that ‘we’ would always be half hearted. That it would never be a relationship driven by the need to make each other better and stronger. I wanted us to be great. But you were always a few miles ahead or behind me, we were never together.’
‘And with us Neal, we were always struggling to understand why we were together. I sometimes think it was just the part about being together and having someone to share that time together with. Being in that residential program back then in the middle of nowhere meant we needed someone and maybe anyone would have done at that point. And no wonder that when we moved to different cities, we realized that there was no vacuum and that nothing required filling anymore.’ Dipti said it and immediately realized how wrong that sounded and stopped.
The three of them laughed at that last part. Silly as it was, it did mean something.
Ayesha by this time had excused herself to visit the rest room. The conversation now continued unabated here.
‘Neal you finally seem to, no wait, you do have something beautiful. And we are convinced that you are going to allow every doubt you have ever harboured about love and life to come and bite you now. We know you are thinking about what happened between us, but that is as inconsequential as you trying to get the music right here tonight when you clearly have no control over it. She isn’t going to say yes tonight because of everything around her, she will say yes when it sounds convincing and that its coming from a place of deep belief in what you both have. She needs to see that and right now you aren’t there.’
Neal looked at Shefali for a while after she finished her monologue. Ayesha had come back and settled down into a conversation about how Zara is offloading clothes on the Indian market that are seasons behind what’s trending in Europe and how she found that insulting. He had to sort this out and do it now.
‘Ok girls tell me this. Why do you think I’m scared?’
They looked at each other and smiled. And then Dipti looked him in the eyes for a while. ‘Neal you aren’t scared. You just want everything to be perfect. You want every part of you to want this and for everything to be crystal clear and completely explained in your mind. But that isn’t going to happen always. This may be the biggest decision in your life right now, but Neal it is you telling this girl that you want to be with her and love her for a pretty long time. Think of her first, think of what you are going to unleash on her and if you are convinced that this is what she wants to hear, then screw what you are thinking and go for it. She wants you, we both can see it.’
Neal looked on and now beyond them towards Ayesha. He was trying his best to keep the conversation going with her. Until she had seemed to have had enough and asked if she could start eating while his food was yet to come.
Dipti came and sat next to Neal now.
‘Neal, just fuck all that you have ever assumed. All that you have held on to from your time with me and pondered about. We had something great but it doesn’t matter now because we both knew that we were built for something different. You weren’t even ready to accept you could feel love for someone that was strong enough to change your world forever. You have it now and now you want the next stage of what you started back then. Stop wanting. Start going for it already.’
‘You have our blessings Neal. If that’s what you wanted..’
As Dipti and Shefali smiled back at Neal and the muffled sounds and breeze and loud music started blaring again, Neal was back where it all started. He was sitting in front of Ayesha, she had nearly finished her dinner and was just staring at Neal.
‘Neal is there something troubling you? Something you want to talk about. Let’s just do it now because you have been insanely distracted and it’s pissing off now.’
Neal gathered himself, looked around the room if Shefali and Dipti were still there, took another breath and reached into his pocket. The music changed to a song they had heard on loop for many months when they started dating, the waiter decided to keep his distance from the table and the tables around were now oblivious to any sense of occasion that was unfolding right next to them. He sent out a quiet thank you into the universe to the two amazing women who clearly made him the man he was, for good or worse. And that was the man that Ayesha deserved, in all his glory and all his faults.
There was a big smile on his face now. The smile that comes from having all of life’s greatest mysteries solved, the one that comes with love being realized.
‘Ayesha, I have something to ask you..’
That smile never left his face for the rest of that night and for many nights to follow.