I caught the handle of my blue suitcase and carefully pulled it along with me to the nearest washroom. This is the reason why I always try to drink as less liquid as possible before long journeys. But mum wouldn't have listened.
"I don't know what you'll get to eat once you cross India." She had complained, placing a bowl of chicken curry next to my plate of rice.
"Mum, that's enough. You'll kill me with food." I had frowned, looking at every yummiest dish that she had cooked herself on my last day in India.
"No, no, you'll have to eat. You've gone through enough dieting due to that gym of yours."
"Oh please." I had rolled my eyes.
"Do you get Indian food in New Zealand?" She had inquired again.
"Yes, of course. Every foreign country has areas of Indian settlements and food joints." I had smiled, gulping down my lunch.
"Was it really necessary to go there?" She had muttered. "I mean, there are good jobs even in India."
"Mum, I'm going only for two years. I've no other option. They want me in the headquarters as soon as possible."
"Okay, okay. Anything for your happiness. But promise me you'll call me every day."
"Yes. I will. It's 11.02 pm right now in New Zealand." I had checked the time in Google.
"My God. So much of difference? It's 3.30 pm here." She had looked at the big wall clock of our dining room.
"Yes. So I'll have to adjust with the time and then call you."
"Yes, please do." She had said, handing me a bowl of kheer. "I wish your dad was here."
I came out of the washroom and headed towards the security. This was the part that I hated the most in an airport- their security. They're usually very picky, but also vocal. As I only had a suitcase and a rucksack with me, I went through the whole security check pretty fast.
Good evening, passengers. This is the pre-boarding announcement for flight 89B to Auckland. We are now inviting those passengers with small children, and any passengers requiring special assistance, to begin boarding at this time. Please have your boarding pass and identification ready. Regular boarding will begin in approximately ten minutes time. Thank you.
I hurried towards my gate and found it to be overcrowded with people. But fortunately, I found a vacant chair in one of the corners and waited for the final boarding announcement.
I tried to pass the remaining time by observing people. This was one of my habits when I was at public places.
Two of the Indian ladies were struggling to get their children through the boarding gate, as the gate attendant, a young golden brown haired American girl, patiently waited for them to board the flight.
An aged man, most probably from Mauritius, was video chatting with a teenage boy in Skype on his laptop. That must be his grandson.
A young Indian couple who seemed to be newly married were cuddling in the opposite corner, behind the whole room of people. They seemed to be quite happy and hopelessly romantic.
And then there was another Indian guy, maybe of my age, who was sitting far from my row, and was intently gazing at...me
I turned to look behind me and found a few middle-aged men, playing poker on their laptops. They seemed to be a group and were hardly interested in anything going around them.
I turned again to look at the guy and this time, he had a surprised expression on his face as he kept on staring at me which made me uncomfortable.
Ten minutes quickly passed and it was time for me to board the plane.
Once I sat comfortably on my window seat, I checked the time on my watch. 8.30 pm. Mum would be watching one of those daily soaps on TV. I smiled, thinking about her. I'll miss her so bad.
In a few minutes, a guy sat next to me, he was engaged in a phone call, till one of the flight attendants came to gently forbid him to use his phone.
He placed his phone in his shirt pocket and turned to examine his co-passengers.
As he turned to look at me, my heart stopped beating for a second. It was the same guy from the boarding area.
Will he put me through another staring torture for the whole flight? God, no. I'll have to think of something to divert my attention.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome on-board Flight 89B with service from Mumbai to Auckland. We are currently third in line for take-off and are expected to be in the air in approximately seven minutes time. We ask that you please fasten your seat-belts at this time and secure all baggage underneath your seat or in the overhead compartments. We also ask that your seats and table trays are in the upright position for take-off. Please turn off all personal electronic devices, including laptops and cell phones. Smoking is prohibited for the duration of the flight. Thank you for choosing Mountain Airlines. Enjoy your flight.
Finally, I was taking off from India.
I sat upright till the plane took off and we were in mid-air, soaring high up on the sky.
I found the guy staring at me- again. Will he ever stop doing that? It was making me angry.
I think I should say something, I thought. That guy was simply getting on my nerves. I must learn about his business in staring at me like that.
"Hey, do you need something?" I asked right away, turning to him.
"N-no, no." He stammered as he struggled to answer my unexpected question.
"In that case, please keep your eyes on something else." I blurted. Ugh! I regretted saying it.
"Abhishek?" His eyes became wide with a sudden shock.
"Y-" it was my turn to stammer. "Yeah? But how did you-"
"I knew it was you since I saw you at the airport." He nodded.
"Wait a minute. You seem to be a little familiar." I frowned, trying hard to remember this guy who knew my name.
"Of course, I'm familiar to you. I was, once upon a time." His face fell.
That's when I noticed a Tomorrowland tattoo on his forearm. That tattoo was so closely associated with me. I checked the one on my forearm and suddenly felt out of breath.
"Abhi, pass me the mutton kheema," Ronit took another roti and ordered.
"Hey, stop eating. You're constantly increasing the bill. I'm not gonna pay the whole amount then." I complained.
"It's your birthday, dude." He said blissfully, "I can eat how much ever I want."
"Yes, it is. But you've already crossed your limits of eating."
"Just one more roti." He licked his fingers. "Please."
"Okay, but only one."
"Yep." He said absentmindedly, eating the rest of the kheema.
"Dude, it's your 16th birthday." He said as we came out of the restaurant.
"So?" I frowned.
"Let's celebrate." He started his scooter.
"Hey, we just celebrated it." I was confused.
"Yes, but I didn't gift you anything." He yawned.
"I don't want anything, Ronit. You've always been there for me since our childhood, and we want to keep this friendship forever." I smiled.
"Let's go, man." He made me sit behind him on his scooter and drove off.
He finally stopped in front of a two-storied building with a neon sign: Junky's Tattoos and I literally started planning for an escape.
"No, I'm not getting a tattoo." I protested, imagining the pain I would have to face.
"It won't hurt much. Be a man, dude." He pushed me near the main glass door where we were greeted by a young punk receptionist.
"Which is the place that won't hurt?" I blurted.
"Your forearms, buddy." The receptionist winked. "First time?"
I nodded in fear.
Ronit was cool as a cucumber. He already had a cross on his left upper shoulder.
"I'm getting one as well." He chuckled, sitting on one of the cushioned chairs beside me.
"My mum will kill me for this." I frowned.
"I'll make auntie understand. Don't worry about it. You don't have to pay for this. Consider this as your birthday gift, man." He had already started checking the tattoo catalog.
"Tomorrowland it is." He said after a few minutes of checking.
"My goodness, is there a Tomorrowland tattoo here?" All my fears went down the drain as I was a huge fan of Tomorrowland.
And since then we both have the same tattoos on our forearms.
"Earth calling Abhishek." I heard him shout from right beside me.
"Hi, Ronit," I tried to smile, "How are you?"
"Good, man." He patted my shoulder and I cringed away.
"Oh, I'm so sorry." He looked doleful. "I've forgotten about the limits. It has been 9 years."
"Hey, man, can you meet me at my place tonight? Mum and dad are out at a relative's wedding." Ronit called one morning when I was having breakfast.
"Yes, I've found a new bottle of Blenders Pride in dad's collection. It'll be fun." He sounded excited.
I checked around in case my mum was present, but she was in the balcony, placing pickle jars on the sun.
"Okay, done," I replied.
I made an excuse of study sessions for IIT at Ronit's place to mum and left home after dinner. Mum never doubted about Ronit as we were childhood friends and had been studying together since kindergarten.
"Dude, this tastes good," he took a sip from his glass and muttered as we sat in his spacious living room, with Blenders Pride and fried peanuts.
"Yes, but keep it to one glass," I warned him. "It may take a toll on your health."
"Don't worry." He said dreamily, "Let's celebrate our boards' results."
"Let's not talk about it right now." I took a sip from my glass.
"School's over, man. So soon." He said gloomily.
"Yes, now is the time of freedom, new college and all."
"You won't forget me, will you?" He suddenly sounded so black.
"How can I? Even if we get admissions in separate colleges, it's okay. We live two blocks away from each other, dude." I gave him a soft punch on his back. "Now don't be a girl."
He finished his glass and sat cross-legged on the couch, right beside me.
"Dude, I wanna say you something." He spoke all of a sudden in a grave voice.
"Sure, man." I placed my half-empty glass aside and leaned against the cushion.
"I'm in love." He looked so radiant.
"What? Dude, is that alcohol taking a toll on you?" I was surprised.
"No, no," He replied, staring at me quizzically, "I'm in my senses. I just wanted you to know."
"Who's that lucky girl?" I was so curious.
A rough and tough guy like Ronit was in love, whoa! He never looked at a girl earlier in all our school days.
"It's a guy."
His one reply, made me fall into a pit, a high energy vortex that kept pulling me down. It was like one of those dreams where we keep falling and falling and there seems no end to it.
"What do you mean?" I could barely make out my own voice.
"Yes, I said, I'm in love with a guy in general, and with you, in particular." He leaned forward, pinning me down on the couch.
"Ronit, leave me." I pushed him backward and tipsily, he fell hard on the marble floor and his head hit the nearest coffee table.
Oh no, what have I done?
He wouldn't move, and blood had already started trickling down on the white marble floor.
I wiped the sweat from my brow with a trembling hand, thinking furiously about the next step.
"Ronit?" I bent down on my knees to check if he was conscious.
No reply. His eyes were shut.
There was a deep cut on his forehead and blood was gushing out of it.
Still trembling, I stumbled to the closest sofa and plopped down before I fell down. Sweat stung my eyes and I wiped my face on my shirt which was now wet with my sweat.
I jumped up from the sofa and stared at the landline which was placed near the TV. Who that might be?
I looked back at my best friend, who revealed himself to be a gay, and laying down there, bleeding profusely.
I let the phone ring a few more times and after the place had become quiet, I picked up Ronit's iPhone from the table and dialed the number of the nearest hospital.
"Are you okay?" I hear him say in a worried tone.
"What?" I frowned and stared at him, unable to process so many things at once. "Oh yes, I'm fine, thanks."
I examined his face carefully. It was the same square shaped face with high cheekbones and there it was, a mangled scar on the left side of his forehead, bringing back so many memories.
"Excuse me, miss," I called out to one of those pretty flight attendants, who was passing by our seats.
"Yeah?" She came by, cheerfully.
"Can I please change my seat? It's uncomfortable here, not much leg space." I pleaded.
"Wait a minute, sir." She frowned, "I'll be right back as I've to check the list of passengers for an empty seat."
Ronit didn't say another word, but only watched my actions.
All these years, I felt guilty for pushing him like that. I didn't even face him after that one incident. Even our parents and neighbors were shocked. My mum kept urging me to meet him, but I could never do that.
"Sir, there's a seat available in the next cabin. Are you sure you want to change?" The attendant came back, smiling at me.
"Yes, please. I would like that." I was relieved.
As I took my rucksack and moved out of my seat, without another glance at Ronit, I heard him whisper, "I'll miss you, Abhi."