A couple was sitting in the cafe when I walked in. As the light was low, I did not know who those people were until the woman turned around, and I noticed it was my wife. She surprised me as she told me earlier in the morning, she would be in a village twenty miles from our city.
“Hello, Usha,” I said.
“Hi, Raj, come and meet this fascinating friend of mine,” she said and pulled a chair for me.
“This is my husband, Raj Oncologist, and this is Sam, the new CEO of our NGO.”
Sam stood and shook hands with me. Meanwhile, Usha poured a cup of tea for me, and said, “While I was attending to some patients in the village, Sam arrived. He brought me here to attend a seminar. He said my presence would help get funds. We are here for a coffee break.” As Sam shook hands, I scanned him. “Did we meet before?” I asked him.
“I don’t believe I have the pleasure of meeting you. I studied law and went to a business school, whereas you have been to medical school. Could be we studied in the same high school.”
“That’s right. You were the captain of our football team.”
“OMG, you must be having a fantastic memory to remember faces and names. I couldn’t place you. How are you, you,…” He checked himself and thumped me hard on my back.
“It’s a small world,” Usha said. “I’ll come home to visit you guys, but now we have to go. You must excuse us,” he said and left. Usha struggled hard to keep pace with him.
Usha had always been full of bounce and purposeful. I’d known her and Prakash her husband from our days in the medical school. She commands attention and respect in any place or situation. After graduation, they got married and set up practice in Internal Medicine. I specialized in oncology and joined a Pharma company research team. We were family friends, and we visited each other’s homes, often till tragedy struck.
First, it was my wife’s breast cancer. We undertook surgery, radiation, and chemo. All the doctors in our research group supported me with their wealth of knowledge but could not save her. Rita spent twenty months in and out of the hospital and finally breathed her last. Usha and her husband visited Rita in the hospital and wished her a speedy recovery. If good wishes could cure cancer, Rita should have been happy at home.
Prakash was no different. Ever smiling, regardless of the pressure of work, he carried the best wishes of all his friends but left for his heavenly abode in a minute when his car crashed. Even at her husband’s funeral, Usha appeared purposeful. Standing with her son on the right and the daughter on the left, she seemed a picture of poise and dignity.
I met her often after the funeral and noticed she looked like a flower wilting fast. The sparkle in her eyes diminished. It seemed as if the thousand-watt bulb that had lit her was losing its power. “Feeling lonely?” I asked her. She nodded. “I can empathize with you,” I said. She nodded again.
“All said and done life is too short. Sport your smile again and move on.”
“I like that come from you,” she said.
“Why don’t you live with me?” I asked, and she nodded again.
“Let’s take one step further. Will you marry me?” I asked her, still standing. “Yes,” she said and found solace in my arms. We both comforted each other for some time. Usha regained her composure and asked, “I want my space, all of it. You know me well.”
“You can have all the space you want,” I assured her, married her in a simple ceremony followed by a party. I have been giving her all the space she needed.
Nightly we read books together, watched TV shows, and listened to music. Surprisingly, we’d similar tastes on various items. While I lived a laid-back life, she had an active lifestyle. She went to bed early and up early for her morning walk. By the time I woke up, I invariably found her out for work. I worked late in the night and returned home to find my dinner laid out on the table. What worked for both of us was the comfort we found when we stretched our hands in the middle of our sleep. Instead of an empty bed, we found a companion who satisfied the emotional needs of the partner.
We formed a splendid team, and the heads turned whenever we attended a party. Usha had her money, part insurance, and part of her husband’s inheritance. She spent lavishly both for her personal needs and for the less fortunate, she worked five days a week. I learnt from her the futility of my frugal ways and turned to be a mini philanthropist guided by my wife.
The first few months of our marriage rushed like a supersonic dream. Companionship filled what seemed like a void of humongous dimension. As reality kicked in, I thought of ‘space’ that Usha wanted. Rita, my first wife, never asked for it. Did I give it? I asked myself repeatedly as doubts gnawed at me. Had I not given it, she would have mentioned it. I did not hear any demand, comment, or murmur from her. Of course, it did not conclusively prove I had given her all the space she needed.
When I started thinking of Rita, our days of happiness flashed before my eyes. I relived those happy days in my dreams. I would turn in the bed to take my lover in my arms but embraced a new woman, a new wife. In such moments, abiding love vanished, and the memories I cherished disappeared in a flash. New love like a seedling showed up in its place. Usha came into my arms but not with the same passion Rita showed.
Usha must have gone through the same set of feelings, for she, on many occasions, turned and hugged me hard only to loosen her grip after a few minutes. I understood her needs and pulled her closer. Bygone memories cannot be revived struggle what we might, but new love or companionship can be nurtured to grow. It was like watering a plant regularly and let it grow and grow.
It was a Saturday. I distinctly remember for I worked late in the lab to determine the result of the experiment on the cancer cells, confirm my findings and submit the much-awaited report to the Director who had already made plans for the clinical trials and waited for my green signal. The whole company remained to observe the cancer cells, behave according to our wishes, and perish under the power of our wonder drugs. The indomitable cells had put up a brave fight but died around midnight. I shouted, “Eureka,” and my staff danced around the lab. Champagne flowed, and congratulations made the rounds. I wanted to share my happiness with my wife and carried a couple of bottles of bubbly.
When I returned home, I found Usha fast asleep on her side with her knees bent and clutching a couple of pillows. Not willing to disturb her, I carried the bottles, left them next to the bed, and slept on my side in my working clothes. Neither the chemicals on my clothes nor the champagne on my breath disturbed her. She must have been lost in her pleasant memories.
When I woke up, it looked like any other morning for the lights were still dim, but the bedside clock showed twelve. I turned and stretched my hand to take Rita in my arms and announce my achievement, my conquest of those cells that killed her. I felt nothing but an empty bed. A cluster of feelings hit my head. First, I missed Rita. Second, I shouted at her for not being there to share my moment of triumph. I then cursed the cancer cells for spreading all over her vital organs and not giving us even a slim chance to save her. Later, I yelled at Usha and went around the house looking for her. I found the breakfast on the table tidily covered, and a note read,” you were sleeping like a baby. I didn’t have the heart to disturb you.”
I didn’t know whether to be angry with her for not being there to share my success or thank her for being a caring wife. My success would help the entire humanity in fighting dreadful cancer, an achievement that would bring me many laurels, perhaps even a Nobel Prize. She did not want to disturb me and made breakfast for me. What more could I ask for? She had asked for space, and I assured her. Any word I say to her of her absence would mean denial of space.
I waited the whole Sunday, and around nine pm, I toasted myself with a few rounds of the finest Scotch and found my way to the bed.
When I woke up, Usha, sitting on my side of the bed, full of smiles, looked like morning sunshine. She said, “Good morning. I have a surprise for you.”
“I’ve terrific news for you,” I said.
“I told you first, and I’m a lady. Have a wash and join me in the living room,” she said and walked away.
“When I went to the living room, Usha and my friends shouted in one voice, “Happy Birthday.” On the central table stood a massive cake with lettering Happy 80th birthday.
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