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I hate early morning flights, I really do.
Yet, I take one at least once a month. 6 a.m. Indigo from Bangalore to Bombay.
Long weekend. Diwali. A persistent headache. Any excuse works. I moved to Bangalore after the wedding two Januarys ago, but forgot to pack my entire life. He says Bangalore is the city of the future, the city of technology and opportunity.
So anyway, I take these flights a lot. But rarely ever alone. It’s usually the both of us, and usually a Friday morning.
So when the alarm rings at 4 a.m., I know he’ll wake up, even if I’m sleeping on. He’ll call the cab with last minute directions, even as I am still getting dressed. I enter the cab and promptly fall asleep again, a window cracked open for the early morning Bangalore breeze. I always wear a jacket on these flights.
At the airport, I follow him zombie-like, as he checks in our baggage and marches onto security. There we must part as he is “gents”, and I am “ladies”. He hands me my boarding pass with instructions, and is waiting for me on the other side. Apparently gents are quicker to frisk.
But today I travel alone. After a long time. Six months?
He is off to New York for his big-shot work meeting. Very important for visibility in the company. It is six months since I have been completely alone.
I am so nervous about waking up, I barely fall asleep.
When I finally do, I dream.
A recurring nightmare that haunts me on a regular basis, customized to whatever specific anxiety I am evading at the moment. I show up for a Maths exam, but prepared for Chemistry. I run for a train, only to find it headed in the opposite direction. I reach my wedding, all dressed up, but instead of him…
Anyway, last night is about this flight. But even recurring nightmares need an upgrade, a plot twist, or they risk getting old and stale.
So this time, I reach the airport, all fine and early. I even make it to the gates on time.
As the final boarding begins, everything starts to go wrong. My vision starts to blur. My brain is covered in a strange white smog. I wade through raging waters. My limbs turn to stone. I cannot move straight, only sideways and in circles. I am lost in the wilderness. I cannot take the final few steps. I miss my flight.
I reach the airport, all fine and early. I even make it to the gates on time.
I do it all. The alarm, dressing up, Uber, jacket. Carry your wallet and phone without fail. Just wish I had gotten some sleep.
It is 4:55 a.m. The white cab stops at the designated departures lane. It is dark still, and the early morning Bangalore breeze cloaks me under a peculiar starless sky. I always wear a jacket on these flights.
The security guard regards me with increasing impatience as I search for my pre-printed boarding pass. Yes, in my purse, but which compartment? I pull out my phone instead, and we wait together for the attachment to download. Damn it, why isn’t he here?
I am finally let in, rite of passage complete, and I start to feel upbeat.
The sliding glass doors open to bright lights, sharp colors and the familiar bustle of airport mornings. As if a portal has opened to a new dimension, where life is suspended, between check-in and boarding, take-off and landing, departure and arrival.
Time slows down to a pause, and no-one knows who you are. I shiver a little. The possibilities are endless.
It is 5.15 a.m. I am at Gate no. 5 seated in between a man and a newspaper.
On the far right is the Barista café I passed right out of security; a bright orange amidst grey and blue and glass.
The cute barista at the counter asks if I want hazelnut flavor.
No, I say, I really need to wake up.
You should’ve picked up an espresso then, he smiles, teeth perfectly white.
Well, your advice comes too late in the day. He laughs, swiping my card. A heart floats on the surface of my paper cup. It is six months since I have been completely alone.
I am at Gate no. 5 seated in between a man and a newspaper.
The moment I sit down, I feel the adrenaline slowly exit my body. Like the day after a trek, or a new year’s hangover. My vision starts to blur. My brain is covered in a strange white smog. My forehead feels numb, and a dozen ants crawl around my left eye.
Straight up front, I see a traveler (presumably European) asleep on a long chair, using only his ponytail and backpack as pillow. I am tempted to follow suit, not join him per se, but just curl up and sleep.
No! No! I really need to wake up.
I take a sip from my extra-strong cappuccino.
Two shots of coffee layered with steamed milk and foam. Two forces act on my brain at the same time, in equal and opposite directions. The milk lulls me to sleep, and the caffeine jolts me awake. I feel 95% of my brain shut down beyond repair, and the remaining 5% get sharply alert.
I shut my eyes, forcefully, for a long moment, focusing on that tiny wakeful corner. When I look up, people and objects float around me in a java haze. Damn it, I should’ve picked up that espresso.
Suddenly, but out of nowhere, I catch a glimpse of her.
She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Tall, tan, with long dark hair.
And her dress! Silky and rich, in the deepest shade of purple. Lit up like the sun, with a thousand golden polka-dots. Its perfect fall, engulfing her perfect body. Cascading over her breasts, like a mighty river, gathering in ripples around her waist, then gushing out at her hips into a classic A-line.
I watch her transfixed, for a long moment, sipping slowly at my cup of heart-foam, a growing warmth in my heart. Who is this woman? How is she so perfect? What is the distance between me and her right now?
Boarding call. All passengers are requested at Gate no.9! A rude loud-speaker screams into my left ear, like the loud gong at the end of mindful meditation.
People around me wake up from their trance. They scurry about, rolling baggage and shuffling shoes. Presumably headed to Gate 9, they block my vision. I can’t see her anymore. I wait patiently for the crowds to subside. My breath feels short. It might have been five minutes, or a lifetime.
I look for her in the same spot. She’s gone.
Next moment I’m up on my feet, as if someone or something has struck me in the gut. The man to the left looks surprised at my sudden movement. The newspaper remains impassive.
I wade through raging waters to where she stood in her polka-dotted perfection. I look around, heart beating to the sound of time, a strange electricity spreading through my limbs. Where is she? Where is she?
A few feet away, somewhere in the middle of the grey-and-beige hustle, I see a lone purple silhouette. Is it really her? I want, I need just one more glimpse of her.
There is no time to think. I start in her direction, my white cabin-bag on toe.
She’s so sexy in that mango-drink commercial. Do you know she’s our age?
This is A, my friend from MBA, the only one who has lasted.
Last month, on my last Bombay trip, we were in her apartment, lazing on the sofa after a large Pizza Verdure, re-watching Namaste London on TV. She was pointing to Kat, the beautiful star of our movie, who was really from London and therefore perfect for this role.
Actually she’s older. A adds, biting on a green olive salvaged from the cheesy remains of the pizza-box.
Yup! I’d seen that commercial. It was all over the papers, and TV, and large hoardings on the highway.
Kat picks up a large mango and drinks from it in slow motion, in the most sensual manner. Juices trickle down her lips, towards her neck. Erotic music plays in the background. Aam-sutra, she announces. Mango desire, bottled for your pleasure.
What do you think? A is unsatisfied with my non-response.
I think I might have a crush on Kat! I confess, after a long minute.
She laughs loudly. Yea, I know. We all want a body like hers.
No, I want to clarify. That’s not what I mean. Not a body like hers…
Shall we bring out the blueberry cheesecake? I say, instead.
Nooo…We can’t keep eating like this! A protests, but walks to her fridge.
Don’t worry. Eating cheese-cake can be sexy too… I assure her, our friendship sustained through a mutual love for food and lamentation of its effects on our bodies.
It’s just advertising, to seduce poor unsuspecting customers.
A few feet away, the purple shape walks past, dissolving into the crowds.
The white cabin bag gets heavier and heavier.
I drag it and myself ahead. I trip on it every seven yards. I make these random observations to keep myself awake. I always wear a jacket on these flights. That seems like a bad idea right now. It slows me down. I take it off and tie it around my waist, but trip on the sleeves. My limbs are turning to stone.
I take these flights a lot. And I usually check in my bags.
He tells me it’s just easier to carry them. Then you don’t have to wait at Arrivals.
That’s the whole reason we travel so early, to avoid traffic. Just three and a half hours, from Bangalore to Bombay! Time is paused from Bangalore to Bombay, from home to home, from new to old. It is six months since I have been completely alone.
Wait! This is the end of the line. Last of the gates. Where did she go?
To my right, are the bathrooms. To my left, an escalator to level 2. That’s where she must have gone. She looked so perfect, why would she go to the bathroom? I heave at my bag, and ascend.
Two girls glide past me in the opposite direction. Well-pressed shirts, knee-high boots, poker straight not-a-hair-out-of-place hair. How do they turn up like that so early in the morning?
While I barely manage to change out of my pajamas. I glance at my clothes, ashamed.
That is how I always felt around R. Self-conscious, utterly clumsy. We were high-school friends. We never had a class together, but somehow were invited to the same sleepovers.
You know how those are. Gang of girls. Drinking in secret, trying out clothes. Truth and dare. A dirty CD. Late into the night, we’d collapse into our blankets, all groggy from gossip and revelations.
Even then, at 3 a.m., R looked bright and prim, like a warm ray of sunshine.
The girls would beg her to get water from the kitchen, or make Maggi. Pleaaaaase… we’re sooo dead!
OK, two minutes! She would get up from her corner of the bed with an elegant throw of the quilt, toss back her hair, and glide towards the kitchen, glossy skin and short shorts.
The minute she left, they would start to make fun of her. They’d mimic her hair toss, her syrupy voice. Look at me, ever ready for Vogue! Or was it Cosmo back then?
They’d look at me expectant. I’d join in, reluctant. What could I say? R is an angel. I am in total and complete awe of everything she says and does? So stupid. We took great pride in being smart girls. Not girly girls, like R.
When she was back, I’d quickly shut up and eat, thankful for R, and for hot Maggi on a cold night. Last I heard, she moved to Canada and had twins. Wonder what she cooks for them. Waffles?
Waffles. Ah! The sweet toasty smell of dough and cream and maple syrup. What am I doing at the Food court?
I spot her in the distance, little specks everywhere.
Her purple mingles with other colors – a pink here, a violet there. She fades into mauve and boldens to a plum. What am I doing? This is so unlike me. But I keep going, I must.
Smells waft in from different directions, fusing into a menacing concoction, overpowering my senses. I cannot move straight, only sideways and in circles.
I rush past the eating joints, nauseous, covering my nose and mouth with my one free arm, and the dangling sleeve of my jacket. The hungry heads seem to not see or care, dipping into their untimely breakfasts.
I pause for respite at the perfume store. They follow me there – eau d’idly sambar, with notes of fresh puri, and just a hint of eggs benedict. After a point, they all start to smell the same. Just like shopping for perfume. The only scent that lasts is the coffee beans in between. Eventually, that’s the one I want to take home.
When it comes to committing, I prefer stable, reliable, predictable. Like a long term boy-friend. Or an Arabica dark roast.
Wait, a Starbucks at the corner. I mean it’s no Barista, just its fancy American cousin who commands more attention these days. Nevertheless, I inch towards its cozy familiarity.
I once met K at the Starbucks near his office. We used to work together, right before I quit to “discover my passion”. He doesn’t like drinking coffee, he says, just the idea of drinking it. Makes him feel artsy and intellectual.
We were doing our usual thing, talking about books and foreign films, and of course, Freud. He’d flirt with me a little, I’d pretend to mind it a great deal.
She works in my office.
All of a sudden, he points to a girl sitting by the window seat alone. Reading Forty Rules of Love, she alternatively sighs into her book and stares out of the window emptily. Dreamy, with a touch of seeking. Perhaps a sprinkling of lonely? I wonder if that’s what I look like, when I work on my research at my café.
I find her really cute.
That’s just so like K. I turn to her again.
She is cute. With large, sparkly eyes, dangling copper earrings, a perky bob framing her oval face.
Bobs are in style these days. I’d asked at my salon about getting one. They are hard to maintain, I was warned. I wonder if they meant specifically for me.
So anyway K finds her attractive. But he hasn’t talked to her or anything. Doesn’t want a messy situation in the workplace. Smart move, particularly for him.
Yea, I find her attractive too! I say. I know this will get his attention.
What? You like…? Have you ever…? K is visibly excited, after years of taunting me over my “moral repression” and nudging me towards my wild side.
You know me. Been there, never done that. I stick to the script.
K’s face falls. I do not relish disappointing my self-appointed spiritual guide. I had spent years convincing him I did not have an unconscious wild side.
Was this last year? I haven’t seen him since.
I am leaning against something, a kitchen wall or a pre-school blackboard.
People and objects float around me in a java haze. Crowds gather and disperse, wallets open, cards swipe. And that smell, the scent of fresh brew. Stable, reliable, the one I want to take home.
My phone pings. Good morning sunshine. Hope you boarded the flight. A smiley with a hug and two pink hearts.
Wait, what time is it? How is he awake? Is this the Starbucks line?
5:35. Oh! NO… I’m SO SO stupid!
Blurred calls for final boarding. Are they meant for me? I look around, heart beating to the sound of time, electricity spreading through my limbs. I don’t want to miss my flight.
The woman in purple polka-dots is nowhere to be seen. It’s all her fault. She is the reason I miss my flight. Like my nightmarish dream, I have missed my flight.
A few feet ahead, I see a descending escalator. I heave at my suitcase and take the plunge.
I am surrounded by people, gliding in both directions, but don’t see anyone or anything.
I surrender to the fall, and land right next to the boarding gates, where it all began. Did I just walk the entire length of the airport, levels 1 and 2, looking for this woman? SO SO stupid.
The waiting people are uncannily still, still in their seats.
Five more minutes for boarding Ma’am. The airhostess smiles.
Ok! Danger averted. Breathe, breathe.
It is 5.45 a.m. I am back at Gate no. 5, seated in between the man and the newspaper.
Up front, the European traveler is still asleep on his long chair, using his ponytail and backpack as pillow. Next to me lies the white cabin bag, similarly exhausted.
By my feet, is the paper cup with extra strong cappuccino, right where I left it. The floating heart has disappeared, leaving behind a flat, brown bitterness.
Still, I take a sip. I really need to wake up.
Two forces act on my brain at the same time, in equal and opposite directions. 5% of my brain mellows down and the remaining 95% gets slowly and fully awake. Awake at last!
I rub my eyes, taking in my surroundings.
To the far right is the Barista I passed right out of security, a bright orange amidst grey and blue and glass. I can even see the cute barista who recommended an espresso too late.
Suddenly, but out of nowhere, I catch a glimpse of her.
The most beautiful woman ever. Her silky purple dress, with golden polka dots, its perfect fall engulfing her perfect body. She stands at the center of the boutique store, plastic and immobile. Too-perfect-to-be-real.
I watch her transfixed, as the warmth slowly recedes from my heart.
Final boarding call. This one is for me. It’s time to leave. Leave behind this nightmare. This airport and the woman. Even nightmares need an upgrade, or they get old and stale.
I drag my white cabin bag, too heavy to not check in.
On the TV screen by my side, sexy Kat picks up a mobile phone and talks into it in the most sensual manner. I look away, tossing my empty paper cup into a red trash can. A large hoarding of Maggie noodles dangles down from Level 2. Two minutes! The girl next door smiles at me sweetly. I do not smile back.
I reach the gate and present my boarding pass to the nice Indigo airhostess, a perky bob framing her oval face. Bobs are in style these days.
Luggage stowed, I sink into my window seat. As the flight gets ready for take-off, time gets un-paused again. It is 6:05 a.m.
Good morning baby. I have boarded. I switch my phone to airplane mode.
Supriya Rakesh is an author, researcher, and creative facilitator with a PhD from IIM, Bangalore. Her writing explores themes of identity, transition and belonging in contemporary urban India. Her short fiction is published in Kitaab, Setu Bilingual, Muse India; and forthcoming in a South-Asian anthology on gendered violence. She recently won the Bound Food essay contest for her piece ‘Mysore masala with extra cheese’. In her courses and workshops, Supriya uses story, theatre and art to enable reflexivity and dialogue.