Maria had got accustomed to solo living. The wounds of a broken marriage were still raw. She and Akhil weren’t divorced yet, but the separation was the first move.
She missed her home of 20 years, her garden, the outdoors in the hills and those therapeutic walks into nature. She missed those lazy afternoons on the sprawling lawn with the sun warming an otherwise cold, callous life. She missed being the anchor of that home – now she wondered how Akhil managed his daily routine without her in the big house with 3 servants, how the garden looked – her head was crowded with a barrage of thoughts. But it was her decision to move out and she would stick with it. The children had grown and moved on, and this was her turn to move on. Now sitting in her mother’s tiny apartment on the 5th floor with the sound of traffic screeching below, she plunged into occasional bouts of loneliness. She needed time to heal, to sort her feelings and move on.
The Kochi Biennale would be a good distraction, Maria thought. She had never been to one, and this was the perfect opportunity to stop wallowing in her overthinking. Maria had never been solo anywhere, which made this plan a bit daunting. Those family holidays with Akhil and the kids were always whirls of activities and planning. Akhil was the planner, always the controller. Those trips were fun on the one hand and claustrophobic on the other. Maria winced at remembering those times. There was no going back. She had to do things alone now, or not do them at all. Kochi was just a two hour train ride away. Maria took the plunge.
Fort Kochi was buzzing with activity. There were galleries and installations everywhere. Some beautiful and eclectic, some over the top, but definitely a vibe that transported Maria to a feeling of being alive.
Her hotel room overlooked the fishing nets and the Arabian sea. Maria would get out in the mornings to watch the fishermen lowering the giant Chinese contraptions. Being solo wasn’t so bad after all and the anonymity was healing, she concluded. She would wander into galleries and walk the quaint streets. The entire area was alive with art and visitors and tourists. A couple of days in this setting would definitely do Maria good.
Her favourite breakfast cafe was at Pepper House. An old heritage building, Pepper House had a cafe that opened into a large green courtyard. Time was hers and hers alone. She sat there stirring her coffee, sipping it, savouring a new free world which was alien to her but then, not so uncomfortable, she thought. She could read her book undisturbed, she could sit anywhere and do her writing without a million distractions that she had at home. The coffee smelt fresh and invigorating.
Maria noticed a handsome arty looking man sitting across her. He looked European and he had the softest, kindest face. His hair fell in light brown curls to frame his chiselled face. She found herself staring at him and quickly looked at the book she was reading. There was a strange discomfort of being aware of him sitting across her. It was a good discomfort though- the one she wouldn’t want to end. So she ordered another coffee. When she looked up he caught her eye and smiled. Maria gave a half smile back and for the first time in years she felt her heart racing. She was embarrassed, he didn’t seem to be. He had a confidence that was ever so attractive.
He paid his bill, gathered his stuff and walked past Maria with that smile that left her melted. What are the chances of seeing him again? Would he come back here for breakfast tomorrow? Why was she feeling like this? She was here to enjoy the buzz of the Biennale, to embrace her freedom and solitude. She took out the map to distract her thoughts and decided where to go and what to see that day.
Walking down those meandering, crowded streets was therapeutic. And the art was soul healing, especially the women centric ones. Maria realised how oppressive it was for women world over. She immersed herself in everything, like clinging onto the short lived preoccupation of her restless mind. She grabbed a lunch somewhere, a coffee, and finally ended up at David Hall. It wasn’t as crowded and there was ample cross ventilation so Maria spent time looking at those large canvases and also marvelling at the audience that had traveled from all over the world to be a part if this spectacle.
While gazing at a strange painting she was distracted by a sudden discomfort. As if someone was watching her. She looked around and there was that same curly mop of a guy smiling at her as if he knew her from a long time ago. A naughty boyish smile. Maria smiled back. He came and stood next to her and they both stared at the large bizarre painting together – in muted silence. She was embarrassed to walk away or maybe she didn’t want to. She fixed her eyes on the colourful distraction and waited for him to move, for her heart to stop racing.
Shall we grab a coffee? – the voice had a distinct French accent. He waited for her response. Yeah, ok, she nodded and walked towards the Cafe at the back of David Hall. He followed her. The moment they sat down she felt as dizzy as a young girl having her first crush.
So did you enjoy your day? Oh yes, very much, Maria replied barely making eye contact.
With sips of coffee and bits of conversation a comfort sank in between them. They exchanged notes on what they saw, what they enjoyed the most. He was Julien. Sitting across, they were from two entirely different worlds. Maria was 50, he seemed around 45 or maybe 42. She learnt that he was from Paris. He was a graphic designer and this was his first trip to South India. He told her that he liked her eyes because they were big, black, curious & happy. It was exhilarating to be with someone who noticed her eyes, made her blush, someone with whom there was that instant comfort. Maybe this was serendipity – something she’d always wondered about.
It was getting late and Maria said she should carry on. He asked her if she would walk with him along the fishing nets before going their separate ways, and she instantly said yes. The spontaneity from both sides was unexpected and fresh. They walked along the nets occasionally jostled by the other walkers. There was a lightness in the air, and oppressive heat didn’t feel oppressive. Maria told Julien about herself, told him she was married and about her kids. She told him this was her first solo holiday.
You mean you never go anywhere alone? He quipped in his French accent, quite bemused. Maria told him that marriage was like that – at least in India, mostly – we never left our kids and husbands, except for a few vacations with our girlfriends. Maria didn’t have the inclination to tell him that she had just separated, still raw from the wounds of a volatile marriage. She wanted to seem as ‘normal’ normal was.
And you are happily married? he prodded. Maria didn’t look up at him. She stared at the sea and beyond. For a moment she wanted to tell him the truth of how her marriage had been – choked, stifled, like a bird in a gilded cage with clipped wings, from where she crawled out. But oh, she wasn’t going to paint a sorry picture, especially when he’d told her she had curious happy eyes. So she told him she was happy, yeah, the only happiness she knew. He smiled. Maria asked him if he had a family – Julien told her that he had always been single and was never one to settle down to marriage. Had a few girlfriends but he was mostly single and loved it.
They were done for the day. Maria felt guilty walking around with this unknown handsome Frenchman younger than her. She was also exhausted from the excitement of a chance encounter and all her untapped emotions that suddenly overwhelmed her.
So breakfast at Pepper House tomorrow? He suggested with a naughty endearing smile. Was he being persistent or was this how cool people were, she wondered. Maria hadn’t known cool people in a long while. She could’ve said no, that she’s busy or going elsewhere… But instead she said ,Yes, let’s. Her gut gave her signals that overruled her head.
How about 9 then? She smiled and nodded.
Bye, see you tomorrow, and they parted ways.
They walked in different directions. Maria had a smile on my face. She felt happy, appreciated, sensual. For the first time in ages she was noticed for being ‘just her’. Julien knew nothing about her, didn’t care either. He just wanted to be with her, live moments. Maria hadn’t felt this alive in years.
Ever since she got married twenty years ago, Maria had slowly disappeared into a vacuum, barely noticed for anything but for her presence as a housewife, mother, wife, daughter in law, daughter. She’d shown up every single day for everyone, unnoticed, unappreciated, undervalued. No one told Maria her eyes were beautiful, and no one watched her smile even on an ordinary day, least of all her husband. He was quick to pick on something that was not done, not done well – the cauliflower pieces in in the bake should have been cut smaller, the book shelves were not dusted properly, the kids needed better haircuts.
Maria had to check herself – why was she thinking of the past and the bitterness, when this was her chance at a tiny slice of harmless happiness. After all life was about moments, especially short lived happy ones. She may never get to do this spell again.
A relaxing swim in the pool at the hotel and some me-time was just what she needed to wind down and step out of her thoughts.
Maria felt like a young girl going on a date the next morning. She made sure her eyes looked bright, her hair just that casual and messy, everything as happy and alive as her heart felt.
She walked into Pepper House and Julien was there, reading his book. Maria stood at the entrance and watched him – his tousled brown curly hair, droopy eyelids, full lips and a stubble. His skin had a lovely tan. He looked up and saw her standing there with her eyes on him – he smiled. Maria was a little embarrassed having been caught unawares, so she shuffled her way and sat opposite him.
Helloooo – he was just so natural, unabashed and full of life.
They chatted, They laughed, drank that lovely coffee and decided to go around the Biennale together. It felt like she’d known him all her life, two kindred souls who’d found each other in a giant art exhibition. And yet he was unknown – he could be a player, smooth talking his way to a light hearted fling on his holiday. But did she care.
If she was to be optimistic, Maria would have to grab every moment of happiness. At fifty she felt her life was almost over, mostly dead after her 20 long years in a toxic relationship – so why not indulge in some heady flirtation.
They wandered in and out of some beautiful exhibitions, sat in the most pretty cafes and got lost in a happy whirl of colours and images and a fresh new friendship. Often their hands brushed against each other – not intentionally but purely due to their proximity. Each time electric, never acknowledged.
Maria wished the day wouldn’t end. She didn’t know what Julien wished. He just talked and laughed like they were soul mates meant to meet in a colourful setting. Maria was the listener and she loved his French accent. He spoke English rather fluently. She loved the way he spoke, the way his lips moved, loved the honey coloured pupils in his eyes that lit up like twinkling lights.
At the end of the day they watched the sunset along the fishing nets, mostly in silence. Maria knew it was time to go their separate ways. She also knew there was a possibility of a little more time together, moments to carry into a lifetime although they’d never meet again. Her heart wanted to drift into possibilities that her head refuted, warning her that they were short lived, only to end by breaking her already fragile heart. Maria wasn’t ready for even a tiny streak of light to enter her broken soul. And yet there was a longing to be held, to be touched, kissed, to feel beautiful and loved, even if it was for that one night. Her fluttering heart and her head fought reasons as she stood there watching the sun fade away.
It’s late, I should go now, she said. It’s been a long day.
Stay, said Julien, staring beyond the sunset at the twinkling lights . Come with me.
He tugged at her hand gently and waited. She took time to decide, while his fingers were wrapped around hers. The sultry breeze from the Arabian sea drifted between them and Maria felt dizzy in the moment. Julien didn’t let go. She took that giant leap of her heart and said Okay .
They walked to his hotel where everything and everyone was buzzing with fervour and colour – artists, designers , travellers, and some like Maria, searching for momentary happiness. It was out of the ordinary. There was a band and people were dancing while some got drunk at the open air bar. Julien and Maria found a little corner to sit with their wine – Mostly silent, exchanging glances at each other and smiles. Julien asked her to dance and she did – throwing all her inhibitions into the Arabian sea, letting go of all the thoughts that held her hostage in a lonely life.
The night was hers – wild and free. Maria let go – and they spent the rest of the evening baring their souls and their bodies, entangled, barely speaking, listening to their gentle breaths as the night took over. A single temple flower in a vase on the bedside and white sheets tossed around them. His brown curls wrapped around her fingers, as she held on to those stolen moments. He caressed her cheeks as if to tell her that it was more than a one night affair. Maria felt that too, but who could perceive what lay ahead – they were two different planets that collided briefly.
Thoughts raced through her head as he kissed her forehead after moments of heady passion – gentle, pure. Maria was certain that she wouldn’t ask questions or search for answers in that quiet, happy, precious space. Doubts would kill the magic of the moment. She’d go back to her temporary apartment carrying this little memory in a deep crevice of her heart, reliving it a thousand times. She would go back, the pretty bird with a vacant life. And he would go back to his designer life and Paris – where lust lurks in every romantic corner – under the Eiffel tower lit up at night, on the banks of the Seine and on the sprawling open lawns of the city of love. They would forget each other. Or maybe they’d text each other occasionally for Christmas.
Life would go on. But that was how it’s meant to be. Good things never last more than moments and we let them go in order to learn to love ourselves more than we did, through someone’s touch, someone’s honey coloured soulful eyes, their tousled hair wrapped around our fingers in ringlets and that gentle tug of the hand that changes the way we see ourselves.
A little more self love, a new meaning to life.