Flightless Bird

[WARNING: Curse words, amorous suggestions]

Can being woken up by being tickled in your nostrils with a lock of hair, that hasn’t been washed for two days and which is now possibly dirtier by invading your nasal cavity, be described as any kind of romantic? Well, it depends on the tickler, I guess.

Such were the thoughts that ran through Zoi’s mind just after she woke up.

“Hey there sleepy bunny. Don’t be mad. You just look so cute when you wrinkle your nose like that.”

As she sat there looking at the tall, dark and handsome mischief-maker, who was giggling happily after getting away with the mischief he just made, with just a few sugary words, she couldn’t help but sigh.

At least there’s one thing that’s not messed up in my life.

They were currently in Zoi’s king size bed, which occupied most of her the tiny single room that she had rented recently after leaving her fully furnished apartment in the hottest commercial district of the town. Why did she do that? She got fired. She lost a high paying job due to company’s layoffs and suddenly realised she might have to dip into her precious savings to support her lifestyle. With the ongoing recession, she wanted her severance pay to last as long as possible before she found a job again, but it was proving harder than she expected. Luckily, though she lost the job, she didn’t lose her friends from work. Some of them still stayed in touch and helped her out. One of them was currently helping out by touching her.

“What are you staring at Miss Brainiac? Do you want to go again?”

With a cheeky smile Nick, the horny bull, slid a hand under the sheets threateningly.

Zoi’s breath caught for a second and she was pretty sure her face was going to turn pink in a bit, when she composed herself and retorted, “I was just staring at someone who’s going to be fired soon because they forgot they have a job to go to this morning.”

“I am so dazed by beauty I won’t be able to focus on work. I’ll just take the day off.” Nick lazily buried his head in her tummy.

Zoi caressed his chiseled shoulders and arms and suppressed the warm, fuzzy feeling in her stomach with great difficulty, “Currently, there’s already more jobless people than this room can handle. I don’t need your company as well. And besides”, She leaned over and said softly in his ear, “I’m saving up all my energy for the next one after you leave.”

Nick sprang up with a contorted face as he had an unconvincing heart-ache. “Milady, you already killed me with your looks. Must you trample all over my dead body too?”

Zoi started laughing as she threw a pillow in his face, “Knock it off, you idiot!”

Once Nick left Zoi turned to face the reality that were her current living conditions. A tiny room with a bed that occupied almost all the space. A slab in one corner was the kitchen, a 4.5 ft long wardrobe that barely held together under the pressure of her possessions and narrow door that led to a cramped bathroom. The room’s only saving grace was a french window that opened to a small balcony overlooking the park. She quickly made herself a cup of hot lemon tea and sought refuge in that balcony. 

“Good morning everyone!” She came out and cheered at the non-existent people around her. “How was your weekend? Manish how was Coorg? Did your wife finally forgive you for forgetting your anniversary? And Kiran ji, how is your husband’s recovery going? Remind me to give you the contact of the physio-therapist my mother recommended. Meeta, who did you meet-ah? I know it’s not the season for sca-arves… wink, wink. So… What’s on the agenda today? Yes, it’s to find me a new job. Okay, quiet down everyone, time to get down to business. First, Let’s look at the responses we’ve had this morning.”

With that she settled on a bean bag with a laptop and started checking her emails.

“Hmm… Nothing too interesting so far. But let’s not get too negative. It’s okay if people don’t realise that I’m not a fresher, and that I don’t know any form of coding and nope, I don’t want to earn big bucks sitting at home just like that aunty in the picture. I think I’ll just attach a declaration along with my resume next time that says, ‘Read resume carefully. Not interested in stupid bullshit.’ Or… What?”

Her old office was hiring for her old position. At one third her salary. 

Crash!!

 “…ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME???”

With that last sentence she flung her cup straight to the wall opposite her. Which was a save, since her first reaction was to fling her laptop against the wall. Not that she hadn’t done it before, but poverty sometimes subdues mad raging anger enough to throw a rational (and economically favourable) temper tantrum.

However, she still hadn’t retained enough rationale to remember to empty out the cup before flinging it. She mentally cursed her mad self when she noticed tea splashed on her clothes, on the beanbag and all over the balcony. Not to mention the broken cup pieces…

“Aaaaahhhhh….” That didn’t help at all. 

Defeated, she got up, cleaned the balcony meticulously to restore it to its former glory. She shut the manhoos laptop up and tucked it away in case it fell prey to her darkened mood. 

If only Nick was here….

Zoi had worked really hard to climb the corporate ladder to reach a position where she was next to untouchable. Only she knew the kind of tactics, dirty politics and manoeuvres she had to deal with on this journey. She prided herself as someone who never bowed down by the negativity but persevered and pushed forward depending on her work alone. As a result she never had any obligation towards anyone, nobody could touch her. That also meant when someone at the board suggested firing people to cut down costs, she had no one in her corner. Everyone saved those loyal to them, but she was the only one loyal to the company. Thus she had to go. All this humility that life threw her way suddenly, she was having a really hard time getting used to it. 

The worst was not being surrounded by swarms of people. In the good old days she had people all around her. People to serve her, drive her around, maintain her schedule as well as people she worked with, and people who wanted to work with her and sometimes wanted to sleep with her. Now there was no one and she had clung to the only person who still remembered her once her days of glory behind her. Not to mention Nick was sexy and sweet and so much fun…

The realisation that she was like an emotional parasite to Nick was never far from her. And that felt lonely.

Feeling lonely sucks! 

Phone rings. Mom on Video call.

“Hello Ma…”

“Hello bachcha! Why the long face?”

“Nothing Ma just feeling lazy.” She retracted her gloomy look and composed a smile. “What’s up with you? How’s Dad?” 

“How else would Dad be? As usual, he’s gone to the club with Mishra Uncle. I was getting bored so rang my baby up! You tell, did you eat?” 

“Yeah… I made some oats in the morning. Haven’t decided lunch yet. What are you…”

Before she could finish, her Mom, Mrs. Bakshi, cut in with an overly-concerned tone that was so typical, “Baby what is this? Is oats breakfast? At least make parathas? Even french toast… It takes only 10 mins to make french toast. Why are you playing with your health like that?”

Zoi exhaled and said with exaggerated despair, “You forget Mommy dear, Payal didi is not here anymore to cook for me. I’m poor now. And as they say, ‘beggars can’t be choosers’..”

“Haye… why do you have to kill your mother with worries like this? I plan to live at least till I reduce to 55Kgs.”

But after a second her expression changed and she said in a serious tone. “Baby I’m really worried about you. Why don’t you come home for a bit? Relax and take a break…”

Zoi replied in a whiny tone with a roll of eyes that was also typical. “Not this again Mom! What will I do in that place. Forget career opportunities, there aren’t even any people there I can talk to. You stay involved in your kitty and stuff. What will I do? Talk to the walls?”

“Arey, of course there are people your age here. I don’t know if they meet your standards but there is no lack of people your age here.”

Zoi could sense there was something weird about her Mom’s statement and she obviously forced a nonchalant expression, while suppressing something she wanted to tell so badly. If it was any other Aunty in her family or any of her friend’s Mom’s she would have figured it out in an instant. But her brain could not accept that her cool and liberal Mom would ever mention this. So she took the bait.

“Whoever is my age over there?”

“Arey just yesterday at Mishra Uncle’s place I met his nephew. Just returned from America, going to start his business here. He’s quite young to be starting a business, I said. But you know these entrepreneur-types. God knows if the guy even knows the A-B-C of business, but who cares. Waise not bad looking, if you ask me. But of course looks aren’t everything…”

“MOM!!!! Stop.. Please.” By the time her brain caught up, a lot of useless images had already been formed in her head. “I know what you’re doing. It’s not going to work with me, you also know that.”

Mrs. Bakshi tried to hastily pacify the raging storms of Zoi’s fury. “Arey bachcha, I know you don’t believe in all this. But what’s the harm in trying? I just worry about you living alone in a big city like that. It was okay when you were working. But now…”

They went back and forth uselessly until her Mom finally gave up. 

This was a new development. Her joblessness was slowly turning her Mom into a typical Indian Mom, who nag their daughters about marriage ceaselessly. She had seen all her friends go through this. But it was a first for her. Although she knew her parents would never go overboard with this nonsense, she could still feel it leading to things turning sour between them. To prevent that from happening, she should either find a job quickly or find a man…

Job is what I need but there’s no jobs. Then should I find a man? I just have Nick… But do I want him permanently?… No no… stop with this nonsense. Nick’s too immature, he still forgets to put the toilet seat down after peeing. Not to mention his very, very low IQ. But at least sex will be good. He’s got good stamina… Ahhhh… Mental slap! Marriage is not only about sex!

As she was sitting there doing a mental fight, she suddenly noticed her fingers twitching subconsciously. 

No no.. Not this too. Now now.

She had developed an addiction to smoking a few years back, to cope with the pressures of work. Now that long lost habit snuck its way back again as all the pressures came back. She tried to divert her attention by opening a laptop and reading something but her Mom’s words would keep coming back. And with that came back the same spiralling thoughts, culminating in an indomitable urge to smoke.

“Madam, per piece or packet?”

Zoi was startled from her daze as she realised she had already made it to the small tin shack just outside her residential community and asked for cigarettes. Just as she was deciding on staying or going, another familiar voice interrupted her.

“Howdy! Fellow smoker.” This was Ritu. Another ex-colleague, now a successful house-wife. She had helped Zoi with the new digs. Thus they ended up as sort of neighbours as their communities were adjacent.

“Have you ever seen me smoke Mrs. Mathur?” Zoi retorted.

“No. But if you’re not getting the ciggys here you could only be getting pan. And that is even less likely for the Zoi Bakshi that I know. What do you say?”

“You make an excellent point, Milord.” Zoi admitted defeat with a smile.

They decided to stroll in the neighbourhood to find a decent spot for smoking.

“So, shitty day, huh?” Ritu asked casually once they settled on a secluded bench on the footpath.

Zoi laughed dryly and responded, “The shittiest!”

“Go ahead… spill it out. When it comes to unburdening, this one and a half inch roll of sin will only take you so far. But your buddy here will take you a looooong way.”

Ritu sure had a way with words. Before long Zoi found that she had spilled out all the frustration regarding her job-hunt and the fight with her mom in front of this personification of sympathy.

Ritu sighed, “I voluntarily sacrificed my career on the altar of marriage so I am the really the last person who can advise you. But I do get your frustration. It’s the feeling of loss of control over your life. That everyone has gone through at some point in their life I guess. And I’m no exception.”

“I know, right?” Ritu’s gentle nudge unclogged all of Zoi’s pent-up fears, “I find myself asking, just where does this end? If I was raised to be a dependent, someone whose goal would be to get hitched to a guy and whose choices could only be love marriage or arranged marriage, or two kids or four, I would be unhappy at not having a chance. But as someone who has made each and every decision of her life, has planned her future meticulously, I’m still unhappy. Because all of it can be taken away. Any second, I can turn into this other person with no choices. What do I do?”

Ritu was chuckling at the beginning of her rant, but towards the end she had turned quiet and said slowly, “Honey, you can’t hear your words right now because you are upset. But trust me, you will never ever turn into that other person. I won’t even explain myself. You will know it to be true once you think back with a calm mind. But I do agree with one thing.” Ritu flicked the ash from her cigarette and added thoughtfully after some pause, “What you have now can be taken away any second.”

After a few seconds of silence, Ritu still didn’t elaborate and changed the subject. Zoi had calmed down a bit already and this series of actions from Ritu piqued her curiosity. But she got the feeling from Ritu that probing further would be pointless.

Ritu has unspeakable troubles? Could it be matrimonial woes?

It was hard to believe that this bold and care-free personality, who once, on a dare, climbed a building through a gutter pipe completely drunk while wearing a skirt, could also be hiding insecurities that she couldn’t even talk about.

They had already finished two cigarettes each and started walking back. After talking about this and that they had both cheered up quite a bit. Zoi decided to approach once more in a roundabout way.

“Hey, you said earlier that you also have felt loss of control over your life. Can I ask how exactly do you deal with such feelings and manage to stay so level-headed?”

Ritu laughed and said like it was the most obvious thing in the world, “Simple! I just take the control back.”

Zoi scorned and made a mocking bow with namaste, “Oh Wow… Guruji! It was so simple, really? You have enlightened me. Jai Guruji”

Ritu laughed even louder and said, “Vatsa! You need to open your mind to the possibilities. There are so many doors that are right in front of you, how can you only focus on the teeny-tiny window that is closed?”

Zoi was still maintaining her frown but didn’t interrupt. Ritu sighed, “You can’t find a job? Why don’t you create a job for yourself? What is a job? It’s just a source of income. Just find another source. You feel lonely? Why don’t you go out and meet people? Is it necessary to wait for someone to fall in your lap? Or are you going to wait for your Mommy to pluck out someone from her garden and toss it to you? Just find a man…”

Ritu paused as she looked to her side and saw Zoi listening seriously with her head down. She just could not resist the temptation. Ritu sneaked behind Zoi and circled her arms around her waist. Before Zoi could react she whispered seductively, “…or a woman!”

“What the fuckk!!!!” Zoi struggled free and pushed Ritu away with a thoroughly flushed face while Ritu continued to tease her.

The Devil! Just as she was starting to make sense… 

However, she did not make light of her words just before the teasing. They had already reached Ritu’s community gate. They were about to go their separate ways. 

Zoi said gratefully, “Thanks for today! You and your profound wisdom have just turned my day around. I am so happy I bumped into you.”

Ritu snickered, “I always crave for a smoke after orgasm. So you found me in a pretty good mood.”

Both laughed and waved each other goodbye. Zoi took a few steps towards her home and stopped abruptly. She thought she saw a familiar looking motor-cycle in the visitor parking by Ritu’s community gate. It caught her eye because of a flashy blue flamed sticker art on the fuel tank. At first she decided to ignore it as her mood was buoyant and her head was bubbling with ideas that emerged from her chat with Ritu. And it wasn’t important as she couldn’t remember where she had seen it anyway. But another few steps and the thought became an itch she couldn’t scratch. 

Urrrghh… OK I’ll just take one more look.

She never expected that she would actually find the rider along with the bike. 

“Nick?”

Nick was still in the clothes he wore that morning, thus even though he’d put on his helmet, she could recognise instantly.

Nick removed his helmet confirming her conjecture but what alarmed her immediately after was the shocked expression on his face.

Shocked. Not startled. He would be startled if I ran into him at a mall. And instantly become happy seeing me. Would maybe come over and speak, if not too busy. Would maybe even share a hug, if no one familiar was around.

But why is he shocked?

Nick finally got over his shock and gave a smile and walked over with arms spread out. But it was too late.

“What are you doing here?” Zoi started to verbalise her thoughts aloud. “Didn’t you have work today?”

Before she could get a response, the response had already appeared in her head.

I said I wanted to take the day off, so I just took the day off.

“I do have work. I just took some time off after lunch to visit a sick friend.”

“Oh…” Zoi muttered, and she observed Nick. She didn’t think her thoughts aloud anymore. It was clear to her he was lying. And could guess as to why he would be lying. Any questions she asked further would have valid-but-vague-and-hence-unquestionable, responses. And if she did ask too much she would appear to be the jealous, suspecting and paranoid little bitch.

Which friend?- Someone you don’t know.

If they live so close by, why haven’t I met them? – They recently moved here.

Why didn’t you simply meet them after you left my place this morning? – I only found out about it after I reached the office.

Why didn’t you text or call me if you were going to come in this direction? – I was just going to. OR – I wanted to surprise you. OR – Why are you doubting me?

WELL, ISN’T IT BECAUSE…

You were shocked to see me just now. Like you didn’t expect to or didn’t want to see me. But accidently did. Why were you shocked?

That one was easy…

I wasn’t, baby. You must have seen wrong.

As she looked at Nick, who looked back with a guarded and anticipatory look, probably running the same answers in his head, she realised, that it didn’t fucking matter. It was done. There would be no coming back from this point. So instead, she softly exhaled and curved her lips as if a weight had been lifted from her.

“So what are you planning to do next?” she asked him calmly.

Nick looked at her quietly for a moment, trying to figure her out. But as the realisation of being seen through dawned on him, he lowered his head.

In an equally calm voice he replied, “I was going to see you first. Didn’t expect to run into you. Now that I’ve seen you, I think I should go home now.”

“Hmm… Okay. Take care.”

“You too, Zoi”

Nick was sleeping with Ritu. Though there was no direct proof, it was easy to figure out. Ritu, Nick and Zoi had been colleagues, so they definitely knew each other. Nick left after Ritu had reached home, because he was probably waiting for the cigarettes too. Ritu unexpectedly stopped to have a long chat with Zoi, so Nick must have not had time to enjoy the smoke with Ritu when she came back, hence he left immediately. Ritu had just hinted at problems in her marriage, and despite that she admitted to having an orgasm. Though there was the distinct possibility of “self-satisfaction”, which Zoi had assumed before, she now knew Ritu’s thought process as well. 

If you have lost control, take it back. If you are not happy in your marriage, find happiness outside marriage. If this one can’t satisfy you, someone else surely will. Just go seek.

And the most undeniable fact was that she and Ritu both fell into Nick’s pattern. The pattern followed by someone looking for a lot of action with no strings. The ex-colleagues who became passing acquaintances once they left office and would have no other connection once he decided to end things. It must have been risky to get involved with both her and Ritu at the same time, knowing that they both knew each other and also lived so close by. He must have gambled on Zoi’s reclusive nature and Ritu’s shame of a married woman to carry out his conquests. Or he probably didn’t even care about getting exposed. Because even he did, he just had to go leave here and pick up elsewhere. Big city like this, who’s going to go after him to chase down the streets?

Zoi started laughing to herself as she walked around mulling things over. It felt strange that she was having such an unanticipated reaction on being cheated by a lover. She had wilder reaction to stupid job portal emails, just the very morning. And her Mom sent her into a deeper pit of sorrow with just a hint at arranged marriage. Then what is this? 

She couldn’t figure it out but she didn’t bother. She was just enjoying her walk. Then she started running. Just felt like it. She was just jogging at first, but soon sped up. The wind felt refreshing against her face. She turned a corner to an empty street and broke into a full fledged sprint. The wind in her hair and feet on the clouds….

“Aaaaaaaaaaaa………….”

She let out an involuntarily scream. It felt so good, like she was flying. Absolutely free

Can two people ever get over the fact that there was a brief moment in human history, from where a possible trajectory led to them getting hitched to each other for life, and yet the actual trajectory pulled them far apart to become complete strangers and brought them together much later under entirely unexpected circumstances? Can they come together to forge a different kind of relationship while boughed down by such knowledge? Well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we?

Gentle but alluring eyes, soft wavy dark hair, chiseled cheekbones, long nose with a slight bend in the middle, beautiful supple lips, sunkissed skin, and a tall, slim yet powerful physique. Angel descended in a white shirt. Oh… Definitely shouldn’t forget the beautiful, supple, inviting lips…

Zoi wanted to imprint each detail of this real life Adonis in her mind, as she sat gazing at him wordlessly inside the gourmet restaurant at a five-star hotel. 

If Mom wanted to set us up three years ago, she should have just sent a picture. I would have gotten hitched to this wagon so fast. Sigh!

“Um hmm… Miss Bakshi?”

Zoi couldn’t hear. She was just counting his eyelashes.

Adonis had to lean in and raise his voice to be better audible, “MISS BAKSHI???”

“Huh…” Zoi came out of her trance unwillingly. “Sorry… what?”

“You’ve been staring… At me. Constantly.”

“Oh… Sorry….I….”

“It’s making me very uncomfortable.”

“Right. I’m…. I apologise.” Her throat felt parched. So she took a huge gulp of the drink in front of her. “It’s just that I find you very, very good-looking…”

Adonis replied dryly, “Thank you.” along with the unspoken remark of “That wasn’t obvious at all.”

“… For a fruit-seller.” Zoi finished her statement.

Adonis scrunched his eyebrows and opened his mouth as if wanting to say something snarly, but relaxed upon watching the slight amusement in Zoi’s eyes, “You’ve obviously not met many fruit-sellers. We are way better than the veggie-sellers. And the grocers, they don’t even stand a chance”

The statement marked the official breaking of ice between the two and they exchanged hearty laughs in acknowledgement. 

“So… Shalya” Zoi just remembered that Adonis already had a name, “I’m really curious as to how you actually got into this line of work.” 

Shalya leaned back on his chair and replied, “Well… As you have probably heard I was working in the US. I found that while the local produce there is ample, the flavours of produce imported from India had a considerable demand. Produce from India would be rich in flavour and variety and appealed greatly to a huge sector under the label ‘exotic’. I tied up with a friend of mine whose family owned a supermarket chain, came back to India, did a lot of market research and started export business. Fast forward three years later, here I am with my own brand”

“Very impressive.” Zoi nodded in appreciation, “But you know when my mother told me you came back to our hometown to do business, I had a lot of doubts.”

“You probably thought, this spoilt little NRI found life abroad too tedious, and thus came back home to goof around under the pretense of starting a “business” (Shalya did air-quotes at business) Isn’t it?”

Zoi replied with a straight face, “It sounds less harsh when you say it, than what I imagined. But, yeah that’s the gist of it.” 

Shalya laughed aloud as he heard this, and continued, “I know people our generation mostly don’t find the second tier cities like ours very appealing. Especially those who grew up here. But the fact is, the potential is everywhere. For example, Our city might not offer much in terms of white collar jobs, but it sits in the middle of a very fertile agrarian plain. And because the population is not dense, the pressure on staple grains is manageable. It is ideal for scooping out land to dedicate to commercial crops. And there you have a business opportunity. And that’s my source of income.”

Good looks and a mind-blowing business sense! What a rare cocktail! This guy was getting sexier by every consecutive money-making logic that was uttered by those luscious lips.

“Miss Bakshi, you’re doing it again… “ Shalya said in a complaining tone, but his expression was that of a flattered person.

He likes it.

Zoi gave a triumphant smile as she finished her drink and retracted her gaze only to wave to the server for another.

My turn.

“Right, Shalya. I looked over your proposal along with my associates and I find it satisfactory in most parts. However, there are three areas of concern for us, which are” She held out three of her fingers and closed them as she counted, “the control of label, publicity rights and revenue share.”

Shalya was a bit surprised at this rapid change of colours, but motioned her, “Please continue.”

Zoi was still sitting relaxed but her tone and sharp gaze were like little drawn out guns in a battle field. “I believe that though we are both budding businesses, we have a clear-cut relationship. You are the supplier, I am the distributor. Though manufacturing is outside both of our scope, I am the one with higher stakes over there. I’ll be setting the standards of quality and other logistics for the product. Thus, I believe I should have the sole control of the label. Let me finish…”

Shalya’s half-formed words of protest were forced back down, “… Sure. “

Zoi continued, “Thank you. Coming to publicity rights. Shalya, being in this business for so many years, one thing is clear to me. There’s no such thing as too much publicity. I honestly feel that rather than a right, publicity is more of a duty of each and every individual involved towards making the product successful. It’s a responsibility that should be shouldered by not just you and me but all of our associates, employees, and even friends and family. I want them to take selfies and post it on social media, I want them to make dare videos, tweet about it, or even just shout it out from the roof-tops… “

At this point, Shalya was positive that this woman had gone bat-shit crazy, and was actually nervous about contesting her points, not because he felt defeated by logic, but he was worried that this mad female would create a scene in public. 

Later he would wonder if that was what she had counted on to begin with.

“… As for the revenue-share, that is a bit more elaborate discussion, which I feel should happen in the presence of a presiding neutral third party, maybe an attorney. What do you think?”

Shalya was at a loss. Image of a horny chick long gone… this woman appeared to take round words and twist them around into darts. He felt afraid of trying to out-logic her, lest he walked into a twisted logic trap. Better to face her with reinforcements. “Miss Bakshi, I hear your concerns. And I will discuss it with my partners and get back to you. After that let us schedule a joint stake-holder meet if needed.”

“Perfect!” Zoi knocked the table once with her knuckles in affirmation.

“So, we’ll call it an evening…?” Shalya felt like the meeting was over but he couldn’t be sure. He felt like he should ask.

Zoi made a face in response, “Mr. Shalya Mishra. Didn’t you say this was your treat? Do you want to be let off so easy?”

Shalya heh-heh as he made a polite suggestion of ordering something.

“And besides, I’m not done looking at you.” Zoi added in a teasing tone.

Shalya heh-heh-ed a bit more while mentally cursing her through the roof. Are we back to this again? What the flying fkkkk!!!

In order to stop himself from losing his composure and start throwing things like a two-year old, he decided to turn the conversation towards Zoi.

“So Ms. Bakshi… “

“Please call me Zoi. We’re done with business for the day.”

“Ok. Zoi…” Shalya forged ahead despite obstacles, “I must say I am mighty impressed by the way you turned your life around. Last I heard about you from my uncle was when you were… well, not doing well. People in the circle keep praising you and even cite you as an example to their own unambitious kids.”

Zoi understood the kind of rumours that circulated in her hometown, when she got fired and struggled to survive in the city. No doubt Shalya would have heard a lot more than ‘not doing well’, but tried to conceal it’s bitter taste vaguely by sandwiching it in the sweet bread of praise.

“I’m unworthy of such praise, but thank you.” Zoi gave a slight nod, “You know when they say that you when you hit rock bottom, there’s no other way to go from there but up. I used to find it nonsensical until it happened to me.”

“I sense a good story there.” Shalya was way better at probing than her.

Zoi laughed and said, “I don’t want to bore you to tears with my sob story. In a nutshell, I got laid-off at peak recession and could barely make ends meet. The icing on the cake was, I got cheated on. For a brief period of time I was friendless as well as jobless. The anxiety and loneliness were getting to me physically and mentally. Inspiration struck one day and I decided to focus on the one thing that was only under my control, that was my health. Started reading about it, joined running groups, slowly moved to healthy food. It helped me go through that terrible period of my life, so I decided to share my experience with others. I started talking about it. Posting, tweeting, blogging… you know the trope. I got followers, then I got sponsors, teamed up with a few like-minded people and ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom… somehow I launched my health and wellness brand.”

Shalya was listening carefully, and nodded in understanding. The server had already neatly plated out their food and had left. 

As they started eating, there wasn’t much pressure of carrying on the conversation. Yet Shalya couldn’t help but comment, “I’m pretty sure that it must not have been as simple as you made it out. It must have taken a lot of guts to start from scratch without a back-up or financial support. Not to mention dealing with all the negative emotions. I probably won’t be able to do it.”

Zoi was touched by this sincere praise. First time you are being real, Mister.

“When you put things like that, it does sound awful. But, truth be told, it wasn’t that bad. I had plenty of savings, and had my Dad backing me up. I already had business contacts through my older job. I just needed to get over myself. And funnily, that happened when I caught my boyfriend cheating.”

Zoi had already entered reminisce mode, “I caught him leaving my friend’s house who I had just met, when she came out for a smoke-fix post sex. I put two and two together and figured the whole thing out. Weirdly, after I got over the initial heart-break and pain, I couldn’t stop thinking, this guy has quite some stamina. He… Are you okay?”

Shalya’s expression had slowly started changing with the way this conversation was progressing. And he almost choked on a bite when he heard the last sentence. He waved his hand in an “I’m fine” manner and took a sip of water.

Zoi took his wave as a “carry on, don’t mind me” and did just that.

“I mean he had spent the previous night with me, and we barely slept at all. I mean, I was so tired that morning, I was cranky all over. But this guy got up, rode 20 kms to work battling the peak hour of traffic, finished half a day’s work, made some excuse at lunch to ride 20 kms back to spend the afternoon with my friend, who was clearly satiated, and was just heading to my place to spend the night with me. And he must have done similar things in the past without my knowledge, but I never saw him tired or lazing around. In fact, he was always ready to do it at a moment’s notice.”

Shalya was staring hard at his food that wasn’t going to swallow him up however much he desired it at that instant. But Zoi just…

“It just made me mad. I thought, I want that level of fitness. It wasn’t out of spite or wanting to show him that I’ve got it. It wasn’t out of wanting to get the control back either. I simply realised that I’m the most important person to me. And whether anyone else decided that I wasn’t important, had nothing to do with the fact at all. It just changed my thought-process completely. And without my realising, I slowly got the control of my life back too.”

Zoi’s eyes were sparkling, her face was positively glowing. She was exuding the aura of “I feel so good about myself” from top to bottom. Even Shalya came out of his mortification for a second to gaze at her. Fortunately the server interrupted them with “Would the lady like some dessert?”

“No, thank you. I’m high on eye-candy today.” Zoi swept a brief teasing glance across the table once again, “Just the bill please.”

After sending Zoi off in a taxi, as Shalya strode his lanky frame towards the car parking, he took off his jacket and let it hang from his fingers against his shoulder in a casual way. His phone rang just as he was about to reach his car. On the other side, the concerned voice of his business partner rang out.

“Hey, how was it?”

“It was….” like being blanched in boiling hot and freezing cold water; like being poked by needles from all directions; like being grilled over a tandoor and being served with salad.

“It was interesting.” Shalya concluded finally, “Though she’s a tough cookie. It’ll not be easy dealing with her. Is there no one else in her team we can approach instead?”

“There is the co-owner Ritu. She is less shrewd compared to Zoi, though I’m not sure. They seem really tight.”

Shalya said, “Then I guess we’ll have to continue to endure her.” Shalya didn’t know why he smiled as he said these words.

He stood dazed for a second and then cleared his throat trying to snap out of it. He asked again, “Bro, do you want to join me for a run tomorrow?”

“Run? Where?”

“…. Anywhere. We’ll see tomorrow. I just feel like running.”

“Okay. See you then.”

“See ya.”

Shalya got into his car and rode away into the night. The dazzling street lamps couldn’t obscure the brilliant moon as it quietly saw everything but said nothing. A tune played somewhere, “Have I found you…. Flightless bird” 

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