A cough made its way out of my mouth as I stared across the traffic. I took out a silk handkerchief from my pocket and wiped my lips, a small frown of displeasure briefly flitting across my face before I managed to make it go away.
By the Gods, I hated waiting.
I turned around to look at the clothes on display. It was a Louis Vuitton showroom. The clothes and accessories displayed would probably remain outside my budget even if you tripled what I made form my part-time job. I didn’t really know why I chose this place to meet her. It was a busy intersection downtown. There was a cafe about half a kilometer from here where I could have asked her to come.
“I’m not expecting a treat,” she had said, bemused.
“I wasn’t thinking of giving you one,” I’d teasingly replied.
My attention shifted from the dresses to my own reflection. A clean-shaven face with a shock of curly hair greeted me. The glass fogged over with my breath as I leaned closer, trying to make it more presentable. It was a hopeless task.
Ugh. My gloved hands tried patting my hair down or shifting it this way or that. Nothing helped. Passers-by paid me scarcely any attention as I tried to flatter my vanity.
“You know it won’t help,’ came a quiet voice to my right. I whirled around, my heart hammering.
She was here.
“When did you come?” I asked, trying to control my heartbeat.
“Right now, when you were preening,” she replied, a coy smile playing across her lips.
I felt the corners of my mouth twitch at her quiet reply as I looked down at her smiling face. She was a head and a half shorter than me, with soft features. Her black hair was done up elegantly and held together with a clasp. She was dressed warmly, her overcoat somehow managing to hint tantalizingly of the beauty it concealed.
“Would you mind walking?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she replied. “Lead the way.”
She fell in step with me as I began walking towards the cafe.
“How do you like your life?” she asked.
I thought about it for a moment. It was a simple question with a complicated answer. More than that, I did not know how much I wanted to tell her. I had a sneaking suspicion that the real questions she wanted answered would require I dip into my pot of life experiences.
“It’s good, I guess,” I replied noncommittally. “I think I’ve learned a lot from my university, though more of it has been outside the classroom than inside.”
“Yeah,” I replied, deciding not to elaborate.
The reflected sunlight from a thousand skyscrapers shone on my obvious dodge, and yet she decided to let go of it. Part of me is glad she did. Another part still wonders if I would have caved had she pressed.
“But,” I continued, “You didn’t ask to meet me to know about my own life experiences, I’m guessing.”
She laughed lightly. “Of course not. You’re not that interesting,” she teased. My eyes widened with fake shock and I clutched my heart in mock-despair.
“Woman!” I said dramatically, “You wound me!”
She rolled her eyes before assuming a more serious expression. “You’re going to leave in three months,” she said matter-of-factly. I nodded. It was common knowledge that my final semester was an exchange semester in Japan. “I’m a freshman. And I have no idea how to live my life.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You look plenty smart to me.”
“It’s not about being smart and you know it,” she replied.
I gave no visible expression, but I sighed mentally. Her question had no straight answer. My hand slipped into my pocket and began fiddling around with the lighter inside. I glanced at her expectant face and began thinking about how to answer the question. She was right. It wasn’t really about being smart and I did know it. But on the other hand, being smart was more important than anything else I could think of. My experiences had hammered that point home.
“It’s not about being smart,” I began cautiously, “but neither is it about anything else in particular.”
She frowned. “That makes no sense.”
“It’s not meant to. You’re supposed to make sense of it on your own.”
“And how an I supposed to do that? What am I supposed to work on? How an I supposed to channel my energies correctly?” she asked. “You once told me that life here in uni is supposed to be all about my motivation, time and skills coming together to create a harmonious whole. Well, how do I do that when I’m not sure where to concentrate any of them? I’ve come to an engineering college, though I’m not sure if I really want to become an engineer.”
I stared at her, a feeling of deja vu coursing through myself. My feet were on autopilot, avoiding pedestrians automatically. My mind was in the past, hearing the echo of a very similar question which had slipped out of my own lips when I was deciding which university to join.
“Don’t force yourself,” I replied, “to work on anything particular at this point of time. You don’t know what you want to do. You can’t know what you want to do, because life changes paths more frequently than a swallow its trajectory.”
I stopped in the middle of the footpath, staring at her. “Life,” I continued quietly, “is influenced by serendipity. You never know when the right path might show itself to you, so you need to remain malleable.”
“Is that so?” she breathed out.
I took a deep breath, and then I quoted, “When life begins, we are tender and weak. When life ends, we are stiff and rigid. All things, including the grass and trees, are soft and pliable in life; and dry in brittle in death. So the soft and supple are the companions of life; while the stiff and unyielding are the companions of death.”
We were both quiet for a moment as we contemplated the words I had just uttered. The horns of a dozen cars blared around us and the conversations of a hundred people assaulted our senses. Yet, at that moment, both she and I came to an understanding.
“Who said that?” she asked.
“Lao Tzu,” I replied.
“Do you believe it wholeheartedly?”
She stared at my face for a full moment. And while she was a full five years junior to me, I could not help but reflect on her delicate beauty. Her face was open and honest, a far cry from the mask she always wore in public. It magnified her beauty in ways makeup never would. Honesty lit up her face and her smile made it radiant. I knew she was thinking about what I had said and more importantly, about what I meant.
But at that moment, none of that mattered to me. I smiled back at her, happy I was able to help.
“Hey mate!” came a voice, and the moment was lost. A sharp pang went through my chest as I returned back to reality.
I smiled at him as he clapped me on the back. My eyes shifted to look at her to find that same face again, but the mask was back on.
“What were you guys doing?” he asked, his eyes shifting between us. Doubtless he wanted either one of us to blush and stammer, giving him an angle of attack.
“I was getting some doubts cleared,” she replied smoothly. I marvelled at her ability to maintain that mask under all circumstances.
The time had come, unfortunately, for this walk to end. My friend would not be denied. It was time to bid her farewell. “All right, then,” I smiled at her. “I rather enjoyed this walk of ours. I’d like to do this again.”
A smile was the only reply I received as my friend steered me away, yapping about something or the other. And while I nodded at all the right places, my thoughts were still on that mask. Maybe, one day, life might take her down a path in which she throws it away forever.