She braced herself as her wheel chair jolted over the jagged edge where the gravel path ended to the patch of grass in her garden. She could wheel herself pretty well from her house to the attached garden, but her mother always insisted on doing it for her- always to leave her alone.
“Just call me when you want to come inside ok? I will be there just by the kitchen” her mother said before brushing her hair gently and leaving. She sat motionlessly for a while, staring in front of her with unseeing eyes, her mind wandering pitifully in the maze of pain she couldn’t escape. She sighed as her hand subconsciously reached out for her mobile and her eyes scanned the empty inbox.
‘No unread messages’ it said quietly. The usual calm mask of her face crumpled in pain and her quiet agony was more piercing than her tears could have been.
She eased her unfeeling legs from the wheel chair and put them on the ground with difficulty, wishing, just wishing she could feel the soft grass beneath her feet. She wheeled herself carefully, her pale, unmoving legs bent at awkward angles, determined to introduce her legs to the ground that was littered with her footprints everywhere.
But those steps she had taken seemed like an eternity before and not just a few months back when she had stepped out of her house for a minor surgery in her back. Two months, that was all it would take to recover they had said, little did she know that it would take more than her lifetime to recover…
She was back after two months no doubt, back as a stranger. She had gone into shock, the doctors said but she knew she wasn’t in shock, rather, she wished she were, at least then everything wouldn’t be so numbingly real.
Everything she came across reminded of what she had lost and broke another figment from the fragile thread of courage she was building. The garden she loved so much was one of such thing; she always used to walk barefoot on the half grown grass- it somehow made the touch of earth feel more real. It was in a delightful way that the dirt used to stick to her feet, or dried leaves crunched underneath as her hand automatically went to the curious acne-like infection on the mango leaves, her other hand to her ear, chatting away on the phone.
Yes, she had always ignored her mother’s call to wear slippers whenever she went out; she had loved walking barefoot because she knew the earth won’t hurt her in anyway.
She wheeled herself, watching the dirt stick beneath her feet but not feeling it; not feeling the prickly grains of sand and twigs. Suddenly her toe pooled in red and she bent down to pick a small, sharp piece of jagged glass that tore her skin. She waited, waited for the pain to come, waited for herself to exclaim a sharp ‘oww’ or to jump away cursing herself.
But it never came, save for the rhythmic gush of the blood that oozed out. There it was again- another reminder of the stranger she had become mocking on her face; even the place she loved refused to accept her.
She jabbed the glass harder on the cut, unshed tears tumbling out of her eyes just like the blood flowed confused on the unfamiliar ground.
She slumped back on her chair exhausted and closed her weary eyes.
“Raina, walk pe chalegi? Let’s go and have strawberry soda. It’s my treat this time” “Oye, let’s go and inaugurate the new sidewalks they have made!” “Kal subah5:30 sharp. Jogging to ab karna hi padega. No other option left” “Kya yaar Raina, itni patli hoke bhi 3km walking every day? Trying to become size zero or what?” “Shit man, aj ka walk poora waste gaya. Ek bhi hot ladka nahi dikha? Ekbhi? This place has totally gone to the dogs!” “Raina chalegi to aaj walk pe?” “You’re coming out tomorrow right Raina? Raina?”
“No I can’t… I can’t… I can’t WALK. I CANT WALK. CANT YOU SEE I AM A CRIPPLE NOW? I CANT WALK!”She screamed in frenzy, her hands covering her ears and her eyes closed tightly.
They popped open suddenly at the sound of her own voice as she stared confused around herself. Everything was the same as it was a moment before. Just... the same... The quiet, silent breeze betrayed no signs of the turmoil inside her.
Her mother came out and said “Shruti and Kajal want to come up today. Do you want to meet them?”
“No.” She replied flatly.
“Please mother. I don’t feel like meeting anyone.” She couldn’t face the pity in her friend’s eyes. Not yet.
Her mother left quietly and she realised with a pang the pain she was causing her with all the isolation.
The arm rest of her wheel chair vibrated and hastily she scooped out her mobile and unlocked it. A new message. Her heart thumping, she opened it, her eyes expectant but they didn’t see the name they wanted a sight of.
It was yet another inspirational quote from her friend. She deleted it without reading, wishing her friends would stop trying to boost her up. It didn’t help, it only made her more aware of what they had and she didn’t. She wished they didn’t pretend to understand. ‘I understand’ was such a shallow thing to say to a person who was crippled for life.
Yes, that’s what she was- a cripple, an unfortunate victim of paraplegia, all because of a spinal injury diagnosed wrong. .. a CRIPPLE.
But he would have understood. Without being sympathetic or pitiful, he would have understood her agony. Armaan, who knew all of her, would have understood. But evidently he didn’t, that would explain his silence. With a gut-wrenching pang she looked at her empty, unsaying mobile and her mind unwillingly went back to the person she couldn’t block from her mind- Armaan... her best friend, her childhood crush and... Her first love...
Thinking back, all she remembered doing with Armaan was to fight. Right from the fifth grade when they joined the same school they had started bickering and fighting with each other on every possible occasion. It simply didn’t help that they were teased together at school later; it just added fire to their fights.
Height, marks, books, height. Movies, teachers, school, height was just some of the recurring topics. She used to take advantage of being a clad leader and gave him all the dirty work of making time table and stuff knowing the he was too proud to refuse. She would call him names too- arrogant, idiot, Bandar, stupid fool and what nots, getting pissed off every time he irritated her.
But deep down, she had always liked him. She used to love fighting with him, hiding each other’s pens, scribbling nonsense at the back of notebooks, hitting him with the ball when they played monkey in the middle, saying cheeky thing to each other, chasing him all round the grounds for her eraser or sharpener. She loved the long hours they spent gossiping, discussing from other sections, or telling him the plot of Harry Potter since he was too lazy to read it; it didn’t take her long to realise that he was only interested in the Harry-Cho and Harry-Ginny parts.
It was always fun with Armaan; fun that came at the cost of insane teasing that ranged her reactions from intense blushing to furious outbursts.
Yes, it was fun with Armaan and behind all the bickering, cold war and looks-that-could-kill, they had been friends and when his family shifted to Delhi in 9thgrade, she had cried.
She knew she missed him, though she didn’t dare to admit it anyone but herself and the fact that he didn’t tell her before leaving hurt her beyond measure.
‘Maybe he doesn’t like me, maybe... he HATES me’ was all she could think of. She was too much of a coward to ask his email-id from his friends and too shy to mail him even if she did the former. And hence had continued 2 years of no-contact and her childhood crush lay forgotten beneath the sands of time.
Their childhood friendship was rediscovered two years later through a chain mail from him that landed in her inbox one day. She didn’t hesitate this time, having gotten over the childish notions of a boy-girl relationship.
It didn’t take long to get their friendship back on track; the 4 years of childish fights had given rise to a beautiful bond between them and despite the distance, she was more intimate with him than anyone else. It always amazed her to realize how much Armaan really knew about her. It was as if he was reading her out of a book, sensing her moods just from the few words in a text or from the tone of her voice. It was hard for her to be troubled with him around; he somehow put a smile on her face.
The more she started talking to him, the more she started seeing the real face behind the Armaan she used to fight 24X7 with and the more she started liking him. It didn’t take long for the childish infatuation to shed its form and become something deeper but she was always hesitant of giving it a name, she was afraid of rejection.
And then, just the day before her operation, something happened that she had never dreamt of. They were about discussing meeting up when she would fly to Delhi post-op, when he suddenly said it would be hard for him to meet her again, for he would feel shy beyond measure. On asking him why it was so he said it was because he liked her a lot. Back when they were together and that was the reason he used to be so pathologically shy with her.
She was shocked beyond measure that night, not knowing what she should say, an intense burning inside her heart, something she could only take for happiness.
“I didn’t just like you Armaan, I loved you” she had said simply before going to sleep that night. It was with no fear in her heart that she went inside the operation theatre; her heart was expectant of the beautiful things that were to come.
But it wasn’t beautiful things that were left in store for her.
He was reduced to an ache in her heart for the next two months until two days back when he texted her again. She watched his messages streaming into her inbox as tears poured down her cheeks, the weight of his words crashing her; everything he said was just a reminder of the story that had ended before it could even start.
Unable to refrain herself anymore, she replied back
“I love you Armaan. And I have always loved you...”
His instant answer was-
“Raina... what’s the matter? Is something wrong? “
She had gripped her leg tight before replying, reminding herself of the truth she couldn’t deny or escape and the pressure that could make her skin wince was transferred to her heart, making it throb with longing... and fear...
“Everything is wrong Armaan. Everything has gone wrong. I am a cripple now. I can’t... walk. I CANT WALK! I have lost my legs Armaan...”
She had willed herself to send that and since then she sat with the chains of fear tightening around her heart as her motionless phone got colder and colder in her hopeful hand...
She looked at the black screen displaying the time innocently and felt a fierce, uncontrollable rage strike through her. It washed down her- the relentless images of the past that mocked her of her present; a sweet dimpled face dominating them all- she had loved him once, hoped of a possibility of them together but she had lost the chance of telling him then and now when she did get the chance, she had lost herself- lost Raina.
She flung the mobile with all her might, its back flew apart as it hit the ground and clattered back to its innocent, immobile state once again.
Nokia phone, she thought bitterly; of course it won’t break.
“Make me feel anything God, “she thought desperately “anything... anything except this... helplessness...”
Her phone rang ‘Numb’ then, making it vibrate madly.
“I’ve become so numb, I can’t feel you there”
Story of my life she thought bitterly, except, except the person I feel... doesn’t want me anymore.
It took her a lot of effort to fetch the phone back; she was just curious to know who had called her despite her intensive policy of no-contact. She almost fell of the chair as she bent down to pick it up, but the sharp pain in her spine was almost welcome.
“Anything except this God, anything...” she thought again before she answered it.
“Hello” her voice had no life, it was tried, tired as she felt herself... there was no chirp in it, no excitement, no trace of Raina...
It struck he then, the life that had been evading her all this time struck her, warm blood gushed into her cold heart and all the mechanisms of her frozen life started again.
“Armaan... Armaan!” her voice was a whisper, breaking twice on the two-syllable word she stuck on to like an anchor.
“Raina... I’m so... shh... shh now. No more crying ok? And you tell me about this now? I shudder to think of how you have spent these two months” his voice was gentle, soothing.
“Armaan I...” she had started sobbing by then.
“Shh... hush now Raina. Remember what I always say? You look beautiful only when you smile. Or fight with me. Not when you cry like this. Gala dekho apna. Kya haalat bana liya hai!”
“I don’t know what to do Armaan... I don’t know..” she choked out.
“Chup. Pagal. I’m sure you must be sitting and moping all day long about what you have left behind. Ek to aise hi sensitive, upar se...”
“Can’t you see Armaan? All I can do is sit now...”
“Hush. Phir wahi baat? And you don’t have to think about anything now. I’ll be doing that for you. I am coming there tomorrow.” He said.
She was so shocked, she couldn’t speak.
“Lag gaya 1000 volts ka jhatka? Please don’t be so quiet yaar; Raina and silence... no, no, I don’t want an 8th wonder in the world!”
Despite herself she smiled. “Are you really coming here?” she asked, wonder in her voice.
“Of course I am. That was the reason I couldn’t reply to you yesterday. I rushed out to book my tickets.”
“Raina...” he said again, his tone softer, serious. “I can imagine how you must be feeling right now. I won’t say I can understand, for I may never be able to grasp the intensity of your pain. But I can try. And I will try to make it easier for you. And together, with me by your side, you will start once again...
“And Raina” he said, cutting her in mid-sentence, “I love you too. Ever since came here and realised there was no one comparable to you. And if you think, and I know you think of it, if you think this... change in you will stop me from loving you, then you’re wrong. You’re wrong, and I will prove it to you. I am coming there.” He said, determined.
“Say that you love me now, pagal, maybe it will make my plane fly faster!”
“I... love you Armaan”
“Aaah! I believe I can fly myself now, hearing that”
She laughed then, she couldn’t help it; it all seemed so bizarre, like a dream.
“You sound better this way,” his voice was soft again, like a caress. “I’m coming there, till then you hold this smile to your face. And never fear that I don’t love you silly girl because I always have. Bye now. See you soon.”
In a daze she placed her phone back in its packet and wheeled herself, her legs still on the ground. And as she moved with the grass and dirt flying beneath her feet, she almost felt them... almost walked... again; with every leaf she touched on her way, she almost felt herself coming alive again- what if she was a stranger there? She would acquaint herself with the new things, with the new her, and with this thought, she felt the hope surging in her heart again...
She went to the kitchen window and called her mother. If she was surprised to see the faint light on her daughter’s face, she didn’t show it.
“Mother, can you ask Shruti and Kajal to come over? I want to meet them”
She turned without seeing her mother’s expression, but she could guess what it would speak of. She realised that moment, she wasn’t alone in it, they were all with her and one day, one day she would be able to accept herself to the world...
When she could fall in love again, feel the hope take birth in her one more time, then was a new start too far off?
Yes, she thought, her chin up, her eyes alight; yes, I will start... once again...