Escape: Saikat Baksi
He scooped up one triangular slice from the soft round pizza smothered with a molten crust of cheese. “Little more of oregano please” He told the young man at the counter.
“Don’t sprinkle so much oregano. You go overboard in everything you do!” His wife chided. He smiled but emptied one sachet completely onto the slice. The creamy layer of cheese disappeared beneath a layer of basil and oregano.
Taking a generous bite, he looked at his wife. She was busy slicing out her share. He quickly looked sideways. A middle aged man and a young lady were seated there. The man’s back was facing him. But he could get a clear view of the young lady. He had seen the man when he had entered the restaurant. But the man did not notice him.
“Do you remember that chap who left for the middle east two years ago?” he asked casually while nibbling at the dark brown ring of olive sunk into the cheese.
His wife looked up, after a moment’s recollection she nodded her head in assertion. Mouthful of succulent pizza did not allow her to speak for a while.
“He was a good friend” said he absently.
“I know. I think he was the only one with whom you felt at home. But what made you think of him?” His wife was vaguely curious.
He stole a furtive glance at the other table. The man and the young lady were engaged in a deeply intimate conversation. They had scooped out their own private world in the restaurant and settled in its cosy warmth.
“I heard strange news about him today!” he commented with a cryptic smile.
He spoke with slow deliberation, “Do you remember his wife?”
“Yes of course! How can I forget…come on! That smug female used to treat him like a slave. But he loved his servitude I guess!”
“Hmm…I partially agree. They were in love from their school days.”
“And they ran away from home to get married…correct?” his wife recounted.
“That’s correct. I think I almost liked his wife. You take a very hard view on her. I don’t quite agree” He said with a mischievous grin.
His wife frowned, “I know that. She flirted with you and you enjoyed it. But I am convinced that she was a nut. All day she would sleep at home and before you she would pose like a thinker. Absolute fake.”
He laughed. “Well…he loved music. In fact he had a genius for painting too. Once he wanted to paint the sun and stared at the blazing ball of fire all day!”
His wife fiddled with another slice of pizza now getting cold and stiff. Finally, she pushed it away.
“What happened?” he asked.
“That’s enough. I don’t want any more cheese” said his wife.
He smiled impishly “No issue. I shall take it”
She opened the coke bottle. The lid snapped and the trapped gas escaped with a hiss.
“Your friend was on the wrong track since beginning.”
“Maybe; he never followed any track. Huh…his trackless journeys often led him to obscure alleys of the town or barren Godforsaken vistas instead of the desk of his office.”
“It was the unpaid holidays that caused a lot of civil war. His wife was ambitious.”
“I remember his last painting! A dead bird…” He glanced at the young lady at the other table. The lady looked exuberant. Her eyes glinted with thrill and excitement. Flare of hope and passion danced wild in her disposition. The man was rather quiet and calm. There was not much movement even as he ate or spoke as if he had no reason to reach out to anyone. He already reached. They presented a striking contrast of opposites.
“I still remember the second-hand car he purchased.” His wife spoke matter-of-factly, sipping coke.
“The bankers took hold of it after one year. He missed the instalments. His wife slashed couple of his canvases.”
“But the same night he made a lovely painting on the wall of the rented house!”
“But you know what?” he said with a cryptic smile.
“He never left for Middle East!”
“It was a lie. He was madly in love with a girl.”
His wife stared at him in utter disbelief.
“Perhaps the marriage collapsed and… ”
“Maybe he vanished into thin air with the girl.”
“Oh! You mean he lives with the girl now?”
“Nobody knows. He just vanished from our records.”
“How intensive that relation must have been! Look…you too had a fling,” said his wife wistfully.
He smiled foolishly.
“But you could escape the trap.”
“Escape!” he mumbled absently.
The last bit of pizza disappeared off the plate. The bottle of coke was empty. The man and the young lady just left the table. He looked at his wife. He saw a bundle of memories. His reflection…his ego, a massive trunk of tree, robust, stolid, rooted firm and deep.
He wiped his mouth with a tissue and rose to his feet “Let’s go home. The children will panic.”
They pushed the glass door and came out. He wanted to have a smoke.
“Wait. I shall get my lighter. It’s in the car.” As he was fishing out the lighter from the dashboard, his eyes fell at the bus stop. There the man and the young lady were waiting for a bus. For a moment he felt the man had seen him. A smile of unbidden happiness unconsciously appeared on his face but immediately he turned away.
The man indeed looked like his friend except the glow of calmness and a different hairstyle; perhaps a brighter complexion. The young lady did not seem to resemble his nature or demeanour from any angle. She appeared to be an epitome of bubbling youth.
Once again he felt the urge to call out his name but again felt gagged.
There was a bus approaching.
He stood facing the man from a distance hoping that he would be seen. The bus arrived and they boarded.
He looked at his wife waiting for him at a distance settled and confident.
Maybe it was his friend and that girl. They were lost…disengaged…vanished…
“Come…what are you thinking?”
He walked near his wife. He felt securely fastened.
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