Short Story – Misheard

Rajan sat behind her during that boring anatomy lecture. The professor spoke while looking at Cunnigham’s manual of human anatomy vol. 1. He wasn’t really teaching. He was just reading out lines about the course of a nerve – this nerve passes through this foramen and then runs across this gland and then supplies this muscle. Of course, Rajan was not going to remember the name of that nerve. Mostly because Juhi was sitting right in front of him. Everything was difficult to look at when his eyes were fixated on her neck. A wisp of curly hair sat gently on her dusky skin. It looked most fragrant. No, he hadn’t smelled her neck but he could tell it smelled of all good things that were too good to exist. He looked at her neck and her hair and then thought about the white flowers that smelled the sweetest when no one was around.

She turned around instinctively. He did not turn his gaze away. He was thrilled by the prospect that his gaze had made her turn around. He wanted to see what would happen next. The professor looked in their direction and then said nothing. The professor was doing something much more important in his mind and he did not wish to be distracted. So, he kept talking. Spit flew from his limp, mouth with very few teeth. The spittle caught the cheek of a good student who was sitting in the front row. She looked at the sincere student and made a face. Rajan could tell she was wincing. He was looking at her neck and felt her muscles stiffen. He was studying her. The sincere student did not worry about the spittle. He did not even raise a finger to wipe it. Because raising a finger would have led to a gap in his rhythm. He was writing down as fast as he could. The professor was reading from the manual. The sincere student was writing it down, irrespective of the fact that he had the same manual lying on his lap.

The lecture came to an end and she turned around again. She had been noting down important points while he had drawn a sketch of her neck. ‘Rajan, can I see your notes?’ she asked. He was scared. He had only talked to her a couple of times. It was only the first year of college. ‘I have not written anything,’ he said. Juhi shook her head. ‘Tsk tsk.’

She went to the sincere kid. He happily showed her his notes and looked at her face as she read the notes and compared them with hers. Rajan kicked himself for saying no to her but then what option did he have? In the name of class-notes, he just had her neck. He had made improvements. He had given it unnatural curves and the length was definitely made longer. She would have been offended, he thought.

She sat next to him in the next lecture. He wrote on the top of his notes, ‘This guy spits.’ She chuckled. The professor sprayed Cunnigham all over the first two rows. ‘You two! What’s so funny?’ the professor suddenly shouted. The whole class turned around. Suddenly it was them against the whole room. Rajan quite liked this. He was going to be punished with Juhi. In his mind, the only plausible punishment now was that they would be locked in an empty room together; which would eventually lead to them kissing. Juhi grew awfully quiet after the professor’s reprimand.

Rajan, too, began making notes. He did not want the professor to shout at them anymore. What if she stops sitting with him? It was a hot afternoon. The fan was at full speed. He put his pen on the open page of his notebook and turned around to get a pencil from his bag. The fan threw the pen aside and the page turned. She glimpsed and caught the sketch of her neck. She did not think of it as her neck. But when he turned back with his pencil, he saw her looking at the sketch. His guilty face made her realize that it was her neck. She said nothing.

When the lecture got over, he asked her if she wanted to hang out. They went to get some coffee from the nearby restaurant. He told her that he really liked her. She nodded and sipped her coffee. He thought she liked him as much. She was smiling.

She sat in her hostel room surrounded by friends. They were discussing guys. ‘What do you guys think of Rajan?’ she just threw open the gauntlet. ‘I think he is kinda nerdy,’ Smriti said. ‘He smiles way too much. Way too goofy for my taste,’ said Shruti. And then they moved on to other guys. Just then, a text from Rajan appeared on Juhi’s phone. She put the phone on silent mode and put it back in her pocket. When everyone left, she took out the phone and replied to the messages.

They sat together in the class for the whole year. They talked about nerves and arteries and sphincters and nothing more. One April morning, when they were sitting in an air-conditioned hall, she looked at him as he anticipated a sneeze. She chuckled. After a while, he sneezed. She said, ‘Bless you.’ He heard, ‘I love you.’

‘Are you kidding me?’ he said. She thought of it as an expression of surprise. She replied that it is normal to sneeze and that it must be some seasonal allergy.

‘What’s so surprising? I said I love you,’ was what he heard. The hair on his arm stood up and his heart raced like a rabbit. He asked her if she meant it and she made a quizzical face.

He did not want to press the issue further. The sat in the lecture. He tapped his fingers on her palm and she playfully held them. His heart galloped. And then went back to their respective hostels. He sat in his hostel room, looking at the ceiling, whistling. She sat in her hostel room reading about the hypoglossal nerve. He wanted to call her. So he did. She did not want to talk but she did. They discussed everything under the sun. From their professors to their classmates to the course syllabus. And then he asked her the most pertinent question, ‘Are you my girlfriend now?’ She asked him if he was out of his mind. She also said that she always thought of him as her good friend. He then remembered the conversation they had had. This time the real words revealed themselves to him. He was thankful that he had misheard her. She could not ask him to return the joy he had for the past few hours. They talked some more after that as he promised he would never bring ‘it’ up again. ‘It’ being his feelings.

Ten years later, she was married with a kid. He was married too. He had a beautiful wife. Her name was Sanjana. He had two kids and responsibilities. He did think about Juhi when he sat alone sometimes. No, they weren’t in touch. No, they did not want to go to college reunions and see each other’s faces. Time had passed.

After teaching a class, he came back in the noon. His wife was in the bathroom. He helped himself with the lunch. She came from behind and ran her fingers in his hair. He felt a slight tug but said nothing. She still said sorry. And then pulled his hair purposefully this time. He kept eating. He had laid out the plate for her too. Sanjana had already eaten but she sat with him. She helped herself with a spoonful of rice and daal. He asked her if she had already eaten. And Sanjana said that she had. He heard that she hadn’t so he urged her to take more. She took more. And then left it on the plate.

He kept eating. He had two more lectures to take in the afternoon. It was a January noon and he wore an ugly sweater to work. The sweat had a small rip near the neck but he thought it wasn’t visible. Sometimes he would wear an apron over the sweater. Sanjana was also from the medical profession. She ran a small evening consultation practice in their house. Her office had her children’s playthings strewn around and her patients were her friends from the colony. And sometimes friends of her friends.

He stepped out and walked toward the college building. A car stopped in front of him. He muttered a curse to the driver. The glasses came down and a face appeared. A face he had never known fully. The neck he did know. He knew the imperfections in the neck and the curls in those hair. Juhi stepped out of the car and hugged him. He wondered what she was doing there and she told him about her husband’s conference. He did not pay attention. Rajan was looking at Juhi. Sanjana stepped out of her house perhaps to look at the clouds. She liked the winter sky and kept opening the main door and stealing glimpses every now and then. Rajan hugged Juhi once again and they got in the car. Juhi had offered to drop him to the college.

Sanjana watched the glowing faces and the black car. It was a shiny smooth car. The sunlight bounced off it. And a line of white shimmer ran on it as it ran past their street making the sound of rubber on gravel. Sanjana went inside her house without looking at the winter sky. She sat in the living room. She knew who Juhi was. She had seen the photos and Rajan had dismissed her as a silly crush. She was in all his college photos. She assured herself that she had nothing to worry about. She told herself that her marriage was strong.

In the car, he wanted to say that he was overjoyed. But he asked her about her husband and kids. He nodded when she spoke at lengths about her job and her husband’s conference. He wanted to tell her about Sanjana. He wanted to tell her that he was happy too but then his college came and he got down. She adjusted his tie for him. He wanted the students to look at them and confuse her for his wife.

They walked away. She said something to the effect of looking forward to meeting again. And he heard that she had missed him all this while. He took the lectures and came back. At home, Sanjana was seeing a patient. The consultation could be confused for gossiping. He made tea for everyone. In the night, she asked him how his day was. He did not mention Juhi. Sanjana sat on her side of the bed. There was nothing left to say.

In the morning, she got up quieter than ever before. He asked her questions but she gave straight, to-the-point answers. They sat on the breakfast table munching on some toast and Rajan, worried that his marriage might be broken, said that he had met Juhi. Sanjana acted surprised. He told her that Juhi was married now. Sanjana’s toes curled and she felt a screeching noise in her ears. Yesterday, she wanted to hear all this. Today, it was all numb. In their squeaky clean living room, a lizard ran on the wall and then hid behind their framed wedding picture.

He told her that he loved her before leaving for college and she said it back. That perhaps was the precise moment when both of them knew that their marriage had taken a beating. He walked toward the college building and she did not watch him leave. She turned and shut the doors. The empty room had grown smaller and she sat down with the weight of thoughts.

As he walked, the black car stopped again in front of him. He saw the window glass come down and the head turn. She was sitting with her husband. She invited him in. He did not think about getting late for college. He sat with them and they talked and laughed. She joked about the anatomy professor and he thought about her neck. Her husband had to leave in the middle of the conversation and before Rajan could say anything, he was sitting in a cafe with Juhi.

‘I think I should have chosen you,’ Juhi said. Rajan held his breath and heard the moment get heavier. He heard the china plates clink and the fan swirl. Juhi said that she just had to get this off her chest. She had known all this while that she had made a mistake, she said. And Rajan sat listening to her. And the fan. And the crockery in the cafe.

And then they stood up to leave. He shook her hand. She dropped him to his class. He just took the attendance and let the room get empty. As students walked away, he walked to the benches in the back and sat there. An anatomy professor with spittle on the corners of his mouth, a girl with her hair tied up in a bun, her neck, a piece of paper. He looked at the desk. It had stray pen marks and illegible graffiti. A stick figure with little Xs for eyes, a heart with an arrow, a game of tic tac toe. He ran his fingers over the desk and stood up. Leaving it all behind.

He reached his house and saw his wife sitting, eating oats on the dinner table. He sat in front of her and said, ‘I went out for lunch with Juhi today.’ Sanjana raised her eyebrows. He continued, ‘I think she is in love with me.’ Sanjana smiled and stood up. ‘Poor thing. Do you want some tea?’ He nodded.

Juhi sat alone in her hotel room thinking what she had done. Her husband came tired from the day. She asked him how his seminar was. He told her. She asked him if he was hungry. He said yes and then they ordered food. They ate in silence.

‘I don’t think I love you anymore,’ she said. He was looking at his phone. ‘I am talking to you,’ she said. ‘Oh yes, my bad,’ he replied and passed her the salt.

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