You can't be objective about love, Afsana concluded, as she sipped her fifth cup of coffee for the night and paused to stare at the blank screen of her computer, staring right back at her. She was supposed to submit the completed draft of her poetry book at the editor's office the next day and here she was, struggling to write the last poem. The publishing house said, "End on something sweet, like love". So, she tried to be sweet about love. And, she imagined all sorts of characters and scenarios that were sweet. But, every time she thought she had finished the poem, she found herself erasing everything she had written. Because she knew, that wasn't the love she had known. The love she had known wasn't sweet. And to write about it, she would have to think about what had happened five years ago, which was something that she was reluctant about.
It was the first day of college. One of those days that doesn’t come by in one’s life more than once. One of those days when you know the best thing that could happen to you, is happening right here, right now. So, you try to live in the moment and you stop thinking. You let your guard down. And, love creeps in. That day when Afsana's eyes met Nakul's, she knew she had a moment to decide. And in that moment she knew the decision was not up to her anymore. The cliché turned out to be true; it was love at first sight. Well, for her at least. He looked at her and smiled. Why did he smile? Did he like her too? She had no clue. So, she started to pry for hints. Nakul was the most charismatic person ever. People would swarm around him like bees. He was just the opposite of her. If she managed to talk to one or two people, she considered it enough socializing for the day. It wasn't easy for her to make friends with people fast.
Most days, Afsana would look at him from a distance. She would wait, in corridors and stairways, beside the classroom door and on the balcony, to just catch a glimpse of him, hoping that maybe he would smile again. She would steal glances every chance she got. It was like she was seeing him for the first time every time she looked at him. And nothing in the world was more beautiful than him. No amount of admiration was enough. But, she could never gather up the courage to just go up to him and start talking without a proper context. Fortunately, one day, it just so happened that they participated in the same college play and had to rehearse together. It was the first time they really spoke to each other.
“Hey, I had no idea you were into plays”, Nakul said with that smile that felt like rays of sunshine on a cold winter morning.
Afsana tried her best to compose her expression. She looked down at her hands and said, “I have been in school plays before. Theatre interests me. But, I suppose I am not that good at acting and stuff. I’m okay with backstage work though.”
“Oh, there are only a handful of people here. I suppose everyone will get a role. And, I am sure you will be amazing”, he said.
“Oh umm... thank you...” Afsana trailed off as she walked away from him spontaneously. She was beaming from ear to ear and wanted to hug herself out of joy: something she couldn’t have done in front of him.
The rest of the days passed her in a daze of bliss. It was the closest to him she had ever been. They talked, laughed, and time seemed to fly. But, soon, they had staged the play and it was all over. After the play, when the lights receded and the audience was clapping, the performers were high-fiving and celebrating backstage. In that moment of darkness when no one could see her, Afsana couldn’t resist the urge to go a little closer to him, one last time. So, she went and hugged Nakul. It must have been a few seconds in his arms, but it felt like the most enchanting and fulfilling few moments in all her years of existence on this planet. After she pulled away, she said she expressed how happy she was to have successfully pulled off her role, and thanked him for believing in her. In the days that followed, time seemed to have excruciatingly slowed down. Now there was no reason for them to regularly meet and interact anymore. But, Afsana wasn’t about to let that stop her. Although they exchanged smiles every time they crossed paths, it wasn’t enough anymore. The smiles began to hurt; she had tasted ecstasy and now she wanted more of it. One day she caught up to him while walking towards class and they struck up a conversation.
“We haven’t spoken in a long time I guess. How are you?” Nakul asked.
Afsana acted as if she didn’t even notice that it had been that long. Nonchalantly she replied, “I am doing well. And, how are you?”
“Oh, you know I recently went through a break-up and it stings. We have known each other for so long yet she acts like nothing ever happened”.
Afsana fell silent for a moment. He had a girlfriend all this time? And here she was, stupid enough to think he liked her. She turned her head away from him and finally said, “Oh I understand your pain”.
Immediately, Nakul responded, “I’m over it, you know. There is no pain. I just can’t stop thinking about it all.”
Clearly, he wasn’t over it and Afsana wasn’t about to tell him that. She needed to get away from him as fast as her legs would take her. They reached the class and Afsana sat with her friends. After the class was over, she neither remembered what the class was about nor what her friends were saying. And then it started: the intense pain and the push and pull inside her mind. She couldn’t stop wanting him and yet she knew that it wasn’t good for her to be with someone who was still getting over an ex. What if he still loved her? She knew from experience, the power lingering feelings have, to unexpectedly pull you towards something you know you should be walking away from. But, just like it wasn’t up to her to have fallen for him, it wasn’t up to her to pull him out of her heart either. So, she lived with both these voices co-existing inside her head. And. she couldn’t help but act on both instincts. And suddenly, to Nakul, she was like two different people.
It was exam season. She was sitting at her desk waiting for the question paper. Nakul came in at the last moment and took the seat right beside her. She knew it was because no other seat was empty. He smiled the usual heart-rending smile that she couldn’t get enough of even though it caused her pain. The exam was the second priority now. It took extreme effort to try and focus on what the question was asking for. He asked her a point he was confused about and she tried to show him her entire paper. She wanted to break free from everything that was holding her back and bare her heart to him. When you don't say the truth out loud for a long enough time, do you start to lie without realizing it? But he was the last person she wanted to play pretend with. She wanted to tell him all the truth that had been eating away at her for so long. The truth of her feelings and the truth of her pain. She wanted to shout from rooftops and let the world know. But all she could hold up to him in that moment was her paper. And he had that confused look about his face. He would never understand, would he? After the exam was over, she couldn’t help but feel like the most foolish person in the room. And, it felt like everyone could see her folly. So, the next day Nakul smiled at her from a distance, she turned her face to the other side and walked away with her friends as if she never noticed him. She felt in control when she did this. It hurt her too, but there was pleasure in the pain she felt. Why should she suffer alone? Why should she feel the burn of being rejected every moment? He should feel it as well. So, she did such things that gave her that sense of power one only gets when one knows that their actions have the power to hurt someone. Afsana started to do things that were unlike her. She would lean on other boys’ shoulders and hold their hands when she knew Nakul could see her. She would purposely say that she found someone else attractive when she knew he could hear. One time, she got off the bus and saw Nakul walking down the footpath on the way to the college gate. They saw each other, but Afsana didn’t wait to walk with him the rest of the way. She acted like they were strangers and took off alone. But when she reached the gate, she looked over her shoulder one last time. There was no one behind her.
Soon enough, they were back to being strangers. This was what she wanted, wasn’t it? Didn’t she want to be away from him in every way possible? For some reason, she started seeing Nakul less and less. He didn't come to class that often anymore. And, when he did, he would sit at the farthest corner of the room from where it wasn't even possible to see him properly. Now, he neither smiled nor looked at her. She tried to divert her mind, but every once in a while she found herself looking at him, before she quickly turned her eyes away. He was still surrounded by tons of friends, laughed a lot and seemed to be engaged in so many projects, so Afsana assumed he must be doing much better than her. Who knows, maybe all of this was inside her own head. Maybe neither her attempts at closeness nor her desperation to be distant even registered with him. Maybe Nakul never cared enough to begin with. She destroyed it all before there was any possibility for someone to care about her. The fire burning inside her had to manifest itself in her life. And this was how it happened. Before she fell any deeper and got rejected or cheated on, she burned down the delicate, blossoming relationship with her own hands. Was it foresight, or was it fear? All she knew was that she was protecting herself from pain in the future. Then, why was she feeling so hurt now?
After months of agony had passed, it finally felt like the raging storm had finally subsided. Now, Afsana didn't think about him every day. One day while having lunch with her friends, she overheard them discussing how so many people on campus were dating. It was a normal conversation among college folks. She didn't pay much attention until among the names, she heard about Nakul and Riya. It was like a chilling breeze cut through her heart. She put down the food and asked them how they knew about this and if they were sure. They said they were fully convinced since they clearly saw them making out recently. Then the conversation drifted off to something else. But Afsana was stuck. She didn’t ask anything else. It was like alcohol on fire. But no one could see this kind of fire. This meant her fate was sealed. There was no hope. She had lost him entirely. For some reason, knowing that she still had a chance of being with her love had made life bearable. But, now, she didn't have even that.
It burned for days, which turned into weeks, and then, months. She lived with the pain until one day late in the evening she saw them holding hands and walking together. Her hair was bright red. And Nakul was smiling the same usual sunshine smile of his. Riya was a really lucky girl, Afsana thought. For some reason, seeing them together didn’t hurt. She wasn’t jealous. Never was. If anything, she wanted Nakul to be happy. It was never about him loving someone else, was it? Then what was it about? Why did she do this to herself?
She broke out of her reverie as the cup in her hands drained. No more coffee for her tonight. A smile graced the corner of her lips. Remembering it wasn't as painful as she imagined it would be. It was time to write; time to let out everything she hadn't spoken about all these years. Everything she hadn't allowed herself to feel. And so she wrote:
It came in instant flashes;
like sporadic rain
followed by days of spring.
I had all the seasons living inside me
and I couldn't decide which one was love;
was it the butterflies in my stomach?
Or, was it the fire blazing in my heart?
Was it the part of me that wanted to burn
and crumble to ashes like a phoenix?
Or was it the voice that said "run"?
On the same day
I would laugh till I was out of breath,
I would go to sleep with tears in my eyes,
and I would wonder which feeling to follow;
why did it hurt to smile?
Why was crying such a relief?
I could not tell.
I was a contradiction embodied
and pain materialized;
what I wasn't was ‘love’.
I thought I needed to choose
one or the other
rain or the rainbow
but it never occurred to me
that I had to choose both.
Everything inside me was love
but I wanted only half of it;
love is on the other side of fear
and I had failed to cross
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Sreejani, She is a writer and a student of Comparative Literature based in Kolkata, trying her best to make the most out of life while writing about what moves her. She hopes that whatever she writes, can help one feel something, no matter where they are situated on the map of the world.