Bittersweet

This story is a belated entry for the edition 9 of Indian Fiction Workshop. The plot for this edition was given by Medha Kapoor, and the details can be found here. The challenge was to write the story through dialogue only with minimum narration. The story can also be read on the IFW blog

For the fifth time during the day, Smitha walked into the ladies room and splashed her face with cold water. Supporting herself with her hands on the wash basin, she just stood in front of the mirror, head bowed, water dripping down her chin. After a few long minutes, she wiped off the water and stood in front of the mirror. Did she look pale? Nervous? Did her face give away her secret? She straightened herself up and smiled at her reflection. A weak smile, she realized, and scared eyes. Sighing, she walked out of the room and decided to grab another cup of coffee.

The thought of coffee suddenly made her smile. Had it been just four days since that fateful conversation? She remembered everything about it even though it felt like a long-lost memory. What was it that he had said? “Failure is bitter and success is sweet, and in between, lies a bittersweet thing – coffee!” He had then laughed at his own joke and proceeded to add, “A lot can happen over coffee, don’t you think, Ms. Smitha?” Back then, she had been horrified at his sense of humour, but now, for some reason, it made her smile. What did that say about her?

“Sweet thoughts?” said a voice, breaking her reverie.

“Bitter-sweet,” she said abruptly, surprised at her own response.

But opposite her, Sumit grinned. “Bitter-sweet, huh? Kinda apt, I guess.”

Smitha just gave him half a smile, not trusting herself to say a sane thing.

Sumit changed the topic. “Would you like to have some coffee?”

“Oh sure!” She exclaimed, sounding a bit more excited that what she really was.

“With me?” asked Sumit, raising an eyebrow.

“Of course!” She added, puzzled. “We have had coffee together loads of times, Sumit!”

“Sure, we have. But you seem to be avoiding company off late. So I thought… maybe I should just ask, to be sure.”

Smita looked into his eyes. They seemed to be piercing, almost accusing her. Had it been that obvious? This wouldn’t do! With a deliberate effort, she laughed.  “Have I, now? Some misunderstanding Sumit, I am sure. Why would I avoid you guys?”

“We are not stupid Smitha.” He said, without so much as a smile on his face. “You are jumpy, almost on an edge these days. You keep looking at the computer screen, but you hardly work. Your report is three hours overdue, and that is very much unlike you. And then, there is this rumour on the grapevine-”

“What rumour?” She asked, despite herself, and immediately realized her mistake. “I mean,” she said, covering up, “if it is about me getting married soon, I just want to clarify that it is not true! I just gave the girls a hint, and I have no idea why they told it to everybody! I mean, Dad did broach the marriage topic, but I said a big NO on his face!”

For once, Sumit smiled. “A big NO, is it?” He chuckled. Had her ploy worked then?”

It hadn’t, because Sumit immediately said, “Good that I know this now, though this wasn’t what I had heard, really. Never mind about the grapevine, for now at least. Can I ask you something else, Smitha?”

Restraining her anxiety, Smitha smiled. “Sure, tell me.”

“This might be the most commonly asked question on the planet, but here it goes. Is everything okay?”

Feigning puzzlement, she said, “Yeah, it is. Why are you asking this, Sumit?”

He gave her a hard look. “Why? Because you are nervous, fidgety and unable to focus at anything. You have been coming to office later than always and leaving earlier than usual. This is the fifth time during the day you have come to the coffee vending machine, and yet, you haven’t had a single sip since I started talking to you.” For one moment, he stopped and stared at her, as if daring her to deny the charges. The, he continued, “So, Smitha, I would ask you one more time, and I really wish you would give me an honest answer – is everything okay?”

Smitha swallowed. Sumit still looked at her, his eyes trying to bore into her head. Could he read her? Could he hear her heart thumping in her chest? How much did he know? She decided to take her chances and find out.

Leaning forward, she looked into his eyes and said, “OK. I accept. Things haven’t been too good. Like I said, Dad asked me to get married, but I don’t want to. But he has been insisting that I meet some guys. And I don’t know how to talk to them, Sumit! What do you talk about – house and kids and families? How do you talk about all this when you have got just career on your mind? I am not ready, Sumit, it’s just too much to handle! I like to take things slowly, and this…” She sighed, and then taking a sip out of her coffee, she added, “I like to have my coffee cold, you see.”

Once again, Sumit smiled, though she thought it was a reluctant effort. Had she done it then? Was it a grand flourish, or was it a botched cover-up? She waited for Sumit reply.

“So,” he said, “You dad… is he looking for guys who belong to your community or caste or whatever, or could he do with any charming prince?”

She was startled. “What? Oh! That’s fine! Whatever! But I don’t want to discuss all this Sumit! Like I said, I have nothing other than my career on my mind right now!”

“Nothing other than your career, huh? Said Sumit softly, his eyes mellow.

He was clever, Smitha realized. He had played well and cornered her into the very spot she had been avoiding. She had to play delicately now, very delicately. “Isn’t that the same with you, Sumit?” She said, “We all have ambitions, don’t we? We studied so much, and worked so hard, what for? Not so that-”

“Yes, we all want progress. I do, too. But do I want nothing more than that? Would I give away everything for my ambitions? No, Smitha, I would rather earn a small, honest living and enjoy it with a beautiful wife, my family and friends. Have you ever thought of that kind of a life, Smitha?”

He pronounced her name ever so softly, but behind that soft demeanour, she could sense an intensity she had never seen in him before. Why was so he playing with her?

“Yes, I have!” She said, her voice rising out of control. “But have you ever stood in front of an interviewer from another competitor company – just any damned company? Do you know what he asked me? He asked me what I could offer to them! ‘What does a business analyst such as yourself have to offer, Ms Smitha?’ – These were his words. What on earth do you say to that? ‘What do you know, Ms. Smitha, that could be useful to us, except, of course, a secret or two about your company that very few have knowledge of?’ These, precisely these, were his words, Sumit, and I haven’t been able to forget them since. What would you do if somebody asked this of you, Sumit? People like us would never be able to rise with our small, honest ways. We have no value outside, Sumit, not unless… not unless we…”

Sumit came to her rescue. “Not unless we lose ourselves in this grill, not unless we give everything we have to our career, not unless we sink neck deep in our work… I know! I have seen you work like crazy, Smitha, and that always makes me wonder – is that all the value you want? Do you have no idea of how valuable you are? ‘What do you have to offer’ he asked you – let me tell you what you have, Smitha! You are a beautiful, smart, capable woman. You light up the workplace with just your smile and inspire the team with just a sweet word. Your mere presence lights up the spirits around you, but it looks like you have no idea! Had I been the interviewer, I wouldn’t have asked such a dumb question.”

Smitha just stared at him, confused. He looked so earnest that it was overwhelming, but what did he want from her? Before she could understand what was happening, he looked at her, blushing and smiled. “Sorry,” he continued, “This is not how I wanted to say it, really. What I mean is – I like you. I really do. And it’s not just another pretty face, don’t get me wrong. I love you for all that you are. I always have. But then I heard that you were leaving, that you were really eager to leave this company behind and join someplace else, and it hurt! It’s painful to see you go, but it’s worse to see you leaving so easily, as if you won’t miss a thing here. As if there was nothing here that mattered to you. So, I cannot help asking this anymore – have you ever, ever thought of me as someone special? Anyone more than a colleague, ever? Because you mean a lot to me, and before you go, I would just like to… know.”

And then, Smitha understood. In one thunderclap moment, it all became clear. He didn’t know anything… And if he did, he didn’t care.  He just… he was upset because she seemed so ambitious… he just… he just… loved her? It felt so odd to hear it…

“Smitha?” He interrupted her thoughts. “It’s OK, you can take your time, you know. It’s alright!”

“I just…” She said, looking up to him, “I don’t know…”

He smiled again. “Let me put it in a simpler way, then. Would you like to have a cup of coffee with me, sometime? Hopefully, you would have regained your voice by then, and we would be able to talk in peace.”

Coffee, she thought, her mind clearing slowly. “I would have some coffee” she said, breaking into a relieved smile. “After all,” she added playfully, “a lot can happen over coffee, right?”

As Sumit raised his eyebrows, trying to form a reply, Smitha drained her cup and walked away. Her shoulders weren’t hunched anymore. Instead, her eyes were twinkling, and her gait was infused with the confidence of an Executive.

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