The loud thunder in the dark skies made Vini look up to the vastness above her, the temperature peaks to 49 degrees Celsius, here in the southern town of India. Even rain does not stop the trickling of sweat. Vinila hated the heat, the sweat and the pollution. But getting to work on her Kinetic Honda was the best start for her day. She wrapped her face, wore dark Gucci glasses and always had a helmet, as the laws were strict. And also because she loved her hair and did not want the pollution to get her hair dirty for a long and tiring day ahead. Driving through the chaotic traffic, which never seemed to go anywhere, she parked her motor bike in the assigned lot which read CRM. The parking lot was dark and big, the building itself was a huge building, nothing like the ones next to it. It had four floors with glass windows running the length of the building. The dust accumulated and gave it a very shabby look. She greeted the watchman and his family and the security guards with a big smile like she would every day. She saw her colleague Sreekar waiting at the lift. “Hey Sree, Good morning, how are you?” Vinila said rearranging her black silky straight hair over her broad shoulders. She signed the attendance book and walked over to the lift.“Good morning Vini” Greeted Sreekar standing tall at 6 feet 2 inches. The lift opened its doors for them and they entered to go up a floor to start off the day. Sreekar pressed the buttons and the lift doors closed. They jumped towards each other and quickly moved in unison and kissed in an urgency as a result of the 3 second journey to the next floor. When the doors opened they looked at each other and walked into a large floor with white cubicles. “Good morning Rajesh, Good morning Kala” shouted Vini. Sreekar took his place and logged into his computer and smiled at the daily Good mornings that Vini showered without a fail. That was one of the things he loved about her, her cheerfulness. Even though Vini spoke the same language, had the same origin as the others, she possessed a completely different culture. She worked for a couple of years in Singapore and then shifted to London, where she met a young man from her city and got married. She wanted nothing but to grow old with her husband and live a lavish life. At the age of thirty, she left her husband, her life, her marriage and the country. After four years of marriage she realised she was free and happy. At first the alcohol was a welcome change to the tiring day when her husband poured himself a scotch. After a few drinks he lightened up and spoke till she fell asleep on the couch. Then the hitting started, blaming, shouting, until finally one night she walked out of her beautiful home which she decorated with her own two hands. Vini left all her possessions and picked up the passport and took the next flight to India. Instead of going straight home, she went to her childhood friend and crashed there for a week. She played with her friend’s daughter and adored her many questions. They spoke late into nights, about their jolly old school days, their dreams and laughed at the love letters Vini received in school from boys dressed up like geeks. They drank late into nights and sang songs, the ones they sang when they were school girls. Vini and Latha were best friends since grade two. They shared the same bench and lunch every day. Vini was outspoken even as a kid and Latha was her ally in everything good and bad. From copying in exams to hitting boys, they shared punishments and detentions. After college when Vini left to Singapore for work Latha was broken. Latha badly wanted to join Vini but her parents never had the money. Latha joined a small retail company and got married the year later and moved to Bangalore. Vini attended and got her a gold chain as a wedding gift. Latha wore it to this day with pride. When Vini got her visa to London, Latha was more miserable now that the distance between them in miles has increased 10 fold. But at the same time happy that she was growing professionally as she always desired. Latha was 7 months pregnant when she heard the news that Vini was coming to India to get married. Latha could not attend the wedding due to her complicated pregnancy. More than four years later the two friends united, pain bringing them closer. Latha was not too shocked to find out about Vini’s marriage, as they maintained communication over the phone throughout the rough years. In fact Latha thought it was a grand idea that Vini wanted to take a break and decide what she actually wanted. After picking herself up, Vini heavy heartedly removed her wedding ring and made the trip to see her mother who by now knew about the separation from Vini’s in-laws. At an age where she has to take care of her old mother, Vini felt a pang of uncontrollable guilt that she was nothing but a burden. Dodging questions from one and all, Vini prepared herself for a rough journey ahead. The relatives started pouring in with condolences, advices and wanting to mediate the marriage. But mainly to know what happened so they could gossip about how a single mother failed in bringing up a tolerable child. How going abroad makes one more independent and less understanding. It was normal for a husband to hit a wife occasionally, everyone agreed, but in time it passes, they said. How will a woman live a decent life without a husband by her side? Vini politely turned down their help to reconcile her marriage and stopped entertaining guests. Vini’s mother herself never tried to force a mediation, she chose not to interfere in her daughter’s life just like the day when Vini announced that she was engaged to a Sunil, who was born and bought up in London and had some family back in Vini’s native place. The comfort of hailing from the same town did not retain their relationship. Securing a job in one of the leading financial lenders in the market, Vini was making her mark as a competent Customer Relations Manager. She managed a team of hopefuls, whom she mentored, and polished. Monthly meetings were a breeze as she always crossed her targets and her projections were believable. She had a positive aura about herself and it reflected in her work and her deep smile. She was very careful not to let anyone know about her broken marriage and her separation by keeping things professional. Vini made a special place in everyone’s heart that met her and dealt with her, be it a client or a colleague. One afternoon she told her boss she needed an hour off from work. She came back knowing that the watchman’s wife was safe and in good hands. Vini donated blood to the watchman’s wife when during a routine family planning operation she lost a lot of blood. It was her helpful nature that people acknowledged, always blessing her with happiness. And Vini found happiness. It was during a planning of one customer reward program, that Vini was teamed up with Sreekar and Shafi from the retentions and sales departments. During the fortnight before the big event, the team met up every day to plan the program, venue, finances and numbers. The fully anticipated day was a huge success and the trio celebrated that night. Food was a focal point of the group as they had lunches every day. Vini always ordered the food and the boys loved her choice. They devoured succulent lamb biryani and chicken tandoori, every other day. They admired her boldness of going out with the opposite sex, her beauty that humbled her and her outgoing personality that made them feel jealous about her husband. They watched all newly realised movies with the same enthusiasm of watching a first ever movie, and were very critical afterwards. It was a small city and had no night life except liquor shops and bars which are a taboo to women. They paraded the city on motor bikes sometimes sharing and sometimes all on one bike. The entire office knew about their friendship and never missed seeing them in the staff room sharing breakfast at 9am. They ordered soft dosas with spicy chutneys and steaming hot idlis, every morning. Sometimes they had puffed puris with potato curry and tasty upma. Shafi, a last born of a family of strict muslim family was a shy guy. Nobody knew he existed until he was Vini’s friend. He took his gang to dodgy places which served tasty meals at low prises. Everyone turned their heads as Vini walked in with two boys, in her stylish outfits of delicate trousers and conservative ironed shirts. She was never without her pair of heels, and they announced her arrival every where she went. Vini also spent time with her team, taking them out for snacks during break time where she had one on one time with each person. She gave grooming lessons to the girls to look more appealing to the customer and personally took them to her beautician for facial threading and waxing. Every girl in the office wanted to look like Vini and it was evident in their new found love with lipstick. She never minded it and always gave suggestions and complements. All the men wanted her, to be close to her, to talk to her, but Vini was wise with her friendships. She knew who looked at her boobs, which ones touched her on purpose and whom she could trust and have a good time with. On a few occasions Shafi did not make it to a dinner or a movie and Vini and Sreekar still enjoyed each other’s company. Vini thrived on the genuine care that Sreekar had for her. She felt a comfort that could not be expressed and before she knew it she kissed him one night as they sat outside on the marble steps of her home. She knew she was making a grave mistake, so huge it had no penance. The star lit night made it easy for him to see her face as she closed in for their first kiss. A kiss so soft he forgot he was married, a kiss he longed from so long that his 3 year old daughter did not come to his mind. It was not like her to do something so immoral. But his manly scent and his strong arms and their emotional connection made it easy to forget about her impending divorce. In the weeks leading to their romantic relationship, Vini confided in him about her separation and inevitable Divorce. Sreekar could not believe that a charming woman with a gorgeous smile had so much untold pain in her heart. It took him a few days to laugh with her again, and now he too felt the urge to tell her about his wife and marriage. Sreekar had an arranged marriage on the force of his parents to a distant relative. They lived in different cities ever since he got transferred. His wife chose to live in Vizag with her parents. Having an unplanned child did not help the situation. Sreekar travelled overnight every Friday loyally to spend time with his daughter. His relationship with his wife diminished and the marriage disappeared. But both of them made an effort to carry on for the sake of their only child. 5 years after marriage Sreekar forgot what love felt like, he liked Vini. He liked Vini’s passion for life, love and in everything she did. A rainy night when Vini insisted to look for a veterinary doctor for a small feeble puppy discarded near a rubbish bin, he saw her innocence. He saw her distraught at not finding one so late in the evening. Finally a clinic was open and Vini was ecstatic like a child, running with the puppy to save it. On the way to dropping her home, he drove in the rain, not irritated by the splatter of the drops. Somehow the rain made him smile, made him want to love, to be loved. The lift was the only place safe in the entire office to steal a kiss. They maintained two phones, one for everyone and the other only for them. They had long conversation into night, messaged every chance they got and the chit chatted friendly in front of all the others. He gave excuses not to make it one weekend to see his daughter. Vini lied at home and they both left the city for a trip to Madras. A beautiful beach adorned the city, wide roads, huge shopping complexes and a variety of food. They walked to a beach nearby and sat on the sand, hoping for time to freeze. Sree took Vini’s soft hands in his own and kissed them longingly. As the sun began it’s descend into the glistening sea, they looked at each other with content, as if this was the first time they saw a sunset. After a long day at the beach, back in the room, Vini admired her gold bracelet that Sreekar brought for her earlier that day. She packed a black saree and it was the first time Sreekar saw her in a saree. He could not take his eyes off her, as she shied away. He led her to the balcony of the room, and it was slightly sprinkling. The water drops fell on her face, he held her face with his warm hands and kissed her eyes, and licked the water drops off her shivering face. They kissed with open mouths, feeling each lip as he gently pressed her lips with his teeth, then his tongue. The ecstasy hit them like waves that consumed the sea shore earlier. He gently kissed her chin and cheeks as she stood with her eyes closed. The kisses now more soft and slow turned to her ears, she tried to turn away as her whole body got aroused, “I love you Vini” he whispered and held her tight not leaving her body, her soul her presence. Vini was silent with trembling lips. She was unable to face him, open her eyes and tell him that this was a dream, not a reality. He picked her up in his safe arms and walked to the bed. He lay her on the bed and asked her if she up for a game of strip pokier. They played rummy and he won all the games, looking at Vini at every chance he got, admiring her red lips, her fair complexion, which was highlighted by the black saree with a red floral print. Vini started from her anklet removing her golden ear loops, her bracelet which glittered more than her eyes, and then she shed her tight black blouse. She sat on the bed with legs apart, in her lacy black bra and saree, looking like a temptress, a Goddess of love and lust. Sreekar threw his cards, not wanting to wait, not wanting to forgo a chance to strip her off her saree, and tickle her waist and feel her warm body. It was a different movement, a different tone, a different beat in melody, when they united, to move in symphony. Like two strings attached to make one note, two bodies one soul. The music reverberating long after, the four walls stand witness to the memorable song. But morning came and the trip ended. They were back to another world, where they were nothing but friends, colleagues, people with separate lives and responsibilities. Sreekar lived in a single room enough for a single bed and an attached bathroom. He never dared to bring Vini to his room, as it would spread like wide fire in the small city. They met however in Vini’s house almost every night. Vini lived in a town house and had access to her bedroom on the top without anybodies notice. She sneaked Sreekar at night after the household retired from the day. They made love, tender love that never seemed to end, never seemed to quench their thirst. After work if there was no movie playing, Sreekar picked up Vini from a place close to her home and went for a long drive on his motorbike. Vini covering her face as usual this time not for the hatred of pollution, but to conceal her identity. They rode far into the evening dusk to places they never been, talked over the oncoming wind. Vini hugged him so tightly that there was literally no space between them. Working in the same office for ten hours, having breakfast, lunch and snacks with each other day in day out, taking more trips in the lift, stealing kisses, wasn’t enough. They met every chance they got, butterflies in tummy like love sick teenagers. They stopped noticing eyes that glanced when they looked at each other. Sreekar did not seem to be concerned when colleagues started asking about rumours about their affair. Vini however still maintained that she was a happily married and pretended to talk to her husband and text him, when all the while it was Sreekar on the other side. It was Diwali, festivities began with pompous light and shopping. People scattered to their homes and families to celebrate and pray. Vini’s mother went to visit her sister’s family, as Vini said she would be busy. Sreekar said the same to his family to spend the whole 3 days with Vini, at her home. Vini cooked scrumptious meals for him and fed him as he ate the food and devoured her with his eyes. They did not leave the house in the morning. They watched movies on television and heard songs on the ipod. At night they drank tequila and made love, the foreplay lasting hours. They slept in each other’s arms, tightly hugging almost suffocating, but never leaving. They made plans of no sort as Vini attended court proceedings for her Divorce. They planned carefully of when and where they met, and how long they had before they dispersed. He went to see his daughter and Vini was always on his mind. Vini on the other hand had other plans. It was Vini’s birthday that weekend and again he missed his routine trip. They celebrated away from everyone’s eyes the night before. They saw a movie holding hands tensely in the dark. Sreekar managed to hire a car for this occasion. They had dinner in a restaurant and had a drink, making sure they sat opposite to each other playing with their legs underneath the table. After the dinner he drove her to a secluded place and gifted her with a silky green chudidar. Vini kissed him with excitement and they moved to the back seat. They looked at each other as she faced him, sitting on top of him, not feeling the guilt, no remorse, only passion in their eyes for each other. Vini made sure the car wasn’t moving too much and tried real hard not to moan on top of her voice which made Sreekar all the more crazy for her. “Happy birthday Vini, I love you” Sreekar said holding his breath. Vini kissed him realising it was 12o clock. She moaned slowly as she took control both coming at the same time. The next day Vini ditched her formal wear and wore the green chudidar to work. Her desk was all done up with balloons and colourful paper. Glitter spread sparingly over her desk with greeting cards. She ordered lunch to all her staff as a thank you treat, and in return was showered with gifts. Her team got her a formal top. Earrings from someone, shoes, pants and flowers, and to top it all up a beautiful fluffy cream cake with candles. All Sreekar wished was to have her all to himself, spoiling her with her favourite food, clothes and gold. But Vini wished for something else. Sreekar was all flustered after reading a text message one morning after his trip to Delhi. He came to work, looking anxiously at his phone, then his watch then for Vini. “I want to see you” the message read. Vini walked into the office and greeted everybody as normal, she looked pale, the lack of sleep evident in the dark lines that engulfed her petite eyes. Sreekar messaged her “how are you, you look tired”. She messaged back “I am fine, lets meet for lunch at 1, I need to talk to you”. They met at a restaurant far from the office. Vini smiled through her ache, and Sreekar could not look away from her face, that seemed to hide her non frivolous troubles. They exchanged quite looks and sat at the table. Sreekar somehow wanted to hold her, touch her, tell her how much he missed her. She ordered lunch as always then said “Sree I am leaving”. “But you haven’t eaten anything, are you not feeling well”? The silence after that made Sreekar confused. “I am going back to London, my divorce got finalised. I applied for a job and had phone and online interviews last month. I got offered the job last night. I have to start in 2 months.” The words came out of her mouth like she has rehearsed it over and over again. Sreekar was finding it hard to process the information shared across the table. “I will be fine, this is what I want.”Vini said as if this would help him understand her decision.“Why dint you tell me about this?” asked Sreekar hiding his tears. “What’s there to tell Sree” “About your plan Vini about your job, what about me, have you thought about me, you cannot leave me alone”. Sreekar’s voice raised and people at the next table took notice. “I never wanted to stay back here, this was a pit stop of my journey, and I met you, but I know your situation and I cannot ask for more”. “Ask me Vini, ask me for anything, I don’t want to lose you, please don’t do this to me”. Tears rolled one after the other. Vini did not cry, her eyes dry from crying all night for so many nights, of untold agony she went through taking this decision, waiting for the right time to tell him. Vini gave her resignation to her boss who was surprised and disappointed. She told no one of her plans or whereabouts. She stopped having breakfast with her friends as she was busy with the big move. Shafi was very upset that Vini was leaving. He asked to be transferred to another city as he could not bear to stay her without her friend. Shafi left one month before Vini’s last day at work. Sreekar met Vini at her house during night, and sometimes dint have the courage to let her go, so he slept with her and at four in the morning, got up and left her side, Vini sleeping like a baby. Vini slept well when Sreekar was next to her, she had said so in the past. They made love every night and the fire never settled in their relationship. He kissed her hands and his tears fell on her hands. He begged her to reconsider, to tell what she wanted. He promised to do everything for her, to keep her by his side. As the days were nearing for her departure, he could not concentrate on work, could not make the effort to do a night long trip to spend time with his daughter. Vini saw his love towards his daughter and admired him for it. For being a good father, for never wanting to leave his responsibility, that was what she wanted. In an age where couples got divorced for trivial things and broke children’s lives between child support and visiting hours, Sreekar maintained his responsibility. Never once had he mentioned his displeasure and wanted a divorce. Under one roof they slept separately, usually he ended up in the couch or on the bed beside his daughter. He took care of his wife, her parents and his parents financially and never once complained the lack of sleep on the long train journeys he made on the Friday night and Sunday night respectively. He spoke to his daughter every day on the phone, sometimes when Vini was around he would put the phone in speaker and talk to her. Vini never dared to ask if he ever wanted to end his marriage and start fresh like she did. She secretly admired his efforts, and wished things could be better for him. She wished her own father had felt the same and loved her rather than abandoning her and her mother for a better life. She wished her husband had come to her realising his mistake, to make some efforts to make the marriage work rather than applying for a divorce to get rid of her. Vini was at peace, with herself, her decision, her future. On the last day of her work, Vini gave all her team members gifts, as appreciation of their time together, as a memoir of her in their lives. No one needed gifts to remember Vini, she was etched in their hearts forever. Sreekar was going to drop Vini off at the airport as planned. They made the long bus journey to the city. Neither of them slept, on this, their last night together. Sreekar held her hand and touched her face. He kissed her hand and Vini wiped his tears. “In time everything will settle, trust me” she said looking into his eyes. “No, it is not up to you to decide for me, I want you no matter what” Sreekar said. Vini turned her gaze away. She rested on his shoulder as he kissed her forehead for the millionth time. Sreekar booked a hotel room close to the airport. The flight was at midnight. They had the whole day to themselves, hours not enough to change her mind, hours never enough to caress each other. They spent half the day shopping for her, a long leather coat, gloves and boots. They headed back to the room for a shower together, making love in the bathroom. Their last meal brought up to the room lamb biryani, as they fed each other, no smiles, no laughter, no chitter chatter. There was only the sound of the television and the aroma of the biryani consuming the room, bringing back memories of happier times when they laughed and ate. She fell asleep on Sreekar’s lap, as he ran his fingers through her hair. It was time to check out from the room, the hire car arrived and the hotel staff helped take the luggage into the car. One last time Sreekar stood in front of Vini alone, he fell on his knees and held Vini by her waist. “Please stay back with me”. Vini kneeled down to face him “I cannot complicate our lives more”. “This doesn’t seem right”. Sreekar said with teary eyes.No matter what Vini said, the fact of the matter that her decision was selfish could not be any clearer. Just like her decision to get married without her families concern, to abruptly leave her husband without putting up a fight, to fall back on her mother, to kiss Sreekar that unforgettable night and now leaving everything, love, family, friends. Vini helped Sreekar up on his feet and hugged him like a baby in need of the mother’s bosom. The drive to the airport wasn’t long, but the traffic was insane. Sreekar held Vini’s hand in his hand as he shifted the gears, not letting go for a minute, turning to see her face, every now and then. When he finally saw the exit to the airport, he burst out crying, “We are close”. Vini could not control her tears anymore and they cried together the very first time, the last time they were together. The flight was on time, and the check in took time. The final minutes together, Sreekar gave her a small box and said, “Open this later”. Vini took it and put it in her red handbag. There was a barricade in between them. They held hands and felt each other’s fingers. “I am thankful to God that I met you, though I won’t have the face to answer Him. I came here losing everything and today I am leaving with everything I want, your love and your memories, I know I am hurting you but I have nothing more to ask of you. You are good man, a good father, a person capable of loving, work your marriage, don’t call it quits”. Sreekar took Vini’s face in his hands and kissed her on her forehead, then her eyes, and said “I love you Vini” and kissed her lips. She didn’t have to say anything as she walked away, her love, her presence always with him. Seated in her assigned seat, Vini opened the baby pink box with silver lace. Staring at her was a golden wedding ring. Vini picked the ring up and saw the engraving, S V Forever. With misty eyes she slipped her left ring finger into the ring, and held it close to heart. Her right hand placed on her slim stomach, rubbing gently feeling his love inside her growing. A new life, a new hope, new beginnings..“Are you alright miss” enquired the flight attendant. “I am fine, just fine, thank you” said Vini with a smile.