Their first fight had been about this.
“When you go off to the U.S., what about us?” she’d asked.
“Um, we’ll meet in the summers,” he replied like the clueless eighteen-year-old he was, but her question had cut off his air supply.
“I’ll probably be working in some other city,” she said. “Don’t you care about our future?”
His bus showed up then. He was going to his cousin’s wedding a hundred miles away that night. He couldn’t be late and tempt his mother’s panic.
“We’ll talk on Monday!” he said as he boarded the impatient bus full of sweaty bodies.
He thought about her question all weekend. He thought about it when the groom arrived wearing a white, pointy topor and his cousin’s mother blessed him. He thought about it when the couple circumambulated the holy fire seven times, their promise to be together for seven lifetimes. He even thought about it during the wedding buffet and forgot to notice how uniquely fragrant the kosha mangsho was.
On Monday, back in her company, at their usual haunt of Babuda’s tea stall, with his usual order of cha and spicy instant noodles on his lap, he told her his ideas. “I could take a few days to meet you wherever you are? Or you can come to see me and your parents in one go? We’ll text all the time, and call every week!”
He wanted to tell her to just come to the U.S. with him but felt he wasn’t allowed.
There was something in his panic that softened her face. “We’ll only call once a week?” she asked with a smile.
“You know I’m not the best communicator over the phone,” he replied. “Okay, twice a week, then? Anything you want!”
She took a sip of her cha. “We’ll figure it out, together,” she said, but he still felt choked. He knew in that instant he’d want her to accompany him to his bigger dreams.
This was three years ago. They’d just started dating, each other’s firsts. The discussion hadn’t felt premature.
Presently, he was on the bus, on his way to meet her. He texted her, a last-ditch effort.
Let’s just try.
Their fifteenth fight had been about this.
“You’re going to Bangalore for your internship?” she said. She had a headache, a product of standing in the sun all day with a plane table. She pressed the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. “You know I got into a company in Delhi.”
“Yes, but Bangalore is where the cutting-edge work is,” he said.
“Cutting-edge? Like, build structures on Mars stuff?” she said.
“That would be so—oh, you’re joking?” He looked like a little boy who’d just been told he couldn’t learn real magic in school.
She reached into the side pocket of her backpack and pulled out her water bottle. It was empty. “You drank all my water,” she said. There was a water fountain three minutes away. She was picking a fight and knew it. “You could’ve at least re-filled it.”
“Why’re you being like this? Give. I’ll go fill it up.”
“No, I’ll do it.” She didn’t move, though.
“It’s just four months,” he said. “If we can’t be apart for four months we shouldn’t—”
Their classmate called for him then. The survey assignment still needed to be finished. He left her mid-sentence and she went to fill her bottle.
She couldn’t tell him not to go, but in his place, she would’ve applied to Delhi, no questions asked.
I want to be with him more than he wants to be with me, she thought. The idea stuck to her like her ayurvedin face mask.
Presently, waiting at a chili chicken shack near the Salt Lake bus stop, she hated him for being late. She was now conditioned to link every passing mistake of his to the inequity in their respective loves.
Their twenty-first fight had been about this. By now they knew that fights were not like they showed in movies. They had pesky seemingly unimportant triggers and no clear resolution in the end. Even the classic ‘storm off only to see each other the following day’ had gotten boring.
They were enjoying lunch break before Structural Design IV, sitting under a mango tree on campus, nibbling on salted guavas bought from a vendor who came to sell to students every day.
“I think we should get some work experience before going to the U.S.,” she said. “You know how it is. We don’t want to get stuck in academic bubbles.”
“I’ll work after my Masters,” he said.
“Ok. Then maybe I just won’t apply. You should go,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I mean, what about my future?”
He wanted their futures to be the same. He couldn’t tell her that. That’s what overbearing boyfriends did.
“I’ll help you look for good professional programs,” he said. “What are you going to do here? Work nine hours a day for a ten-thousand rupee salary? Come on, you can do better.”
Her lack of ambition confused him. She was brilliant, topping classes and managing the departmental academic journal. He was the one with spotty grades and missed assignments, flying mostly on his ambitious desires. Nevertheless, he would rip his world open with his bare hands if he had to while she hesitated at every step.
“Can I ask you something?” he said. “What would be so bad about going abroad? The things you could do with better opportunities! It’s as if you want to make things harder for us, dragging your feet through this process.”
He said this because she, the sincere student, was ahead of him in the applications. She’d taken the necessary exams. Her resume, with internship experiences every summer, was ready. She’d published student papers. She spoke good English and could assimilate into sophisticated circles; she’d be a good fit. He didn’t understand what was scaring her.
“It’s like you don’t care about anything here,” she replied. “It’s as if nothing in the present makes you happy, not even me.”
Did she think he was leaving her behind? How did she get that idea? He’d been selling her the study abroad idea for months now, telling her to accompany him without telling her. Maybe he did need to tell her.
“Once we leave, we’ll never come back,” she added. “It’s all about finding a job, right? We’ll find one there and never return.”
He couldn’t deny the likely permanence of the move. Most people got caught up in their work and never returned unless there was a misfortune in their immigration processes. Some were determined to return; he felt mild shame in not being one of them.
“We’ll have each other,” he said.
“Don’t promise that,” she said. “Long-distance never works.” She cited examples of friends who’d failed at it.
“We’re both applying to the same schools, right? I’ll pick wherever we can be together,” he said.
Presently, stuck in a traffic jam, he insists to himself that at the time he’d meant it.
They had their last fight about this.
The acceptances came to her before him, but eventually, they both found a fully-funded program in Pennsylvania. It was prudent to choose it; her family didn’t want her going in debt over a foreign education.
He didn’t commit to it right away. Instead, he weighed his options with her, keeping the Pennsylvania option open enough to keep her hoping.
Eventually, he disappointed her with a text. I WANT TO GO TO CALIFORNIA, he wrote. I’M SORRY.
He told her how mulling over the decision had kept him up for nights. He knew the consequences, then. This decision would plunge them into years of being apart.
“It’s not just about a year or two,” she said. “We’ll be separated even after we graduate, won’t we? This is not a TV show. We won’t magically end up in the same city.”
“If that’s how it is then why should we bother extending this for two more years anyway?” he said. By now she knew he became practical like this when confronted. It still stung sometimes but she’d accepted it as part of him as he was her voice of reason whenever she felt stuck, and all positives had negatives.
She had to accept much more now.
It wasn’t a matter of being separated for a few years. He’d become a part of her, and there were some things physical distance couldn’t erase. She’d felt so right when their nine-month-long friendship had grown into romance, but it sounded silly so she never said it.
It was a matter of accepting that if a choice came between her and his dreams, he would always, always, choose his dreams. The choice would be heartbreaking. Why else would he want her in his life, even though she’d now become somewhat of an inconvenience? He could meet new girls who’d be more career-oriented, who’d want to talk to him about emerging trends in building technology and computational design, who might be much prettier, less reserved, more willing to experiment with sex and drugs. He still wanted to try, together. However, the fact remained that not only would he never sacrifice his dreams for their relationship, but he’d also probably not even make compromises to it.
It was a hard thing to accept because if a choice came between him and her dreams, she’d choose him. Like him, she’d find the choice excruciating—she liked her studious work, she reveled in how good she was at it—but in the end, she’d make it.
Presently, she looked back on all the fights they’d had and realized this difference between them had been at the root of all of them.
When he saw her playing with pieces of chicken covered in cornflour and topped with spicy sauce on her plate at the chili chicken stand, he got that same feeling of having his air supply cut off again. He got this feeling every time he felt she was slipping but he couldn’t get used to it. It reminded him that she was now his baseline, the jumping-off point for all his happiness to come, and if she left him, he’d painfully regress.
She was reading something on her phone by the time he took a seat next to her. The waiter, a dark-skinned teenaged boy in threadbare T-shirt and shorts, took his order and he absently told him to bring whatever variation of chili chicken and rice she was having.
They stayed silent until his food arrived. She’d never been this rude before, staring at her phone in his presence. It made him angry.
“Can you put that down?” he said, grabbing her hand. She gently moved his hand away.
Again, no air in his lungs.
“What do you think we’ll do?” he said. “Break up? Do you not hear how stupid that sounds?” The phrase ‘break up’ was inadequate for the possibilities he was anticipating.
This was a girl who’d kissed him on the cheek in the corridors after one of their classes in the first year—his first kiss—before they’d even been dating. She hadn’t asked for a kiss in return, just occupying the space to his side so they could walk together. He’d eventually returned the favor in his flat when his parents were gone, unafraid of committing to such affection because she gave hers so freely.
This was the girl who was never afraid to be the bad guy with him, calling him out when he was being mean to someone with his friends or blowing off work. She expected respect from him, both for other people and himself. He hated disappointing her to the point it made him defensive. Yet somehow, he knew the tough love was tougher on her than on him.
This was the girl he inexplicably loved even when she had unreasonable meltdowns over nothing in particular (and yes, these involved crying), and it was meaningful for him to calm her down, the fact that he could do that for her and she let him.
He turned away from her now. “I wish we’d met when we were older,” he said for the first time. “I wouldn’t be charging towards things by then.” And I’d simply stand still with you, he doesn’t say.
“Look,” she said. She held up her phone in front of his face. She was on Google Flights.
“The flights from Philadelphia to LA will be so expensive,” she said. “Do you think we could share the cost?”
Air rushes back into his lungs.
“What?” she says, reading his face. “You said we should try.”
“I’ll pay in full,” he said. “I don’t mind.”
“No,” she said, placing her hand on his cheek. “We’ll share everything.”
In the upcoming years, a lot would happen.
They’d bicker over who’d visit whom and how often. It would seem trivial, but the arguments would sometimes bring out their ugliest sides.
She’d meet someone new in school. The texting would get out of hand till he’d noticed their growing distance and she’d suffer a loss she could never confess to him.
He’d get laid off, leaving her behind in a foreign land she adopted for him.
They wouldn’t be in love with each other all the time, but there would be no end to this love story, none at all. The ‘standing still’ they naively imagined would never come.
But for now, they accepted there’d be some agony in the future and they’d have to divide it among themselves to protect the other from overwhelming. She’d continue to believe she came second, and he’d fail at convincing her the firsts were colorless without her, but somehow, they’d stay together.
Shreyonti Chakraborty is an Indian writer and architect currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the US. Her short fiction has been published in Havik magazine, The Roadrunner Review, Queen Mobs’ Teahouse and Bandit Fiction UK. Her journalistic works have appeared in Hindustan Times.
© 2020, Shreyonti Chakraborty