"Once upon a time, I ... dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither...
Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again.
Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man."
-Wu Meng Shan
Dark blue sky, enormous, silent and cold- the first thing you would notice if you happen to turn your head and peer at the shadowy corner beside the heavy oak door. But, most don't. The second thing would be an unkempt cot, beside a gnarly tree and a stone bench. If these pique your interest, you may also see a crowd of men in the right bottom corner, huddled around something like bonfire, except that the 'bonfire' is longer than it is tall. A tendril of smoke is spiraling up from the fire and losing itself in the grandiosity of an otherwise un-speckled sky.
The owner of the restaurant obviously didn't want to destroy the "mood" of this cozy little place by hanging a morbid looking painting but also couldn't quite make himself throw it. Though I regularly patronized that restaurant, this was the first time I had noticed that painting. Because it was a busy Friday night and all other tables were already taken or reserved, I was sitting in the corner table, beside a rusty looking heavy door. And I was waiting.
It was a date, you see, that was forced upon us by our mutual friends. I had never been to date. I had the biggest butterflies in my stomach. We had chatted online a couple of times and that was it.
"Sorry, I'm late." She said. She pulled a chair opposite to me and sat down, trying to recover her breath. Then, She crossed her legs at knees, took out an old nokia from her faded chocolate-colored purse and hunched over it and said, "just a sec, hon ... I'm switching off the phone." A momentary smile. Well, that eased a lot of tension. I also switched my phone off.
So began my first date with Miss A. The manager of the restaurant came and apologized for the corner seat. It was almost dusky; the light from a dusty chandelier swaying in the middle of ceiling was throwing many small, dancing rainbows on her hair. In the fading light, her red dress looked wet black. A waiter brought two candle sticks. We ordered, we ate, we talked, we walked by the park and we departed.
Walking back to my apartment, I thought about my surreal date. I also thought about the painting. The nostalgic smell of burning candle mixed with her exotic perfume was still lingering in my nose. Still thinking, I switched on the phone and immediately a familiar music pulled me out from my reverie. I picked up my phone.
"Hello (my name), I have been trying so many times to reach you." The voice of the lady at the other end was fraught with urgency and sadness. Before I could reply, she said, "I'm really, really sorry that I couldn't make it today ... my brother got into an accident ... I'm in a hospital ... its nothing serious..." Some hesitation. " ... you are not mad, are you? Can we postpone our date for next weekend?"
My phone didn't slip from my hand. Nothing so dramatic.
"Okies", I said.
Millions of people are dead, are dying, each with dreams and worlds. Each of them thought they were irreplaceable. Each of them thought they were unique, the most important and inimitable cog in the wheel of time and cosmic engine. They loved, they bred. Stars shattered, galaxies collapsed. Civilizations and empires rose and fell. Now, all of them are dust or ashes or earthworm feces or maggot food or fossilized stone or foul smelling, decomposing heap.
A life is but a speck in time.
The girl in red. Who was she?
Though I promised, I couldn't go on date next weekend because, somehow, it felt like cheating the girl in red. It's funny how our mind constructs excuses and drapes itself in all kinds of morals and altruism if it furthers our own wishes. It's how we cheat ourselves.
For next two weeks, life went by as it used to, except for some lazy mind storming during lunch breaks. As usual, my office buddies harassed me for standing up the date that they so painstakingly arranged. As usual, the boss reminded me not to dally. As usual, as I waited for the day to end, I also waited for some kind of epiphany, drew some elaborate, very short-lived plans for bettering my life: diets, exercise, sobriety.
And as usual, I drank myself to sleep.
A white, translucent snake was slithering between the polished skulls on the dank earth strewed with grimy blackened leaves. It gave off a waft of smell like puke ... and like all the beautiful skulls, it was grinning at me. It looked like a tendril of smoke in the world of oily acrylic sheen of faded painting. I jerked open my eyes. Shit! I overslept again. I looked for freshly laundered underpants and shirts, and ran for my office without brushing my teeth.
In the train to my office, I stood at the corner, hanging lazily on the rail, trying to avoid my morning breath from ruining people's good morning. In the third stop, I thought I saw her. The girl in the red ... except that she was in green and white high heels that day. Nah! I thought, it must be my imagination. Was she looking at me? Was she a little paler than I remembered? And the train went on. In the fifth stop, I saw her again. Same dress and certainly a little paler. Definitely her.
The receptionist waved at me. "Boss is looking for you. You are late again, dear ... this is your third day ... Good luck!!" She threw a phony buck-toothed smile at me and turned to her monitor. Spiteful old hag.
I knocked at the sliding glass door. The boss called me in. Like always, the heavily carpeted room welcomed me with a peculiar smell of leather and mahogany furniture. The boss was talking with somebody. He stood up and said, "Here, he is. This is Mr. (My name). Miss A. graduated recently..." She stood up, turned to me and smiled. The boss was saying, " ... learn everything from him, except his tardiness. Mr. (My name), I hand her over to you, make a report..."
I wasn't listening.
We are living on a speck of blue dust among the stars and shadows, hurling through the silent space. We will cease to be. That's all there is to it. Life is a fleeting dream of stars. Transient butterflies in the dark.
She glided by my side like restless, restless dreams. Warm pink lip gloss, big brown eyes and touch of shade that extenuated her sharp cheek bones. I was floating in the bubble of timelessness. Green. Green. Green.
All your life, you build defenses around you; you put walls up, check your emotions, construct masks for every situation and bury your inner demons deep. You don't want to be hurt.
Outside the boss's office, in the corridor, I somehow managed a squeaky, "Hi".
"Hi", she said.
"How are you?" I said. My heart was thudding so much, I was afraid I would choke on it.