Our parents were friends, and Maya’s mother came to visit my mother periodically with her two daughters. The older daughter was a lively creature and would promptly lead my elder brother to the garden to walk and talk. I was left with the younger one, Maya, a shy girl of few words. Awkwardly, I would get her to accept a lemonade and sit next to me to look at a magazine. If my fingers touched her hand as I turned the pages, she withdrew it in a flash and her face changed colour.
I finished school and went to college and didn’t see her for some years. Then I went to a family wedding and encountered Maya’s mother. Next to her was a striking tall woman, in a simple white-and-green dress, her lush hair in a long braid. It took me a few minutes to realize that it was Maya. She looked like a character out of a Jane Austen novel, placid and statuesque. She was no more loquacious than before, but I persuaded her to come to a quieter area where we could talk. She was in college herself, devoted to her studies but interested in art. She was, she said, considering specializing in photography.
I would have liked to keep talking with her, but the social situation precluded such intimacy. I wasn’t smart enough to gather her contact details before she rejoined her mother and moved away.
I saw her only twice after that, fleetingly, on social occasions. Apparently, she had married and moved to another town.
It was more than a decade before I heard that she had returned to the city. Her marriage had ended and she had started a new life, working as a photographer for an advertising agency. I had not forgotten the shy girl who had withdrawn her hand at the slightest touch, nor the striking woman at the family wedding.
I turned up at her office. She gave me an uncharacteristically broad smile and took me over to the café next door for a cup of coffee. In office clothes and her hair in a bun, she looked different but as remarkable as ever. I said I was sorry that her marriage had ended, but I was glad that she was back in town. Diffidently, I added I would like to see more of her.
She was quiet for a few minutes, leaving me anxious about the meaning of her silence. She said then she would be happy to see me. She did not have many friends, she added, and she thought of me as a special friend. I was touched. She was starting a new phase of her life. She was also starting on a new profession. She had overcome her natural reticence to tell me that I had, after all, a special place in her life. It made me happy.
I saw a lot of her in the following weeks. There were two very different sides to her. She was very friendly and I felt special in her company. Yet, in some indefinable way, she seemed to draw a line that I felt I could not cross. Was this the result of an embittering experience she had had? Or was it a natural sense of caution she observed? I did not know. But I knew I was happy in her company and I was content to stay close to the invisible orbit she had gently but deftly drawn around her.
She was gradually getting busier in her work. The advertising company demanded long hours of her, often beyond the normal workday. In addition, at times she took on private assignments that she felt were artistically important to her. I encouraged her to take them, for, beyond the remuneration, it seemed to add to her professional confidence. It meant though that she had occasionally to go out of town and had less time for me.
Meanwhile, my work pressures grew. I called her as I traveled, but I longed to see her and be with her. After a week-long trip, I drove direct from the airport to her place. She came to the door of her apartment. “Hello, stranger!” she said jocularly.
“I don’t want to be a stranger,” I said.
“I don’t want you to be,” she replied. She looked at me. She seemed to have something on her mind. Then she said, “I have a problem. I took this apartment on a short-term lease. Now the landlord wants it back.”
I thought fast. I said, “I have a solution.”The following week she moved in with me.
The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]