I stepped out of the cab into the blinding sunshine, hastily putting a hand up to my forehead. The day was the kind of bright which made you scrunch your eyes till your nose was ridges and valleys and left magenta spots behind your eyelids. I stumbled towards the café I was supposed to have reached ten minutes ago.
The milk pink ring I had put on so carefully was slipping off my finger without a care for the effort that went into finding it. I held it tightly in my fist, suddenly sure that it would fall through the metal grate into the drain below. The ring simply said ‘best’ and had two little hearts made next to it. Today, after three years my pink ‘best’ would be reunited with Neha’s blue ‘friends’ and Vaishali’s purple ‘forever.’
Neha had visited America in the summer of sixth grade and chosen the trio from a huge rack of accessories with shouting colours. The day she had given them to us we had held them in our hands like pearls retrieved from the deepest ocean, locking the pastel ceramics in our desks before we left for P.E.
As I stepped into the oval of shade under the café awning my eyes were assaulted by more abstract art. Neha and Vaishali were sitting at the farthest table in the café. For the next five minutes I tried to weave my way through the little white tables and overburdened waiters, all of us feeling like we should say something to acknowledge each other but realising that we wouldn’t be heard over the noise, so we kept cement smiles on our faces till our cheeks were two orbs of pain.
When I finally reached the table Vaishali leapt up to hug me, her papier-mâché earrings swinging wildly as if they too were excited to see me. Neha’s silky hair was a river under my chin. We sank into our chairs and started talking of our school days through the cheesy sandwiches and fruity drinks in our mouths.
I noticed mid-chew that neither of them had brought their rings. I slipped the pink circlet quietly into my bag.
Our stomachs were happy knots of pain as we bent over laughing, remembering those high school days which had seemed like viscous gel then and were easy water now. I was always the first to volunteer for any production, waddling around hanging posters; Neha was the only one to have completed any homework assigned to our class, and Vaishali would glue together things she found in unseen corners to make delicate gifts for us.
Somehow Neha always ended up with more papier-mâché dolls than me.
I don’t know when exactly it happened, but at some point I began to feel like my seat was tilting. I noticed that we weren’t sitting in a triangle, but facing each other, with me on one side. When I asked Neha what she had been up to lately, Vaishali chirped in to add details.
I began to feel like I was intruding on something. I looked at the lady sitting at the next table as if I expected her to have a conversation with me, but she just pursed her lips and ordered the lasagne.
Neha and Vaishali continued to ask me questions – How is my roommate? Is the food in college that bad? Do I still like red velvet cake, and if so, should it be ordered for dessert? I felt like I was answering for someone else. I shifted several times in my seat.
At one point Neha reached for the salt and I was sure her hand would hit something in the middle.
Cobalt blue started descending onto the sky outside. Neha and Vaishali hugged me again. We promised to keep in touch. The words felt like cut plastic in my mouth.
When I stepped out onto the street I felt a cold wave wash over me even as heat burned at the edges of my chest. I looked for several minutes couldn’t find a single cab. I walked down the blank street, the pink ring somehow in my hand. I heard a clink as it fell into the drain. I didn’t stop walking.