Friday, May 28, 2004

It Happened One Saturday

When Richard Bach wrote, “Did you ever feel that you were missing someone you had never met?” he was probably talking about Nikhil. Nikhil was yet to meet her, but he was obsessed with her voice and he missed her all the time. He even heard it in his dreams. It had a peculiar feel-good quality about it that reminded him of lazy afternoons spent rowing on the Schuylkill when the winter chill was beginning to give way to a soft spring breeze, and listening to Kenny G's haunting The Moment on his cherished Discman. Yes, it had only taken a moment for him to fall hopelessly in love with her lovely voice.

It had all begun a week ago, when Nikhil -- Nick to his American friends -- had called a local information agency for the telephone numbers of art dealers in the city. Being a native of Philadelphia, and new to Trenton, New Jersey -- a struggling part-time artist dreaming of being the next Picasso, when he wasn't designing tedious ads for shampoos and health insurance -- he wasn't yet quite aware of the ins-an-outs of the so-called 'art scene' in the city. The lilting notes of her “May I help you?” still rang in his ears and often drove him to desperation. From the moment he heard her voice, he somehow knew his life would never be the same again. In fact, it took him some time to recall why he had called the information agency in the first place. Oh yes! The art dealer! Could she give him the numbers of any? Her honeyed voice told him to hold on. What? Nikhil mused to himself -- the receiver, his heart, or his raging hormones! She was back on the line soon, telling him that the information search would take some time and that, if Nikhil left his number with her, she could call him back soon with the necessary information. Nikhil was overjoyed, not because he would get a list of the numbers of half a dozen pretentious and shady art dealers, but because it would give him another opportunity to talk to her. He graciously acceded to her request and gave her his number.

Each minute seemed like eternity as he waited for her call. He remembered every syllable of the two sentences they had exchanged -- the endearing lisp in the way she pronounced her 't's, her long-drawn almost-British pronunciation of 'call'… He was glad it was a Saturday, otherwise…


He grabbed the receiver on the first ring, more frantic than the proverbial drowning man clutching at a piece of straw, only to realise that it was his sister calling from Atlanta. He hardly listened to her weekly account of the escapades of her two toddlers and her complaints against Nikhil's Italian-American brother-in-law, Paolo, and quickly put an end to the conversation. He grabbed a chilled beer from the fridge, whistling 'Hello, is it me you're looking for…' and flicked through all the television channels before settling on his perennial favourite Casablanca. But, on that strange-lovely Saturday afternoon, Rick's antics couldn't allay Nikhil's restlessness. Nikhil tried to picture the woman with the lovely voice. He imagined that if she had beautiful eyes he would be able to drown in, and concluded that she must. Nikhil merely wished, and love -- or whatever it was that he was feeling -- provided the logic: if her voice had a depth that touched his soul, her eyes must have depths he would take a million years to fathom. He thought that if she had long satiny hair, he could weave his fingers through to pull her closer…

And then the phone rang again, jolting Nikhil out of his romantic reverie! It was the information agency all right, only this time it was a male voice giving the relevant information. Hesitantly, Nikhil asked, “What about the lady who spoke to me earlier? I would like to thank her for the prompt service.”

“Oh, she went off duty just now and transferred charge to me. Anyway, I shall be glad to pass on the message.”

The male voice hung up before Nikhil could even gather his senses to realise he should have asked her name. He hit himself on the head with the rolled-up edition of the thick weekend paper -- what an anticlimax!

Now another Saturday was just a day away and, in the preceding week, Nikhil had called the information agency at least twenty times every day, at different times. But all his calls had been futile… she had not answered his call even once! Nikhil, meanwhile, had accumulated information on all the pizzerias that delivered for free (bravo, capitalism!), a list of all the plumbers in his area, doctors he could contact in case he developed enteric diarrhoea, and more bizarre bits of information about the city he had recently made his home. Nikhil was fast running out of questions to ask the agency and his phone bill was also steadily skyrocketing!

Nikhil was feeling frustrated, and, all the time, her voice asking, “May I help you?” echoed in his ears. Of course you can help me, he mused to himself, just pick up the goddamn phone one more time and all will be right with my world. He was absentmindedly humming 'Hello is it me you're looking for…' -- he cursed the woman next door who kept singing the song at all hours of the day and got the cheesy tune stuck in his head -- as he ran up the two flights of stairs up to his apartment, his Chinese takeaway dinner in one hand and his mail in the other. He was trying to read the sender's address on the topmost letter in the pathetic light of the stairs when he collided with his Lionel Richie-loving neighbour on the landing! He had met her a few times during his two months of stay in the apartment, and all he remembered of her was her weird dress sense -- one of those flowery shirt, flowing skirt, chunky boots, women's libber types – definitely not his type, Nikhil had thought. But, even against his will, he had to admit each time he saw her that she did have beautiful smoky blue eyes. And he had been mildly surprised when he had discovered that her taste in music was very similar to his because, living next door to her, he could hear the music that she listened to when she came home late at night and hummed along with the CD that she played. During one of their rare conversations at a pre-Christmas party in his apartment block, she had told him that she was a budding singer, trying to make it big on Broadway. Nikhil admitted to himself that the girl really could sing! On lonely nights, Nikhil actually looked forward to her returning home -- it was a kind of a vicarious companionship, he thought. But now, she -- wasn't her name Amanda? -- was looking at him in a far from companionable way because the folder she had been carrying had slipped out of her hands and the papers were strewn all over the landing!

Nikhil mentally cursed her, why couldn't she have taken the elevator? He offered sheepishly anyway, as the woman continued to glare at him, “Oh, hi! And… er, sorry. I didn't see you… er, good to see you again. Let me help…”

“It's ok. Sorry, I'm late, gotta run.” She quickly gathered her papers, gave a cursory nod in his direction and rushed down the stairs.

Nikhil resignedly made his way upstairs to his apartment and read through his mail, while finishing his garlic prawns and spicy Singapore noodles. Sated after a delicious meal, Nikhil's mind drifted back to the voice he had fallen in love with. He had fantasised about her and pined for her throughout the past week, and now he pondered over what she might be doing at that moment. He wondered if she was at home, curled up on a couch watching endless reruns of Friends or if she was out at some happening Salsa club in her Friday night finery, dancing the night away with friends, or maybe she was ensconced in someone's arms… Nikhil steered his thoughts away from that direction. He wondered about his madness -- obsession with a woman he had only spoken to once -- an obsession that led him to doodle for endless hours when he should have been working on the layout of the epilator ad, an obsession that led him to scan faces in the crowd to see if she was out there, an obsession that made him miss her all the time. Nikhil reasoned, if people could fall in love over the Net without ever having seen each other, his obsession, too, was not unusual. Yes, a little like The Truth about Cats and Dogs but, hey, didn't real life sometimes surpass reel life in terms of strangeness? Of course, he would eventually forget about 'the voice'. But Love never bows down to Reason, and so Nikhil couldn't stop himself from picking up the receiver and dialling the by-now-all-too-familiar number again…

“Good evening! How may I help you?”

It was her! For almost a minute, Nikhil sat transfixed. He didn't know what to say. Then, he volunteered a meagre, “Hi.”

“Yes?” she persisted.

“Er… I called last Saturday and… oh, you were so helpful and… I wanted to thank you.” Nikhil was blabbering like a prize idiot. Gone was all the charisma he was famous for among his female acquaintances.

“My pleasure, sir. How can I help you today?” -- the same endearing lisp in the way she pronounced 't', the same long-drawn pronunciation of words… Nikhil was lost once again. It took him a while to get his voice back.

“Uh… I need a shrink.” Nikhil was shocked to hear himself say those words, but now that those words were out, he realised he had to make the best of it.

“You mean a psychiatrist?” she asked, a note of surprise in her voice.

“Yes… I mean no… dammit! I've fallen in love with your voice and I can't seem to bloody forget your 'May I help you?'s. I'm Nikhil. I'm 27, single, a graphic designer and a budding artist, a pleasant guy, I believe, and I don't care a damn if you look like Marilyn Manson's ugly sister on a good day, or if you are married with six kids, but would you go out with me and put me out of the misery of thinking about you all through the bloody day?”

A long silence at the other end… Nikhil had never imagined silence could be so eloquent and could have so many meanings… until now! Breathless from his impromptu speech and a trifle overwhelmed by his own heroism (!), Nikhil counted the seconds. And then…

“Nick, you haven't a clue who I am, do you?” she asked, a sad note creeping into her voice.

Nikhil was expecting her to use a few choice words describing him as the lowliest of men; or an adventurous 'yes', she would go out with him -- but this was totally out of the blue! Know her? Hell, how was he supposed to know a disembodied voice?

“Er… I don't know… should I?” Nikhil blurted out, searching in his mind -- rummaging through the archives of his experiences with women -- and there had been many, but he couldn't match a face with 'the voice'.

And then he knew… he knew for sure as she softly hummed into his ears 'Hello, is it me you're looking for?' As the honeyed notes of her voice plumbed the depths of his senses, Nikhil felt a sense of inner calm, a sense of peace at the end of a harrowing journey -- as though he had found the woman who would complete him. He closed his eyes and listened as she sang to him and then…

“I think I'm falling in love with you, Amanda. Why don't we try to make some music together… not on the opposite sides of a wall? I know I could spend a lifetime just listening to you sing 'I Will Always Love You' like I have almost every night for the last two months.” Nikhil implored passionately.

“Nick, I'd love to,” Amanda replied simply.

We started Nikhil's story with him thinking of Richard Bach, so it's only fair to let Nikhil and Amanda end their story conjuring up Bach again: “We're the bridge across forever, arching above the sea, adventuring for our pleasure, living mysteries for the fun of it, choosing disasters, triumphs, challenges, impossible odds, testing ourselves over and again, learning love and love and love!”


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