A table for two
“Goddamnit,” she thought as he interrupted her motion of drawing the chair for herself, his face clear, earnest and nervous, to do it for her instead, “He’s going to propose.”
And instantly she was gripped by a feeling of dread: it weighed her down; she felt her limbs filling with lead. But why was he going to propose? Why now? Why, why, why, she repeated, feeling helpless (and consequently angry), finally sitting down after feeling a bit silly standing there and looking at him, wondering. But surely he wouldn’t – he couldn’t. They had talked about things. It was absurd, it was positively delusional of him.
He smiled, unable to calm his nerves, and his smile came out a bit funny, a bit forced, a bit unfamiliar. He pushed his hair off his forehead, thinking, “And today she is going to say yes. After last night, she is going to say yes.” He was going to tell her how he felt, and how it had become clear to him the night before, as they sat on the rocks by the sea and watched the fireworks, feeling nothing but the pure ecstasy of being, that they belonged together, that he could never be as happy as he had been, though it had been a simple thing, a little thing, without her by his side, feeling the same.
The waiter came and gave them their menus. He, too, was smiling a bit funny. Perhaps all the smiles of all the people have gone funny today, or tonight, she thought. Maybe they were going to be that way forever, and there was nothing she would be able to do about it except stand at the sidelines and wonder if she had just gone mad or had always been. The smile was like an imperceptible crack in the crystal. She thought, “If it is true and the smiles are gone forever, I will be so lonely.”
But he was saying something: suddenly she realised they had been quiet all this time. Perhaps he was not going to propose after all; perhaps he was sad or upset or maybe somebody in his family was ill. It could be anything.
“No, I don’t know. I’m in the mood for squirrel fish, as always, but I’d say it’s too big for us.”
He’d contemplated ordering for her, but he knew she hated that; hated being told what to do, hated any demands on her as a person or on her freedom.
So he said:
“I’m in the mood for prawns.”
She agreed, and absentmindedly suggested Manchurian too. He felt he was losing her: perhaps she was in a bad mood. She seemed distant, somehow. He thought again of the night before, and how they had seemed to understand each other perfectly, how it seemed, in that moment, as the moon rose, that they were one with everything; as the sea lapped at their toes and tiny creatures scuttled in and out of their homes in the rocks, that the world was beautiful, beautiful, and that they were there in it together. It was different now. She was different now. Perhaps he could never recreate the moment; perhaps he was wrong. And as he thought frantically of a way to save the situation, determined as he was to ask her, because the feeling that they were perfect together seemed to be right, seemed to have been set in stone already, and letting it go or going against it would be blasphemous, she felt that he was not going to ask her after all (otherwise he would’ve been a lot more present), and smiled at him.
Instantly his worries vanished. He smiled back at her, and she saw that this time it was genuine. Instantly her worries vanished.
“I wonder what’s taking so long,” he said.
“I don’t know. They always take forever.”
and feeling burdened no longer, she went on:
My theory is that they know exactly when you’re hungry enough to get pissed off and leave. Then they bring out the food. By then you’re not only grateful to have some food in front of you, you also think that you haven’t ordered enough, so you order some more.
“Sounds like you’ve thought this through,” he said, pleased that they were talking, pleased that things were getting back on track. She shrugged.
“What else is there to do when you’re waiting for food? Everything seems evil when you’re hungry.”
“So it does,” he said, smiling once more, and she thought, why can’t it be like this? And he thought, this is us. This is how it’s going to be at dinner every night.
As he began to wonder how to broach the topic of marriage, by saying, “I don’t have a ring right now, but…” she said, “Why the formal dinner?”
He didn’t quite know what to say to that, so he said:
“A break from yesterday, I guess, a contrast.”
He was beginning to realise that he hadn’t really thought it through very well, no sir. He felt humiliated; he looked for somebody to blame, and, finding no one, felt worse. Worse, still he felt himself flush a little, and felt himself to be an inexperienced schoolboy once more: grasping, fiddling, fumbling.
“What was wrong with yesterday?” she said.
To her it had seemed the perfect way to describe their relationship. It had been beautiful, spontaneous, light. He had not asked of her anything and she had not asked of him anything. Sitting there, enjoying the breeze, feeling so Pakistani laughing at junk food wrappers in the water (what was there to do but shake their heads and laugh, after having mourned for so long?) and at the boys on land (they came in packs, some to race, some to enjoy the sights and the air and the space), it had been perfect.
“Nothing…” and he thought, domino effect, as things were just getting worse and worse.
He felt like they were all piling up, one after the other, and soon there would be an avalanche of humiliation, and he would be buried under it.
Good god, how did I think he was going to propose? He looks so sad, she thought. She scolded herself for being so vain as to think he was going to propose, of course he was not going to propose, he was not crazy. And, she had been wrong, the smile had meant nothing except that he was probably tired and somebody at home was sick, and he did not want to burden her with it, their relationship being as it was. She felt a pang of something – she was not sure of what it was, but it was laced with reproach. She felt sorry for being annoyed with him earlier.
“What happened?” she asked him in Urdu.
“Nothing, just tired, I suppose.”
And he felt tired, too. He had been a fool.
she felt herself pushing an invisible, tacit boundary, one that stated that they were to not ask too many questions, and immediately felt warned to not keep going, to drop it.
The boundary was sacred. But she went on, ignoring her instinct,
“Everything okay at home?”
He felt immediately roused. “No. I mean, yeah, everything’s okay.”
“Okay,” she said, “Food’s good.”
‘Yes, food’s good.’
“Here, try some of this,” she said.
She impaled a prawn on her fork, dipped it into the Manchurian gravy, and helped him to it.
It was delicious. He looked at her and she at him, and he remembered all the reasons he wanted to propose… but they didn’t seem to matter anymore. She thought, “Damn, the prawn thing really is amazing.”
“Cute couple”, said a particularly benevolent aunty, eyeing them.
“Oho,” said another, “I don’t even think they’re married. They look too happy.”
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