She tapped one sandaled foot under the table, fidgeted with her hair in the window’s reflection and barely resisted to check her watch for the umpteenth time. She knew she wasn’t late; rather, she was early. Earlier even than Mr. Ten-Minutes-Before-Time because she needed to talk to him. Since they met for lunch every Wednesday, she’d decided to call in a half-day and rushed to get here before him.
A good thing too because the café was packed and her impromptu impulse had helped in snagging their favorite spot by the window. He’d have sat anywhere – too practical to create a fuss – but the view of the ocean had a positive effect on his otherwise frizzled energies and she needed all the advantage she could get today.
They needed to discuss some serious and, God Almighty, emotional stuff. Something was going on him. Something troubling.
Two weeks ago, he’d asked her if she’d like to read together and having done it before, she’d said yes without thinking much. She hadn’t known he’d meant it literally until they’d sat together in silence for the five dates that followed. The first two times in the restaurant she’d trumped it up to be another novel social experiment. The third and fourth at his place she’d thought he was having a bad week. But after the fifth time at her apartment and two weeks of just texting, it became clear: He’d stopped speaking to her. At all.
She might have let it go – he didn’t like wasting words – if it hadn’t been so consecutive and was now worried it was because he was getting cold feet. It had taken them six months to convince their families that they truly wanted to get married and if he ditched her now, she was going to bury his body somewhere cold and artic where nobody could visit him.
Nervous as a college kid on her first date, she took a long sip of coffee, an unlikable beverage she preferred only on days she needed an extra boost. Whoever had said nerves receded with time was a boil-brained boor who’d never met her guy.
As if on cue, he walked through the door. Even from far, she saw the subtle wince when he noticed the thick crowd, caught the discreet search of his eyes before they found hers. The faint twitch that marked his lips would have been barely noticeable on another. For him, it was a dramatic display of pleasure.
He was happy to see her.
“Hi.” He leaned over to press his forehead to her temple, a compromise they’d devised because he was too shy and horrified by the idea of kissing her cheek in public. “I’m not late, am I? The traffic was crazy today,” he continued before she could answer him and moved to the chair in front. “How long have you been here? You should have texted me you were coming early, I’d have joined sooner. My lab assistant called in sick so not getting much work done anyway. And wow,” he eyed the mug in her hand, “you’re drinking coffee. All okay at work?”
Her mouth dropped open. That was, by far, the longest string of sentences she’d ever heard him speak. “You’re talking to me.”
“Shouldn’t I be? Did we have an argument I missed?”
It wasn’t a rhetorical question. “I’m not sure–” She broke off when the waiter glided in.
“Good afternoon. Are you ready to order?”
“Order first?” he asked and she nodded. “So,” he began after the man had left, “what was it you weren’t sure about?”
She sighed, sipped. “You,” she replied, coming directly to the point. Three years together had taught her that beating about the bush only confused him and tangled her weeds into resentful knots.
Not a muscle on his face moved. “Okay, now I’m worried.”
“So am I. You suddenly stop speaking to me and now behave like it never happened. What’s going on in your head?”
“Wait, when did I stop speaking to you?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“We have been texting every day for over two years now. I think I’d remember if I didn’t talk to you for 14 days straight.”
“I wasn’t talking about texting. I meant physically, as in using your mouth for an actual conversation with spoken words. We’ve spent our last five dates buried in books, work or in my case, glaring at you. Haven’t you noticed?”
“Not the glaring.”
Not particularly surprised, she didn’t bother sighing. Her cynical, minimalistic, mush-free logician was mostly oblivious to everyday nonsense. The catch was that he was sensitive about things most missed or never cared about.
She’d understood it the day he’d confessed he loved her. It hadn’t been on a date or some elaborate occasion but, surprisingly, during a particularly vicious bout of flu. They’d been together for six months when the germaphobe had arrived at her doorstep with a bag full of clothes and tons of noodle soup, adamant on nursing her through the night. Come morning, getting ready for work, she’d noticed a part of her old broken bracelet in his key-chain and teased him about being sneaky.
To her surprise, he’d gotten serious and said, “Loud, impulsive passion is overrated. Genuine connections require quiet, conscious gestures. I didn’t just fall for you. I’m choosing to stay there.”
Till date, it was the most romantic thing he’d ever said, but the least practically caring thing he’d ever done. Like now when he let his seat to take the one next to her instead. He realized she was upset about something and wanted to understand it.
He clasped her hand under the table and for a minute, she forgot all worries. The light from the window behind her shone through his round-framed glasses and lightened the dark brown eyes to deep gold, teased out the subtle hints of red in his hair. Patient, infinitesimal details of his being the world mostly missed.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” he said, “but I believe you’re talking about the time I asked if you’d like to read on our dates?” He paused, continuing after she’d nodded in answer. “But you said yes.”
“Because we’ve done it before and I didn’t know we won’t talk at all. Think it over. All we’ve done on our last five dates is say ‘hi, honey,’ ordered food, eaten in silence and then left.”
His brow creased, told her he was getting confused, maybe even worried. “Are you saying you were uncomfortable?”
“No, it was pleasant,” she answered truthfully and his face blanked with relief. “But I missed conversing and want to know what you were thinking when you did that.”
He didn’t speak for a long time, his eyes leaving hers in favor of looking at their hands and she didn’t poke him. He was gathering words, she knew. Deciding how best to articulate the various refractions of his mind.
When he finally did speak, she was thankful she was sitting down because he shocked her.
Head still bowed, he murmured, “I was scared.”
Every bone in her body quietened and she didn’t say a word, simply turned her hand under his and linked their fingers together. The confession was too personal, visceral to be marred with placating, comforting words.
“Of being with me for the rest of your life?” she asked carefully.
He shook his head, looked at her then. “Of not being able to be silent with you for the rest of our lives.” He paused once more, took a deep breath like one did when diving into the ocean. “Do you know thinking you’re uncommon is the most common thing in the world?”
She nodded. “And feeling misunderstood, the most understood feeling.”
A corner of his mouth curved. “Yeah. You talk to someone long enough, deep enough and you’ll connect somehow. There aren’t many axes to thought so you’ll always strike a tangent. But silence has a frequency that can’t be set.”
She smiled. For a man who didn’t speak unless necessary, he definitely had a way with words. “You’ll have to elaborate.”
He straightened, pushed up his glasses, preparing to go into professor-mode. “Take two strangers sitting close on a plane or bus. The silence is awkward, isn’t it? So much so that one will for sure feign sleep, read, put on ear pods or God forbid, start chatting nonsense to get out of it. Ever wondered why? Because it’s intimate,” he answered. “For two people to be comfortably quiet, both must be comfortable with all aspects of each other and themselves.”
At last, she understood what he was trying to tell, show her. “And most don’t even find the first,” she murmured, “forget both.”
“I just wanted to be sure we did and I was right. I didn’t even feel you were there,” he said and then realizing how that sounded, cringed. “I don’t mean I’m oblivious to you, far from it. It’s just being with you is natural, like sneezing during pollen season. Not that you’re a disgusting allergic reaction–” He broke off, exhaled harshly. “Tell me you understand me?”
She bit her lip, swallowed a laugh. “I do.”
The slight tension in his shoulders eased. “I thank evolution every day for it,” he confessed. “Most people hate me and with good reason.”
It was by no means an exaggeration. The broad range of emotions he evoked in people were two to be exact: instantaneous murderous rage or instant adoration. And here was no in-between. He’d told her once that she was the only one who’d breached both extremes. She’d despised him on their first meeting, liked him by the fifth, and loved him soon after.
She twirled a lock around her finger. “There’s no accounting for bad taste.”
“Actually, there is. All five human senses are formed in the embryonic stage and while the preference for taste is not biologically preset–”
“It was a joke.”
“It was?” His eyes lost focus as he thought it over. “Oh, you meant people hate me because they have bad taste. Ha. Thank you.”
She couldn’t help it. She burst into laughter. “God, you’re so cute.”
His ears went pink. “I’d disagree but your misconception works in my favor and I’m selfish so I won’t.“
“You’re not selfish.”
“Again, disagree, and that, I suppose, is the point. I’d rather disagree with you then agree with the world.”
Love, tenderness simply swamped her. Had they been alone, she’d have crawled on to his lap and smothered him with affection. But they weren’t so she settled for tightening her grip on his hand and was heartened by the knowledge that he understood. “Have you made plans for Friday?”
“No, I was going to ask where you wanted to go.”
“How about nowhere? We’ll eat at my place, you can work on your paper for the conference next month and I’ll finish the trilogy rotting on my bedside.”
He rewarded her with a full, beaming smile. “I can’t wait to be silent with you.”