It was a crazy day at work but that did not stop Sheila from noticing several women had received bouquets of flowers at work. It was Valentine's Day. Her last meaningful relationship had ended over a year ago and it seemed to have depleted her of the energy to forge a new one.
Sometimes she wondered what Jayant was up to - she missed his once familiar presence in her life like one might miss a well-known sweater when it has been misplaced. Had he found a woman who would not expect emotional closeness in the relationship because he was terrified of it. Was there a woman out there, who never needed to be held close or told that she was loved and cherished, a woman who never felt vulnerable, or cried or needed to be comforted. A woman who did not have her act completely together and sometimes wanted a man to figure stuff out for her. All the things that Sheila had done when she had felt close enough to him to drop her guard, all the things that killed their relationship. Yet Jayant was a good man and she was glad she had met him.
Even if there was such a woman, Sheila thought to herself, she'd likely not be getting any flowers delivered to her at work today. A card with a small hand-written note may be as far as he might go like he had with her. A card wishing her love and happiness in life with or without him. That was like Jayant.
During a late afternoon meeting her phone rang , the discussion paused briefly as she answered. " I am in a meeting now, call me in about four hours when I am at home". The meeting resumed. No one in the room realized the significance of that call to Sheila. No one would know her day had changed in an instant.
"How have you been, Sheila ?" was the first thing Zubin asked when he called her again later that evening.
He was a very dear friend from a long time ago. Zubin had said once to her "I adore you" and to Sheila that had been far more profound than any florid expression of love and passion could ever be. She had noticed the use of the word adore instead of love. He did want to convey the true essence of his feelings through that word - namely "to love in the highest degree; to regard with the utmost esteem and affection; to idolize"
Ten years after their first meeting in their school hallway, they had briefly revisited the issue of defining their relationship and had failed to come up with one that easily translated to marriage. Through the ebb and tide of love in both of their lives, they had held on to each other for support and guidance. Zubin had married a few years ago and was now a dad.
It had been a year since he had last called. Zubin's wife did not know about Sheila. "She would not understand our friendship and I am not doing anything that requires an explanation. You know Sheila, in marriage it is best not to know some things about your spouse. My wife may have things in her life that I would rather not know - it would be too complicated for her to explain. As long as I don't know I would have no gnawing questions. I prefer it that way" he would say.
He called her when it was convenient for him to do so. They conversation drifted from one thing to another in ways that would seem disjointed to an outsider but was very natural and familiar to them. For the several hours that these phone calls lasted, they were both teenagers once again. There was nothing that rejuvenated Sheila nearly as much as a call from Zubin.
"When are you planning a trip to India ?" he asked. "I am not sure but I remember I promised I will stop by at Ankara to meet you." Sheila replied alluding to a promise made many years ago when they were both single. "Good, I wanted to make sure you had not forgotten" Zubin said. "But what about your wife ? I am guessing she is still not aware of my existence" Sheila asked. "No she is not. I'll put you up at a hotel, so don't worry about that" Zubin said.
"Now, that sounds really scandalous. Imagine a friend of your wife's seeing us together at a hotel. It's like pretending to have an affair when you really are not having one. Is that a legitimate form of thrill-seeking in a marriage ?" Sheila asked laughing.
Zubin laughed as he said "I don't know about thrill seeking. Besides I know how to be discreet. I haven't seen you in over five years and want to meet you. Explaining all this to my wife would be more trouble than it is worth. Look, I don't blame her. If there was this guy who was just a good friend that she was talking to for hours past midnight, I would react just like she would over you if she found out. I bet when you are married you'd feel the same way about your husband and another woman. That is human nature. When you marry someone you become possessive of them, their whole life including a past you were not a part of. We can all be completely rational otherwise but this is one place where rationality fails us completely."
"What happens if she sees your phone bill for this month ?" Sheila asked.
"It is not best that she does not see it ? No husband can ever have a satisfactory answer for why he was talking to a woman for three hours past midnight when his wife was out of town" Zubin laughed.
"Discretion is the better part of valor" Sheila commented.
"Exactly my point" Zubin replied.
He mentioned a chance of him coming to visit his kid sister in San Francisco later in the year. "It will be a short business trip, I will see Persis, swing by to meet you and head back home".
"Are you sure this is a real business trip ?" Sheila teased.
"No, and you know that. It is an excuse to come see you in another country because you are taking forever to come by where I live" he laughed.
"Are you doing anything that you wouldn't want your mother to know about ?" Sheila asked him with mock seriousness.
"It depends on your definition. I can say that I am being the best husband that I can possibly be, have nothing but good things to say about my wife. But marriage seems to have taken something away from my life." he replied.
"I guess I have my answer. So, Zubin tell me the rules of engagement when I get married ?" Sheila asked.
"Between us, you mean ? " he asked.
"Yes. It may be self-evident to us that if we did not do anything when we had all the time and opportunity in the world, so we would not wreck our marriages by trying to have an affair when we are no longer single" Sheila said.
"You are right. That argument just won't fly. For one thing after you get married, I would never call you unless you called me" Zubin said.
"But I never call now you because you are married" Sheila laughed.
"Well, you'd have to email me and we'd have to work something out discreetly" he suggested and they both laughed.
"Now, this is really beginning to sound like a full-blown affair. We are talking arrangements, discretion and hotels with a spouse on the side." Sheila said.
"You are the the most important connection to my adolescent and growing-up years, an incredibly precious part of my life. I would never want to lose that - it would be like losing a whole chunk of myself - that's a lot to give up even for marriage." Zubin said in a voice that sounded more sad than serious.
It was like he was asking her if he was worth as much to her as well, if she would like him go out on a limb for the sake of their old friendship. A friendship that had never become a romantic relationship and yet was an incredibly significant one to both of them - a deep connection that they had never been able to define to themselves and would therefore never be able to explain what they shared to anyone else. As they grew older, they found it easier to admit how they felt about each other - even doing that had been impossible once.
"Do you realize that you called me on Valentine's Day ?" Shiela asked.
" Hey that was totally unintentional. I did not realize that it was the 14th. I have been thinking about you for a few days and wanted to check on you - see how you were doing" Zubin hastened to explain.
"Now you just ruined my day for me" she teased him.
"Happy Valentine's Day to you, Sheila" he said with a smile in his voice that she longed to see.
This was the first time in all the years that they had known each other that he had wished her on Valentine's Day.
"Happy Valentine's Day, Zubin." she replied.
Many years ago saying this to each other would have been a game-changer in their relationship. Today, their friendship was deep enough to allow for such a liberty without altering it in anyway. This was not something his wife could understand. It would only leave her with painful, unresolved questions and doubts if she found out. And yet, Zubin was the man who always said " How much longer are you going to take to find yourself a man to marry ? "
Maybe between Zubin and Sheila there was complete, unconditional love that could not be confined in the traditional structure of marriage. A feeling of blissfulness filled Sheila after she got of the phone with Zubin. This was the kind of magic that is worth more than a few sacrifices.
She wondered about the definition of fidelity in marriage and how circumstances conspired against people to render it pliable over time. Enjoying her company was not cheating in Zubin's book and to protect his wife from hurt feelings, he did so discreetly. Yet in the very process of doing so, he attributed to an other innocent action an air of complete impropriety. It bothered her that he seemed to revel in that thought.
For her part, Zubin was the boy she had grown up with and shared an unique emotional intimacy with that he just did not with his wife. To deny herself the simple pleasure of talking with him to protect the feelings of an unknown woman was a difficult sacrifice to make - she thought she did her part by never writing to him or calling him after he got married.
When he called her once in a very long while, she could not summon the strength not to talk with him - and each time she felt guilty of being in a secret relationship with another woman's husband. There was the undercurrent of unexpressed feelings and an intense attraction that made these conversations so special and therefore also wrong between a married man and another woman.
She tried to place herself in the wife's shoes. She could view Zubin's undiminished emotional attachment to Sheila as far more damaging to their marriage than a one-night stand with a stranger. Neither Zubin nor Sheila would get an credit for keeping their friendship completely platonic for so many years despite all the talk of hotels and discreet arrangements - it had never happened and never would. They both valued their friendship far too much to risk anything like that.
Wouldn't telling your spouse the whole truth about yourself be so much simpler Sheila wondered. Her thoughts went back to Vibha and her husband before they returned to Zubin and his wife. Each friend had told her that ignorance was better and knowledge about one's past life should be shared only on a need to know basis. Often the truth is far too complicated to be told or fully understood. In the end the holy grail of marriage seemed to be peace at all costs. And what a steep cost it was at times. Sheila was not sure that they were right or that was the only way marriages worked. Maybe hers would be different.
In her prayers that night, she wished for more than a miracle in her life - a man she could love all her life and who would also have the generosity of spirit to understand what Zubin meant to her and accept their friendship graciously.