It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was pleasantly cold.

I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend's wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batchmates. But what I didn't know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.

I was almost sure it was she. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell.

I immediately looked away to avoid making eye contact. My heart had picked up pace and palms turned sweaty despite the cool surroundings. Things had not ended well between us and I still resented her to some extent.

The queue got shorter as we neared the counter. She turned around several times and quickly turned away each time. I was confident that she had spotted me and that was the cause for her awkward behaviour. I looked at the display board to the far right. There was only one flight to Bengaluru at this time. With a chill down my spine, I realised we were to be flight mates also.

She decided to break the ice by quitting her place in line and walking up next to me. She gave me a wary smile and greeted me with a pleasant “Hello”.

“Hello”, I muttered my cheeks turning pink. “How have you been, Anita?”

“Smashing” she replied. She seemed a little unnerved by my obvious embarrassment. “It’s been a long time. We never kept in touch.”

“No” I replied simply. She expected me to say more, but I kept quiet.

“I tried calling once” she continued. “But you changed your number. And then I just assumed you would call if you ever wanted to talk.”

She waited for an explanation. When I didn’t offer any she walked back to her spot in the queue and waited, seemingly perturbed. I forced my thoughts elsewhere. I thought of Karan who was to get married to Preeti. I chuckled when I reflected on my first year in college, when Karan had sworn that he wouldn’t marry Preeti “because they were too different”. He was adamant that the relationship would die with their college days. But time had worked in their favour. Consequently it was the differences that Karan had learned to cherish and today, Karan swears that he can’t live a day without Preeti.

I had been good friends with the couple from the very start of college. In fact it was they, who had set me up with Anita. For this, I both regard and rebuke them. It lead to my happiest days in college. Being with Anita was a blessing. But the darkness that followed after the break-up was unspeakable, even now four years later.

My relationship with Anita was very different from relation with Karan and Preeti. I remember after the very first date, hugging Preeti and thanking her for planning the evening. It had gone very smoothly and by the end of it, I was sure that I had stumbled into “the one”. Karan had rolled his eyes when he had heard me say this.

The two years that followed were flawless. Anita and I rarely argued. We had a lot of common interests, so there was never a difficulty finding something to do. And we were both easily amused.

I remember spending many an evening just watching the sunset over the quiet and serene lake near college. We hardly spoke but we prized each other’s company. On the other extreme, we often enjoyed getting drunk and pulling half-witted pranks on people we found annoying. Whatever were my whims or fancies, Anita was always game for it and that was what I loved most about her.

The problem days came when we decided to take a trip to Bengaluru along with Karan and Preeti. To this day, I can’t digest that the perfect relationship had gone down the drain in a matter of three days. I tried violently to shake these thoughts out of my head, lest they send me to despair once again. I took a deep breath and looked ahead. Anita had left and my turn in line was coming up next.

The boarding took place smoothly. I found my place on the plane and nervously looked around to see where Anita was seated. I heard a smirk behind me. I turned around and faced her.

“Don’t worry,” she said in a patronizing tone. “I’m sitting all the way up front. I just came by to use the washroom.”

I ignored her again, a little stung by the condescension in her voice. I sat down.

“Oh come on, Ravi!” she snapped. “Do you really plan on ignoring me through the duration of the wedding? We are going there to show our support for Karan and Preeti. It is not the time or place for your childish demeanour.”

Meanwhile an old lady seated next to me, clearly disturbed by this outbreak, offered to switch seats with Anita so that she might sit next to me. We hastily tried to turn down this offer but she continued.

“You two are clearly old friends with a lot to catch up on. And moreover my daughter is sitting up front, I would like to sit closer to her.”

Saying this, she got up, asked the flight attendant to guide her to Anita’s seat and left without another word.

“Great,” muttered Anita and sat herself next to me. She then remembered she had to use the washroom and got up again. She looked like she wanted to say something, but decided against it and went her way.

I covered my face. This was the last thing I needed. I silently cursed the people who constantly say time is great healer. My wounds were still fresh and to the bone. I had loved Anita very tenderly and to this day did not understand what caused the demise of our relationship. The pain of losing her was coupled by the pain of not knowing why.

She returned to her seat quietly and sat down. She made no further attempt at communication. I wondered if things would have been better if I had known the reason. Did she just stop loving me? But her face used to light up every time she laid eyes on me. She could never fall asleep unless I gently whispered sweet nothings into phone at night. She used to call me every morning as soon as she awoke, because she wanted my voice to be the first thing she heard every day. Could all this just vanish into thin air? Had it all been a pretence? I couldn’t believe that. Once we had been targeted by a thief on the street and he demanded that I hand over all my money. I mistakenly assumed that I could fight him and things got physical. I realised I was wrong when he easily pushed me to the ground and was about to deliver a blow with his foot, when Anita stepped in and punched him on the nose. Taken aback by this sudden intervention, he stepped back shocked. This gave us time to scream for help, which sent him scurrying away. I stood up and looked at her in disbelief.

“You were supposed to run away” I had said with a mixture of disbelief and anger.

“And leave you by yourself? No. I would take a bullet for you” she had replied softly. There was a smile on her lips but there was utmost sincerity in her eyes, so I knew she had meant it.

This girl had definitely been in love with me. What had happened?

“You’ve been beating yourself up with this question for four years” said a little voice inside my head. “Now is your chance to ask her. She’s right next to you.”

Was it worth asking her? What if the answer is something I didn’t want to hear. Like what if she had found someone else and left me for that person?

“Then at least you can finally know that it wasn’t your fault” the wise voice inside my head insisted.

I broke out of my reverie and looked over at Anita. She was reading a magazine. She paid no attention to me. I cleared my throat. She still didn’t look up.

“Anita” I said nervously.

She started and looked surprised.

“I wanna ask you something.” The words came out of my mouth quick and garbled. I wondered if she even understood what I had said. But she didn’t look confused. In fact she had no expression on her face.

“What is it Ravi?” she asked quietly.

“What happened?”  I asked. I meant to elaborate but there was a catch in my throat and nothing else came out. Instead my eyes welled with tears which I hurriedly blinked back.

I expected a tender reply. One filled with apology and a lot of sympathy.

Instead I got an affront asking how come I didn’t already know.

“Surely the sinner is aware of his deeds” she said.

I was bowled over. Sinner? What was this girl talking about? She looked even more offended that I didn’t know.

“It was supposed to be forever. You broke that. You never meant anything you said” she said suppressing a sniffle.

“What are you talking about?” I asked bewildered.

“You told Karan that your relationship was just until the end of college. You were planning to leave me anyway. After all your promises that you’ll always be with me. After your promise to marry me. It was all just a sham. Well, I didn’t want to be a part of that sham. That’s why I left you. And I ignored all empty apologies for the rest of college. You broke my heart Ravi. You shattered it along with my dreams. Yet, you have the nerve to sit next to me and ask me what went wrong.”

This was all too much for her. She broke into a sob. I sat frozen in my seat. A vague memory came to my mind. Karan and I huddled up in a room when the girls were out. I was teasing Karan that he was going to be hitched to Preeti despite what he had initially said. To save face, he was denying it even though at that point he was head over heels in love with her.

“I won’t marry her. Just you see.” We both laughed it off like young people do, careless and unaware of other people’s feelings. In my defence, we had also been quite drunk.

Was I to tell her to tell her that it was Karan who had made such statements? On the eve of his wedding? No, surely I was a better friend than that. And by no means did I want Preeti finding out about this. There was just one small thing that irked me.

“Did you ever discuss this with Karan or Preeti?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied stiffly, not understanding the connection to the issue at hand. “Karan actually tried to defend you!” She made a hissing noise. “Preeti, of course, sided with me.”

A white flash of anger passed through me. Karan knew everything. He had had the chance to make things right and he had just looked out for himself and his own relationship. At least he could have told me. But that would mean that I would let the cat out of the bag and he couldn’t have that. I tried with great effort to think of all the good times with Karan so that resentment did not envelope my memory of him. I lost “the one” because of his childishness, his immaturity and he never bothered to set things straight. Now four years later, my heart still hurts a little every night, while he gets to sleep with the woman of his dreams. A woman he never even intended to marry.

No, I can’t let this blind my love for Karan. We all do thoughtless things when we are young. Karan was always a “do first, think later” kind of person. Maybe someday I will let Anita know the truth of how much I loved her. How much I still love her. And I had meant every promise and every vow that I had ever made to her.

I didn’t talk to Anita for the rest of the journey. My head was in turmoil. There were too many thought running through it for me to coherently pick out one train of thought and make a statement. And Anita, after drying her tears went back to her magazine, never to look up again.

We landed in Bengaluru and disembarked separately. We took separate taxis to the hotel we were supposed to meet up at. That evening we had a rehearsal dinner. I was in slightly better spirits by this time, although I was still very careful to keep my distance from Anita. Karan came up to me, noticing my discomfort and quietly said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”

It was all I could do to keep myself from scoffing. I was still a little mad at Karan. I watched as he slowly walked up to the stage and took the microphone. He was greeted with cheers all around.

“I have an announcement” he said with a strained voice. “I love my fiancé Preeti more than I love myself. But when we first started out, things were not so smooth. In fact I never had any plans to marry for quite a while. It was just a casual relationship for me.” He paused and looked at Preeti but she didn’t look angry or disturbed. In fact she laughed and said, “Of course not, silly! We were so different!” and she laughed again. Heaving a sigh of relief, Karan continued, “Unfortunately my youthful carelessness has affected the life of a dear one. Two dear ones actually. Yes, Ravi and Anita, I speak of you both. Anita, what you overheard that day was me speaking that way about Preeti. Ravi would never think to utter something so atrocious against you. He always knew what he wanted Anita and he wanted you. I believe he still does. And I couldn’t in right conscience marry this wonderful woman tomorrow having all this on my mind. Preeti, if you can forgive me for being so blind and selfish back then, that would be the true test of strength of our future married life.”

Preeti got up and went forward to hug Karan. They were greeted with loud cheers and everyone began moving forward to join in the hugging. That left me rooted to my spot and Anita looking flabbergasted with her mouth ajar.  I slowly approached her.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.

“I never knew that I had to” I replied.

We stood staring into each other’s eyes. The lost time flashed between us. If only I had asked what was wrong back then, instead of being presumptuous and apologising for the wrong things. If only she had just confronted me instead of looking for comfort in all the wrong places. Our love was big but our egos had been bigger. We knew better now. For the first time, I was glad time hadn’t healed me. Because that meant I could go back to where we left off, without any repercussions, and I could see from her eyes that she wanted the same. Yes, there was no mistake. She is “the one”.