Ananya had known Hrishikesh through email and various social networking websites for almost a year. Today she was finally going to meet him for coffee. She felt a certain apprehension as she had never done something like this before, but calmed herself thinking that they had interacted quite a lot over the past few months. Besides, she thought he was smart and extremely sweet. Surprisingly enough, she had never spoken with him, so she didn’t know what his voice sounded like. She had seen a few pictures, though; and was confident she would recognize him.
They exchanged emails and decided to meet at 4:00 pm between First and York Avenue, at the entrance of the building where she lived – 480 East 74th Street. From there they would walk to Green Bean Cafe, which was five minutes away.
Hrishikesh got off at the subway station on 68th Street at 3:30 pm and started the twenty-five minute walk with his hands in his pockets, through the Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. It was the month of May and the temperature was a cool fifteen degrees. It was cloudy with the forecast predicting a chance of light showers, but he decided to take a chance and didn’t carry an umbrella. “If it rains, I can always buy one at the ubiquitous street vendor that pops up at the first drop”, he thought.
He had memorized the route and headed north-east on 3rd Avenue. As he walked, Hrishikesh ran through all the information he had gathered of the neighborhood in his head. He was amused at the way he had studied the Upper East Side with clockwork precision, even though he had never been to this part of the world before. “Must be Ananya”, he thought. They would talk a lot about where they lived and she somehow inspired a sort of crazy tendency in him to do his homework about the place he was visiting. He smiled as he crossed Le Pain Quotidien and quickened his pace.
Looking around, Hrishikesh realized why this was known as one of the most affluent neighborhoods of New York City. He reached the corner of 3rd Avenue and East 74th Street where he had to turn right, but continued walking straight as he recalled one of their online chats. Just a few metres ahead, he spotted the familiar purple signboard of the Candle Cafe to his right and grinned and remembered how Ananya had spoken fondly of the place. He stopped briefly to look inside and imagined how Ananya must’ve spent her time here, breathing in the delicious smell of their famous Chocolate Mousse Pie. Pulling himself together, he stepped out, backtracked the few metres and took a left turn on to East 74th Street.
“Just a couple of blocks more”, Hrishikesh thought to himself, growing increasingly nervous with every step he took. He had pretty much fallen in love with her the first time he had seen her picture. Though he always prided himself for firmly believing in the “looks aren’t everything” adage, every belief had clean gone out of the window that first time. He pacified himself by thinking that since she was incredibly witty, it’s not that he had fallen only for her looks.
Hrishikesh pushed all these thoughts firmly out of his head as he passed the second block. He could see her building now, a little ahead, to the other side of the road, but couldn’t see her just yet. He crossed the road stood outside her building entrance. It was 3:55 pm. As he looked up and about, another battle started raging in his head. “How do I tell her Hi? Do I smile at her? Of course I’ll smile, but along with that do I shake hands or hug her? No, hugging is too personal. For now, shaking hands is the safe and correct option.”
“Hi Hrishi!” He nearly broke his neck as he spun around. There she was. There were no ringing bells, violins or guitars.
“Hi Anne!”, he beamed as he stuck his hand out. She shook it with a warm smile. He instantly felt at ease.
“How are you, Anne? It’s so nice to see you!”, said Hrishikesh.
“I’m good, thank you. And you?” said Anne.
“Never been better”, he grinned.
“So we finally meet. I have been looking forward to this day since a few weeks now”, said Anne.
“Yes, it has been long overdue. Me too. Shall we?”, said Hrishikesh, gesturing towards York Avenue and stepping aside for her to walk with him.
“Not bad. It’s the first time you’ve travelled abroad and you know your way around the neighborhood!”, she observed, clearly impressed.
“Well, yes. I did a little bit of homework”, he said sheepishly, as they started walking. Hrishikesh waited for her to walk one step ahead, quickly switched sides and started walking to her right, on the outside. Ananya smiled inwardly.
They walked in silence for a half a minute, lost in thought. Hrishikesh threw a quick glance at Ananya and caught her looking at him. They laughed. She was wearing a black polo-neck, paired with blue denims, which perfectly complemented her tall, slim and well-toned figure. He was wearing a well-fitted grey t-shirt with blue jeans which suited his lean, fit physique. Needless to say, they were mutually appreciative of each other in their heads.
As they turned left on York Avenue, Hrishikesh remarked, “Just another block and we’ll be there.”
“Wow! Is there anything you don’t know about this place?” replied Ananya, clearly impressed.
“Oh, it’s nothing”, said Hrishikesh, reddening slightly.
They reached the Green Bean Cafe and Hrishikesh held the door open for Ananya. It was a small cafe with an old world charm to it. Wooden lamps covered with beige paper hung from the ceiling, casting yellow light everywhere; along with three brown fans. The walls were covered with a patchy, light shade of pastel green-colored wallpaper and a few paintings of fruits and landscaped gardens. A small, old grandfather clock hung above the counter, on the wall. Six small tables for two people with brown granite tops; and wooden chairs with flat, green-colored cushions were arranged neatly in two rows. There were two more tables facing outside the cafe window. Ananya chose the table next to the counter, adjacent to the wall and they sat across each other.
“Do you come here often?”, asked Hrishikesh.
“Yes, I love the sandwiches and coffee here. Besides, it’s vegetarian. So I drop by at least once a week”, replied Ananya.
Hrishikesh couldn’t take his eyes off her pretty, heart-shaped face. Her dark hair fell just below the shoulder blades and her almond-shaped eyes were a shade of deep brown. She had a perfect nose and soft, pink lips that would never need any lipstick or gloss.
“So, what would you like to eat?” asked Ananya, handing him a menu card.
“Let’s see what we have here. Umm, these organic smoothies sound good. I like the sound of ‘Berried Alive’ – a mix of blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry and banana apple juice. I”ll have this and one of the Vegan sandwiches. Which is the best one?” asked Hrishikesh.
“I love the ‘Portobello Mushroom Burger’. Have a look”, said Ananya.
“Baked Marinated Portobello Mushroom, Tempeh Bacon, Sautéed Bell Peppers, Daiya Mozarella, Onion and Sundried Tomato Spread. Okay, sounds delicious. What will you have?” said Hrishikesh.
“I’ll have the usual”, said Ananya with a smile, motioning to Rocky who came over to take their order.
“Hello Anne, how are you today?” greeted Rocky cheerfully.
“I’m good, Rocky. We’ll have one each of a Portobello Mushroom Burger, Cheddar Burger, Berried Alive and My Sunshine. Also, get me an Apple Crumb. Thank you.” said Ananya.
“Coming right up”, said Rocky.
“So everyone here knows you as Anne, is it?” asked Hrishikesh.
“Yes, it’s easier for them compared to Ananya”, she said with a smile.
“You have the slightest hint of an accent. It sounds nice”, he remarked.
“I never really picked it up, thank goodness. And thank you. I see now. Your tendency to shower compliments isn’t restricted to emails only”, she said teasingly.
“I only give compliments when I mean it” he replied gallantly.
The table was small and their knees brushed each others’ a couple of times. Ananya noticed how Hrishikesh would look her in the eyes while talking. She liked that. His hair was short, neatly parted and his face was clean-shaven, not unlike an army man. He wore black, half-rim spectacles and had a prominent, square jaw. There was a faint scar on his chin and his nose was slightly crooked. But the best thing about him was his smile. It would reach his eyes and that is what appealed to Ananya the most. He was a little shy too, but she was expecting that.
“So, how come you’re in the Big Apple? You said in your last email that you’ll tell me when we meet”, said Ananya.
“Well, as you know, I’m in the United States to visit my aunt, uncle and cousins in Los Angeles. I thought since I’m in the States, let me come here and meet you. God knows when I’ll get the chance next”, said Hrishikesh, sipping water.
“What?! You travelled coast-to-coast just to meet me? LA to NYC?” sputtered Ananya, shocked.
“Yes! Why? What’s so surprising?’ said Hrishikesh innocently, enjoying her reaction.
Rocky swooped in with their food just then and placed it on the table. They started eating.
“You’re crazy! How long are you here for?” asked Ananya.
“I flew in a couple of hours back. I’ll catch the 8:00 pm flight back to LA from JFK” said Hrishikesh, taking a bite from his Portobello Mushroom Burger. “Mmm, this is delicious, Anne. Good choice.”
“That’s less than four hours from now. Goodness me. You are absolutely mental!” said Ananya, her amazement mounting with every second.
“What?! I travelled half way across the world. Now flying across one country to meet you seemed like too good an opportunity to miss”, said Hrishikesh between two mouthfuls.
“Hrishi! Now I don’t know what to say to that”, said Ananya, blushing.
Ananya slowly ate her Cheddar Burger and sipped on her smoothie. She was shocked, surprised, flattered and secretly pleased in equal parts that Hrishikesh had made the effort and come all the way. She knew that he liked her. It was quite evident from their online conversations. He was certainly checking all the boxes. Not that Ananya had thought of any boxes to check, but she made her list along the way as Hrishikesh endeared himself to her that afternoon.
“So, what are you doing these days? Started working?” asked Ananya, finishing her Cheddar Burger and swirling her smoothie idly.
“I just gave my exams. The results will be out in July, after which I’m planning to start working” said Hrishikesh, polishing off his burger.
“So you will be living in Mumbai itself, once you start working?” Ananya asked tentatively.
“Yes. Why do you ask?” said Hrishikesh, noticing the subtle change in her tone.
“No nothing, I was just asking. Catching up, you know. Like, in real life. Away from the online world” said Ananya, shaking her head nonchalantly.
“Out with it, Ananya. I know you enough to know that you are hiding something” said Hrishikesh, extremely curious now.
“Well, I want it to be a surprise. I’m not telling you now”, she said with an air of finality.
“Oh, c’mon! This is not fair. I surprised you today, right? Flying half way across the world and then across the country to meet you. I deserve to know”, said Hrishikesh, trying his luck, although he was certain she wouldn’t reveal anything. She liked troubling him this way.
“Well, you know me. I’m not saying anything” said Ananya. She was enjoying herself thoroughly now.
“Okay then. I just hope you decide to tell me soon”, sighed Hrishikesh, as he cut into the apple crumb and served both of them. “It’s best not to push her”, he thought.
“You shall know soon enough”, grinned Ananya, happily taking a spoonful of the apple crumb and feeding it to Hrishikesh.
Hrishikesh wondered what she was thinking. “She fed me a piece of apple pie right now. Does she like me too? It surely is some sort of a sign. No, maybe not. Maybe she’s just happy. It’s alright. I’m happy that it’s going well. “
They ate the rest of the apple crumb slowly and ordered one Cappuccino each; both willing the time to pass slower still, though neither of them admitted it as such. They talked about her love for the Knicks, his love for the Lakers, their common love for Manchester United, how the Yankees were highly overrated, the Tribeca Film Festival which had concluded the week before in New York, the upcoming Jazz festival at Carnegie Hall and Bryant Park, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum’s chances at the upcoming Presidential Elections in November 2012, how the entire landscape had changed in Mumbai and yet how everything was pretty much the same, the sorry state of the Indian cricket team and the sorrier state of political affairs in India.
“Uh oh! It’s past 6:00 pm, Anne. Time flies! I must be on my way now. Got a plane to catch”, mumbled Hrishikesh, glancing at his watch and beckoning Rocky to get the cheque.
“Oh no! I completely forgot. I was hoping we could go for a walk to Central Park. It’s lovely at this time of the year”, said Ananya wistfully. Hrishikesh mentally kicked himself for booking the 8:00 pm flight.
“You should’ve done your homework more thoroughly and booked the 9:25 pm flight, cowboy”, teased Ananya, reading his mind.
Ah! She’s rubbing it in. Hrishikesh grinned. Rocky presented the bill and Hrishikesh settled it, ignoring Ananya’s protests to go dutch. “It’s alright, Anne. Missing out on that walk with you at Central Park was bad enough. Now this is on me”, he said.
As they walked out of the cafe, Hrishikesh said, “How was I to know that you would suggest going for a walk to Central Park with an online friend who you’ve met for the first time?”
“I think we are pretty good friends. And you’re a nice guy. I’d feel safe with you. For now, walk me back home. We’ll go to Central Park the next time you decide to surprise me”, Ananya smiled and said.
They started walking back towards the corner of York Avenue and 74th street, lost in thought once again.
“I wish we could’ve gone to Central Park. It’s been a while since I really enjoyed spending time with a guy. But should I tell him about the surprise?” thought Ananya.
Meanwhile Hrishikesh was still kicking himself for booking the 8:00 pm flight. He had thoroughly enjoyed the evening and wished he could stay longer. As they turned right on East 74th Street, Ananya’s building came into view and more urgent thoughts started running through Hrishikesh’s mind. “How should I tell her goodbye. A handshake? A hug? I wonder what’s acceptable to her. We met now. But she’s always been a little bit of an introvert. A woman of few words. I wonder…” he mused.
They reached the entrance of her building and Hrishikesh slowed down, but Ananya continued walking towards the entrance. Taking the cue, Hrishikesh caught up with her without missing a beat. Ananya looked sideways at him with her eyebrows raised.
“Of course, I’ll drop you home”, beamed Hrishikesh.
“Good. I’ll make you meet my parents and brother too”, said Ananya. “Race you up the stairs” she said and shot off. Hrishikesh laughed and took off in hot pursuit.
Taking the stairs was a habit they shared in common. Ananya reached first and rung the doorbell, slightly out of breath. Her father opened the door.
“Hi Papa! I want you to meet someone. Where are Mum and Nitin? Come on in, Hrishi”, said Ananya.
Hrishikesh took off his shoes and stepped inside the house as Ananya’s mother and brother entered the living room.
“Mum, Dad, Nitin. This is Hrishikesh”, said Ananya.
“Namaste uncle. Namaste aunty”, said Hrishikesh. “Hi, Nitin”, he said, shaking hands with her brother, who returned his greeting.
“Namaste? My goodness, it’s a long time since we heard a young man say that here. Ananya has told us a lot about you”, Ananya’s father said jovially, shaking his hand vigorously. “How did you find New York?”
“She talks about all of you a lot too, uncle. New York is wonderful, we had a good time”, said Hrishikesh.
“Come sit, Hrishikesh. What will you have?” asked Ananya’s mother.
“No, thank you, aunty. I must be off now. Have an 8:00 pm flight to catch, back to LA. Besides, we ate quite a lot right now”, said Hrishikesh, gesturing towards Ananya, who was standing with her father.
“Ananya, you should have brought him home earlier. Nevermind, Hrishikesh, we’ll…”
Ananya cut in. “Mummy, it’s alright, we’re stuffed and I don’t think I’ll have dinner tonight. I’ll get some water”.
Ananya went to the kitchen, while Hrishikesh spoke to her brother briefly. She came in with a glass of water, he quickly drained it and wished goodbye to Ananya’s mom, dad and brother.
“See you soon, man”, said Nitin. Ananya threw a dirty look at him.
Hrishikesh turned to Ananya, his stomach was doing weird somersaults. “Alright then, Anne. It was a pleasure meeting you. I’ll see you when I see you, eh?” said Hrishikesh, lifting his hand to offer a handshake. Ananya gave him a quick hug instead and squeezed his shoulders lightly.
“You’ll see me soon, Hrishi. We’re moving to Mumbai. All of us. In July. And we’ll be living in Bandra too. That was the surprise!” said Ananya, her eyes gleaming.
“WHAT?! How? This is excellent news!” exclaimed Hrishikesh, shocked, as he felt his heart start pumping out twice the normal amount of blood. He felt like he might just explode.
“I’ll email you”, said Ananya, grinning from ear-to-ear.
“Alright. I’ll see you soon, Anne”, said Hrishikesh. He wanted to hug her again, but fought off the urge and waved goodbye to the others. Ananya stood at the door as he wore his shoes. He ran to the stairs, paused, turned around, smiled at Ananya who smiled back and bounded down the stairs.
Hrishikesh stepped on to the pavement outside her building and took a deep breath. He crossed the road and instinctively looked up at the third floor window. And sure enough, there she was. Ananya waved out and he waved back. She looked more beautiful than he could ever remember seeing her.
Hrishikesh started walking towards 3rd Avenue, a spring in his step, singing Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” to himself, looking for a cab. Ananya stood there in the balcony and watched him go till she could no longer see him. “I’ll see you soon”, she whispered.