Two weeks ago, I was at a table organising a few lists as part of my voluntary duties at the church, tuning out the chaotic noise all around me. There were people to take care of everything, and I considered this an unnecessary exercise for my inner perfectionist- letting someone else do all the work. It was gruelling, and I had to grit my teeth more than once when someone dropped something across the hall and casually stepped over it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the boy I’d been trying to talk to for at least a month, and cleared my throat timidly as he approached, trying to find my voice. As he passed me, he smiled quietly, radiantly, and all my guts vanished into thin air. All I could muster was a constipated grin, with partially averted eyes while biting my lower lip almost hard enough to draw blood. As soon as he passed, I mentally kicked myself.
Sighing, I was shaking my head at myself when a baby’s cry pierced my ears abruptly. I glanced up and looked around detachedly, and soon spotted the source, about ten metres away from me. A woman in a burgundy sari was standing with her back to me, cradling an infant in her arms. Being a common sight of no interest to me, I was about to return to my assigned task when the woman turned around. It was her eyes that enraptured me, and they were the reason I looked at her for a second longer. And that was when I jolted.
I recognised the woman. As I stared at her profile, a truckload of memories hit me in the face. Memories that had been buried deep in some inaccessible part of my mind, memories that hadn’t seemed significant enough for me to seriously contemplate, or even spare a passing thought. But sometimes, what it needs is a trigger. And seeing her that day triggered it; and I remembered.
Was it five years ago? Or perhaps six, I wondered. That was when we first crossed paths. She used to teach me Gospel portions, and she’d been the one to tell me to get a personal Bible. She would sing uplifting songs sometimes, awfully off key, but I used to learn them because I always loved the lyrics. Every time we met, she’d quote some beautiful words, and her entire body radiated kindness, in an indescribably subtle manner. I remembered observing her long, thick black curly hair, and looking into her soft, deep eyes; her eyes were always smiling.
Frequently, her lips smiled too- bright, sometimes with a subtle air of mischief, flashing pearly white teeth that illuminated her chocolate brown face. When she walked past me, she would smile, as though she were happy to see me, and say my name as if it were precious beyond comprehension, caress it, let it roll out into the tranquil air around her. I would smile back sheepishly, reflexively gnawing on the inside of my lip and shoving my hands into my pockets, and wish her a good morning with a stutter. She would flash those teeth again for a second, and move on.
I struggled to remember when and why I’d walked out of her life, and I couldn’t remember exactly. Perhaps it had had something to do with my family’s collective lack of punctuality, perhaps due to my parents’ conflicting schedules, perhaps due to my own growing up. I did remember that the severing of the relationship had been gradual in the beginning, and then jarringly abrupt. She’d asked me why I didn’t go to Sunday school anymore, once when she’d seen me around Christmas, and I’d stammered out some excuses. She’d been kind and understanding of the situation, and had left me alone ever since.
I looked at her that day, and I tried to understand why it had taken me more than a second to recognise her. I looked, and I didn’t have to look for too long, as it was obvious. Her hair was a mess, made up of a few rebellious locks sticking up from the sides of her forehead, and the rest a shoulder-length faded black frizzy mass. The skin on her arms and cheeks sagged slightly. Her eyebrows, once thick and defined, were now practically invisible, and her smiling eyes didn’t smile anymore. That seemed to be the most marked difference. Those jet black orbs now held a look of long-sufferance and anxiety and worry that seemed to never fade. The child in her arms had stopped crying by the time I exited my reverie, but the woman did not smile. She fussed over the baby, but she seemed to lack that easy warmth she used to radiate when I knew her.
“Teacher?” I called out meekly, but loud enough to be heard. She looked in my direction, and then at my face in bemusement. She cocked her head to the left, trying to remember. She kept looking, and I smiled hesitantly, noticing familiar details in her face and wondering how I’d gone all these years without once running into her. My teacher spared one more minute on me, and then, to my horror, she curled her lip and looked away. Adjusting her grip on the child, she walked out of the room.
She hadn’t recognised me, I thought. Was it because I’d changed in appearance, the way she had? But then she knew I’d called out to her, and she’d simply ignored me. I thought it was ridiculous to feel much about something so trivial when carefully considered, but reason can never convince the heart not to grieve. Seeing her had struck a chord, and watching her look away from me had made something break. Swallowing around the sudden tightness in my throat, I immersed myself in making those lists look as neat and tidy as I could.
Later, when I’d done my share of the work, I started my walk back home. It was a moderate distance on foot, and I liked the solitude it offered. I was almost out of the campus when I saw her daughter taking the baby from her arms with a brilliant grin- one which the woman’s lips adopted, slowly and with less grandeur, but speaking of a lifetime of happiness. Her daughter, who looked about thirty now, helped her into the backseat of a big silver car, got in beside her, and closed the door with a dull thud. I followed the vehicle with my eyes until I was simply staring off into the distance.
A dog barked somewhere to my left, and I resumed my journey with a content smile.