BY DEEPTI NALAVADE MAHULE
Copyright is held by the author.
BLUE SKY above the Golden Gate Bridge on a spring Saturday morning. The Pacific Ocean dotted with yachts moving snail-like, leaving white trails on the water. I can’t help but think of Rashmi’s fleeting presence in my life from three years ago, back in India. Especially now, with my relationship with Megha in limbo. Sighing, with my camera in hand, I walk around the vista point, trying to distract myself by looking for another photography subject but my mind keeps going back to the last few days.
I met a girl, Megha, a month ago on a dating app and we kept meeting up virtually every day. Like me, she’d transplanted herself from India to the United States. While she had chosen a university in Texas for a graduate degree, I had come to the San Francisco Bay Area. Like many privileged others, after an engineering degree and a job in India, I’d come here for a master’s degree and then landed a software developer job in a San Francisco startup.
Megha and I hit it off at once and now our video calls, in which we talked about everything under the sun, had become the highlight of my day. She remembered the littlest things from our previous conversations, and I looked forward to hearing her full-throated laughter over shared jokes.
“Have you ever been to Houston? I’d love to meet you,” Megha said on our last call and gave me her address.
Elated, I’d almost bought my airline tickets when Megha called, crying, and asked me to wait. Her grandfather in India had suffered a heart attack. She was his only grandchild and was close to him. I tried consoling her, but she was too distraught to listen. After telling me that she’d call me back later after an update from her family in India, she ended the call. Every morning since then, I woke up with a hope that diminished as soon as I saw her offline status and no reply to my messages. Rashmi inevitably made her way into my thoughts.
For three days, I remained in low spirits, my airline ticket bookings paused, while rain pelted the Bay Area. Today, on Saturday morning, it finally cleared up, and I headed up to the vista point, one of my favorite places to click pictures, hoping it would cheer me up.
Now I zoom in behind the bridge to capture the isolated landmass of Alcatraz Island and turn around to face the crowds at the vista point. Everyone else here is accompanied by someone. My chest tightens. Then, a familiar face emerges from a knot of tourists, and I almost drop my camera. I look, rub my eyes, and look again. In what universe does this kind of thing happen? Rashmi is here!
Stunned, I continue to stand and gape. She hasn’t spotted me yet, but I doubt that she will recognize me at once. When she first met me four years ago in India, I was clean-shaven and thinner. With the hood of my jacket over my head, dark sunglasses, and facial hair, I must be unrecognizable now.
Rashmi, though, looks the same — hair in a ponytail and rimless glasses on her thin nose. She always had a solemn expression on her face, but when it softened, she seemed like a different person. My heart flutters on remembering her smile. Then, I spot an older lady next to her with a similar furrowed brow and weather-beaten features — her mother. A prickly feeling rises inside me, and I nervously rub the mole on the side of my neck, as memories flood in.
Rashmi was a new hire at a software company called TeleSoft in Bangalore where I’d spent a year. During the morning team meeting, our manager introduced her, and she greeted the room with the faintest flicker of a smile. In a simple t-shirt, plain jeans, and utility sandals, she looked like she’d stepped out of her engineering college after final examinations straight into our workplace.
Our manager gave Rashmi the desk adjoining mine. She placed her ragged backpack on her table while I introduced myself.
“Hi Samir,” she said without smiling back and got busy with setting up her computer.
“Rashmi will help you with the Database Migration Project,” our manager told me early the next day.
I nodded, trying not to show disappointment in front of my strict boss. I’d spent the last year working only on technical bug fixes, none of which were going to help in my promotion. Now here was my chance to finally work on something meaty, but he’d teamed me up with a newbie. As soon as we were seated at our desks, Rashmi sent a barrage of questions about the existing software systems and the design I’d come up with for the project.
Oh, great. All talk and no work, I thought.
Then she began to type. After an hour, she submitted her code for the first project task to me so that I could review it. I went over it again and again, refusing to accept that there was nothing I could comment on. No errors. Not even minor suggestions for improvement.
I doubled my efforts over my code, and when it was her turn to review it, I watched her computer monitor from the corner of my eye while fidgeting with my mole. When she found no problems with my code, I let go of the breath I’d been holding. She turned to me and smiled for the first time.
As the days passed, we fell so much in step with each other’s manner of working that coding together began to feel like tackling a complicated tango with a competent dance partner. However, she did not tread outside the boundaries of work.
“Coffee in the break room?” I’d ask after we’d spent hours on a problem.
“I’m sorry I can’t. I need to finish this,” she’d say, remaining glued to her chair, fingers moving swiftly across the keyboard, eyes never leaving the screen. She’d come in early and leave late to return to her rented one-bedroom apartment, which she shared with four girls.
I would go to the office break room by myself with a familiar sinking feeling. I’d recently moved into an apartment with three boys, all of us a year out of university and working in the software industry. They were cordial toward me, but their friendship among themselves, which went back a few years, cast me out of their circle. The lingering scent of their after-shave and cologne mocked me in the evenings after I came home to empty rooms while they went out for dinner and drinks without me. So, I threw myself into work, spending most of my time in the office, hammering out code with Rashmi. Our six-month project was finished within five.
The day after we released the software, I sat at my desk wondering what was funny about something I’d said to my roommates in the morning that had made them burst into laughter. Surely, it must be an inside joke, which I’d been excluded from. Rashmi was peering into her screen, monitoring our new system when our manager slowed down by our desks on his way to another meeting.
“Good work, Rashmi,” he called out as he passed by.
I clenched my fists. There goes my chance of promotion.
I was on the verge of swearing under my breath when she called after him in a shaky voice. “Sir, it wouldn’t have been possible without Samir leading this project.”
The man’s eyes shifted to me.
“Of course,” he said before he walked away. “Great work, Samir.”
My anger vanished. I turned to Rashmi. “Thanks for what you said just now.”
“I just stated what’s true. Your system design was perfect, and you trusted me with its implementation.”
I was touched by her words. Gesturing in the direction our manager had gone, I said, “He’s notorious for being hard on new employees, but you’ve broken a record. He’ll promote you soon.”
Rashmi didn’t reply right away. She pursed her lips and seemed to be suppressing a smile.
Then she said, “It’s nice you think so, but I may not be here until then.”
“What do you mean?”
She kept her voice low. “Don’t tell anyone, please. I’ve been working on an idea for an app. I dream of having my own startup someday and might take up a higher-paying job elsewhere to help with that. Meanwhile, during breaks here, I’ve been working on my app. Tweaking code, minor fixes, noting test results. That sort of thing. Now’s the time to do this — while I’m fired up and starting out fresh in my career. There’s no guarantee I’ll have this kind of momentum in the future. Do you know what I mean? I’m sorry that I couldn’t join you in the break room for coffee all this time.”
“I understand,” I said, relieved to know the reason behind her not taking breaks with me.
Other people like my roommates talked about similar plans about an idea for an app but no one I knew was implementing them with such conviction.
I stared at her in wonder. “If anyone can do something big, it’s you.”
She brightened up, looking directly at me with sudden joy. A pleasurable sensation rippled through me, and I couldn’t help gazing into her eyes a little longer than was necessary. She didn’t look away. Then she shuffled her feet and sighed, breaking our connection.
“It feels like an impossible dream,” she said. “I try to save from what I earn. But with my father having passed away, a sick grandmother, and a disabled older sister to worry about, I don’t know how my mother and I can manage everything. I really need to set aside more money for my startup idea.”
“I wish I could help,” I said at once. “Maybe not with the money right away but if you need another pair of eyes on the code, I’m here.”
A smile lit up her face. “Do you want to meet outside for coffee this Saturday?”
“Yes!” I almost shouted.
A co-worker approached to talk to me, and she turned to her screen. Rashmi and I didn’t get a chance to chat about our meetup plans further and before I knew it, the day, most of which felt as though I’d spent it floating on a cloud, was over. Humming a tune, I stepped out of the elevator onto the ground floor of our office building at seven o’clock in the evening. I had to take the bus home, so I began to walk toward the main exit, across the parking garage, which smelled of fuel and cooling metal from parked vehicles.
I was thinking about our earlier conversation when my thoughts were broken by a female voice reverberating against the garage’s low ceiling and thick pillars. Forceful and sharp, the words were like a nonstop volley from a firing gun. I stopped humming but continued to walk, drawing nearer to the sound, and was finally able to hear what was being said.
“You think you can swindle us like this — hoarding your salary instead of sending it home while I work myself to death? How disrespectful can you be to the memory of that poor man who educated you so that you could help your family after he’s gone?”
There was a pause before another voice began to say something at a lower volume, which I was unable to catch.
The first voice shouted again. “Enough of that stupid startup idea!”
My stomach turned at these words, and as I peeked from behind a parked car, the people behind the voices came into view. Rashmi and a woman in a blue sari stood at the bottom of a staircase. The woman held a duffel bag in one hand, and an ugly, black purse was slung over one shoulder. Her free hand was already raised. Down it came and slapped Rashmi across her cheek.
The older woman wiped her eyes. Her voice cracked. “I thought I could rely on you. I can’t make all the payments alone after cutting short my working hours because of your sister’s illness. And your grandma’s cataract removal surgery bills are already overdue. I had to beg my aunt to look after your sister and grandmother so that I could come all the way here to talk sense into you. Don’t fail me again.”
She wagged a finger in front of Rashmi’s nose and stomped away, her rubber flip-flops slapping hard on the cement floor. Rashmi stood rooted to the spot, pressing a palm over her wet cheek. Her lips quivered and she let out a whimper. Suddenly, she sensed me and looked up in alarm. She turned her face away, avoiding my eyes.
“You should never have seen this,” she said tearfully.
I’d never seen anyone look so mortified. She shrank away from me, her face stamped with shame, shoulders sagging like wings folding into a body. Then she ducked under the staircase and ran so fast out of the garage that she was swallowed up by the people on the pavement before I could stop her.
On the bus ride home, although I put on my headphones out of habit, I didn’t feel like playing any music. I stared out of the window, unable to get the incident I’d witnessed out of my mind. At night, I fell into a troubled sleep and dreamed of her sitting next to me on the bus, appearing and disappearing in the glow of passing streetlights.
I was late for work in the morning. Regarding the incident from the previous evening, I’d decided not to make a big deal about it. I had a feeling that Rashmi wouldn’t bring up the topic and I was not going to say anything either. We’d pretend that I’d heard nothing and seen nothing, and with time, everything between us would return to what it was before. However, when I arrived, her chair was empty, and her backpack wasn’t there.
“Rashmi has decided to move on to another opportunity and has resigned,” our manager told our team in a meeting.
Surprised and dismayed, I called her cell phone number as soon as the meeting was over, wondering whether she’d already got a higher-paying job offer when she talked to me yesterday morning. When she did not pick up, I texted her: hey, I just got to know that you moved on. Are you free to talk now or later?
I waited, anxiously tugging at the mole on my neck. No reply. After a few hours, I texted her again about meeting up on Saturday and in the evening, I gave her a call once more. No answer. I didn’t have her personal email address, there was no trace of her on social media, and neither was she friends with other colleagues. I asked someone in HR, and they said that she hadn’t disclosed which company she’d moved on to.
Was Rashmi alright? Had she resigned because of yesterday’s ugly episode in front of me? When she still hadn’t replied to me after a few days, my concern turned into resentment and then anger. In one furious click, I deleted her number. I’m never going to think of her again.
And yet, over the years, she slipped into my mind from time to time, my memories oscillating between the special moment we’d shared at our desks and the incident in the parking garage. Now here she is by some stroke of improbable luck, at the Golden Gate Bridge vista point, far away from where we first met. About a year ago, an ex-colleague mentioned that Rashmi was a senior manager at Google. She must have traveled for work to California and brought her mother along as a tourist. I wonder how her sister and grandmother are doing. Rashmi probably could now afford the best caretakers for them in India.
I’m so lost in my thoughts that I barely notice the tap on my arm. I turn around to face Rashmi’s mother and give a start. Up close, there’s nothing hostile about her, but she doesn’t seem friendly either.
“Can you take a photo of us?” She says, her face impassive.
My mind is momentarily unable to register her request. I stare at Rashmi’s mother. There are white strands in her hair and wrinkles around her tired-looking eyes. Adjusting the strap of an expensive-looking handbag with one hand and raising her phone with the other, she gestures toward Rashmi and herself. She must have singled me out because of my high-end camera. Still dazed, I nod and take her phone.
Rashmi and her mother stand beside each other against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. Her mother puts an arm around her shoulder and Rashmi stretches her lips in a half-smile that doesn’t reach her eyes.
There was radiance in those eyes when she spoke to me about striking it out on her own that day all those years ago. Then the face that I remember morphs into a cheek-reddened, tearful one at the shame laid bare before me. Even if we talk to each other now, we’ll know that the other is thinking about it, especially with her mother right here.
Recollecting my concern for her after what had happened brings back my anguish over her ghosting me, even though on some level, I understood why. Would it have made a difference if I’d hunted down her address and gone to meet her? I would never know now.
My heart is beating fast as I click their photos. Doesn’t she recognize me?
I hand over the phone to her mother and steal a glance at Rashmi walking away to the cliff edge where two seagulls are gliding and swooping on the wind currents. A large family strolls up in front of me and she disappears behind them.
It’s too late to go after her now. Rubbing at the mole on my neck, as I move in the opposite direction to my parked car, I imagine crumpling up everything I’ve ever felt about Rashmi and tossing it over my shoulder as I walk away.
I drive back home, thinking about Megha and my airplane tickets to Houston waiting to be booked. Just as I’m pulling up into the parking spot at my apartment building’s garage, my cell phone dings. I pick it up, my eyes scanning for Megha’s message. Even if it isn’t there, I know what I must do.
* * *
I got the surprise of my life today at the vista point overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, which I was visiting with my mother. If it wasn’t for the mole on his neck, I would never have recognized him. One moment a random man had agreed to click a picture of us, and the next moment, as he was handing the phone back, there stood Samir before me.
It was hard to recognize him with facial hair, and he’d put on weight, too. But it was Samir for sure, with that leaning gait and quick hand movements. And who else has a heart-shaped mole on the left side of his neck? His mole was always within my line of vision whenever I turned to him as we worked together at our desks in TeleSoft.
I was so much at ease working with him that it felt as if I could tell him anything that came to mind. One day, I blurted out my dream of a startup. I didn’t think he’d take me seriously, but his response was heartfelt, and his eyes shone with such admiration that I found it hard to look away.
After what happened in the parking garage, it was easier to just run away. I hadn’t mentioned it to him before, but I was already close to getting a better job offer. Then, a few months after I joined Google, grandma passed away and a year later, a bout of pneumonia that attacked Didi’s frail lungs snatched her from us.
Samir was in my head for a long time. What had it really meant when he’d jumped at the chance to help me? Then, close on the heels of my thoughts about him would follow the memory of that shameful incident. A constant reminder of the death of my dream, which I was never able to revive. What they say is wrong. Time does not completely heal all wounds. You’re only left picking at the scabs.
Did Samir recognize me today and choose not to say anything? I wish he forgives me for never responding to him. I wish I hadn’t walked away after he clicked our photos, but the heat rose to my cheeks, and the memory of my powerlessness rushed in, leaving me with no choice except to run away and hide my tears. After pretending to watch a couple of birds circling each other in the air, I wiped my nose and came back to my mother.
“Let me take a photo of you now,” she said, putting her hand on the small of my back, steering me in the direction she wanted me to stand in the photo. I didn’t move immediately but looked around to see if Samir was still there, but he was already gone.
Originally from India, Deepti Nalavade Mahule currently lives with her husband and children in California, where she develops software at her day job, feeds books to her two young children at home, and writes short fiction. Her website, which has links to her selected published work, is: https://deeptiwriting.wordpress.com/