Spent

“Take care honey and do call if you find the time”, she said caressing her daughter’s hair.

“Yes mummy, I will”, the little girl replied.

She kissed her daughter’s forehead and there was a pleading in the touch, a pleading to not leave her.  The girl gave her mother a reassuring smile and then her father took her hand and silently led the way to the car. She stood in the doorway and watched the car drive away, losing itself in a rush of headlights.

She continued staring in the distance for a while, then suddenly jerked out of her reverie, turned and went in.

It had been only six years since Naina had been married to Abhay. Now, neither of them could recount where and what went wrong but the suffocation of the strained relationship overshadowed their love for each other to the point that they decided to separate.

Burying all her pain and bitterness in her heart, she found herself trying her hardest to be strong, struggling to keep things on track. Her only source of peace was her four year old daughter for whom she willed herself to find little joys in everyday chores.

But, life wasn’t done testing her. Now, she found herself battling to get the custody of her daughter. Perhaps, this was the only occasion when she begged him to let her keep her daughter instead of arguing over it again. He, seeing a mother’s pain had almost conceded, but the ego which had already strangled every bit of empathy he felt towards her, won over him.

That had been two weeks ago. Since then a constant fear had hung over her like a heavy weight and nightmares had consumed her sleeping mind.

As the clock chimed, announcing noon, Naina hurried to get dressed for a reception party hosted by a colleague who got married recently.

It was a clear, sunny day and the breeze ruffled her hair as she walked along the shore towards a small gathering of people, all of who carried bouquets or bow-necked champagne bottles. She plastered a smile on her lips as she congratulated the beaming couple, trying to push away the blurred memories of her own wedding.

“Naina! So glad to see you here”

She turned to see a man in his late forties strode towards her. “I had not expected that you would come”, said Vinay, with a genuine smile in his eyes. She returned the smile and the effortlessness of it caught her by surprise.

“Aanya and I have been friends since college. I had to come.”

“And how’s the toddler?”

“She’s…She is doing well”, Naina tried to reply while her heart constricted once again with the thought of losing the custody.

Sensing her anxiety, Vinay gave her an encouraging smile and said “Let’s take this conversation towards the lunch table if you don’t mind, dear. I think I saw an excellent collection of calamari fritters and shrimp cocktails and I am ravenous.” she nodded gratefully.

As they moved towards the Lunch table, suddenly a man going past them ran a hand over her bottom. She whipped round, enraged but the man was already running down the steps of the restaurant, a crooked, triumphant grin on his face. Vinay and Naina made to follow after him, but by the time they climbed down the stairs, he was already out of their sight. Vinay took a few more steps and squinted around, searching for the man on the beach.

“Let’s go back, Vinay” she panted, turning “Thank you”.

 He looked at her, opened his mouth to say something, found himself at a loss of words and closed it again. Both of them walked back in silence, Naina trying her hardest to soften her contorted face into a convincing smile.

 As the sun rose up higher in the sky, the restaurant crowded up with more guests.  She took off her shoes, left the restaurant and started walking towards the shore, relishing the feel of the soft, cool sand against her feet .Soon she was away from the gathering and the rhythmic roar of the rise of waves and their gentle splash against the shore drowned the music carrying from the party. Memories came flooding in, spirals of colours and sounds, one dissolving into another and out of them, one stood out: She was standing in front of her father with a tear streaked face and he was bent on one knee

“The world is hard, my girl. Sometimes you will have to be harder. Sometimes gentle, like the river which can smoothen the jagged rocks lying on its bed. All you need is a little time. Always remember, strength stems from within. You are my strong kid, aren’t you?”

She had nodded, a determined smile sparkling amidst the tears.

She smiled at the memory and closed her eyes to recall the courage that her father had wrapped and given to her in that advice. She opened them after a few moments and, rose up and started walking back towards the party. Suddenly she cried out loudly, clutching her foot, which had started bleeding. A shard of glass from a broken wine bottle, buried under the sand had pierced her toe. People gathered round her and a few of them helped her back to the restaurant. Guests gathered around her while she was being given first aid. She shooed them away, grinning all the while:

“It’s not a big deal. Seriously, Aanya carry on, I’m fine. “

Gradually, the guests dispersed. She continued staring towards the waves. Finally she looked up to find Vinay still standing there. She gave him a tight smile while he continued to scrutinize her.

“I guess the day wasn’t mine”, she said, feeling like her father’s little girl again.

“Naina, you are one of the bravest and the strongest women I’ve met.”

And the tears, she’d been holding in for so long finally filled her eyes.

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