Ria didn’t remember how the exhibition went or how she and Adila made up or how the rest of the year went or for that matter rest of all the years went by. She and Sanjay were inseparable as she and Adila were. Adila, as she grew, made more friends and left all her jerkiness behind. She was much adored by everyone as well.
Ria and Sanjay went to the eucalyptus grove every weekend. It had become their very favorite hide out and they never breathed a word about it to anyone. It was their little secret.
They were in class ten when it happened. One afternoon Sanjay told Ria that he wanted to tell her something. “What?”, asked Ria.
“I… I mean, do you … are you seeing someone?”, he asked her.
“If I were you’d be the first to know. But why do you ask?”, she asked.
“Well, it that case, I too would like you to be the first to know if I am seeing someone”, he said.
“So, are you seeing someone?”, she asked grinning.
“Well, yes”, he said looking down and making prints on the sand with his shoe.
“Who?”, asked Ria widening her grin.
“Promise you won’t tell anybody”, he said.
“Cmon”, she said.
“There is this girl in our class”, he said.
“Our class? Who?”, asked Ria.
“Does she like you too?”
“Well that is what I want to find out and I need your help for that.”
“Sure I am all yours. Tell me who is she and I’ll let you know if she likes you.”
“What if she doesn’t?”
“C’mon who wouldn’t like you? If she doesn’t I’ll make her.” Sanjay hugged Ria. “I’ll tell you later”, he said and cycled away. Ria stood there staring after him. She shook her head and laughed. She felt that funny. Her best friend seeing someone. She chuckled to herself.
In the evening she was sitting in Adila’s house lost in thoughts. “What?”, asked Adila. “Nothing”, said Ria smiling. “C’mon out with it”, said Adila. “Really nothing”, she said. “Ok if you say so”, said Adila giving her a sly look. Ria just laughed. She was itching to tell Adila but Sanjay had asked her not to. Adila kept staring at her.
“Ok ok but promise you won’t tell anyone”, she said.
“You have my word”, said Adila pulling her chair closer to Ria. She loved gossips.
“Did you know Sanjay likes someone”, she said.
“What? Tell me more. Give me the dirt.”
“Oh I don’t know who it is, he said she is from our class and wants my help in finding out if she likes him back.”
“Yeah what does he think you are? FBI? But then,… how will you find out if you don’t even know who she is?”
“He said he’ll tell me that later.”
“I think its Anu.”
“What? How do you know?”
“Well, I’ve seen him talking to her couple of times.”
“Trash, he talks to everyone in the class.”
“Ooh ooh I think I know. It’s Preeti.”
“Preeti? Four eyed Preeti?”
“You are nuts. He’d never go for her.”
“Hmmm this is nerve racking. Aren’t you dying to know who it is?”
“How do we find out?”
“He’ll tell me and then I’ll tell you.”
“How do I know?”
“Girl you are useless.”
The next few days Sanjay acted as if he had never told her anything. Ria kept pestering him to tell and he only smiled back at her naughtily.
One Saturday they had extra classes. They decided to head to the grove directly from class. “How do you lose these people?”, she asked him. Their entire gang usually rode back home together every day after class.
“We’ll ride along with them and then break off on our own”, he said.
They lost their friends soon enough. They rode on the long road that hadn’t changed a bit in all these years. Ria was wondering if no one was travelling on this road why was this road even made. The thatched huts too hadn’t changed. A new railway track had come in between the road and the grove but there were seldom any trains on that track.
They parked their bicycles in the usual spot and crossed over the barbed fence which was now sagging and rusty. Ria wondered if in all these years no one was here, then who put the barbed wire fence. Not a single soul had come to the grove in all these years except for them. They walked to their usual spot. They didn’t even have to mark the trees now. They knew their way blindfolded. They sat in their usual spot by the pond.
“So, tell me now”, she said.
“Tell you what?”, he asked.
“About that girl.”
He just smiled.
“Oh c’mon now enough of all the suspense. “
He just smiled again.
“Ok give me clues atleast”, she said.
“Ok, she is fair, has brown hair brown eyes, about five feet and three inches tall, is good at studies and a very good friend of mine.”
“Hmm… oh oh is it Sonam?”
“No you fool.”
Ria scratched her chin thinking. “Ok what does her name start with?”
“R? Lets see there’s Reshma, Rihana, Rosy Mae, Ritu.”
“Her name ends with an A.”
“Ok so that narrows it down to Reshma and Rihana.”
“It’s a four letter word.”
“Four letter word, starting with R, ending with A. Only I stand in that category.”
He smiled again.
“What?”, she asked him, her eyes going wide with shock.
He laughed this time his ears going red.
“Are you crazy?”, she asked.
“Why what’s wrong?”, he asked.
Ria couldn’t stop smiling either. “Well, I have never thought of you that way”, she said.
“It’s not like I am asking you for an answer right now or something. You can think and let me know when ever you want”, he said twirling a leaf in his hand.
Ria smiled. She felt very different. She had a funny feeling in her stomach. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him. She looked down and kept smiling.
“What?”, he asked.
She leaned over and kissed him on his cheek
“Is that a yes?”, he asked.
It was Ria’s turn to keep smiling silently. Both of them kept grinning at each other not knowing what to do next.
“Since how long?”, she asked.
“Over a year I guess”, he said.
“And you are telling me now, when we have just about four more months left in this school.”
“Better late than never”, he said.
“I think its getting late” , she said getting up to leave.
“Hey”, he said holding her hand. They had held hands so many times before, but this gave Ria goosebumps. “Can we meet tomorrow?”, he asked.
“Call me”, she said.
They rode back in silence giving each other stolen looks.
Ria reached her house and looked over at Adila’s house debating if she should tell her. She was bursting from within. She decided to put it off until later. She couldn’t stop smiling. She didn’t even know if it was right or wrong to have a boyfriend at her age. She went straight into her room and closed the door. She lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. She just couldn’t think straight. She had a hot shower and had her dinner.
“Are you going to sleep now?,” her father asked.
“No papa, I am going to study for a bit”, she said.
“Ok I will be up for a while, if you have any doubts you can ask me. And Ria, I suggest you go through those basic trigonometry formulae once more. You are always confused with that one.”
“Yes Papa”, she said. Ria’s father took over her tutoring at home by himself. He too had fallen in love with this place and had made an arrangement with his administration to let him stay here for the rest of his tenure.
“Papa, I have homework to finish, can I do the formulae tomorrow?”, she asked.
“Ok, then I suggest tomorrow we’ll sit together and finish your math syllabus. Don’t forget it’s your board exams that you will be giving this year and your first preparatory is just around the corner.”
“Yes papa”, she said.
“Why are you scaring her?”, her mother said. “The board doesn’t have two horns does it? Ria consider it as any other final exam you’ve been giving so far and you’ll do well. People fail to do well in their boards because they get scared by the name – Boards. You just do your best beta and that is enough for us.”
“Well I never pressurized her did I?”, her father asked feeling a little guilty that his wife made things seem more simple for Ria. “No you didn’t and I am asking you not to either. She is a big girl, she can study on her own.”
“No mama, I need papa’s help”, said Ria not wanting her father to get hurt. He was a very sensitive man when it came to his daughter. He had always spoiled her. Once at a family wedding, someone told him not to be so fond of his daughter since one day she will get married and move out and belong to someone else and he will be left all alone. That night her father had tossed and turned in bed and even cried until his wife hit him on the head with a pillow.
Ria went into her room and closed the door. She sat at her study table and opened her school diary to see what was the homework given for the weekend. Of late her weekend homework only consisted of studying for tests. There was a lot of pressure from everywhere about doing well in the tenth boards. Her mother was right, it was just another final exam. There was nothing to be scared of. The time was half past nine. Ria sat drumming her nails on the table. There was something in her stomach. Some weird feeling. The phone rang and she jumped. But she waited for her father to answer it.
A minute later he came and gave the phone to her. “It’s for you”, he said and went back to his news.
“Hello?”, she said.
“Hey”, he said.
His voice sounded different. Or maybe she felt it that ways. It gave her goosebumps all over.
“Hey”, she said.
“Your voice has never sounded sweeter”, he said.
“Why did you call?”, she asked.
“I couldn’t sleep”, he said.
“Of course you can’t. It’s just half past nine you idiot”, she said trying to sound her usual self but she was shivering with excitement from within.
“Yeah I know, I normally sleep by nine and then get up at four to study”, he said.
“Lie down and count sheep, you’ll sleep soon enough.”
“I want to see you”, he whispered.
“Why are you whispering?”., she asked.
“Because my parents don’t know I am calling you. They think I am asleep”, he said.
“I want to see you”, he whispered again.
“Come home tomorrow”, she said.
“And do what?”, he asked. “Your father will keep asking me how am I preparing. Makes me feel awkward. He’s not the same ever since we started tenth.” Ria laughed. “Yeah he gets a little paranoid. He likes you”, she said. “Yeah whatever”, he said.
“Tell you what. Dad is going to be teaching me trigonometry tomorrow. Why don’t you too come over and we’ll do it together?”, she suggested.
“Sounds ok to me. Anything to be with you”, he said.
“Ok try and sleep now. If you don’t sleep it’ll take longer for tomorrow to come”, she said.
“Ria”, he said.
“I love you.”
She smiled and blushed. “I’ll see you tomorrow”, she said and hung up.
She sat smiling. She felt very queer in her stomach. She wanted to tell someone about it. She was growing restless.
She walked out of the room and put the phone back in its hook. “Papa”, she said.
“Yes beta?”, he said his eyes still on the TV.
“Sanjay was asking if he could come over tomorrow to learn Trigonometry from you”, she said.
“Of course of course. I’d be glad to teach anyone baby. You can ask your other friends too”, he said. He loved teaching and he loved to please his daughter more than anything else.
Ria laughed and sat down beside him. “Papa, you ought to resign from this job and become a math teacher”, she said. “Yeah I should’ve done that sometime ago. I could’ve taught in your school”, he said putting his arm around his daughter.
She sat there with him for some time trying to forget Sanjay. “Aren’t you doing your homework?”, he asked.
“Nothing much papa. Just a Biology test on Monday and I’ve already studied for that”, she said.
“Then study something else”, he said.
“I don’t feel like it tonight”, she said.
“Ok”, he said. It was very rare that his daughter was not in the mood to study so he didn’t mind letting her off for one night. And she had been doing pretty well in her studies all along. That was all that mattered.
“Do you want to watch something else?”, he asked
“No, I just want to sit here with you”, she said
He kissed her on her forehead. “Come, lie down on papa’s lap”, he said.
She lay down and watched TV. Nothing registered in her mind. Her mind was full of what Sanjay had said. The “I love you” part made her body tingle.
“You cold beta? Shall I get a throw or something?”, he asked.
“No papa I am fine”, she said yawning.
“You are sleepy. Come let me take you to bed”, he said.
He tucked her in and kissed her goodnight.
“Papa”, she said.
He turned and looked at her.
“Can I have that ceiling with those stars and moon and everything?”, she asked.
“ What’s that?”, he asked.
“I saw it in Preeti’s room. They paint the ceiling with fluorescent paint and when you turn off the lights, you can see stars and the moon and everything.”
“Oh sounds lovely. I’ll find out who can do it for us. Sleep now”, he said closing the door behind him as he left the room.
He went into his room. His wife was in bed reading. “She wants that painted ceiling”, he said laughing. “What painted ceiling?”, she asked.
“It seems she saw it in a friend’s room. When you turn the lights off you can see stars on the ceiling. Makes you feel like you’re lying down under the open sky or something I suppose.”
His wife put away her book and sat up. “Please can we have that in our room as well?”, she asked. He laughed. “I feel like I have two children. Alright I’ll find out tomorrow”, he said kissing his wife goodnight.