I am the bespectacled nerd. Nondescript. Blink, and you miss—nothing to write about, ignored all the time. The only reason people turn and give me a second glance is when I open my mouth and answer a question on photodynamics. The entire blame does not lie on them. I make every effort to blend into the wall.
But, Preeti. She is different. She sees me, listens to me even when I don't say a thing. Her face lights up when I squeak about the nature of bonds in aromatic hydrocarbons, breathless in her presence. Preeti sets off a pretty rainbow-colored butterfly in my stomach when she is in the same room. She slides next to me on all our lab or workshop rotations, like today.
The anxious wait is worth my while. Today, Preeti is the yellow butterfly that swirls and twirls in my grandma's garden in spring. She is wearing a below-knee yellow sundress with a red and white flower print. Preeti walks in, smiling and greeting her friends, bright and chirpy. Until the black moth, Rahul accosts her. He blocks her path. "Looking pretty, Ms. Preeti. Why don't you join me on the workbench today? We could do some pretty things."
My fingers curl around the wrench. If only I were six feet, with an additional twenty kilos of muscle on my body, I would wrestle the leering idiot to the ground. However, a spectacle-wearing five-foot-five waif does not a good hero make. But my Preeti is a warrior. She scowls at Rahul. "I have better things to do." I watch in awe as she pushes him aside and walks toward me.
Every step is dignified and poised. Head held high, Preeti struts like a queen. Rahul's piercing glare interjects the orbit of my roaming eyes. His intense gaze on Preeti, lusting and drooling. Why do boys do this? Objectify girls.
Yeah, so what are you doing? My rational brain swats my thoughts, reminding me that I am the bunsen burner, blaming the flame for the soot. Am I any different from Rahul? I should stop gawking at Preeti.
You are not a bad boy, Akhil. Nani's voice echoes in my head. Right. My grandma did not teach me to ogle girls. Nani never led me wrong, and her words matter. She is my entire universe after my mother died giving birth to me. My father was never in the scene. I am not sure he even knows I exist. My Nani is the only parent I have in my life. She was so proud when I qualified for the Indian Institute of Technology, the premier engineering college in Delhi. I want to give the world to my grandmother. Be the cane in her old age.
"Hi Akhil, what are we doing today? Have you worked out on the design?"
Preeti breaks my spiraling thoughts. She hangs her bag on the chair next to me and places the lab file on the wooden tabletop. Nerd allergy is a boon at such times. No one wants to sit beside me, leaving the seat vacant for Preeti. Once she settles, we go over our day's assignment.
"Akhil, I was thinking about the project concept you shared yesterday. It's exciting, and I want to be your project partner." Preeti's voice is so melodious.
My heart flutters at Preeti's appreciation. I can't control my smile as the realization hits me. Building the flexible extension chair for the project with her will mean spending more time with Preeti. "Yes," I blurt out, yapping like an eager puppy.
The next hour at the workshop flies in excitement. The concept came to me watching Nani struggle to bend to pick up objects from the floor or handle the jars on high shelves. The design was simple, a square seat with the legs made of hollow cylinders which would collapse or expand into each other depending on what one wanted to do. A simple navigation switch connected to an electrical circuit will enable anyone without technical skills to use the mechanized chair. Preeti helping me would add the sprinkle to my project. She would become part of my gift for Nani.
"Let's meet after the evening classes to work out the details." I control my voice while placing my files and books in my bag—no point in sounding too eager. I have to be discreet to win Preeti. Show her even a small-town boy has poise. I may not be the flamboyant, big film city alpha jock Rahul, but my Nani raised me to be a gentleman.
"Umm, some other time. I am busy today." Preeti gathers her stuff and waves goodbye before leaving with her friends. Rahul glares at me and walks a few paces behind her.
"Why are you sulking?" Ashima, my friend, confronts me. "Isn't your project working out?"
"Umm, some technical snags in the circuit, but nothing which I can't sort out. We still have time to submit our final models."
"Hmm, so what is causing the itch?" Ashima understands me too well. I can't hide from her. She is the only other girl who talks to me. On the first day of college, Ashima came up and offered support.
I was lost in more ways than one. The size of the college overwhelmed me. Students arriving in sleek cars, scooters, and motorcycles made me squirm. I did not own a bicycle even back home, depending on ten rupees per trip city tempo travelers to navigate the busy Kanpur streets. A total of twenty rupees a day to and back from school were a luxury. I did not want to burden Nani. She worked in the failing local textile mill. She managed to keep her job during layoffs because of her record as a hard worker.
Students were with their parents while I was alone. We could not afford a train ticket for two, and a hotel room was out of the question. I managed to change and freshen up at the New Delhi Railway station. How could I expect Nani to do the same? She was ready to take a loan, but I put my foot down. Nani's finances were already in the red due to my extra classes to prepare for my engineering entrance exam.
The English everyone rattled off added another layer to my sense of being an outcast. I had not heard some of the fancy Delhi lingoes. The admission officer I interacted with gave me funny looks when I spoke to him in what the Delhites call my 'UP wallah' English. Unable to handle all this insult to my senses, I stood outside the office, in a corner leaning against the red brick pillar, contemplating my course of action.
Ashima walked up and calmed me down with her first words. Dressed in a simple sky blue salwar kameez, with a friendly smile, she spoke in Hindi. A language I understood. Ashima helped me navigate the process. We became friends, sharing all our worries. At least mine. Ashima has the right keys to unlock my mind.
"I saw Rahul ask Preeti to a date." I blurt, squeezing my eyes to prevent the tear from trickling down.
"Oh. Did Preeti agree?" Ashima's voice is soft and caressing.
Small comfort but not enough to soothe the burn of jealousy. "I don't know. I didn't. I couldn't stay to hear Preeti's answer."
Ashima huffs and shakes her head. "So you assumed that Preeti said yes."
I nod even though I realize my idiocy, rushing out of the class like a petulant child.
"Why don't you ask Preeti out on a date?"
"What? Me. How can I?"
"Why can't you?" Ashima retorts. She lets out another sigh. "Listen, you work with Preeti during all the labs. She is your project partner. You should ask her."
"Working on projects is different. It is science, involves maths and electrical circuits. Things I am good at."
"But asking her out is English literature." Ashima interrupts and giggles at her joke.
"Shuddup. It is complicated, relationships do not fit into any equation, and I have no prior experience." I nudge her foot with mine to stop her uninterrupted giggles.
"Ok, sorry. Serious." Ashima raises her hands in surrender at my scowl. "There is a way to gain experience. I can lend you a few romance novels if you want." Ashima wiggles her eyebrows making me coil into myself in embarrassment.
The books will have kisses and sex scenes, at least the ones my roomie, Harshit, reads. He has found a quick way to rush me out of the room; Harshit reads the dialogues aloud, making me squirm. The first few times, I drowned his voice, increasing the volume to the meditation music blaring through my headphones. Harshit became louder, leaving me no option but to walk out of the room. Who wants to listen to his 'mmphs, oh yes baby,' and four-letter cusses. I could not allow Harshit to corrupt my ears.
I am such a virgin. How will I face Ashima again if she lends me a book like Harshit's? She would know what all I read. Anyways, at this moment, I only need guidance on how to ask Preeti on a date, not about kissing or what happens behind the doors. "I will think about it."
Ashima smirks, "Want to share lunch." She opens her tiffin and offers the chicken sandwich made by her mother, making my mouth water at the spicy aroma wafting out of her lunch box. My Nani makes them the best, but she is miles away in Kanpur. Which hostler in their right mind will refuse homemade food? I grab the bread slices wrapped in aluminum foil without any hesitation. "Mmm, it's always yummy. Thanks." The simple two bread slice sandwich with chicken pieces and green chutney is better than anything the hostel chefs can cook. We gobble the four sandwiches in no time and then walk to our afternoon class.
My bad luck, Preeti is sitting in the front row surrounded by her friends. But what upsets me more is the dark lord seated a row behind her, arms stretched out on the sides. Rahul's smug face infuriates me. I stomp off to the back and wait my time.
The moment the class ends, I rush out and catch Preeti. "Hey, we need to talk."
She shrugs, 'about what."
"Umm, the snag we hit yesterday. We should brainstorm to find a solution."
"Oh. But you are the technical expert. I am sure once you sit down and put your genius brain to work, the snag will be no snag in no time."
Her friends giggle. Preeti admonishes them with the tilt of her eyebrows.
"But we are partners. We need to collaborate." I try my best not to squirm at the stares of the girl gang with Preeti.
"Amit, you are the best. You work the technical stuff, and I will do all the writing. Isn't this what we agreed?" Preeti places her hand on my arm, sending a current through my body. It happens all the time. My mind's fuse blows out at her touch.
"Ok. I will work it out, and we can catch up tomorrow."
Preeti smiles and waves before accompanying her friends to the coffee house, their post-class hang out. I never go there. It is too loud and crowded. Most important of all, it is expensive—a waste of my Nani's hard-earned money. A hand swats my head, breaking me out of my stupor, watching Preeti sashay her way in the corridor.
Rahul. Uff. How do I get rid of this bully? He turns and winks at me as he follows the rest of the class to the coffee house. I adjust my glasses that almost fell off and turn in the opposite direction. Find solutions fast, Amit or else.
Ashima's idea latches into my brain. In the evening, I take a detour to the local library outside the college. It's a pity the library only allows you to loan three books at a time. With great reluctance, I return the book on advanced calculus to complete my quota for the week. I hurry to hide in my room, informing Chotu, in the hostel mess, to send my dinner to my room. I will pay the kitchen help an extra ten rupees for this favor.
The next day, my palms are sweating in anticipation. I go through the notes I made from the two most informative books, The Right Swipe and Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating. The third was so-so, filled with erotic scenes. I skipped most of it.
"What are you reading? Is this a new project?" Preeti pulls my notebook, but my reflexes are fast enough to slam my hand on the page and extricate the notes from her. Preeti is surprised. She plants her hands on her hips, "what are you trying to hide?"
"It is nothing. I was writing a letter to Nani." I hurry and hide the notebook in my bag. "Let's start with the day's experiment."
Preeti studies my face with suspicion but does not press further. The chemistry experiment to determine the functional groups in the given organic compound keeps us busy—no opportunity to say the practiced words. Lab and I always had easy reactions. Me and romance. Argh! I am in desperate need of a catalyst.
A day later, I drum up the courage to ask Preeti out while turning the handle on the bench vice in our fitting workshop. Ok, don't roll your eyes. Yesterday night, I practiced a lot. A whole lot, pacing my shoebox hostel room, working out permutations and combinations of words to use, fending off curious glances from Harshit, mumbling the words from my notes hidden between the organic chemistry book. Thank god for the scheduled test this week. At least the excuse got Harshit off my back. Gosh, if only English could be formulaic like numbers.
But, when the opportunity presents, despite rehearsing the cheesy lines from romance novels, I blurt out, "The Astrophysics book club is bunking class to visit the planetarium. Would you want to join them?"
Them, not me. Would you want to join me? The two-letter word clings to the edges of my lips, refusing to come out, leaving my voice box no choice but to finish with a neutral pronoun. Pretty Preeti blinks, adding with a shy smile. "Why not?"
The following two days fly in imagination. My hopes come crashing down at the bus stop. "You won't mind if my brother joins us? Ravi is preparing for his engineering entrance next year."
Do I have a choice? The romance book had no mention of such a scenario.
In the darkened dome, while the narrator rattles off the limits of the universe, I grit my teeth. The extent of my romantic Heliosphere irritating me. Ravi, a seventeen-year-old twice my size, is sitting between Preeti and me, serving as termination shock thwarting any forays to cross the edge.
Success did bestow its smile on me. Practice does make one perfect. Ok, not a hundred percent perfect. At least Preeti and I went out a few times, even if only with a group of friends. Things will change today.
We have been together for the past four years. Our project won the Interuniversity innovation prize, and we both placed in the top five of our class. The job placements will start soon, and I want to make sure Preeti and I choose the same city.
Time is running out, and Ashima was adamant I should not wait any longer. Harshit went on about some second chance romance stuff after ten years. The guy needs to temper his addiction to his novels. With the two of them breathing down my neck, I came up with an idea.
Today is Preeti's birthday. She is throwing a grand party. The last birthday we celebrate together unless I convince her unless she has the same feelings for me, the desire to meet every day, the excitement and accelerated heart rate for each other's company. I poured each thump of my beating heart into the words on this card.
All our familiar friends are here and some more. I look around the gathering of twenty-odd people till my eyes land on Rahul. He smirks and waves. Why is he here? Ignoring him, I walk up to Preeti and hand her my birthday card. She smiles and opens the envelope.
"Oh," Preeti gasps.
"Is something wrong?" My eyebrows creased in worry. I had double-checked everything.
"No, nothing. Thank you so much. I got a similar card from someone else." Preeti places my card back in the envelope without any reaction to the words I have penned for her. Preeti put's it along with the bunch of cards on the table next to her. She takes out a pink envelope with a floral pattern matching my card from her purse and hands it to me.
Confused, I open the flap of hand-crafted paper and pull out the card. Holy God, the tiny paper cut hearts, and pink flowers surrounding her photo from our class picnic hit me in the gut. With shaking hands, I flip the card open. On the left side is a poem starting with the words, 'my love.' The letters burn my eyes, and the writing blurs when I read the name scribbled at the bottom on the right side. 'From your one and only love, Rahul.'
Is this a coincidence? Or is it a message? How can two diametrically opposite personalities pick the same card? And the words, 'your one love,' pierce my chest, grabbing my heart in a vice-like grip and choking the life out of it. Had I been so clueless all this while, blinded by the rose-tinted love-smitten glasses? Unable to see the actual colors of life.
I need fresh air. A voice inside my head scolds me, walk away before anyone scoffs at the hurt on your face. The smirk on Preeti's face shreds my heart. Gulping down the pain, I thank her and say my final goodbye. This, whatever this was, budding between us, was never meant to be. We were not meant for each other.
Hate gives way to anger, but both are engulfed and drowned by sadness. No, I will not cry and attract attention. I am the nondescript nerd—a blend in the crowd, ordinary boy. Undeserving of pretty things. Like Preeti.
Photo credits- Unsplash