He saw her across the crowded room… She was mysterious… And so familiar…

His sunken eyes, pale face and sharp teeth drawing blood belied despair. Silhouetted against the moonlight, he stared at the stormy waves, as the cool night breeze caressed his cheeks. He felt the softness of the stranger’s kiss and shuddered.

“Oh Aru! How I miss you!” Sudhir silently cried. His longing couldn’t quell the pangs of guilt that surged through him. But Aru would never know, would she? She was thousands of miles away. He closed his gritty eyes and his mind automatically veered to the other night…

As he strode down the graveled path to Carol’s beach house, he felt uneasy amidst the hedonistic surrounding. But Carol was his only link with Aru, and he didn’t want to miss any chance… Besides, Carol was good fun.

He stood at the door, adjusting his vampire outfit, plagued with second thoughts about going to the party. He’d almost turned back, when a stunning Cleopatra opened the door. “Wow! Count Dracula himself! I’m honoured,” Carol’s lilting murmur flowed through. She looked gorgeous, from her sensuous smile right down to her cleavage, a la Elizabeth Taylor.

“Come on in and join the fun!” she sing-songed, handing him a drink. He looked around. Through the tinkling glasses and inebriated laughter, he heard a familiar voice. He turned around and saw Khanna, a crashing bore. “Not him!” he groaned to himself. “So tell me…”

One round of drinks and he was already feeling heady. “I need some fresh air,” he muttered to himself, and went out to the balcony. He gazed at the clear sky and felt as lonely as the stars above. That’s how he’d been feeling for the last two years.

Deep, abiding loneliness. He felt so uncomfortable among his friends—they’d all come with their wives. “Why do I bother with these parties?” he asked himself thinking about all the boring ones he’d been to lately. He couldn’t take it any more—he just had to leave. And as he turned, his glance fell on her.

Dressed like an exotic bird, she had all the trappings of a beautiful temptress. Oblivious to the admiring glances she was attracting, she continued to delicately sip her drink. There was something mysterious, something fascinating, something so familiar about her. Their eyes met, clashed and she started, in surprise. And suddenly, her surprise gave way to a bewitching smile.

“Hi! Want to join me?”
Before he could reply, she was beside him with a drink.
“Your Count Dracula getup is cool. You could’ve even scared a bat!” she laughed. “How about taking a walk on the beach?”
“It is quite suffocating here. Actually, I was just about to leave. But… why not?” he murmured.

They walked silently with only the flow and ebb of the waves interrupting their silence. And then she spoke.
“Goan beaches aren’t like the Californian ones. But they’re just so beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Been there, have you?”
“Once, when I was a child. Married?”
“So how come you’re alone tonight?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Want to talk about it?”

And so the conversation went. Short questions, shorter answers. Neither felt the need for lengthy explanations. And in the process, he realized that she was just as lonely as he was. It was their loneliness that drew them together. They reached the end of the beach.

As they turned back, Sudhir stumbled a little. She held him close. His head started spinning—and it had nothing to do with the drinks. It had been so long since he’d felt a woman’s touch. He couldn’t contain himself—he kissed her.

They were standing near a beach hut. Sudhir offered no resistance when she took his hand and led him in.

As his lips pressed against hers in the dark, he felt her gown slip. Before he knew what was happening, their bodies were entwined in a passionate embrace. His last thought before losing control was that he’d never experienced such ecstasy before.

In the wake of their smouldering kisses, his estrangement with Aru didn’t matter anymore. His depression had finally found mind-numbing release. Exhausted, he fell asleep.

When he woke up after a few hours, she was gone. As he lay on the bed staring emptily at the ceiling, a voice broke his reverie.
“I see you’ve had quite an eventful night.” It was Carol.
“Err, well, umm… It was…,” he fumbled.
“Relax! It’s okay. I won’t spill the beans. It happens to the best of us. Just wanted to tell you the party’s over. Everyone’s going homw. I was just wondering where you’d got to. Ciao!” And she went back.

Sudhir looked at his watch. It was four in the morning. It was high time he left, he thought. And suddenly, he came back to the present.
“Should I tell Aru? Will Carol tell her?” Worried, he got into his car.
As he turned into his drive, he saw a light in the kitchen. He walked towards the open patio doors.

Arundhati was there, sitting in the lounge, calmly sipping coffee. “Oh great!” he thought—she always had a great sense of timing!
“I’m glad you’ve been enjoying yourself in my absence. Want some coffee?”
Sudhir looked at his crumpled clothes guiltily.
He could imagine what he looked like. Aru could always see right through him. Abruptly, she got up to leave.
“Wait, Aru! Don’t leave… Don’t get me wrong… When did you get back?”
“Does it matter?” she asked, bleakly.
“Why did you return?”
“I had to know something, before we parted. I wanted to know if there was something worth salvaging.”
She started to walk to the door.
“Aru… Please! Don’t jump to conclusions. Let me explain…”
She didn’t stop, didn’t turn.
“Forget it.”
And the door was slammed shut. His breath came in short, laboured gasps, and he went out to get some fresh air.

Outside, the air was rent with the smell of smoke. He ran to the backyard.
All that remained in the burning embers of a slowly dying fire were ashes, remnants of bird feathers and a couple of broken shells.

And, as realization dawned, he crumpled into a heap on the ground.

(This short story won first prize in the Femina magazine fiction contest of 1996)