Fire & ice

Travelling back to the hotel after a long day’s flying, Suhail gazed out the window at the fleeting images of frosty Frankfurt in the late European winter. Frequent layovers in this city had left him with little interest for anything aside from an occasional capuccino at the nearest Starbucks. He returned to his phone, thumbing through the numerous WhatsApp conversations piled up from the 7-hour flight from Delhi. His eyes darted down the long list of new messages, looking for the only one that interested him these days. As always, Rachel’s latest profile pic caught his eye.

Rachel Fernandes, the young & beautiful Sales Manager from The Wyndham Hotel in downtown Frankfurt, had become his local ‘Google Guide’ at Frankfurt over the last few weeks. They became friends after his airline’s country manager, a distant relative of Rachel from her mother’s side, introduced them over a couple of beers in a local brewery. She seemed to have an uncanny ability to read Suhail’s mind and always offer ‘best advice’ before he could even complete his question. Thousands of miles away from Shruti, his loving wife of 12 years, Suhail’s exchanges with Rachel over the last few layovers covered topics from local cuisine & headache remedies to mutual funds and single malts – subjects that didn’t find any favour with Shruti – except headache, which was Shruti’s constant gripe. Rachel’s background in economics from Delhi University and her Indian-American banker father’s connections had landed her with an assignment with Deutsche Bank at Frankfurt. But she soon found both the job as well as the banker crowd way outside her spectrum and far too boring. ‘People who love numbers but can’t read heartbeats’ was her description for all bankers. Her vivacious nature and love for being around people made her switch tracks to a sales & marketing role in the hospitality industry. Her lissome 5’8″ frame and Punjabi-American looks would have found better traction in Bollywood, Suhail often teased her. Facebook friend requests followed, though Rachel warned him of her ‘persona non grata’ status on FB due to her openly critical, anti-establishment posts and strong feminist views. Soon she was in his LinkedIn network too. Her ‘bindass’ attitude was a stark contrast to Shruti’s mild manners & reserved nature. This only fuelled Suhail’s interest in her during an increasingly lonely phase in his life after having ascended to Captaincy on the long haul Boeing 777s. He no longer felt welcome in his old group of freak out cabin crew and wannabe first officers.

When he asked Rachel out to dinner one evening through a ‘game for a quiet sushi dinner with me?” message on WhatsApp, her reply was just a bunch of animal emoticons that left him puzzled. Suhail bravely took it as a yes. She later told him she had meant ‘go farming’. But she was all dressed and ready for him at 8pm. Her strikingly bold black backless dress set her beautiful face against the azure sky, aflame with the setting sun.
“You look beautiful!” Suhail gasped.
“Tell me something I don’t know yet, Captain”, she quipped.

Their discussion over dinner at the local ‘Sushi Kaiser’ restaurant ranged from micro-economics that Suhail understood little about, political history of Germany, friends, homesickness, freedom that comes with a well-paying job in Europe and everything in between. Suhail ventured little information about the fact that he was a happily married man with a wonderful daughter. Rachel showed little interest apart from the ‘what do you do when not playing Tom Cruise’ inquiry.

Their WhatsApp conversations extended late into the night, long after dinner was closed at the restaurant and Wyndham. It meandered across empty but persuasive ‘thanks for a wonderful time’ to ‘haven’t had a better time in ages’ and finally reached where all such conversations are prone to end up when two individuals with a common unmet desire meet over WhatsApp.

Suhail’s roster didn’t include a layover at Frankfurt for the next three weeks. That only fuelled their new found outlet for venting romantic feelings. More text messages followed with an occasional exchange of selfies. Rachel declined requests for video calls initially, citing client meetings & workplace rules. But soon they were calling almost daily. She usually didn’t cave in easily to his requests for dinner together. But soon a tough weekend with difficult guests left her craving for a stiff shot of single malt and a soft shoulder. Suhail offered both – something he hadn’t offered Shruti in years. The Hunky Dory Bar, a noisy pub two blocks away provided perfect cover for cooling her frayed nerves and Suhail thought how he hadn’t enjoyed such a good time in a long while. Their late night conversations crossed new barriers that night as Suhail lay in bed, his nerves tingling with the excitement of amorous platitudes coming over the phone. Both of them were victims of extreme loneliness in a foreign land despite hundreds of FB friends and connections; companionship was their common unfulfilled need.

Suhail’s next few layovers at Frankfurt was arranged through his friendly roster manager to coincide with Rachel’s weekly day off or opportune weekends. A small B&B on the outskirts of Darmstadt nested the two lovebirds where their fiery passion played itself out, punctuated by long walks down the streets of the ‘City of Science’.

Towards the end of the fourth such getaway, Rachel told him about her tentative plans to move in with him to India. It’s time to take the relationship to the next level, she said. “I have no qualms about living in; I am not a desi – and maybe, just maybe – I am in love with you”, she added looking at the ceiling. Suhail felt sudden shivers running up his spine. This one was not going as per script. But he squeezed her hand nevertheless and gave her a peck on the cheek, his mind racing faster than his hormones could.

As he rotated the aircraft’s nose on takeoff roll from Frankfurt’s runway 34, his mind was turbulent from last night’s exchange, much like the stormy weather lined up for most of the return flight to New Delhi’s IGI airport. He had been non-committal but calmy receptive to her plan. It was not an easy choice. His casual friendship had breached some boundaries in faraway Germany. Bringing it to home shore would sound the death knell for his 12-year long marriage. And God knows Shruti was the one he was firmly in love with. How to end this before it does further damage, he wondered as his copilot handled radio with area control, oblivious to his Captain’s source of indifference on this flight. Once settled into the cruise, he slowly deleted all messages from Rachel and cleaned up the gallery, a practice he had recently started on all homeward bound flights. Shruti was least interested and most unsuspecting. But Aanchal, their 8 year old daughter was always toying with his phone and her curiosity sometimes extended beyond candy crush saga.

By the time Suhail touched down at Delhi’s IGI airport, his mind was weary from random thoughts of where his affair could be headed. Very few messages showed up on his phone due to time zone difference. But Rachel’s one liner made his hair stand on end “come back soon. I need you”. Suhail bit his lip and hit delete, almost a post-landing check that it had become.

“Hi Soo…Welcome back! See what I found!” Shruti beamed, holding up two music cassettes as she gave him a warm tight hug.

Suhail’s mind raced back a few years when he would lovingly spend hours recording Shruti’s choicest tracks onto music cassettes and courier them. It was courtship before advent of WhatsApp and YouTube. He used to even record loving messages in between songs. Somehow, all that seemed very distant now, like some old soap opera which had run its course. Suhail slowly released himself from Shruti’s grip “Honey, I am dog tired and need to sleep”
“Of course soo, I was just thinking how lucky I am to have you with me. Good night, your bed is ready. I still have some work, you go sleep”, Shruti replied, letting go with a small peck on his cheeks.
Disturbed over the turn of events, Suhail tossed and turned in bed; his mind a cauldron of thoughts. His next layover wasn’t until next week, coinciding with Aanchal’s Christmas break. His promise of taking Shruti & Aanchal to Europe needed careful thought. Rachel kept turning up in every plan that he mulled. Should he tell her that he cannot continue the relationship?

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