Manu placed the card on the table. His lean fingers pushed it to her side.
“Can’t,” she said softly, her eyes fixed on the card.
She had known he would ask, and he had known she would turn him down. Yet he still asked... just in case.
“I get it, Lela,” he said, raising an eyebrow, his lips twisting a little. He had a way with his words and mien. They were always condescending. She couldn’t stand it.
An awkward silence passed between them.
She lifted her eyes from the gold-lettered card to the pithy sayings that peppered the restaurant’s walls. It was almost as though the restaurateur had anticipated such unsettling moments and had them printed on the wall.
Lela tried one more time. “It would never –”
“– work? I know the speech.”
“It’s not about money.”
“I know. Just think of it as a safety net.”
Another awkward moment of silence passed between them. Manu sat up, cleared his throat but said nothing. He reached for his napkin and folded it, neatly touching opposite edges together. He pressed his palm down the fold and smoothed the napkin before folding it down to the smallest square.
“Shall I drop you off?”
“Well, goodbye Lela.”
Manu hurriedly stood up and adjusted his suit about his lean frame. He took one step towards her, bent forward and kissed her forehead lightly. He was gone in a flash.
Lela exhaled, her fingers tracing the gold lettering on the shiny black bank card.
“Would you like anything else, Ma’am?”
She shook her head watching the waiter meticulously clear the table. Cutlery, plates, napkins were whisked away to the kitchen. He returned, placing a saucer with a single mint chocolate bar on her right before taking away the water glasses. She slipped Manu’s card into her purse, picked up the chocolate bar and left.
Outside the restaurant, Lela considered going straight home but decided to go see Dez instead. She had picked him over Manu... and it seemed a fitting end to the evening. A quick WhatsApp would establish whether he was home.
“Wanted to come over.”
Lela resisted the tightening in her mouth. What was she supposed to say? “I just turned down a proposal and I’m feeling needy?” No!
Her fingers played over the letters on her phone screen but she couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t sound almost as pathetic. Her phone buzzed.
“Bring some chips or something.”
She hated the relief that flooded her, then immediately hated that she hated it. Minutes later, she walked into Dez’s bedsitter, greasy packages in hand and felt herself relax. Dez lay on the bed reading and tweeting.
“How is sour puss?”
“He’s my oldest friend.”
Dez got off the bed in a single bound, grabbed the takeaway bags, smacking his lips on hers with a satisfied mwah.
“Sweet! Deep fried chicken. You’re the man!”
Lela watched him eat. Soon half his face would be shiny from the grease. He ate and talked at the same time, gesturing wildly, needing an audience for the ideas that consumed him. She revelled in all the simplicity. Nothing was required of her but an applause, a standing ovation. She didn’t feel watched, peeled apart, just submerged in an unending stream of charisma.
“So what do you think? Will it work?”
“Of course. It’s genius.”
“Yeah, it is.”
Dez smiled holding out greasy fingers like a helpless child. Lela smiled back, a little laugh catching in her throat. She picked up a box of napkins and sat next to him on the bed. Slowly she wiped each finger, then both hands, then his face.
“I love you.”
“You don’t have to say it back.”
“Even when you look at me like that?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I am who I am, get it? I’ve taken too much emotional blackmail crap from my parents, and my exes … ah, whatever man!”
Dez swung away from her, picking up his book and phone in one fluid motion. He curled himself up, his back to her, charging up the space between them.
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
Dez didn’t look up from the book. “If you want to be here then be here. If not, then don’t.”
Lela was quiet for a second. She balled up the used tissues and tossed them in the direction of the dustbin.
“Why do you do that?”
Dez picked up his phone and taped on it, a forced chuckle deliberately shutting her out. Lela’s phone buzzed.
“Plane taking off in 5 mins. Miss you already. Manu.”
Lela sighed. She picked up her purse from the floor and opened the door.
“I said I love you because I do. Full stop. No blackmail. No nothing.”
Lela shut the door behind her and walked up the path to the bus stop. One of Dez’s neighbours was frying meat. The smell of mixed spices, onions and beef pulled her from her thoughts, un-tensed her shoulders and reminded her about the good old family dinners.
A bus stopped by as soon as she arrived at the bus stop. She hadn’t followed the script all the way to the end today. She’d skipped the screaming, tears, accusations and explanations but still ended up where it ultimately ended: Her walking away and Dez sulking alone, each waiting for the other to cave.
Lela opened her purse. Manu’s bank card gleamed back at her. She found the required amount, paid her fare, and got off at the next stop. Maybe she wouldn’t go home after all.
She crossed the street and walked leisurely towards a special hire; a cab. She haggled over the fare half-heartedly agreeing to a sum she would normally scoff at. Sitting in the back of the cab, she wondered if she wasn’t using either man to get back at the other: Manu’s knowing grin and flashy bank card, at Dez’s callous charm and vice versa.
The cab arrived at the mall. She paid the driver and walked to the ATM withdrawing the maximum daily limit. Next she stopped at the 24-hour supermarket to buy a toothbrush, toothpaste, a tee and underwear. Another cab drooped her off in front of a five-star hotel in the middle of town.
She checked in, paying cash. She had more than enough for a junior deluxe. As she and the hotel attendant passed by the indoor pool, she wondered if she should have bought a swim suit too.
The attendant left the room, grinning with satisfaction at the generous tip she had handed him. But not before assuring her she could buy a swim suit from the hotel shop the next morning. She crossed to the windows overlooking the garden; gardenias sweetened the night air. She ran a warm bath and wrote two texts, same words.
“Love is not love when it alters if it can. Thanks for everything.”
The bathroom cabinet revealed an array of scented bath foams. Lela emptied the contents of each into the water. Her mind soothed by every motion of stirring the water with her hands. Her phone buzzed then buzzed again.
Slowly, she sunk into the balmy foam.