The Great Affair (I)

I travel not to go anywhere but to travel…The great affair is to move. ~ R.L. Stevenson

An impatient restlessness and urgent wanderlust took over me in the Spring Break of my freshman year. At first I had thought 8 days of sleeping and eating would be the much needed cure for my mid-semester lethargy. However, within 2 days of adopting the customs of a sloth, I was bored out of my mind. Most of my friends had either gone back home or were off on some impossible adventure.

My one friend, Will*, who had remained behind was busy tending to his goldfish named Pepe. Since Pepe was not the adventurous sort of goldfish (unlike his brethren of ‘Finding Nemo’ fame) Will was confined to campus.

“ I don’t want Pepe dying on my watch,” he told me when I asked him whether he wanted to visit Boston. “ Pepe means everything to me.” Only a stone-hearted person could have come between such true love.

I tried.

“ Oh, come on. Pepe’s a big boy, he’ll survive a day without you.”

But that loyal friend of fish didn’t budge an inch.“ I can’t take the risk,” Will said. I gave up (a week later he almost swallowed Pepe, but that’s a whole other story). Abandoned by all my friends and tired of being cooped indoors, I ventured outside to Thayer street to treat myself to froyo. On the way to the shop I ran into a casual acquaintance. “ Oh hey, didn’t know you were on campus.”

“ I am,” Tara* replied. It was a redundant remark but I let it pass (I can be suitably magnanimous when the occasion demands).

“ Aren’t you getting bored?” I asked, hoping she would say yes, so that I could feel better.

“ Oh no! I’m having so much fun. So many of my friends are here and we’ve been hanging out.”

My happiness sunk like a torpedoed ship. Over the years, by reading several morbid books, I have nurtured a secret and robust victim mentality. I often picture myself as the hero of a movie being beset by great evils which in time I will conquer, to the resounding applause of the audience (somehow I’ve never made it to the redemption part in real life).

Imaged of caped cartoon

I often picture myself as the hero of a movie being beset by great evils

In moments of self-awareness, I blame this inner reel for my bouts of sadness, and briskly tell myself to snap out of it. But this time I had empirical evidence to back my moroseness, not only was I marooned on campus but there were people in the vicinity who were having the time of their lives, sans Tushar. Fun was tiptoeing around me and I was stung by the unfairness of it all.

Tara continued,“ We made cookies yesterday and went for a movie in Providence Place. And oh we took this biking trip through East Bay, it was beautiful.”

I sidled towards the froyo shop, telling me about all these adventures was like describing surf conditions to a desert wanderer, it was cruel and it was unnecessary.

“ We’re going to Newport tomorrow.”

My ears quivered, I had always wanted to go to Newport but had never found the time.

“ You can come if you want to,” Tara offered.

I started. “ Seriously?”

“ Yeah, my friends wouldn’t mind. The more the merrier you know.”

I started to see a halo around Tara’s head. “ Oh OK, cool, that sounds great actually.”

“ Awesome, I’ll text you the details,” and she walked away.

When I headed back to my dorm I tried, one last time, to convince duty-bound Will to join me on the expedition.

“ We can even take Pepe along and release him into the ocean, just like they did in Free Willy,” I said.

“ Pepe is a home-bred fish. He would die in the ocean,” Will frowned, “ I’m sorry I can’t come.”

I shrugged and headed back to my room for my afternoon siesta.

* * *

In the evening I got a text from Tara telling me that the group was meeting outside MoChamp at 5:30 AM.

“ You made a typo. You said 5:30 AM haha,” I texted back.

“ Yes, that’s correct, be there 10 minutes early!” came the reply. I considered withdrawing my name from this pre-dawn odyssey. But just then my friend passed by, carrying the fishbowl (he changed the water in the tank every day), reassuring Pepe that everything would be all right. I considered this to be a divine sign, a stern warning from above that if steps were not taken soon I too would become a fish-toting serf. That my refusal to move would lead to stagnation, and that adventure and youth would pass me by.

I texted Tara,“ OK, I’ll be there.” But without any enthusiasm. No, without any real enthusiasm.

* * *

The next day I woke up to a cacophony of alarms (knowing my sleeping habits I had set five in quick succession). I stumbled out of bed to the restroom. I went through the rituals of hygiene, still half-asleep, with my arms moving out of habit. When I got back in the room I found the phone ringing. I picked it up.

I woke up to a cacophony of alarms.

I woke up to a cacophony of alarms.

“ Good morning!” Tara’s voice boomed over the phone, “ I hope you are awake.”

“ Tushar is unavailable at this indecent hour. Please leave your message after the beep and try being more considerate next time,” I was tempted to reply, but I swallowed down the snarky remarks and said, “ Yeah, I’m up.”

“ I knew you could do it. Meet you in 5.”

I cursed and started to put on my clothes. Even in the films I played in my head, the hero hadn’t ever been asked to get up before the sun. In 10 minutes I was standing outside MoChamp, freezing, the only human blot on the landscape (there were several squirrels though). A voice inside my head told me that Tara & Co. had set out without me and I should return to the warmth of my bed. But I decided to wait 5 more minutes. Little did I know that this decision would change my life (it actually didn’t change anything, but the sentence has a nice ominous ring to it).

I soon heard footsteps. Two muffler wrapped students came into view. “ Are you guys here for the Newport trip?” I asked. They both nodded. I sensed they weren’t speaking to conserve energy. It was a wise idea. So I too nodded back. We stood in silence for 5 minutes, there was still no sign of Tara. I tried striking up conversation again. “ I’m Tushar,” I said. The usual pleasantries were exchanged. Their names were Chen* and Julia*. Chen was a pre-med at Brown (“ My sympathies,” I said placing my hand over my heart) and Julia was a Chemistry major from a university on the West Coast. They were dating.“ Oh no,” I thought.

Couples are far too self-engrossed to be good travelling companions. They fend only for each other, which is touching and poignant in poems but in real life presents all sorts of practical problems. What if I walked off a cliff in Newport? Chen and Julia would probably ignore the loud splash as they gazed into each others eyes and my screams for help would fade in the background as they muttered endearments to each other. If, through some cruel twist of circumstance, I failed to board the bus back they would happily journey along without noticing the drop in numbers (three has always been a crowd). It was a prospect fit to chill the bones. I was once again thinking of returning to my room when Tara came out of the building, looking far too happy for someone awake at the hour.

If...I failed to board the bus back they would happily journey along without noticing the drop in numbers (three has always been a crowd).

“ They run buses at this hour?” I had asked, incredulous.

 

“ Hey guys! You excited?” she said looking around.

I managed a shaky smile, while Chen and Julia nodded. If Tara hadn’t been an eternal optimist she would have noticed the missing enthusiasm of her fellow travellers. But she had enough joie de vivre to make up for everyone. “ Let’s go! Adventure awaits,” she said and started walking. I followed at a slower pace and the couple trailed behind me holding hands. It was a strange brigade and for the first time I was glad about the time of the day, there was at least no one to look on and mirror my doubts.

To get to Newport we had to catch a RIPTA bus (“ They run buses at this hour?” I had asked, incredulous). If we missed the bus we would have to wait 90 minutes for another bus and our heroic efforts at waking up would have been in vain.

“ The bus arrives in 5 minutes,” Tara said looking at her phone. We were still a while away from the bus station.

“ I think we should run,” Tara said and took off galloping. I sighed and started running as well. Clad in heavy winter gear, huffing and puffing, arms flailing, we looked like portly snowmen trying to escape from the backyard. We reached the bus stand out of breath, panting and coughing. There was no bus in sight.

“ Damn, we might have missed it,” Tara said consulting her phone again. Chen and Julia nodded. They had perfected the art of nodding in sync, it was a beautiful sight and reminded me of the puppet shows I had seen. For a while I ruminated nostalgically on that ancient mode of entertainment which didn’t involve early rising and cross-country running; civilization was on the decline I concluded.

“ I suggest we return to Brown and console ourselves with pancakes,” I said.

“ Oh come on, don’t be such a defeatist. We’ll make it even if we have to bike there.” Chen and Julia nodded resolutely. The thought of travelling all those miles using my own muscle power was so terrifying that I nearly swooned. At the moment a RIPTA bus turned the corner. “ See that’s our bus, told you we’d make it,” Tara said. We clambered on.

After getting on the bus, I sat down on an empty seat next to a man who was attired in such abundance that I suspected he had robbed the local JCPenney. A gentle snoring sound emerged from underneath the mountain of clothes. Sleeping on the bus seemed a brilliant tactic and I settled in for some shut-eye. Just then Tara decided to raise the morale of her troops, “ So guys here we are.”

“ Yes, here we are,” I echoed in my head, but with a completely different intonation, underscoring the grief and utter despair those three words brought out in me.

“ Isn’t it fun being up before the sun has even risen?” she asked rhetorically.

The succinct answer was no. It was miserable. But I kept quiet and continued the charade of slumber.

“ We’ll have the whole town to ourselves,” Tara continued.

“ No we won’t. People live there,”  I thought, but once again kept my wisdom to myself. Tara continued to describe all the exciting things we would do on getting to Newport. I stopped listening after a while. Waking up early and all the running had taken it’s toll on me, and as the bus sped towards Newport, I slowly fell asleep.

* * *

“ Hey, get up.” I stirred, someone was tapping me on my shoulder with the persistence of a woodpecker drilling into a tree.

“ What is it? Let me sleep,” I turned the other side.

“ We’ve reached. This is our stop,” Tara said. I woke up in a hurry and exited the bus. The blue and white RIPTA bus honked and chugged off. Having finally got my eyes to open, I looked around. We were standing in the middle of a deserted street. There were shops but all of them were closed and shuttered. The rustling of the wind was the only sound to be heard.

“ I have a bad feeling about this,” I said. Chen and Julia looked at each other…and then nodded.

To be continued.

Images via OpenClipArt.

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