Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Cinderella Slipper

The prince didn't believe in fairy tales. He had his feet firmly on the ground and his head firmly on his shoulders. He had a kingdom to run now. He was going to be king.

Years passed and the new king matured into a good ruler – kind and benevolent, brave and wise. Little by little, he cast away all his fancies and romances and retained only the manners and thoughts dignifying a king.

Then one day as he was riding in the woods he spotted a slipper lying near a bush. He took a closer look. It was a glass slipper. "Cinderella!" He smiled bemusedly and rode on. On the way back, however, he picked it up. By the time he returned to the palace, he was laughing at his own foolishness and put it away in the corner of a closet.

That winter, at a ball held by the queen of the neighbouring kingdom, his life changed forever. It wasn't as dramatic as that of course and the prince had no idea of it at the time.

She wasn't breathtakingly beautiful or noticeably charming. But when he sat next to her at the dinner table, conversation flowed easily and without pretence. A year later he got down on his knees and asked her to marry him.

They were very happy together. Everyday, the king would wake up and look upon her face and think how lucky he was. Their love was true and strong, and would stand the test of time. In time, they became parents – of two charming boys and a delightful girl. Life was perfect.

Then one day, the queen chanced upon the glass slipper. She teased him, "And which fair maiden have you been secretly dreaming about?" He laughed, "I found that in the woods a long time ago. I was young and foolish."

"Let me try it on and see if I'm really your true love."

"Now you are being foolish."

They both laughed as she slipped her foot into the slipper.

"Oh no, my feet are too big. How can you love me now?" the queen asked, her eyes full of mischief.

"I must do the best I can, mustn't I?" the king retorted, as he took the slipper from her and put it back into the closet.

The queen linked her arm with his, and they both walked contentedly in the gardens.

That night, however, while the queen was asleep, the king sat looking at the slipper for a long time. Then he sighed, and pushed it back farther into the closet.

There was nothing you could put a finger on. But there was something different in the way the king looked at the queen now. And it made the queen sad, though she didn't know this at first. Slowly, without either of them noticing it, they laughed less and they talked less. One day, they realised they had nothing left to laugh about together and nothing to say to each other.

The queen became sick. Doctors were called in from far and wide, but they couldn't help her. The king was heartbroken.

"I still love you very much," he told her.

"You don't look at me in that way anymore."

The king wept. "I don't know how to."

She died in his arms.

The king walked up to the closet, took out the glass slipper, and flung it against the wall. It shattered into a million pieces.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

At Crossroads

Sometimes a road you had left behind catches up with you at another crossroad. It would be foolish to ignore it twice.

She left on a winter morning, wearing a cream sweater, her black hair falling over it. She had waited at the door for some time, as if thinking she should say something, then deciding it was useless, walked away. I can't picture it clearly anymore; I just know this is how it happened.

She had come to my room to return a book I had left in the canteen. At the time, I didn't ask her what she was doing in the boys' hostel. Or her name. The latter didn't take too long to find out. When I questioned her later about the former, she had replied, "I was returning your book." "But you're not allowed in the boys' hostel." "I know." "You could have returned the book to me in class." "Yes."

It wasn't love at first sight. It's just that we remember beginnings. And endings. We grew on each other gradually. We looked at the rest of our lives and ordered it into neat little patterns in the way only people who have seen very little of life can. One day she sat up and exclaimed, "But I don't even want to go down that road," and said goodbye.

The years since have been good to me. I found someone else to hold me close at night and in the daylight to look me straight in the eye. I filled my days with purpose; I was content with who I was. But if I could do it all over again, I would do it differently.

I reached the restaurant early so that I could see her walk in. She hadn't changed at all – her black eyes were fierce as ever, her black hair tumbled messily onto her shoulder, and she walked, as always, as if in a hurry to get somewhere. She came up to me and smiled hello. And I knew she had changed in ways I would never know.

"It feels like yesterday and yet like a million light years," I said.

"It's really all the same," she replied, as she sat down.

"What made you think of me?"

"I always think of you."

"I know."

"Are you happy?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, "I'm married to an amazing woman, whom I love very much. I love what I do. Life's been good to me. If I die today, there'll be no regrets."

"But you would still wonder."

"I would still wonder."

"I broke up with my boyfriend two months ago, after 10 years. He said I made him very happy and that he could have stayed if he hadn't known I was more than he could know."

"You wanted him to stay?"

"Very much."

"I love you" I said.

She smiled.

And we talked. Conversations to fill up the spaces we had missed. We took them in small, lingering sips. We took them in huge, greedy gulps. We watched as the sun went down.

"It's time for me to go," she said.

"Down another road?" I asked.

She laughed, "Of course. Is there any other way?"

"No," I replied.

I stood outside the restaurant savoring the cold wind on my skin. It's foolish to ignore a road twice. But then we are foolish. Or maybe, some people are just meant for crossroads.