Fire & Ice – Part 1

Travelling back to the hotel after a long-haul flight, Suhail gazed 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 long walks and an occasional coffee at the local Starbucks. He returned to his phone, thumbing through scores of WhatsApp chats piled up from the 7-hour flight from New Delhi. He scrolled down the long list of new messages, searching for the only one that interested him these days. Like before, Rachel’s latest profile picture caught his eye.

Rachel Fernandes, the attractive blue-eyed Sales Manager from The Wyndham hotel in downtown Frankfurt, had become his local ‘Google Guide’ over the last few weeks. They were introduced through his airline’s country manager, a distant cousin of Rachel from her mother’s side, over a couple of beers. From the first time they met she seemed to have an uncanny ability to read Suhail’s mind, always offering ‘SEO‘ replies before he could even complete his question.

Thousands of miles away from Shruti, his loving wife of over twelve years, Suhail’s exchanges with Rachel over the last few layovers ranged from local cuisine & headache-fixes to mutual funds and single malts – subjects that didn’t find any favour with Shruti; except headache which was becoming her constant gripe.

Rachel’s background in economics from Delhi University and her Indian-American banker father’s connections landed her an assignment with Deutsche Bank at Frankfurt. But soon she found both the job and the banker crowd way outside her spectrum. Suhail was amused with her “sensitive to balance sheets but heartbeat-agnostic” description for bankers. Her vivacious nature and passion 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 solid traction in Bollywood, Suhail often teased her.

Facebook friend requests followed. Rachel warned him of her ‘persona non grata‘ status on FB and how her liberal, anti-authority posts and strong feminist views may soon confound him and his carefully curated posts. Soon she was in his LinkedIn network too.

Her ‘bindass’ (read badass) attitude was a stark contrast to Shruti’s mild manners & reserved nature. This further fuelled Suhail’s interest during an increasingly lonely phase in his life after having ascended to Captaincy on the long-haul Boeing 777s. He no longer felt comfortable in the group of young, chirpy cabin crew and first officers with whom he had spent the better part of the last three years after having hung his uniform and joined the airlines.

The days rolled on bittersweet. He asked Rachel out to dinner one evening with a “game for a quiet sushi dinner?” bait on WhatsApp. Her reply was a bunch of animal emoticons that left him puzzled. Having grown up under a strict, pen-friendly father and a teacher-mom, Suhail was more comfortable with flourishes of ink and lead. But he bravely took it as a ‘yes’. Later, she told him she meant ‘go farming’.

But there she was, all dressed and ready sharp at 8PM. Her strikingly bold black, backless dress set her beautiful features against the azure sky, aflame with the setting sun. He had seen many extraordinarily beautiful sunsets from the cockpit, but nothing quite like this.

“You look beautiful!” Suhail gushed in his best, composed way.

“Tell me something I don’t know yet, Captain”, she quipped not even looking at him as she carefully picked up her flowing gown with well-manicured hands to step downstairs to the lobby below.

Their discussion over dinner at the local ‘Sushi Kaiser’ restaurant ranged from macroeconomics that Suhail understood little about, political history of Germany and Eastern Europe, friends, college, freedom that comes with a well-paying job abroad, and everything in between. Suhail ventured little information that he was a happily-married man with an 8-year old daughter. Rachel showed little interest apart from a casual ‘what do you do when not playing Tom Cruise’ query.

Somewhere that evening, Suhail told Rachel how he missed the warm company of women when what he really meant to say was how much he missed Shruti. Rachel joked that she felt chastity – and even fidelity – was just a matter of opportunity. Suhail couldn’t help but smile bemused at the significance of that thought.

Their WhatsApp chats that evening extended late into the night, long after dinner was closed at the restaurant and Wyndham. It meandered across ‘fabulous menu’ to ‘haven’t had a better time in ages’ and finally reached where such conversations usually end up when two individuals with a common unmet desire meet over a ‘secure’ network. Suhail later pondered how little effort it took him to punch out a red ‘heart’ emoticon to someone other than Shruti for the very first time.

Suhail’s roster didn’t include a layover at Frankfurt for the next three weeks. That only fuelled their interest in exploring the boundaries of a new-found relationship. The flurry of WhatsApp messages followed with an occasional exchange of selfies. Rachel politely declined requests for video calls, citing client meetings & workplace rules. Soon they were ‘voice calling’ almost daily. Video calls soon followed, preceded by a radio check for ‘all clear’.

She usually didn’t cave in to his requests for spending time 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 months. The Hunky Dory Bar, a noisy pub two blocks away, provided perfect cover for soothing her frayed nerves. Suhail thought how he was enjoying her company even as she felt listless and high-strung.

Their late night conversations scaled new barriers that night as Suhail lay in his hotel bed, nerves tingling with excitement from their chats over WhatsApp. Both of them victims of extreme loneliness in a foreign land. Hundreds of FB friends and social media connections not around to sooth frayed nerves; companionship their common, unfulfilled need. Something resonated and it felt magical.

Suhail’s next few layovers at Frankfurt was arranged through his friendly rostering team 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 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 our relationship to the next level”, she said. “I have no qualms about living-in; I am not old school – and maybe, just maybe, I am in love with you”, she added, gazing thoughtfully at the pale winter sky.

Suhail suddenly felt a tingling sensation running up his back. Red lights flashing. This one was not going as per the book. But he squeezed her hand and gave her a peck on the cheek, his mind racing faster than his hormones, as he sized up this ‘abnormal procedure’ like a typical pilot.

As he rotated the Boeing 777 Dash 8’s nose on takeoff roll from Frankfurt’s runway 34, his mind was buffeting with turbulence 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 calmly receptive to her plan. It was not an easy choice. His casual friendship had breached some boundaries in a different continent. Bringing it home would sound the death knell for his 12-year long marriage, he knew only too well. And god knows Shruti was the one he was truly in love with.

How to handle this life situation before it does further damage, he wondered as First Officer Sameer Ranjan handled radio with area control, unmindful of his Captain’s indifference on this flight.

Once settled into the long cruise, he calmly deleted all messages from Rachel and cleaned up the phone’s gallery, a practice recently started on all homeward-bound flights. Shruti was least interested, much less unsuspecting. But Anchal, their 8-year old daughter, was always toying with his phone. Her curiosity of late had started to extend beyond Candy Crush Saga.

When Suhail touched down at Delhi’s IGI airport, his mind was weary from troubling thoughts of where this affair could be headed. Very few messages from India showed up on his phone due to the night flight. But Rachel’s one-liner made his hair stand on end: “come back soon. I need you”.

Suhail ground his teeth and hit delete, almost an after-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 into music cassettes and courier them. That was courtship before WhatsApp and Facebook took over. He used to even record loving messages in between songs. Somehow all that seemed very distant now, like some old BASF C90 tape that had run its course. Suhail slowly released himself from Shruti’s grip “Honey, I am dog tired…long flight. Need to sleep ma.”


Part 2 is ready. If you want to read the sequel, please click here! Part 3, the outcome, will be shaped by YOU. Feel free to share, discuss and debate the possible outcomes. This is fiction. But who knows? Anything’s possible in 2019, right?

©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. This is purely a work of fiction. All resemblances to people, names or places are purely coincidental.