Twenty six.

I swore I’d moved on.

‘What?’ cried Selina. The fishing line snapped, whipping the pair of us off our feet. Asses sore and elbows torn from the jagged stone steps of the communal pond.

‘Nothing’, I said and pushed her off me. And soon enough we were back to popping water lily bulbs and counting how many of the tadpoles had grown legs. We were six then.

A few years later we had chased a snake to its nest in our little boat. We killed it with our paddles, one apiece - but not before tipping overboard, all the frenzied thrashing included. As we emerged from the murky pond as victors waving our paddles (boat abandoned for the day), I felt a sharp tug in my foot and yelped. Selina turned around, dead snake draped over her shoulders like a Hollywood starlet’s fur and laughed. Embedded in my sole was our old fishing hook, snapped line and all. 

Her father caught us striding (and limping) into the village. How we cried when he beat us both. My own father nodded in approval as he tended to my foot. Of who, I was never very sure.

‘When I leave this village I’m never coming back.’ That’s what she told me that night. Thunder growled and I believed her. The air was charged and I told her ‘I’ll leave too.’

We were sixteen when my father phoned Selina’s. Theirs was the only telephone in the village at the time. We had been skipping rocks on the way back from school. Selina’s mother damn near dragged us the whole way by the ear when she found us.

‘Tell your mother to pack her things, son. You’re joining me in London.’

I remember how upset Selina was. We stomped puffer fish all week in near silence. ‘You’ll get your visa in no time.’

She didnt say anything. When I left we didn’t say goodbye.

Selina’s family followed not soon after. I remember it was the twenty sixth of a winter month because that was her favourite number.

They moved into a two bedroom flat not six minutes from ours. I shoved her face in the snow, she put it down my neck. I made her eat some. ‘That was fun’, she said and we walked home holding hands.

We went to different colleges but the same university. We kissed and fought and fucked the entire time, like only two halves of a whole could.

We were twenty six soon enough. I had saved a pretty penny for a ring. Christmas day we spent snuggled in bed rewatching old films. And the day after, on a snowy twenty sixth morning, I knelt on one knee and Selina walked away.

I hurt for a long time. The world became incomprehensible. I ran away with my medical degree stateside. Selina seemed to follow. I know because I followed her on social media like a maniac. We both zigzagged around the nation through the years, never within reach and neither of us reaching out. We darted between our respective bases in the US and our families in England and India. Her father wept for me.

We are thirty six now. As usual I am late for my flight. I’m okay with this. There’s something soothing about the dull rush of an airport. I sleep well in them. Still, I power through the travelators with a coffee in hand. There’s something to be said about making an effort.

I see a stewardess at my gate as I approach it. She looks mildly unhappy before she notices me and puts on her professional face. I am clearly the lone straggler they’re waiting on.

That’s when I hear that laugh. The laugh I havent heard in a decade. I would recognise it anywhere in the world. Much to the dismay of the stewardess, I turn around and head to the opposite gate. 

The sound of her voice reels me in. I am caught again on Selina’s hook.

Before I know it, I am hugging her and shaking her husband’s hand. Selina seems embarrassed and the gentleman is confused. I dont remember the words exchanged. Only the feeling of floating on air. It’s electric, like those old thundering nights.

I’m very happy for them, selfishly and selflessly so. I tell them as much, and explain I am very late. My father is ill and England awaits. Selina is headed back to India to visit her in-laws. 

They board their flight. We are separated again. The charged air dissipates and my feet find their way back to solid ground. I have missed my flight.

I am left standing at her gate. Gate twenty six. Thinking. I swore I’d moved on.