On Sunday morning, the spring sun is perfectly positioned to blast a bedroom with shafts of golden light. Its therapeutic warmth relaxes the individual under the bedspread. Suddenly, a shrill note pierces the peaceful ambiance. A head of curly hair on a thin frame emerges out of the comforter. Groping around in sleepy eyes, Neena turns off her alarm clock.
Her new apartment is situated close to her office, making commute easier. As per the trend in IT industries, she can work for longer hours, now. Neena Kulkarni is a software engineer working for Grasshop, a telecommmunications company in Boulder CO.
Neena moved to this town six months ago. She has no friends here except her colleagues. She is turning 24 tomorrow. Monday evening was out of question for parties. She decided to call a few co-workers over for lunch and celebrate her birthday a day ahead.
She is busily working in the kitchen. A perfectionist by nature, Neena sets high goals for herself. She has made elaborate plans to impress her guests with her culinary skills. Now she is racing to finish up on time. She gobbles her breakfast of milk and cereal in between her cooking.
Neena completed her engineering degree from a well known college in southern India. She received distinction in her high school and college degrees. However, she has been equally incompetent in finding a boyfriend. Her sultry eyes and bright smile belie her insecurities about her appearance.
Tears trickle down her cheeks as she chops several red onions into thin slices. Her wheatish complexion compliments her green dress. The monotonous sound of the knife on the wooden board sends her into a reverie. She is thinking about Mike. After so many crushes that led her to dead ends, she still did not learn.
Mike Cooper is her manager at work. Mike is a brilliant engineer working his way into management at a early stage of his career. He is also a avid biker and works out regularly at Gold’s gym. Neena missed a beat when she met him on her first day. Stunned, she dropped her folder with papers. She looked clumsy trying to gather them back. Mike flashed a killer smile before helping her.
From that day, Neena was floored. Last month, after discussing about her new assignment, she lingered. “Can I ask you a personal question too? ” Neena asked. “Sure! Get the door if you need to, ” said Mike. After closing the door, the naive girl, assumed her innermost thoughts would be understood. “Um..I have feelings for you. Do you feel the same way ? ” she blurted out foolishly. Mike suppressed a instinctive smirk and then put on a serious front. “No, I am married. ” he said simply. He and his wife have two toddlers. Neena’s imagination sometimes played tricks with her. She needed a clear answer. Without appearing upset, she quickly added, “I understand.” She turned around and left to hide her tears.
The next few days were uncomfortable as Mike would not look at her directly. Self-conscious, Neena struggled with rejection. It made her depressed and uneasy. Slowly it dawned on her that her feelings were irrational. Even though it was a one-way street, her heart still longed to love him. Luckily, after about a week, Mike was acting normal. He smiled and even joked about general stuff. Work was busy and challenging and a month went by fast. She forgot about her blunder. May be it was just a bad dream.
Neena is almost done with her cooking. She is adding some final touches and laying out the table. She has made rice pilaf, mashed eggplant with Indian spices, creamy spinach with paneer and chicken curry. She is placing the warm dishes over bamboo mats and setting plates and utensils for five people.
The guests arrive around 1 pm. Ed arrives with his young wife and kids. The twins are adorable. The little boys get busy with the small things that lay unsuspectingly around her apartment. Neena understands that her place is far from being baby proof. Sophia, Ed’s wife is a sweet lady. She has brought a big tray of tiramisu. Within fifteen minutes, Gauri and her boyfriend, Amit arrive at the door, holding hands. They look like they are very much in love. Neena looks at them and smiles. She cannot not help feel a little jealous. She too wants to be in a relationship. As if to make matters worse, Mike is going on a month long assignment to Sweden. He has told her last Friday. Neena is dreading the idea of spending a month without seeing him.
Lunch is soon served. All the dishes smell really delicious. Between eating, they carry out conversation about work and other family stories. Neena feels she is a good host. After lunch, she suggests they all go to the nearby park. The little kids are getting bored in the small apartment of hers. At the park, the twin boys are happy. It is a bright summer afternoon. The park has a set of swings , a winding slide in the middle and monkey bars at the other end. The boys run to the slide in excitement. They are coming down on their belly and goofing off. There is a little girl with her parents. The twins make friends with her and play together. The parents start a conversation. Everyone is having a good time. Ed and Sophia are running behind the kids to keep a watch on them and eventually, break away from the group. They are now walking around the park with Ed’s arm across Sophia’s back. It sends a pang of loneliness through her heart. As she carries out small conversation with Gauri and Amit, she can’t help wishing to be with her loved one.
They are all about to leave the park when Neena’s cell phone starts ringing.”Hello, ” says Neena. “Hi Neena. This is Vanessa from HR ,” says the voice at the other end. “We want to inform you that your contract has ended this Saturday,” Vanessa continues. “Please send us your badge via USPS and do not make any further contact with any person in Grasshop anymore,” are her clear instructions. Neena stands there dumbfounded, hearing the words in disbelief. Seeing her upset, Ed comes and asks ” Is everything alright?” “My contract has ended,” Neena explains fighting back her tears as best as she can. Her co-workers hug her and wish her well before leaving. It is late evening and the sky is a riot of colors. The sun rays have sprayed the light gray clouds with pink and orange blotches. The sun is preparing to retire for the day.
Back in her apartment, Neena starts to cry like a baby. She is overwhelmed with self-pity and buries her face in the pillows. “Am I not an effective worker? Is it wrong to love a married man ?” Most painful to her is the fact that she will never see or talk to Mike again! She calls her parents to tell them about this mishap. “You will find another job very soon,” her Dad says. They are willing to send her money as much as she needs to tide over the situation. Everything seems to be under control except her broken heart. Neena is not able to share this with anyone.
Sleeping is hard when negative thoughts are crowding her brain. She takes out her diary and looks through the pages. All this time she has focused on judging herself. A chaos of emotions are raging through her heart. “Why didn’t I foresee this coming? Why am I such a fool ? ” she thinks. ” Did he end my contract because of the question I asked him a month ago ? He must have hated me ever since.” she sighs.
She runs to the kitchen for a knife. Her left wrist shows a prominent vein. She tries to cut it in haste. The knife slips and lands between her feet. “What was that ? ” Shocked, Neena stops.
After a weeping for a long time, Neena goes to the bathroom to wash up. In the mirror, she confronts herself. Her wet eyes are glistening. Her curls fall over her face, naturally. In the midst of the loss and detachment, she discovers a simple beauty about her. She is living. She is whole. A confident smile brightens her face. She plays around with her hair and laughs to herself. She goes to bed, hugging her pillow tightly to her bosom. It is time for a fresh start. Someone cares for her though she cannot see him. She has found the best birthday gift.
Neena sits up on her bed with a start at the sound of her cell phone ringing. Sunlight floods her room. “Hello,” she answers. “Happy Birthday, Neena,” says a male voice on the other end. Her colleague Amit has called. He explained to her that there has been a huge layoff at Grasshop. Neena was not the only one who lost her job.