A love story overlaid with one of Colombo’s most famed rendezvous spots.
‘The park, that sounds nice.’
She said that to avoid forking out for overpriced alcohol at a pretentious bar. Two hours later they walked hand in hand – still new to them at the time, the physical contact thing – to the one empty bench on the Art Gallery side of Vihara Maha Devi park. A few awkward minutes of conversation, his arm creeping along the top of the wooden backrest and curling around her shoulder, the warmth of him close to her, tingles were running up her spine.
‘I’d really like to kiss you.’
She’d looked into his eyes for a fleeting second and nodded her head, the next few blissful seconds some that she’d never forget. Their heads leaned together, gentle kisses warming the incoming evening breeze, the canopy of trees shading them from the world, all was perfect.
‘Couples aren’t allowed here after 6!’
The uniformed CSD officer wasn’t taking any nonsense, and hung around close to benches occupied by twosomes similar to them until they moved, some only to find refuge – like they did – in corners of the park unmanned for the moment by the cultural police.
‘Hey look, there’s none of them here.’
His hand on the small of her back as they stood in the darkness of a majestic tree, its vast size casting a shadow large enough to shield them till they heard shouts in the distance and made their way towards a bus stop. On the way home she half-grimaced, half-smiled at herself; they were one of ‘those’ couples, the ones that the park was notorious for; umbrellas or not, romancing in the caverns that its maze of trees provided.
‘We can meet at the park and then head over when we’re hungry.’
It was close to where they were planning to have lunch yet far too early, so they strolled over to one of the little huts under the trees – Vihara Maha Devi was fine for late-evening embraces but in the midday sun, even the umbrella couples had found an extra layer of shelter in the trees.
‘Poya, long weekend, no way were we going to be alone here.’
For in the open gazebo were two other couples and a family dressed in white, no doubt on a pilgrimage, spreading open their lunch packets. Kids ran about as old ladies settled onto the benches, both ogling and pretending to ignore the young couples.
‘I doubt they’ll care to notice us.’
They didn’t, so for the first time ever, his fingers slowly caressing her knee while they sat in awkward angles on the hut’s wraparound bench, she confessed. About the life at home that drained her of energy, the crowded house that was both full to bursting and empty at the same time, the default responsibility of the oldest child that meant everything was her fault – things she had never, ever told anyone about before.
‘That’s enough now.’
The CSD guys were back, and they noticed them chatting with a father from one of the families who were visiting for the day. They both looked over with disdainful snark, letting on to the fact that no doubt there was a complaint from someone bothered by a group of young people distracted by each other and minding their own business.
‘Maybe that part of the park? It seems less crowded.’
They were closer to the lake at the centre, inward from the benches they usually spent hours seated in, lost in each other’s eyes and electricity. The least conspicuous of the couples there, they flipped through a wedding photo album – his brother’s, to be precise – and she felt the strangest thoughts floating around her mind. The pictures of him looking heartbreakingly handsome in a suit didn’t help and as they gushed in sync over the beautiful moments captured, she entertained the wildest of dreams, allowing that vision to cloud her reality for the moment. And as if on cue, a couple showed up for a wedding shoot; Vihara Maha Devi and its endless aesthetic appeal.
‘So I’ve decided and I think I might go after all; I have to be there in February.’
His news hit her like a ton of bricks. She had only ever teared up in front of him before but before she knew it, tears were streaming down her face at a rate she couldn’t comprehend. He mused that he didn’t know she’d react this way – she didn’t either, yet these tears made clear to her the hold he had on her heart. Nothing was sure yet, he said. Fishing tissues from her bag, thankful that she somehow had a pack in there with her that day, he held onto her hand as she struggled to come to terms with it, doing as she usually did and envisioning the worst possible outcome even at this early stage.
‘Okay okay, time you all moved along.’
They heard the stern voice a few benches down and gathered their things. They wandered into one of the little huts – its light switched off for the night – where he put his arm around and drew close to comfort her. It was barely a minute before someone flipped a switch somewhere and the light popped on, illuminating them; they heard heavy boots headed their way. So they upped and left again, time ticking down and the universe against them. She was still sniffling as they walked through the thick grass of the park, stopping close to one of the artists packing up their paintings and driving away for the day. She walked in the direction of Nelum Pokuna and he walked in the other; he was headed somewhere else and she couldn’t wait to get home and cry this out.
‘The reservation is for 7.30 so chill in the park before that?’
She said yes to these because, as frowned upon as courting in the park was, the fact that most of Colombo thought itself too posh to set foot anywhere near Vihara Maha Devi, let alone take a walk through it, meant their secrets were safe here. The long evenings, beginning with a few casual pecks, grew deeper with the falling dusk; held close in a way she had never known before, it didn’t matter that unknown passer-bys saw and judged, she felt safe in his arms, safe in the little pocket that the park was in a concrete jungle too occupied with itself to look between the trees.
‘So the embassy called. They said-’
They said he had got his visa. He didn’t have to complete the sentence for her to know. The darkening night smothered the sound of her tears, her choked-up questions silenced by the voices of the leaves in the wind. His hand held tight to hers, his lips pressing kisses onto her shoulder and onto the back of her palm – these little gestures of his, constant reassurance in the times they’d had together, movements she’d consolidated as actions of safety.
‘You two will have to go, couples aren’t-’
‘We know, 6 o’clock, we’re going.’
She roughly cut off the CSD man, sniffling and wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand giving away the fact that the conversation he had walked in on was not what he had intended to interrupt. She saw his face almost soften, the tone on his voice kinder when he stressed that these were the rules and he would fall into trouble if he didn’t enforce them. Fingers still locked, they walked to the edge of the park by the amphitheatre, speeding Alexandra Place traffic whizzing past them, the world oblivious to the tornado humming in her head.
‘Let’s head to the park?’
How relieved she was to see him after a load of extra work on a Saturday. It was a bit strange that he was so adamant to pay her back for their lunch at Café on the Fifth, considering how often they met for meals and spilt bills, but she just assumed it was because he felt bad she’d spent for them both. They sat on what felt like the bench from that first evening and it felt wonderful, smiling to herself over something seemingly so small. She settled in and held his hand, twirling the thin black string he’d had tied to his right wrist for as long as she’d known him. When he leaned close, she noticed the smell of the cigarettes he’d obviously had before he met her for lunch but she ignored that, as she always did, wondering instead about why he seemed so strangely faraway.
‘I’ve been thinking about it, I know you have been too and I think we should end things now.’
She felt numb. For the first few minutes, her heart racing, her mind blank, she couldn’t say a word. He held onto her hand, maybe thinking it would help to stay close even as he broke her heart, though in his head he was protecting it. With every rational explanation he, ripped it to smaller pieces. His stubborn logic running those pieces through a finer chopper. The absolute lack of compromise in his decision – his decision completely, because this was the last thing she wanted – reduced it to dust that was carried away in the tropical monsoon breeze. She tried to understand and tried to make him understand but she couldn’t and he wouldn’t.
‘An hour more, all of you have to leave then okay?’
Solemnly picking up their things, the remnants of her heart swirling in the light rays that streamed through the trees above their heads. He loosely held her hand, a last-ditch attempt to make her feel better. She needed a tuk – she was in no state to take the bus home – so he helped hail her one. As she climbed into it, she looked out at him one last time, knowing well that if they ever did see each other again, it would be as two entirely different people. No, the same people with two different hearts.
She didn’t have the luxury of walking away from a place that was now haunted. Across the globe, he wouldn’t have to worry about seeing a place that was loaded with a spectrum of memories. Passing by in a bus, the green calmed her eyes. Walking by on a stroll through the city, she took to the shade its trees offered. Months later, when he still invaded her thoughts, reminders of him making it clear to her that she did still care very much, she found out that he had moved on. Oceans away, she couldn’t and didn’t say anything, the words trapped in her head, tears replacing talking and quiet replacing confrontation. Closure, she thought, and tried to steer her mind that way, knowing it would be twice as difficult to manage now. Wind in her hair in a tuk racing through the city at dusk, she turned to see Vihara Maha Devi in complete darkness, the layers of trees a shadowplay of black shapes, with pinpricks of light from the lanterned pathways like a constellation of stars in the vast expanse.