He saw my book resting on the table, and used it to break the awkward silence, “What’s that book you’re reading?”
We had been texting for a couple of days. In even the most mundane of conversations, he had a certain intellectual curiosity about him which was endearing. He wasn’t just interested in knowing how was my day, he wanted to know what was the weirdest thought I had in the whole day. He challenged my notions of comfortable conversations, often pushing me in a corner and forcing me to think harder, diving deep down and enunciating what I actually thought about a particular subject, rather than having just a cursory discussion on it. In what seemed a natural progression of events, he had proposed a date, asking me to meet him if I was reasonably convinced that he was neither a kidnapper nor a rapist. And though I had found the statement somewhat conceited, I conceded.
I had reached early. He called five minutes later to check where I was, almost offended to hear that I was already inside. I saw him walking, and there were no butterflies in my stomach. But more alarmingly, there was no smile on his face when he saw me. And that worried me a little. While he crossed the swarm of people to reach my table, I closed the book hanging awkwardly in my hands; he reached over and I hastily put it down. We shook hands. He sat down. I sat down too. There was a brief moment of hesitation, as we both were trying to match up the person sitting opposite us with the respective images we had conjured up in our heads over the last few days. I was waiting for him to say something.
“What’s that book you’re reading?”
That question filled me with an incomprehensible dread. In any other situation, I don’t consider any inquiry to be a better conversation starter than one made on my books. But here, I sensed something different. There was something not quite right with that absolutely non-threatening question, but I couldn’t name what was it.
I tried to brush off the question with a casual “oh it’s called ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’…”
He prodded further, “and what’s this about? Who’s written it?”
I asked tentatively, “Do you really want me to get into that, or are you just making small talk?”
He face betrayed his words when he mouthed, “No, I REALLY want to know what is it…”
“Okay, so this is written by this author whom I am currently obsessed with…”
He took the book in his hands, and trying to read the name of the author, asked, “But how did you find out about him…?”
“…and she writes about the post-colonial life in Nigeria… Errr, her. Not him. She is a woman. I stumbled upon one of her lectures, and then a TED talk…”
He had an obscure look on his face. And his words took a disparaging tone when he said, “But how do you even google someone with that kind of name… And what does she even talk about?”
“…titled ‘We Should All Be Feminists’…”
“Feminists?! I hate that word.” His face was closed. And it wasn’t mere discomfort, it was a disdain for the word when he said it.
My heart sank in a swift motion, tumbling down deep recesses. I felt something breaking inside me. I had scripted this date in my head. Here was a man who I wanted to be with. Who I wanted to like. Who I wanted to be the person I had imagined him to be. And he was now deviating from the script! He was exhibiting that part of himself which I knew I’d resent immediately. I didn’t want him to expose it just yet. I wanted him to keep it safely hidden, at least for now. More than that, I wanted so desperately to redeem myself in his eyes. To see the same admiration for me which he had admitted before this meeting. I wanted to be the same person who he had pronounced ‘very sorted’, and not a troublemaker activist. That admission of his hatred for the F-word made my head spin with myriad conflicting thoughts. And that foreboding feeling from earlier suddenly made sense, and stood large in front of me, threatening the image of a pleasant evening that I had envisaged.
The entire evening, I was having two parallel conversations. One in my head, trying to calm that unrest which I couldn’t seem to let go of. And the other with this man, scouring for a streak of intellectual reasoning in his hatred that would exalt him in my eyes. I kept looking, but the more he talked, the more his words came laced with mainstream prejudices. I hated myself in the same moment for trying to dumb down my own arguments, tiptoeing around his ego, second guessing at every instance what might offend and please him.
After a point, the conversation became so dragged that we both were looking for opportunities to call it a night. And when we finally turned to go our own ways, I didn’t want to take the decision of not seeing him ever again. I still wanted to overlook that part of him, replaying over and over a scenario that could have been – if not for that opening question.
But I didn’t have to struggle for too long. The next day I received a text saying, “Hey, I don’t think this will work”. I almost sighed with relief. It was truly a luxury to be abandoned the moment anything went wrong, I now knew.