John lounged in a corner of Lucy's. John never sat; he lounged. His right arm was thrown over the back rest of the booth, while the rest of his body seemed to hang down from it. His left shoulder rested comfortably against the wall and the right foot peeked out from under the table. The ever-present cigarette dangled from his finger tips. He was clean-shaven, which was the only remarkable thing about seeing him in his usual corner of the diner.
“I was hungry. I ordered your usual.” his eyes had that glint he always got when he knew he annoyed me. And five years later, he had not lost his touch.
“What do you mean my usual?”
“Three egg omelet with spinach, bacon, sausage and cheddar.”
“I don't eat that anymore.”
“I saw you checking yourself in the plate glass on the way in. You worried about the weight you are putting on?”
“What do you care if I'm putting on?” I snapped. This wasn't good. Good friends aren't supposed to talk like this. And we were great friends. Virtually inseparable through college. And this was the first time I had heard from him in five years. People moved on after college, but not like this. Not without a single call or email. I realized I wasn't annoyed by what John said, but by what he hadn't.
“Where the heck were you?” I asked.
In response, John regarded me in a lopsided way. That meant he did not want to answer. He took a deep drag on his cigarette, and continued.
“Are you still working for you-know-who?”
John referred to every company as a you-know-who. During college he had taken upon himself the mission to deliver everyone from working for a corporation. John didn't hate companies, he justified. Instead, he could not fathom why any of us chose to work for one instead of trying out something on our own. I ignored his question.
“What have you been up to? Still taunting anyone who doesn't see it your way?”
“Oh, you know. A little bit of this, and a little bit of that. Choosing not to work for 'the man'.” he grinned.
“You still haven't answered my question - where the hell were you all this while. Why haven't you bothered to reply to my emails? And why the hell did you move out of your apartment without a forwarding address?”
“I had to leave in a hurry. Had to let a month's lease lapse actually. A serious waste of money.”
“And you were in a hurry to get where again?”
The waitress showed up that moment with our food. I got my omelet, and John got his burger. This had been our weekly ritual for more than 2 years. The heavy Saturday brunch, followed by either a walk in the park arguing about whatever he disagreed with that week. The last time I saw him was in this very diner, for brunch. I had just packed, eager to join the workforce, and John was going to talk to his professor, on putting together a concrete plan to get a job.
John was no idiot. He was one of the smartest people I knew. No one saw him actually hold a book during our study sessions. He would instead lay down on the couch, or the bed, with his hands thrown across his eyes, till someone had a question that interested him. At which point he would immediately proceed to confuse the poor soul with the wrong answer, before quoting a page number for the correct one.
The reason he was without a job was to do with what he termed 'sensible rules'. Which of course meant they were anything but. For instance, his rule about not staying in an exam hall for longer than a third of the total alloted time ensured he never ended up with the highest grade. Then it was his don't-work-for-the-man rule, that caused him to opt out of campus placements. But there was no sensible rule to have to find a job, so he whiled time away while the rest of us went through our hair-cuts, suits and interviews phase. The university hadn't liked the fact that he was solely responsible for spoiling an otherwise clean placement record. They had convinced him to talk to one of the only professors on campus he actually listened to. That was the last I had seen him, until this morning.
“Heard Julie got married.” he grinned again, with that glint in his eyes.
This was another topic that he knew would annoy me, and it did. Of the hundreds of things we disagreed about and argued over - the most I was vested in was her. Julie was crazy about John and I was mad for Julie. And John knew that, and Julie knew that. John was adamant that they were only friends. And Julie was equally adamant that she would eventually get through to John. Both agreed on the pity my situation of misery evoked in them. All three of us hung out together; a lot.
“Yeah, last year. She sent me an invite. Which, by the way, was going to be my next question. She told me what happened that night.”
“Where is the question in that?”
“The question is still the same, where have you been the last five years. Especially after you promised Julie you wanted to be more than just friends.”
“Sensible rules, you see,” he took another bite into his burger. “I wasn't sure how much I really cared for her, so the best course of action...”
“Was to not talk to either of us for five years?”
“The rule says, give your brain a week.”
“It has been five years.” I reminded him.
“Actually not for me,” he replied earnestly. There was no sign of the twinkle in his eye as he put his burger down, and leaned in. “Will you believe me if I told you what I had been doing the last five years?”
“What did you do? Join the army?”
“No. I was able to take advantage of some special skills of mine, and some contacts I had developed through the years, to hitch a ride with intelligence that is quite non-human in nature.”
I studied his face for a second. John was rarely earnest. Most only saw his irreverent disdain for every established norm. But when he chose to be truthful, he never made a joke. This seemed to be the first.
“So you had been kidnapped by aliens, which is why you were unable to keep in touch. Correct?”
“I hear the disbelief in your voice, even though you know I would not abuse your trust. But to your summation, no - I was not kidnapped, yes - they were aliens and yes - that is why I was unable to keep in touch.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“What reason would I have to lie to you? This is a very temporary visit, and I am very happy I got a chance to see you while I am here. I leave in less than an hour. This time we travel very far, and the next time I am here will be well after everyone who is alive now are dead.”
My half-eaten omelet was not so appetising anymore. John was obviously lying. Or maybe he was deluded into believing it to be true. Was my friend insane? With all his brilliance, did I desert him at his most vulnerable? Guilt washed over me - I had abandoned him five years ago never realizing that he may have been in grave need of a friend. For a moment, I looked around half expecting a hidden camera crew or a team in white coats. The waitress mistook my gesture, and sauntered over with a fresh pot of coffee. John accepted the refill and stirred in some sugar. The burger was gone, and he began munching on his fries. The twinkle was back in his eye.
“You are doubting my sanity aren't you? Let me assure you - I am as sane as sane can be. And yes, I am aware of the facile nature of that claim coming from me. I am also aware that I may not be able to convince you. I wanted to meet you you, but I hadn't quite realized the gap between us. You see, it hasn't been long for me since we met - just about a week.”
“You think we met here a week ago?”
John smiled, a bit sadly. “No. What I am saying is that it has been one week for me since we met here, even though it has been five years for you.”
“Relativity. Because you were traveling at close to the speed of light in a spacecraft?”
“So you do remember some physics. Ignoring the tone of your voice though, you are more or less correct. Any physics book on Earth will tell you that the closer one goes to the speed of light, the slower one's time goes. As you can imagine I had to travel pretty quickly to get anywhere decent. And as far as I am concerned, I have been out for a little more than a week.”
“And the aliens with spaceships couldn't stand you for more than a week?”
“Ah now that is where reality deviates from your comic books. I haven't really seen any aliens, because given the way we are built we can never see any. We can still communicate though. And lets say the last week was a sort of an extended interview. And lets say I got the gig.”
“You are telling me that you'd rather work for an alien than take up a regular job on earth.”
“See now that is funnier than you think. The idea of a corporation does not translate that well outside humans. But I had made sure that what I was doing could not be construed as working for anyone. Instead think of it as a student exchange program.”
“There are others then, in this program of yours, that have been visited by aliens.”
“Still with the tone. Yes and no - none else now. But there have been others at different points in the past. And aliens do not technically visit us, we actually visit them. But, enough with this. I cannot describe it well enough, and I don't think I can convince you either. Sitting in this diner makes it all feel improbable to me too.”
We sat there silently. Maybe it was the shock, but I don't think the gravity of the conversation had sunk in yet. But I felt farther away from John than I had anytime in the last five years. I had been angry with him, concerned for him, nostalgic about our time together. All those feelings seemed to have been drained away in the last few minutes. I felt empty, like I had been holding on to a lie for a big part of my life. Even if this was a joke, it felt as if it had gone too far, irreversibly so. He suddenly seemed so distant; so alien.
We sat in awkward silence, him smoking and me playing with the food on my plate.
“How is Julie? How was the wedding?”
“I never went to the wedding. We lost touch after college. Though I think she was pissed that you hadn't bothered to return her emails and calls. Which reminds me, she may actually have filed a missing person's report on you.”
“I should head out before I get caught by the cops.” John sighed. “Listen, do you remember her red-marker?”
“The one she scribbled with and ruined all my text books? Yes.”
“She was very proficient with marking people with it too. How long do you think such a mark would remain on the skin?”
“A day if you scrubbed it, two if you didn't.”
“Lets say there was no water available for washing.”
“Maybe ten days.”
John stood up and rolled his left sleeve. On his forearm, slightly faded, but still clearly visible was the hand-writing I recognised so very well. In their characteristic capitals they proclaimed - PROPERTY OF JULIE M.C., DO NOT TAMPER! I TOLD YOU I ALWAYS WIN! YOU WERE ALWAYS MINE! LOVE - JMC. I watched dumbstruck as the clean-shaven, but otherwise unchanged man walked out for ever through the double glass doors.
-- The End --
May 01, 2010: First published version.
July 29, 2010: Formatting changes to indented text
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