by Tina Balajadia
Prompt: A universe where your soulmate’s first words to you are tattooed on your arm. And yours just happens to be an asshole.
It was one of those rare days when the sun was shining but the clouds tempered the heat. The park was full of people who welcomed the brief respite from the continuous rain of the past few days. Both adults and children took advantage of the lovely day, some with pets in tow. Laughter could be heard over the occasional bark and the cacophony of sound that usually accompanied a bright sunny day in the park.
Coffee shops and restaurants lined the edge of the park near the street with tables and chairs set up outside. Most of the tables were full, mostly couples enjoying their cups of coffee in the full sun. In one of those tables, somebody sat alone. Her name was Nalda, and instead of enjoying the sun, she sat there reading.
Despite the noise that surrounded her, Nalda sat oblivious to the pleasant chaos. Deeply engrossed in her book, an empty coffee cup beside her, Nalda paid no attention to the sound of shrieking children or their parents trying to keep them in line. Once in a while a shadow would fall across her book and she would look up at the offender, which more often than not was just some patron leaving the café.
A server passed by, noticed her empty coffee cup, and after gently getting her attention, asked her if she wanted a refill. Nalda nodded, and waited for the fresh cup of coffee. When it arrived, Nalda wrapped her fingers around her coffee mug and took a break from reading. She watched a few teenagers playing frisbee near her and laughed quietly to herself when a dog took the disc and ran away with it. Good luck, Nalda thought.
Nalda sipped her coffee, turning her attention from the teenagers to observe a young couple with their toddler, watching as the baby stumbled about with a diaper-heavy bottom. The cheerful baby happily fell on grass, struggled to stand up, took a few steps and happily fell again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
With a tiny smile at the cute antics, Nalda shook her head slightly and went back to her book, easily shutting out the sounds and losing herself in the world of mages and warriors, dragons and knights. It wasn’t long, however, before her concentration was broken by loud raucous laughter near her. She turned toward the direction of the sound. One guy was making the rounds around the women in the park.
Nalda focused her attention on the guy. He walked with a swagger, stopping by and paying random unsolicited comments to the women taking advantage of the cool but sunny day. Most ignored him. Some smiled, flattered at the attention. At least one told him to get lost. “What a jerk,” she thought. Which was really just too bad because he was kinda cute, in a rugged, boyish kind of way.
Shrugging her shoulders, Nalda brought her attention back to the book she was reading and reached for her cup. She had drunk the contents of the cup without even noticing. She briefly considered a refill, but told herself she had had too much coffee for the day. With a sigh, Nalda stuffed her book in her backpack, put it on and started for home.
As she walked along the bench-lined walkway, Nalda rubbed her bare arms. The sun had hidden behind some clouds and the temperature dropped considerably. She absently started tracing the words on her arm, just below the crook of her elbow. What began as bold strokes and lines had faded over the years, the random words still clearly visible under her tan. Random words that would change her life. Well, that’s what they said. On a side thought, she realized she didn’t know who they were. But back to the topic at hand, it had been ages, and nothing. Nada. She had given up on ever meeting her soulmate. Yes, soulmate.
Each child was born with random words tattooed on their left arms. Tiny words in some fancy font she did not know. Hers said, “A Pop-Tart danced across a bench.”
Random is right. The words made no sense. But as the Council explained, these words will be the first words spoken to her by her soulmate, and she would say the words that are tattooed on his arm.
Four decades had come and gone, and still no soulmate. Of course not everyone met the one. Most people happily went on to marry people who never spoke the words tattooed on their arms, except perhaps to read them in moments of tenderness, tracing the squiggles and lines. Like her mom and dad. And her brother and his wife. The few people who met their soulmates were celebrated, televised and became the stuff of legends. She could not remember ever meeting anyone who had met their soulmate.
She sometimes wondered what would happen if her parents met their respective “soulmates” someday. Nalda had asked her mom once, and all Mom said was that if meeting her soulmate meant she’d be happy, then Nalda’s dad might as well be her soulmate, tattoos or not.
Well, that was easy for her to say, Nalda thought. Mom and Dad could not seem to get enough of each other. Her brother and his wife were the same. Sometimes they made her feel uncomfortable because of the almost palpable cloak of affection they wore. It made her feel even more uncomfortable when they worried about her not finding somebody to share her life with.
Well, she had never met her soulmate, nor had she met anyone who she would want to trace those lines and squiggles on her arm. She sometimes imagined it, having someone run his fingers over her tattoo. A faceless someone with beautiful hands. A faceless someone who never came. It was not for the lack of trying but somehow, all the guys she had dated seemed unworthy to trace her tattoo, or any part of her body.
Nalda was snapped out of her musings when a piece of pastry came flying out of nowhere, skimming the surface of the bench next to her. A little girl had tripped, sending her snack flying. The poor kid was in tears.
Before she could even utter words of comfort for the little girl, somebody behind her exclaimed “A Pop-Tart danced across a bench!” This, followed by ugly, boisterous laughter.
The voice sounded vaguely familiar, but she could not quite place it. Nalda looked for the source of the voice. She found it, or him, rather, and could not believe her eyes. It was the guy bothering women earlier. Yep. Same guy who was earlier walking around like some god giving much coveted attention to his believers. The one she thought was a jerk. Turns out he was more of a prick than she first thought, laughing at a little girl like that. She could not believe he actually said those words. In a world half-full of men, it had to be this guy. Nalda looked up and muttered a bit loudly in disgust, “Pranksters that be, thanks.”
With a resigned sigh, Nalda returned her gaze to him. Still kinda cute. Except he had on this shocked look and all blood had drained from his face.
“Wow, you’re not pretty.”
“Oh, I meant I expected you to be pretty. I had wished you would be.”
Nalda looked down at what she was wearing. Loose sleeveless shirt, faded jeans, flip-flops. She tried to see herself from an outsider’s point of view and tried to remember what she looked like. The images of the girls in the park popped into her head, unbidden. Slim, lithe, pale-skinned women who looked like they stepped out of a fashion magazine. There they were, looking effortlessly beautiful, and here she was. Thick glasses. Messy hair. Maybe a coffee mustache, with a book in hand. Classic nerd.
Then she realized she was assessing her appearance on the basis of this stranger’s words.
Words. Unconsciously, she covered the tattoo on her left arm.
“You’re such a jerk. I don’t even know you.”
“Well, you don’t. But you will. Unfortunately for me.”
Nalda gave him a blank look, wondering what in hell he was referring to.
The guy held out his left arm, exposing the tiny words on his arm.
PRANKSTERS THAT BE, THANKS.
Oh dear lord. It was true. It was bad enough he spoke the words on her arm. She had to speak the words on his.
Nalda stifled her flight reflex and debated whether she should just walk, nay, run away, forget this nonsense and get a cat. Yeah, a cat. Or a dog. Or even an iguana. Something. Until a tiny voice that sounded eerily like a voiceover in a paranormal documentary started talking in her head about how she would never forgive herself if she didn’t even try, and hello, he’s your soulmate!
With obvious hesitation, Nalda held out her left arm, tattoo side up.
A POP-TART DANCED ACROSS A BENCH.
He blanched even more, if that was even possible, mouth gaping open slightly. The tension crackled between them, both disbelieving their absolute bad luck. They stood there for a long time, Nalda with her arm still held out.
“People are starting to stare and wonder what we’re up to. My name’s Nalda. Much as I’d like to leave you here with your mouth open like that, I’m intrigued enough about these tattoos to want to at least know your name.”
With great difficulty, he whispered, “My name’s Jake.”
Jake sat down on the bench and motioned for Nalda to take a seat. He stretched his legs and leaned back, clearly still taken aback. Nalda gingerly sat on the bench, leaving a wide space between them.
“I really wished you’d be prettier.”
Nalda looked at him in disbelief, weighing the pros and cons of staying. The cons were winning, and he wasn’t helping. This arrogant Jake had managed to insult her and make her feel dowdy and ugly in a span of five measly minutes.
“Seriously?” Nalda was incredulous.
Jake went on.
“I mean, all our lives we were told that these words on our arms would help us in finding our soulmates. Soulmates! I grew up dreaming about this hot, beautiful woman who would sweep me off my feet, stop me in my tracks. Then we’d get married, have three and a half children, two dogs, mommy cars, five-bedroom house. We’d live happily ever after. You know, the whole shebang. Haven’t you ever thought about it? Meeting your perfect soulmate?”
Nalda stared at him, mulling over what he had just said. She had dreamt about her soulmate. As a kid he was this prince who would carry her away to his castle and make her his princess, living happily ever after in this perfect kingdom.
Over the years, her imagination had gone wild, the prince morphing into whatever character she found in the books she read. He became a hero, a pirate, a rock star, an astronaut, a scientist. Name it, she had wished for it. But this, this sorry excuse of a man she instantly disliked, was a far cry from how she envisioned her soulmate would be. Although she hated to admit to herself again, quite sheepishly, that he was kinda cute.
Dark brown hair that looked like he had just woken up, what looked like a perpetual five o’clock shadow, perfect teeth (so not fair), a fine strong nose, lips that had no business being on a man and eyes that looked capable of mischief but at the moment seemed so full of regret.
But, definitely cute, though she’d die before she admitted it to him. And she had no plans of answering his question. Of course she had dreamt about it! What little girl hadn’t?
With a sigh, Nalda got to her feet and stood facing him.
“Look, we don’t really have to believe this soulmate thing. It is quite obvious that I don’t like you, and you’ve made it clear that I am not what you were hoping for. So let’s forget we ever met, shall we? I go my way, you go yours.”
Nalda walked away without waiting for an answer and without looking back, overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. She had walked about four steps when she felt Jake grab her arm.
She spun around and shook his hand off, ready to rip into him for grabbing her.
Jake held out his hands in a pacifying manner. “Hey, we got off on the wrong foot. Maybe we can start again? I’m Jake. Hello.” Jake held out his hand in conciliation and gave a tentative smile.
Nalda suspiciously eyed the outstretched hand. She just knew she was going to regret this. She knew it deep, deep down. Yet the little voice in her head seemed to squeal in glee, saying in a singsong voice, no you won’t, no you won’t!
Nalda stuck her hand out and shook his hand.
“Hi, I’m Nalda. Okay, let’s start over. How about we go somewhere quiet with coffee.”
“Okay.” Jake started walking in the direction of the restaurants flanking the park.
“I still don’t like you.”
Eyes looking down, Jake felt the sting. True, he was an asshole most of the time, but nobody ever came out and said they didn’t like him. Ordinarily he wouldn’t care, but then this was different. This was his soulmate! Well, supposedly.
Few people knew the reason why he was such a jerk to women. Like all other children, his parents had explained the existence of the words tattooed on his arm. Once he learned how to read, and figured out the meaning of the word “prankster,” Jake had been perplexed. Growing up he had wondered why anyone would say the words tattooed onto his arm. It was only in high school that he realized it was probably because he did something nasty to that person. A prank.
By the time he was eighteen, Jake had a game plan and a light bulb moment. He can probably choose his soulmate! He would simply provoke women! Play pranks on them. If he provoked the right one, he’d be taking his destiny into his own hands. He’d choose the prettiest, hottest woman, and irritate the bejesus out of her, get her to say the words, and bam!
Of course, Jake had yet to meet anyone who had actually met his soulmate. It seemed like the stuff of legends, a myth perpetuated by the powers that be (pranksters that be). But for the life of him he could not figure out what reason there could be for the myth. So he figured it must be true. Perhaps it was a way to ensure the survival and propagation of the race. It probably would have worked, or maybe it did. Too well. It worked so well that they all kept making babies, overpopulating the world in no time. Nowadays there are a gazillion people in the universe, and since the coverage of this soulmate net thing was universe-wide, the chances of meeting a soulmate went from slight to nil.
Which brought him back to Nalda. Here she was, everything he never dreamed of, and not in a good surprise kind of way. She was plain, and nerdy and had the gall to tell him she did not like him. The gall!
But she said the words. Without any provocation. Well, no intentional provocation. And Jake couldn’t even remember why he said that thing about Pop-Tarts. When he saw the kid trip and the food flying, the words just, well, popped out. Jake indulged in a little chuckle at the pun.
“Are you laughing at me???”
Jake almost jumped out of his skin. He stopped walking and looked sideways at Nalda.
“I wasn’t, I swear!”
“I was not!”
“You were, too.”
“Look, I was just wondering about Pop-Tarts. Okay?”
“Fiiine. Let’s go get coffee. Or maybe a beer. I might need more.”
Nalda and Jake ended up in this little coffee shop that served beer after five in the afternoon. It was a little too early for beer, so both of them settled for coffee.
The atmosphere was awkward. After all, they had expressed in no uncertain terms their mutual dislike for each other. Anyone who saw them would think they were strangers forced to sit together.
But then again, that is exactly what they were, weren’t they? Strangers brought together by destiny? Myth? Victims of circumstance? Notwithstanding the odd way they had come together, they could not deny that what they had, or what they are, is something that they don’t see everyday.
“So, have you ever met anyone whose tattoos matched with their partner’s first words?” asked Jake.
“Not even your parents?”
“Yeah. Mine neither,” Jake said in a wistful voice.
Nalda noticed the tone and looked at him in surprise. “You actually have feelings?”
“Of course, I do! Do I look like a piece of wood to you?”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that in the very, very short time that I’ve known you, you seem to have the knack for getting me riled up and saying things I wouldn’t normally say.”
“It’s okay. I guess we were both truly surprised by the turn of events. Brought out our inner monsters.”
“You bet. I’m sorry I called you a jerk. Even though it’s true.”
“I’m sorry I said you’re not pretty. Even though…” He stopped and she gave him a dirty look.
“Nah. I’ll get over it. After I kill you, that is.”
Jake laughed at this. She had a sense of humor! There was hope for him yet.
Nalda allowed herself a tiny smile at the sound of his laughter. It really wasn’t half-bad, especially when he wasn’t laughing at children tripping over their feet.
“Oh, wow. A sense of humor and a huge welcoming smile, too? Can you imagine that?”
This time, Nalda gave a full smile, showing her teeth and that tiny dimple on the left side of her face near the corner of her lips.
Jake stared at that dimple then caught himself. It was just as well that she was looking at her coffee. Clearing his throat, Jake started the conversation.
“Have you ever had boyfriends?”
“Yeah. Mom and Dad weren’t so sold on the soulmate thing, since they had found each other despite the fact that they were technically not soulmates. They encouraged my brother and me to go and date other people. We may or may not meet our soulmates but at least we weren’t moping about waiting for that one person who would say the right words. You?”
“No, I’ve never had boyfriends,” Jake said with a smug look.
Nalda’s looked at the salt and pepper shakers on the table. They looked heavy. She picked up a shaker and hit his shoulder with it. “You know what I mean!”
“I know. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Yes, I’ve had girlfriends. All pretty, mind you…” Nalda glared at him mid-sentence. Jake coughed to clear his thought and turned sober after she hinted at physical harm. “Anyway, to continue my train of thought, it never worked out. There was always something wrong with them or something wrong with me. It really just never worked out.”
Nalda nodded, finding to her surprise that she was agreeing with what Jake said.
“I know what you mean. It was the same for me. At some point I just said to hell with it and then I stopped dating and stopped looking for the one.”
“Then today is your lucky day!” Jake said with a grin.
“You really are a piece of work, Jake,” Nalda said, ruefully shaking her head.
“But cute, right? Come on, admit it. I’m cute.”
Nalda didn’t reply, choosing that moment to look at the menu and look for something to eat. It was also a convenient way to hide her smile. She didn’t want him to know he made her smile. She didn’t like him after all.
Jake watched her over the menu. All he could see were her eyes, visible behind the glasses from that angle. They weren’t so bad. They were a soft brown color and he was pretty sure they lit up when she was happy about something.
Nalda decided she wanted pancakes. With bananas and walnuts, smothered in whipped cream and a generous dollop of whipped peanut butter. She craned her neck to call the waitress to give her order. Turning to him she asked if he wanted something to eat. Jake declined.
Jake was not thinking about food this time. It was no more than half a second, or maybe a second, when she glanced at him. Yet he felt like she was some other person sitting in front of him.
Her hair had moved to show her face when she turned to him. Her face was soft-featured beneath the glasses. Her cheekbones were high, her skin clear and slightly rosy. Her lips full and bow shaped. But it was her eyes that caught him.
Nalda turned back to him after giving her order for pancakes. The moment passed and she was the same person he met at the park.
The air of tension had lifted, replaced by something they both could not pinpoint. Perhaps it was because it had begun to sink in. They had found each other.
Nalda started tracing the words on her arm. “I had given up, you know.”
“Given up on what?”
“On this,” Nalda said, pointing to her tattoo, then reaching across the table and lightly touching his.
Jake jerked his arm away. Nalda was startled and pulled her hand back, feeling offended.
“I wasn’t going to do anything!” she cried out in her defense.
“It wasn’t that. I was just startled, that’s all. I’m sorry.”
Nalda flushed, embarrassed at the familiarity she exhibited toward this almost stranger.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. I was just trying to make a point. We seem to be apologizing a lot.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Jake smiled. The truth was, her touch had burned him. He couldn’t explain it but it felt like that time when he accidentally electrocuted himself. Except not as painful (or embarrassing).
He held out his arm to her, inviting her to continue what she had been so rudely interrupted doing.
Nalda briefly touched his tattoo, started tracing it, then withdrew her arm again, still feeling a bit embarrassed at the display.
The two drank their coffees in silence, lost in their own thoughts.
Thankfully the server returned. Nalda’s pancakes had arrived and they looked quite tempting and mouth-watering. Jake looked at her plate longingly and felt a little bit sad he declined the offer to order something.
Nalda stole a glance at Jake. Something changed. It was a slight change but he didn’t seem like such an asshole anymore. His demeanor toward her wasn’t as abrasive. Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. Either that or he was hungry.
“Pancake?” Nalda asked, breaking the silence while holding out her picture-worthy stack of pancakes.
“I think I’ll just order something.”
“There’s more than enough for the two of us. Don’t worry, I don’t mind sharing, as long as you don’t finish it all,” she said, all the time pushing the plate closer to his face.
Jake found it quite endearing, and said, “Fine. You are forcing my hand. So pushy.” To take the sting out of his words, Jake said it with a smile.
Nalda’s heart did a little flip-flop. The voice in her head was shrieking in delight, singing love songs. A voice she pointedly ignored. She asked for another plate to distract herself and when it arrived she meticulously cut the pancakes in half. Share and share alike. They ate in companionable silence for a while.
“What do we do now?” Jake asked in between bites.
“I really don’t know, Jake. I think despite all the hoping I did, I never thought I would actually meet my soulmate. I’m sorry I’m not pretty.” All of Nalda’s insecurities had risen to the surface when she met Jake. Nobody had ever told her she wasn’t pretty to her face. She was sure they probably thought that she was not pretty but kept the thought to themselves. Nalda had come to terms a long time ago with the fact that she was never going to be the type to turn heads or make men crawl. Like those women Jake was trying to flirt with earlier. She was fine with it. Until earlier today.
Jake watched her eyes cloud as she apologized and he felt his heart tear a little at the corners. He so badly wanted to take away the hurt he caused. The intensity of the desire to make her smile again surprised him. He took a deep breath and gave himself a mental kick in the teeth. He was a jerk, an asshole and everything else in that same category. But he was never cruel. And what he said this morning was cruel beyond belief.
With dread Jake took a chance and covered her hand in his, and was surprised when she did not pull away. “I’m sorry. I should not have said that. It was uncalled for and untrue.”
He meant it, too. Looking at her now he wondered how he could have thought that she was not pretty. She was not pretty in a conventional way, maybe, but the longer he looked at her, the more he noticed how appealing her face was. How attractive she was, despite the nondescript outfit she wore. He began to think that her clothes actually enhanced the attraction, because they did not distract him from what he wanted to focus on. Her eyes.
Her eyes drew him in. Intelligent eyes that invited him to look, really look. He wondered how they would look if she laughed with abandon. He made a silent bet with himself that she would be amazing to look at. He promised himself a beer if he won, and a beer if he lost. He hoped to win.
Nalda looked down at her plate, surprised at the sudden urge to cry. She gently drew her hand away. Earlier she was prepared to just write off Jake as another man who was so full of himself he thought nothing about hurting people’s feelings. The apology was sincere and it affected her in ways she never expected.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Nalda just nodded and waited for him to go on.
“I think you know how rare this is. People live their entire lives without ever having met their soulmate. I’ve only ever heard of one person who did, and it was on TV, so it doesn’t count,” Jake said.
Nalda had to agree. Finding that one person in their universe was next to impossible, given the number of people and the size of the planet. The soulmate thing was not confined to a specific place. One’s soulmate could be born as far as the other end of the planet, as far as possible.
Maybe if people had longer lives, they’d have more time to go looking for their soulmates, if they had the time and resources. But for a great majority, it was a myth, and people chose to be happy regardless of whether their partners spoke the right words or not.
On the other hand, one’s soulmate could be right next door, and the opportunity to talk to each other may never rise. The words would never be said, and the soulmates would never meet. It was practically the same as being continents away from each other.
Yet here they were. Soulmates. Together at one table, drinking coffee and eating pancakes.
It was almost a miss, Nalda realized. She could have gone home earlier, after having her coffee, or the child could have just gone on her merry way without conveniently tripping for their benefit. Or she could have tripped without dropping her pop tart. Nalda could have just ignored Jake the whole time he was going around being an asshole to those women. She could have. He could have.
So many circumstances and events that almost stopped them from meeting. And yet, and yet…
“I think I would like to get to know you better, Nalda.”
Nalda looked at him. Thoughts raced in her head as she considered this. From you’re not pretty to I’d like to get to know you better in a span of a few hours. From avoiding his touch to welcoming the warmth of his hand on hers. This could lead to heartache, and pain and endless drunken nights alone. It was going to be a rollercoaster ride. But, she knew she would regret it more if she didn’t even try.
So what if he didn’t turn out to be what she wanted? She won’t ever know if she walked away now. Nalda decided that she could not live with could-have-beens. Maybe they’d decide to never talk to each after this unexpected meeting. Maybe they’d find out they really could not stand to be in each other’s presence and call it quits. If this led to a lifetime of pain, so be it. The point was, she had to at least try.
“I think, in spite of your being who you are, I’d like that too, Jake.” Nalda smiled, a brilliant smile that reached her eyes.
Jake lost himself in that smile and realized with a start that he could now stop with the pranks. Show her who he really was and take a chance that she would end up liking him. This may not lead anywhere but looking at that smile, Jake felt that that was unlikely. At the back of his head Jake felt himself congratulating himself for winning the bet. He deserved that beer, he figured. Maybe she’d like to share with him.
Jake raised his coffee mug and said, “To soulmates.”
“To not being assholes,” Nalda replied, with a full carefree laugh.
Jake was right. She was not pretty. She was downright beautiful. ☁
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