The elevator jerked to a halt at the fifteenth floor, the steel doors slid open and Arnav emerged with eyes fixed on phone screen. Her message was brief and stilted, “I’m good, Arnav. Hoping the same for you”.
With a sigh, Arnav put the phone back in his pocket, and went down a carpeted corridor to reach his apartment door. Taking a key card from his pocket, he sild it through it’s reader and pushed open the door to enter the foyer of his spacious two bedroom apartment, which had been home since January. It was sparsely furnished with simple, clean lined, cream leather, glass and steel furniture. The bare beige walls, the absence of any personal touches or colors, the still unopened cardboard boxes lent a cheerless air to the whole space. The only redeeming feature was the view – Cleveland skyline curving around Lake Erie.
He pressed the answering machine on. While the messages played, he took a mug from a cabinet to make his nightly decaf coffee, a routine he’d recently started to cut down on alcohol.
The coffee maker was the sole appliance in the kitchen that was put to regular use.
“Arnav, this is Ma calling. I called you on your cell too. Call me when you get a chance”.
“Arnav beta…this is Asif Bhat calling from Srinagar. I hope, you are doing well by God’s grace. There is something important, I wanted to talk to you about. It’s pertaining to the upcoming harvest season. Call me whenever you can”.
“Hey Arnav, this is Phil. It’s Sunday morning, around 10:30 AM…Tess and I were planning on going to ‘The Last Word’ tonight. Just to hang out with a few friends. Do join us, if you’re not doing anything else…Hope to see you soon, man, it’s been so long. Where are you? I left a message on your cell too”.
With the earthy, smoky aroma of a dark roast pervading the apartment, he headed to his bedroom, not having the least inclination to respond to any of the messages.
In keeping with the rest of the apartment, the bedroom was sparsely furnished with a full platform bed and a nightstand. After turning the bedside lamp on, he took his glasses off and placed them carefully on the nightstand, followed by wallet. He sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, fighting the encompassing silence that seemed to close in with every second. He sent her another text.
“Did you get my message? What do you think?
Later, as warm water sluiced over his tired body, he thought about his message, his texts, his overtures again. In a moment of realization, he could feel Khushi’s conflict – the ebb and flow of a heart at odds with mind.
A wave of bitter self-recrimination washed over him. He loathed himself suddenly for putting her through it all.
Changed in his nightclothes, settled back against firm pillows, a folded arm behind his head, he stared absently at the 11:30 local news forming another message in his mind.
“Khushi, I feel like a selfish cad for putting you through this. Please ignore my previous question”.
Sitting on the edge of her seat, Khushi tried her best to avoid glancing down the steep valley on one side of the mountain road. The MSF van maneovred around yet another safety-pin bend and the absence of a railing or a wall on the valley side was a cause of severe anxiety to everyone except the seasoned driver. If anything, the driver’s nonchalance added to it.
When her cell phone announced a text, Khushi was thankful for a diversion.
“Khushi, I feel like a selfish cad for putting you through this. Please ignore my previous question”
The ordeals of her journey were relegated to the back of her mind as she tried to process his message.
Even as she debated whether to respond to his text or not, the van arrived at it’s destination, and Khushi was caught in a million things requiring immediate attention.
It was an hour later, when she was seeing an elderly patient under a bright azure sky, that she got another message from him, a 3 AM afterthought.
That night as Khushi lay on the small bed of her Pampore apartment, the debate continued relentlessly in her mind. She tossed and turned. She stared at the starry night through her window. She implored Devi Ma for guidance.
Just before drifting off to sleep, she sent him a two word reply.
In a black and gray houndstooth RL blazer over a blue shirt, Dr. Raizada, associate program director at Cole Eye Institute, stood before a pulled down display screen, expounding on the complications of cataract surgery.
His baritone resonated in the small conference room filled with exhausted second year residents around a table.
After taking a sip of water, he went to the next slide.
Capsular opacification and contraction:
. Posterior capsule opacification: (0.7~47.6%) continued viability and proliferation of lens epithelial cells remaining after removal of nucleus and cortex. These cells can undergo metaplasia and conversion to fibroblasts, which create a matrix of fibrous and basement membrane collagen that can contract to cause wrinkles in the posterior capsule. This distorts vision and produces glare.
. Most common complication of cataract surgery by means of extracapsular cataract extraction (ECCE) or phacoemulsification.
. Risk is minimized by hydrodissection and meticulous cortical cleanup.
“Does anyone know the name of that surgical technique that has been proven to minimize this risk?, he asked and was met with blank stares.
“It’s named after a famous ophthalmologist..”, he prompted after a while.
“Raizada Technique?, a young woman teased.
“I wish, Rebecca”, replied Arnav, his eyes flickering humorously “But I’m not quite there yet. It’s called Little technique, named after Dr. Brian Little, but yes, thanks for that little vote of confidence”.
As the residents chuckled, he moved on to the next slide and was in the middle of it, when his phone beeped. He reached for it without a thought.
And that unleashing of his rare half smile upon the cellphone screen made his students curious.
Later that day, he received an email from Ryan Bernstein, his attorney…
From: Ryan Bernstein<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Tue, October 22, 2013 at 2:25 PM
Subject: Raizada Vs. Raizada
To:Arnav S. Raizada<Arnav1980@hotmail.com>
As we’d discussed earlier, in light of the defendant, Lavanya Raizada’s refusal to sign divorce agreement papers, and your own decision to keep the process clean or in legal terms, a no-fault one, we are left with just one option under Ohio’s divorce laws. You will have to prove to the court, your marriage’s irretrievable breakdown, by living separately from your spouse for a minimal period of 18 months. Starting from January, the month when you were granted legal separation from the defendant, this period will end in the third week of July. If the length of wait is not acceptable to you for any reason, and you do decide to go for a fault divorce do let us know and we’ll set up a meeting to discuss the various entities that entail a fault divorce.
Feel free to contact us via cell phone or email, if you have any questions.
Taflinski and Bernstein Legal Services PLLC.
1503, Lincoln Avenue, Suite 209
Two weeks later,
A black BMW X5 screeched to a halt at yet another red light and it’s driver seemed uncharacteristically unperturbed by it. Not wanting to go home, he was rather aimlessly, driving around Downtown Lakewood, fighting the urge to reach for the closest watering hole. His face, half veiled by evening’s shadows, had the look of a man fighting inner demons.
The heavily adorned Downtown carried that typically festive yet melancholic Halloween air. Groups of costumed children of all shapes and sizes could be seen walking on sidewalks.
He kept his eyes focused on the road ahead, and his knuckles whitened as he gripped the power steering wheel with more force than necessary.
“Daddy, did you bring my pidel man costume?
“I’m sorry, bud, I looked in so many places but couldn’t find one in your size. But don’t worry, you’re going to totally rock this pumpkin costume that your Mama brought”.
“But, I want to be a superhelo..”.
“Daddy’s going to get it for you next year, I promise…”.
Pulling into the dark and vacant parking lot of the Lakewood Park, he parked the car with the engine still on, vacantly staring at Cleveland skyline’s reflection upon Lake Erie, his fingers still gripping the steering wheel.
After a long while, and without knowing why, he reached for his phone in the cup-holder.
It was Saturday early morning and a bleary eyed Khushi woke up to the persistent ringing of her cellphone.
With a worried frown she reached for it, her thought process halting abruptly when she recognized the number.
As he hung up without a word, Khushi understood. Understood his silence better than a million words by anyone else. She stared at the phone, grappling with emotions, her eyes flaring with helplessness. She wanted to call him back, ask him about the demons that haunted him day and night, but couldn’t.
His text came a minute later.
“Had accidentally called you. I’m fine“.
Her eyes watered as she realized that she understood his lies just as well too.
Second week of November,
Subdued light and faint conversation filtered out of the windows of Shantivan. In keeping with decades old family tradition, it celebrated the advent of saffron harvest. The entire staff of Saffron Fields had been invited for the occasion.
It was the second week of November. The chinar tree outside Khushi’s window was a flamboyant palette of colors that fluttered blithely in the Autumn wind.
Wearing a rust chiffon anarkali, Khushi stood in the crowded drawing room, talking to the one familiar person in the room, Mr. Bhat. Encouraged by her fascinated eyes, he regaled her with the intricacies of saffron harvesting in detail.
“Just two weeks. The crocuses bloom for just two weeks and we have to pick all of them in this short period. And to makes things even more complicated, these flowers need to be picked while they’re unfurled, and these delicate flowers unfurl only for a few fleeting hours in the morning. When the Sun gets too hot, they close. So it’s either early mornings or full moon nights. The fragrance and color of a saffron field blooming in moonlight is an experience that has fired the imaginations of many Kashmiri kings and poets. It should not be missed by anyone..”.
Later as Mr. Bhat left her to circulate, Khushi opened the french windows quietly and slipped out. There was a time when the mention of a moonlit saffron field would’ve brought out a sparkle of interest in Khushi’s eyes. These days, her heart was always heavy and her eyes dull and lifeless.
Strolling along the lake, she listened to waves hitting the shore, while her eyes reflected the hues of yet another dusk. Reaching the quay, she walked along it’s length and halted at it’s edge. Bracing herself against the wind’s onslaught, she hugged her arms. She gazed at the sky, following the flight of a flock of geese, when she heard soft footfalls behind her. Followed by a waft of a familiar woodsy scent.
“No..”, she thought, “It can’t be. I’m sure, I’m imagining”.
Taking a deep breath to calm her racing heart, she turned around and stilled.
Looking dreamy in a black blazer over a light blue shirt, he looked down at her stupefied face, his eyes flashing with sudden amusement. They softened as he watched her extend a hand to touch his shirt front, as if half expecting him to vanish in thin air.
She started when he put his hand over hers, trapping it against his chest. She could feel his heart beating under her fingers.
“Yes, it’s really me”, he said, “You are not hallucinating, Dr. Gupta”.
It was too late to hide her lit up features. Confused, she just gazed at him touched by the quiet joy in his eyes.
“When did you come?, she asked finally and tugged at her hand.
“Just now..”, he replied, letting go of her hand and shoving his own in his trouser pockets.
Wordlessly, he studied her, noticing her weight loss. “How are you, Khushi?, he asked, “How have your blood sugars been?.
His voice was gentle. It made her want to cry.
“Good. Not bad at all. Just a few highs here and there”.
Their eyes locked again in the golden twilight. The pull she felt towards him was so dangerous that in desperation, she brought up the subject she knew would help keep their distance.
“How old is your son?
The unexpectedness of her question threw him off. His face blanched with pain and surprise.. And quite suddenly, Khushi knew. She knew with a powerful squeeze of her heart that stole her breath away.
Without thinking, she bridged their distance and hugged him.
“I’m sorry”, was all she could manage, her eyes shining with tears.
Arnav’s chaotic breaths were indicative of his struggle to regain his balance. He enfolded her in his arms, slowly resting his stubbled cheek against her hair..