Lavanya sat behind her father’s mahogany desk, sifting through his mail. At her dad’s recent insistence, she had recently started working part time at his office. Her dad, an aging ophthalmologist was the reason, she had chosen ophthalmology as a field, with the ultimate goal of joining his thriving sub urban practice. For the past couple of weeks, her dad, Shashi Kashyap had been slowly easing her into the practice, feighing ill health and a dire need of her help, when the real reason was to draw her out of her shell and keep her occupied. Enough to keep her busy but not any more than required.
While her dad was busy seeing patients, she was, as instructed, sifting through his pile of mail to separate wheat from the chaff. When she had finished doing that, she aimlessly turned her dad’s desktop on to while away the time.
Logging onto her FB after what had seemed like eternity, she was cursorily glancing through the newsfeed, when she her eyes paused at a colorful wedding picture. One of her friend’s wedding. Her eyes fixed on bride’s wearing a sparkling red dress.
February, 3, 2009.
Ritz Carlton Hotel,
Hillsborough, New Jersey.
Lavanya stared at her reflection, already resplendent in bridal finery, rendered even more beautiful against a backdrop of their room, that was romantically dim lit and decorated with tea lights and rose petals. Her eyes flickered to a table that was laid out in preparation of a night of celebration and passion. The green and gold of a champagne bottle in it’s cooler, a set of flutes, red, plump chocolate dipped strawberries artistically arranged on a platter.
She remembered how she had winced at the sight of chocolate, closing her eyes to curb a wave of nausea rising from her stomach. Hearing the bathroom door click open, she’d opened her eyes to see Arnav cross the room to stand before it’s wide window. With his arms crossed and his profile oddly pensive, he’d seemed to be watching the falling snowflakes in silence.
Looking at his somber profile, Lavanya had felt a fresh wave of nausea. She couldn’t decide it that was due pregnancy or…that irrepressible doubt…that gnawed away at her heart sapping it of every joy she’d ever known.
“No, I’m worrying too much”, she had made herself believe again, “Of course, it is Arnav’s. Arnav and mine”.
The next wave of nausea had her rushing to the bathroom. Just as she was done emptying her dinner in the toilet bowl, she’d heard Arnav come in to stand beside her.
“Are you okay?, he had asked. She’d known he was trying to make up for his distant behavior all evening.
She had nodded in response, turning the faucet on to rinse her mouth. As they’d walked out of the room together, she’d turned towards him on an impulse to say, “I’m sorry, Arnav”.
“No need to be sorry”, Arnav had replied, ending the awkward silence that had settled between them since Lavanya broke the news of her pregnancy a month ago.
“We are both equally responsible for finding ourselves in this situation”, he had added after offering to call for ginger ale for her.
Later, as Lavanya sipped from a glass of ginger ale, she’d looked up to meet Arnav’s eyes. What she read in his eyes made her heart dilate with melancholy.
Compromise and nothingness. That’s all she could read in them.
Lavanya had lifted her chin stubbornly and vowed to herself. She would make him love her.
It had been an extraordinarily hectic day and with her hair untidy and her face shiny, Khushi looked every inch as tired as she felt. The fact she had only had few hours of fitful sleep hadn’t helped either.
Picking up stuff from the table, she was shoving them into her bag when her phone beeped. It was Arnav’s text. She stilled and stared at his monosyllabic query, her eyes hazy with indecision.
After a while, she typed, “Hey. There are still many patients to be seen. It might be too late by the time I’m done”. Pressing send, she leaned back in her chair in relief,
His reply came almost at once.
Her eyes widening, she turned around instinctively. Her heart missed a beat. A million butterflies appeared in her stomach again. Dressed in a black shirt, khaki chinos and a Burberry sports coat, he leaned against a colorful chinar tree, a wicked grin on his lips.
She watched with bemused eyes as he straightened and strode towards her to pause beside her table.
“Why the lie?, he asked, his caramel eyes dancing, his face surveying her face somberly.
“Umm…I …”, Khushi tried with her face flushing, at a total loss of words for once.
“Khushi, I’m flying to Cleveland tomorrow”, he said gently, covering her hand with his, “I wanted us to sit down and talk before I left”.
Settling back on a carved wood chair, Khushi watched as sun patches moved and merged on the rug with every sway of the window’s silk panels. The window overlooked the Dal Lake. The lengthening shadows on it’s surface spoke of another day nearing it’s culmination.
Khushi had come straight from work, realizing that stopping at her apartment would eat up a considerable portion of the limited time they had at their disposal.
Grateful for a pack of facial wipes, compact and lipgloss she always kept in her handbag, she now sat in a historic restaurant in old city, looking less tired than she felt in black dress pants and a black and blue striped blouse.
She looked around the medium sized restaurant, taking in the faded rugs, the copper and stained glass pendant lamps and the carved walnut wood furniture. A faint scent of saffron and spices permeated the space. She sat still, allowing the ambience to slowly seep in.
She recalled the sparse conversation, they’d had on the way to the restaurant.
“Have you ever tried the traditional Wazwan meal?, Arnav had glanced back to ask while Mohan maneuvered the car through the narrow lanes of the historical city.
When Khushi had replied in the negative, Arnav had explained what it meant, expounding on it’s significance and merits for the next few minutes.
Arriving at the restaurant, he waited for Khushi to settle in her chair, and after ordering her a saffron infused, peach drink, left to talk to the manager. He was also Mr. Bhat’s brother in law and Arnav’s acquaintance.
Taking another sip of her drink, Khushi looked up to see Arnav walking up to their table. While she smiled a little uneasily, he pulled a chair to sit across from her. She surveyed his face, as intriguing as ever under the reddish glow of the overhanging copper lamps. The sunlight streaming in was pale now and the sky, air and water infused with twilight colors.
Picking his glass to take a sip, Arnav studied her downturned face. She was apparently engrossed in a deep perusal of the menu card.
Unnerved by the silence crackling between them, Khushi read a snippet of information on ‘Wazwan’ out loud.
“Wazwan is a multi-course meal in Kashmiri cuisine, the preparation of which is considered an art and a point of pride in Kashmiri culture and identity. The Wazwan traditionally consists of about 36 dishes…”.
“36 dishes?”, Khushi exclaimed, looking up.
Arnav chuckled at her expression and reassured her, “We’re getting a drastically scaled down version”.
As she recommenced her reading, Arnav removed the menu card from her hands to put it away.
“We didn’t come all the way here to discuss Kashmiri cuisine”, he said with his lips quirking.
“I know”, Khushi murmured, “We have to talk…”.
Arnav covered her hand with his, his eyes warm with understanding, “Khushi, relax. I understand. I know your views on relationships and I understand how difficult this must be for you. Believe me that despite my views on marriage and relationships being somewhat different from yours, I respect your beliefs”.
As her flashed him a thankful smile, he paused for a moment before continuing, “The reason we are here today is because…once we’re both back in Ohio, things will be a whole lot different. For you, for me, for us. And I just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page as far as…moving forward…is concerned”.
He paused and straightened as a waiter came in with their first course, a spice infused lamb broth, waiting as he placed their bowls in front of them carefully.
Blowing on the spoonful of the piping hot broth, Khushi sensed his eyes dipping down to her lips. Flushing, Khushi swallowed, wiped her face and focused her thoughts back on their discussion .
“How exactly are your views on marriage and relationships different from mine?, she asked, curious to know just where they both stood on the belief spectrum, “Do you mean to say that because of your past experience you don’t believe in marriage anymore?
“Not exactly”, he said thoughtfully, “I know marriage as an institution is necessary, even desirable, under several circumstances. It’s just not more important to me than the honest emotions of two responsible adults wanting to be together. You might not agree with me, and I think you already know this, but as far as I’m concerned…true marriage between two adults, it’s making or breaking, should not be dependent on signatures. If the right emotions are absent, have been absent for a while, and these signature are misused as shackles to keep a person tied to a marriage, these can neither keep a dying marriage alive, nor prevent a weak marriage from falling apart, nor enforce fidelity. But that’s just me”.
“So if it were solely up to you, what would you decide? How would you take our…relationship forward?, she asked with a frown as she tried to understand where he came from.
“You want me to be honest? Brutally honest?, he asked with a suddenly naughty smile.
“Always”, Khushi returned his smile.
“Hmm”, he pursed his lips and leaned back, his eyes surveying her face, swirling with devilish humor, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you but if it were solely up to me, I would ask you, beg you if I have to, to move into my life, my apartment…and…my bedroom without delay”.
As Khushi’s eyes widened with outrage, he burst out laughing, a masculine gravelly sound that curled her toes.”And before you throw that hot broth at me, let me clarify I was just messing with you”.
Khushi was suddenly close to tears. “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with you”, she said, grateful when their server interrupted them with the next course, giving her a chance to regroup.
Arnav placed his fork on the plate with contrition spilling out of his eyes, “I’m sorry, Khushi. I’m so sorry. Honestly, I was just messing around with you. And to answer your question again, let me just say that I can’t answer it at all because…it is and will always be your call only. However you want us to move forward, I will be with you 100%”.
Lifting her eyes from a dish of meat and delicately flavored, long grained rice, she said, “What if I don’t want us to meet again…until…June?
“I won’t ever question your decision. Period”, he replied somberly without missing a beat.
As Khushi relaxed visibly and her smile returned, he asked gently, “Is there anything else bothering you?
They ate their dinner in silence as Khushi struggled to tie together a million thoughts running in her mind into a coherent question.
After a while, she asked “If both of you want this divorce, why is it taking so long?
“Because Lavanya refuses to sign the divorce agreement papers, and for it to be finalized without her signature, we have to live separately until June”.
“Why?, she asked, an undefined trepidation creeping into her heart because she’d somehow assumed that Lavanya wanted a divorce too.
“I don’t know. She apparently hates me and wants a reconciliation at the same time”, replied Arnav with a shrug, his eyes hardening into steel.
Looking into his cold eyes, Khushi felt a shiver down her spine. This was a side to him she’d never experienced before.
“Women often say the opposite of what they actually mean….If she doesn’t want a divorce, there’s a possibility that she still loves you”, she left the sentence unfinished, her heart feeling compassion for a woman, a troubled woman, a flawed woman, who’d lost everything in life.
“I’ve already considered this possibility”, he said, a slew of feelings…anger, agitation, desperation, fear…flitting across his demeanor, “And to be very honest, I don’t give a damn. I’ve already had enough of her fucked up brand of love”.
Khushi flinched at the naked ruthlessness of his words and Arnav’s eyes softened marginally in response, “Khushi, would you judge me, would you consider me selfish if I say that I care about my happiness much more than Lavanya’s. And that I’m intelligent enough to realize that my happiness, most certainly, doesn’t lie with her. Yes, I do feel sorry for her at times, but there is nothing I can do about it without giving her false hopes”.
“I do understand your point of view, Arnav”, she said slowly, “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t even be here. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling for her. Or feeling guilty”.
“Guilty about what?, he asked with a touch of irritation lacing his voice.
“That if I hadn’t come into your life, there might still be a chance for the two of you to get back together”.
Arnav stared at her incredulous eyes, “Khushi, were you not paying attention to what I just said. That I’ve had enough of her fucked up brand of love. That there is no chance in hell of us getting back together. I had taken this decision long before I met you and you have absolutely nothing to do with it. And if I thought there were a chance, even a remote one, of us getting back together, I wouldn’t even be here either”.
They finished their dinner in strained silence, which was alleviated only when their waiter showed up with a tray laden with a copper samovar and two small porcelain cups. Khushi watched with fascination as he placed the cups in front of them, readied them by layering fresh walnut shavings at their bottoms, and then poured out freshly brewed kehwa into them.
Taking a sip, Khushi shot a glance at his aloof face, and tried again.
“This is so good. What is it?, she asked, even though she knew exactly what it was.
“Kehwa. Green tea infused with saffron and whole spices”, he replied, his demeanor relaxing a little.
Their eyes met over the porcelain cups and slowly smiled at each other again.
A little later, they strolled along a lake side market place, which was a riot of lights, sounds and excitement. The sun had long disappeared behind the mountains and a veil of fog was slowly spreading it’s fingers over the town.
As a man accidentally jostled against Khushi, Arnav put a protective arm around her and suggested they cross the road to reach the less congested lake shore.
As they walked alongside the gently sloping bank, Khushi shivered when time and again, gusts of wind skimmed over the lake’s surface and slammed against her, making her break out in goosebumps.
They had now reached a large quayside, where a handful of people stood signaling passing shikaras for rides back home. After staring at the vast expanse of the lake for a few silent minutes, Arnav glanced down at her, a small smile tugging at a corner of his mouth.
“Shall we?, his eyes questioned in the light of the almost full moon.
Khushi nodded in assent and smiled. As she shivered again, Arnav shrugged his coat off and draped it on the back of her shoulders, his impassive face showing no signs of having registered her protests.
Khushi slid her arms into the too large sleeves, enveloped in the scent of his cologne and the warmth of his body heat.
It wasn’t long before they were settled in a shikara and it seemed the most natural thing in the world when Arnav put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer, the sudden acceleration of her heartbeats, notwithstanding.
Slowly Khushi rested her head on his shoulder, convincing her mind to relegate, just for a few stolen moments, all doubts and questions to the realm of oblivion.
His face was close when she turned hers up after a while to ask, “What time is your flight tomorrow?
“9:30 AM”, he answered distractedly, his eyes curiously intent as they surveyed her moonlit features.
“Arnav?, she decided to attempt small talk to diffuse the almost tangible sexual tension crackling between them.
“Hmm”, he replied, his voice curling her toes..
“What is your favorite color?
“My favorite color?, Arnav repeated, a little taken aback, “What is this? 20 questions?
“Maybe”, she responded with a smile.
“That’s not even a color, it’s an absence of colors”.
“Let’s not go into technical details”.
“What was the last book you read? Non-medical”.
“You know that already”, Arnav said with his lips curving.
As she recalled their not so memorable meetings at two airports in two different continents, Arnav raised his free hand to tuck strands of windswept hair behind her ear, his fingers lingering on her skin longer than necessary.
As their eyes locked, she could hear her heart pounding in her ear and the rhythm of the paddle cutting through waters.
They traced a path on the contours of her cheek, before wandering down her neck and with her breath hitching, she covered them with hers.
Silence reigned for the rest of their time together and when Mohan pulled in the Range Rover at her apartment’s parking space, Khushi felt a sudden bleakness in her heart. It was increased by the knowledge they won’t see each other until June.
“What if things change?
“What if we never meet again?
Arnav got out with her and as she turned to say goodbye, he said quietly that he was coming up with her.
Conscious of Mohan’s presence, yet greedy for more time, her eyes expressed her dilemma when she tried to protest but Arnav was already ahead of her on the way to the elevator, which they soon found was out of order.
Her heart quickened as they made their way up three flights of steps and not just from exertion. It was late in the night and the stairs were dark and deserted. She was suddenly glad of Arnav’s decision to accompany her to her door. Arnav flicked a glance at her worried profile as they walked down a dim lit corridor toward her apartment.
Pausing outside her door, he turned to face her. “Everything is going to turn out fine, Khushi. Don’t worry too much”, he whispered gently.
Khushi nodded, biting her lip to counter the sudden threat of tears.
“Things are moving so fast”, she blurted suddenly, “We’ve known each other for barely three months. There is so much you don’t know about me, that we don’t know about each other. How can we sure it’s not..just…?
“Sexual attraction?, he said.
“Yes”, she replied, a flush spreading across her cheeks.
Smiling a little, he hooked an arm around her waist to bring her closer, “Do you want me to answer just for myself or for both of us?
“Just for yourself”, she said, realizing how sure her heart was of it’s emotions now. That it didn’t need convincing any more. It was liberating. It brought tears to her eyes. And what Arnav saw in them was the most beautiful confession he could have ever imagined.
With his throat aching, he took his time answering her question, holding her gaze as he thought, while Khushi waited patiently, painfully aware of his proximity, resisting the urge to move closer.
“I don’t know how to put it”, he said slowly, “But I do know that it has to be love.”
“It has to be love?, she whispered, mesmerized by the intensity she saw in his eyes.
Nodding seriously to affirm, he said, “There have been women I was just physically attracted to in the past, so I know what all that entails. This feels different. This is different…although I don’t exactly know how”.
“Maybe it’s because when you are with me I feel life is worth striving for…”, he swallowed and continued after a pause, “Or maybe it’s these little things about you. The way you can spend an entire day smiling through a broken heart. The way the corners of your eyes crinkle…the way they seem to look right through me and know me among a million other things I can’t express. I admit, there’s a lot I don’t know about you. Your favorite color, your favorite movies, your taste in music and books, your past boyfriends. And much as I would like to spend the rest of my life knowing these little details, I have a strong feeling that these things won’t matter as much as what I already know and feel. So yes, it has to be love, right?
Tears rolled down her cheeks in earnest now and embarrassed, she tried smiling in vain, “You’re making it sound so simple”.
“The most complex questions in life have the simplest answers sometimes”, he said seriously, tucking a hair strand behind a ear.
With a sudden grin, he added after a moment, “And yes, I forgot to mention that most of the time when you’re talking to me, all I want to do is to kiss the heck out of you”.
With a deep color staying her cheeks, she smiled and rested her head on his chest, sighing as she felt his arms tighten and draw her closer.
“Arnav, where do we go from here?, she asked, her fingers curling into his shirt.
“Trust me, Khushi”, he said, “I will let you and only you decide on the course of our relationship until June. It will solely be your prerogative. Even if it means goodbye for now”.
She raised her anguished eyes to meet his and he understood that was what she wanted.
Cupping her neck with both hands, he said with a wry smile, “So goodbye it is then”.
“Until we meet again”, she corrected him with a wavering smile, her breath hitching when he suddenly leaned in to take her lips.
He kissed her with a hunger that set her heart on fire, his tongue tracing her lips, sucking their bottom. It sent a jolt of desire down her back. He groaned as she encircled her arms around his neck and drew even closer, molding her body with his, parting her lips for him. Her fingers curled in his hair as he caught the succulent flesh of her lip between his teeth. Even as she winced, he thrust his tongue inside her warm crevice, dueling with hers, trying to quench a thirst..that was fast overpowering their senses.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs made their draw apart, and as Khushi tried opening the door, she found her fingers trembling. Taking the key from her, Arnav opened the door and as they entered together, Khushi felt her heart slamming violently against ribcage.
with her back pressed against the closed door, they kissed again in the almost dark apartment, their lower bodies joining to fuel their desires.
With their lips still joined, she felt him unbuttoning her shirt, pushing her brassiere away to cup, mold and squeeze a breast. When his fingers tugged and rolled at her aching peaks, she felt desire pooling in the pit of her stomach.
He raised his head and a pause that followed was filled with darkness, breaths and desire.
His hand was still on her breast and just as she made to stop him, he bent to taking a hardening peak into his mouth.
Even as her head reeled with sensations, and her fingers curled into his hair, she realized they were fast approaching the point of no return.
Sensing her body stiffening, he raised himself with ragged breaths and gently fixed her clothes.
“I think I should go now”, he said stepping away from her, a beam of moonlight revealing the regret in his eyes.
Khushi pulled him close to kiss him lightly on his lips. Her voice was with thick with tears as she said feelingly, ” I love you, Arnav. Take care”.
“And you be kind to yourself, Khush”
Later that night, Khushi tossed and turned in bed, her eyes devoid of sleep, and her mind full of Arnav and the previously unthinkable juncture of life and love she found herself at.
Knowingly or unknowingly, rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, their lives and dreams had become entwined.