Khushi realized that the decision she had taken taken that night was a potentially life altering leap of faith for her. It was something she could’ve never imagined herself doing as early as a year back. However she also realized that if given a chance to rewind time, a magical wand to erase past moments and create new ones, in all probability, she would’ve still made the same choice.
Looking back at the sequence of events, she realized that it wasn’t as if she got carried away by a powerful gust of passion and gave in to him, gave in to desire.
She knew she hadn’t made that decision in a moment of weakness. Rather, it was in a moment of strength, realization of her love’s strength, that she’d made that conscious choice. A moment where her love had not only seemed stronger than her beliefs but strangely in sync with them.
She knew that her decision was made at a level that was far removed from a physical need to quench long simmering passions, it was rather a byproduct of an instinct that was already intrinsic to her nature. A need to comfort, a need to heal.
Sex was not what he’d asked of her, she honestly believed, and it wasn’t what she’d given to him either. It had merely acted as a tool to express what they both couldn’t find the words for.
Holding her small body close with one arm, Arnav nuzzled and inhaled her skin’s scent, murmuring, “How am I supposed to stay away from you now?
His free hand caressed the softness of her bare arm and shoulder, speaking of a desire to hold onto her, make her his, and never let go. Not that night. Not ever.
Relaxing her arms, Khushi drew back a little to ask, “Can I stay here?
Surprised, Arnav stared at her, his eyes flickering speculatively, trying to gauge the thoughts behind her query.
“You don’t even have to ask me”, he said finally, and added after a pause, “Move in with me, Khushi. I don’t think I can wait until June now”.
Khushi was quiet for a while, her eyes clouded with thoughts, “What I meant was just for tonight. The driving conditions are terrible because of the snow storm and I’ve already let my parents know that I’ll be staying at a friend’s house. I wasn’t talking about living together…I know that the next five months will be difficult…for both of us…but…”.
“Living in is not an option”, Arnav finished for her, his eyes lit by a glimmer of a smile.
“I can’t hurt my parents, Arnav. I just can’t”, said Khushi, resting her head on his bare chest, “I know them… their values, their belief, their way of thinking, and although I might not always agree with them, I love them for who they are. A lot. They’ve always wanted the best for me and my happiness is of supreme importance to the but it would be highly unrealistic on my part to expect them to understand our relationship where it stands today, let alone condone it”.
“But”, Khushi raised her head and met his gaze, “Having said that, I still maintain I have no regrets I came here today and that our relationship progressed the way it did”.
“Why?”, asked Arnav.
“Why? Do you even have to ask that, Arnav?, she answered with a faltering smile, “Because I love you. And you needed me”.
“You make it sound so simple”, he murmured gruffly, running his fingers through her mass of chestnut hair.
Khushi flashed him a watery smile.
“The most complex questions in life sometimes have the simplest answers. Remember?
He pulled her close again in response and rested his cheek on the crown of her head.
They stood in silence for a while, joined in an embrace and reveling in the warmth, the comfort, the hope, the joy that something as simple and basic as physical contact brought. After having experienced the most intimate of intimacies with each other, a new sense of comfort enveloped them with their bodies perfectly moulded against each other and their hearts beat as one.
After a while, unable to ignore the rumblings of her stomach any longer, Khushi broke the silence by saying in a small voice, “I’m starving, Arnav”.
All concern, Arnav released her at once, “Oh man..I should have thought of that”. Walking over to a drawer, he pulled it open and took out a large bundle of restaurant menus.
“In this weather, not many restaurants will be able to deliver”, he said, rubbing his stubbled cheek, “But there are a few within this building that we could order from”.
“Not a whole lot of options, I’m afraid”, he said, handing them to her.
“It’s okay, Arnav”, she said, “I could just have cereal..”.
“Well”, Arnav smiled, “Apart from the fact that that milk is most likely expired, I haven’t had dinner either”.
After a few minutes of flipping through the menus and mutual consultation, they settled for Noodles & Co. and while Khushi volunteered to order for both of them, Arnav excused himself and walked over to the bedroom to shower and change.
Hanging up after ordering, Khushi looked around Arnav’s sparsely furnished apartment and felt a sense of surreality wash over her. Was she really in Arnav’s apartment, she wondered as she picked her clothes that were carelessly strewn all over the apartment, or was she wandering in a partcularly realistic dreamscape?
After folding them in a neat little pile, she sat down on the living room couch. Flipping channels in an abstracted fashion, she waited for Arnav to come out of the bathroom, not particularly looking forward to changing into her work clothes again.
Changed in a pair of plaid sleep pants and black T-shirt, Arnav joined her after a while, flopping down next to her in a warm blast of musky, freshly showered smell.
Sliding an arm around her, he pulled her close. Even as Khushi’s breath hitched and her heartbeats turned erratc, his fingers drew abstract patterns on her bare shoulder and upper arm.
His face was very close as she turned to look up at him, unable to curb a tingle of anticipation rushing through her skin. Out of their own volition, her lips parted invitingly.
His eyes focused on her lips..for a few heart stopping moments before he surprised her by gently flicking her nose.
“Go freshen up, our food should be here any time now”, he said with his eyes fatigued and bloodshot, “And you are welcome to borrow my clothes”.
“I will”, answered Khushi, arching her neck to kiss him on the cheek.
A strange pensive expression lurked in the depths of his eyes even as he carried plates, glasses and silverware from the kitchen to the breakfast nook and set the round glass top table for two. Khushi was still in the bathroom and he could hear the hiss of the shower blending with the raging gale outside. Freezing wind laden with snow and ice. Placing the just delivered warm food at the center of the table, Arnav walked over to the window and blankly stared at the dark bleakness of the landscape.
A memory was rearing it’s head and as always, he tried his best to curb it, to thwart it before it gained form and succeeded in cutting his heart into two. This should have been a happy memory, he thought, his eyes murky with pain. Just another picture in one of those photo-albums that are put together to celebrate childhood. A memory one could safely visit and relive, accompanied by pride, amusement, love and joy in equal measures.
Not with pain. Never with pain.
“It keeps falling. I can’t do it. Feed me”.
“Of course, you can do it, Aarav. Look at me. See what I’m doing. Round and round, twist your noodle around your fork just like this..”.
“Round and round and round..and round. Like this, Daddy? Yay! I did it!
“Yes..just like that. See it’s so easy..”.
Khsuhi emerged from the bathroom wearing a white and crimson Harvard Medical School T-shirt that reached up to her knees. Her hair was damp and wispy and she smelled of Arnav’s body-wash.
When she walked into the living room, Arnav was still standing by the window with his back towards her. He didn’t hear her padding on the carpeted floor and there was a certain stillness about him, a certain quality about about his posture that alerted Khushi about his inner turbulence.
Without another thought, she bridged the distance between them and wrapped her arms around him from behind. Arnav stood still for a while then turned around to face her, smiling a little. A smile, Khushi noted, that didn’t quite dispel the shadows of pain in his eyes.
“Our dinner is here”, he said, reluctantly releasing her, “Let’s have it while it’s still warm”.
Soon they were sitting at the table eating a simple but satisfying meal of Shrimp Pad Thai and Bangkok Curry Soup. After finishing her soup and noodles in no time at all, Khushi noticed that Arnav didn’t have much of an appetite. He appeared distracted, aloof and responded to Khushi’s attempts to initiate a conversation with monosyllables. Khushi had no idea what her mere presence at the table meant to him and how much it was helping him to stay afloat. To stay afloat in the sea of sanity, of life itself.
After a while, Khushi fell into a distraught silence with her mind fumbling to find a way to reach to him, to penetrate the darkness in his heart, to share his grief. To bring down the remaining barriers between them.
She would think of ways, of trim little sentences to reach out to him, to initiate a conversation with him, and reject them one by one.
“How can I look you in the eye and say, “I understand”, when I haven’t a clue of the depth, the intensity of what you’re feeling right now? When I’ve never experienced what you’re going through?
“How can I even bring up this topic when it hurts you so much? Wouldn’t it just make the healing wounds bleed again?
“How can I say, “It will get better”, without making it seem that I’m trivializing your loss?
“And even if I succeed in saying one of these things, what if I’m inadvertently intruding upon those recesses of your mind where no one is allowed to tread?
“Talk to me, Arnav. Please”.
As if hearing her silent plea, Arnav suddenly dropped his fork on the plate with a clink and raised his head up to meet her gaze. Khushi was aghast to see that his eyes were moist and brimming with unimaginable pain.
“He loved noodles. Aarav loved all kinds of noodles”, he spoke in a voice that was heartbreakingly matter of fact.
“We, him and I, would often go to a nearby Noodles and Company on Lavanya’s late days”.
There was a subtle shift within him. He found himself trying to express his grief. He was able to express his grief. With words. Words, that were inadequate, that were incapable of expressing any more than the tip of the iceberg of grief that was lodged within him. But it was a beginning nevertheless.
Her heart wrenching, she pushed her chair back and got up. Standing beside him, she lifted one of his hands that rested on the table and held it tightly between her two hands.
“Guide me, God. Please. Put the right words in my mouth”, she prayed fervently.
After a moment, she swallowed and whispered, “What else did he like?
There was surprise in his eyes. The idea that he would actually be expected to talk about his loss without being judged, judged for not caring enough. The idea that he was capable of talking about his loss without sinking into an abyss.
Despite being a doctor and well versed with grief as a subject, the idea of ultimate acceptance of such profound loss had lacked conviction in his mind, the mind of a grieving parent. It had somehow seemed unattainable to him.
But today…something changed.
Unbeknownst to himself, an idea was born in his subconscious mind and took the first baby step towards acceptance. Syllable after syllable, word after word, sentence after sentence, and tear after tear, his grief slowly found expression.
Soon they were sitting together in the living room couch with his hand still in Khushi’s two hands and the air around them thick with raging angst, bittersweet memories, frustrated anger and soul shattering guilt.
“The pool was inside a sunroom, I should’ve just kept it covered. Even though Aarav was an excellent swimmer, I should have thought of it. I should have kept an eye on him”.
With her eyes brimming, Khushi allowed her heart and instincts to guide her, trusting them to provide the right words to provide solace with.
“Arnav, there was nothing…nothing you or anybody else could’ve done to prevent it. We’re all born with the lengths of our lives already predetermined. You. Me. Everyone else. Do you believe in God?
“Yes, I do”, replied Arnav, “Even though I’ve never really believed in the concept of an organized religion, I do believe in God. I always did. The funny thing is that a belief that used to be a choice, a personal choice at one time transformed into an absolute necessity after Aarav. When life throws a curveball, when your whole world crashes down about your ears, when you suddenly feel like you have no control over your life…you want to cling, hold onto the belief, the hope that at least someone is in control. That it’s not all random..mindless. That there’s someone who’s organizing this chaos. You want to keep holding onto that belief even it doesn’t make any sense. You need that anchor, you need it desperately for the sake of your mental sanity”.
“Then believe, Arnav”, compelled Khushi, squeezing his hand, “Believe that Aarav is there somewhere. In a happier place. Believe that it was all a part of a plan. Believe that this plan has reasons behind it that our minds can’t even begin to encompass”.
Something about his expression made her throat choke. Overpowered by a desire to physically comfort him, she got onto his lap and engulfed him in an embrace.
“Do you really think he’s there somewhere? And that he’s happy?, he asked against her neck. His voice was seeped with a touching need to have his burning heart assuaged, to be reassured by any means possible.
The catch in his muffled voice made tears stream down her cheeks, unchecked.
“I’m 100% positive, dear”, she whispered firmly. Her voice carried the confidence of someone who’s being completely honest…and hearing her voice, Arnav felt a knot unraveling somewhere deep within his chest. While it was nothing dramatic or significant and a long road curved in front of him, he found himself breathing just a little better.
“And Arnav?, she said after a while.
Arnav raised his head and their sodden gazes met.
“I’m sure Aarav wants you, his Daddy to be happy too. I’m sure it bothers him to see you suffering…punishing yourself like this”.
“And Lavanya too”, Khushi thought, her heart going out to her. She wished there were someone by her side too. Talking to her. Helping her survive through this difficult night.
She opened her mouth to vocalize her thoughts, then changed her mind.
“Now is not the right time for that”
They’d gone to bed late in the night and stayed awake until the wee hours. With her head resting on his shoulder and a hand splayed on his chest, Khushi had just listened to his baritone breaking through the stillness of the dim lit bedroom.
She had never heard him talk so much. She had never imagined he could talk so much.
It was as if a dam had burst and he couldn’t stop talking about Aarav, couldn’t stop sharing his memories with her. The inflections in his voice changed like the notes of a symphony. From loving pride to amusement to pure paternal love…to pain. No matter where the memory started from and how it started, it always ended in pain.
And Khushi didn’t interrupt him, intuitively understanding that he needed to revisit and relive before he could accept. She was exhausted but she forced herself to stay awake, her little caresses over his heart telling him that she was awake, that she was listening.
That she was there with him, every step of the way.
Next morning, when the Sun rose over their city, it revealed a magical winter wonderland. A city deeply buried in snow and struggling with the aftermath of last night’s blizzard. As the first pale rays slanted in through the partially closed blinds, it shimmered on the bed in an abstract dappled pattern.
As a sunray fell on Khushi’s face, her eyelids fluttered for a second before opening up. She stretched her aching body..and found she had her back firmly pressed against Arnav’s chest, with her head tucked under Arnav’s chin and his arm flung across her body. His folded leg covered her bare ones.
With his steady breaths ruffling her hair, she felt cocooned in a pleasant cloud of warmth and his quinessential musky smell. Hearing him sigh, she knew he was awake too. Smiling a little, she willed her mind to absorb this moment and capture it for eternity. Save it as an everlasting memory that never fades, never perishes. A moment they could revisit, relive and revel in time and again.
The moment was not perfect for either of them, Khushi mused with her eyes pensive. Far from it. It was tainted with heartache, bittersweet memories, a burgeoning guilt and all the hurt and pain that went with it. Yet, intermingled with all the heartache, pain and guilt was a sense of fulfillment. A fluttering joy at being blessed with something as wonderful and rare as their love.
A love that promised to cross all obstacles. A joy that rose high and refused to be thwarted.
Sunlight dappled on the undulating folds of the comforter caught the hazel in her eyes. “Maybe it’s naive to expect moments to be perfect or even near perfect at any point in life. Maybe this is how life, a series of moments, is. Bittersweet. Joy interlaced with heartache. Disappointment with fulfillment. Tears with smiles. Sunshine with shadows…”.
The sound of his voice close to her ear pulled her out of her reverie.
“You awake?, he asked in a sleep roughened, husky voice even as he nuzzled her warm cheek and ear. At that moment, perhaps there was nothing he wanted more in life than to awaken next to her for the rest of his mornings.
Turning on her back, she smiled up at him.
Resting his weight on one elbow, Arnav replied her greeting with the tiniest of smiles, his eyes leisurely flitting from her smiling mouth to the sparkling hazel orbs and back to her lips. Flickering with contrition, they observed their puffiness before descending down a trail of hickeys on her neck.
Caressing them with gentle fingers, he asked, “Hope I wasn’t too rough yesterday?.
Blushing a little, Khushi shook her head. Her mind couldn’t help but be solely focused on his hand’s ministrations. Well, you were a little rough, a shameless voice inside her head piped, but I’ll tell you some other time that I kind of liked it.
Continuing with it’s bold exploration, his hand ventured south and cupped a breast through the thin T-Shirt material. Her breath hitched as he felt and molded it with his palm before teasing the peak with his thumb.
Then he remembered something and his hand stilled, the desire in his eyes changing to frustration.
“Damn. I don’t have any more protection”, he murmured, resting his face on the valley between her breasts.
Burrowing her fingers in his hair, she suddenly thought of something with an odd sense of misgiving. “What was that single piece doing in your closet anyway?, she asked teasingly, but stopped in mid-sentence. Her heart picked up pace as she waited for his answer.
“Can you handle the truth, Khushi? The whole brutal truth?, Arnav asked, the glint in his eyes successfully hidden by his drooping lids.
“Yes”, said Khushi in almost a whisper. She was beginning to dread Arnav’s brand of ‘brutal truth’.
“I got it in mail”, he deadpanned.
“I’m serious. Last month on World AIDS Day. A free sample from the makers. Came attached to a Conference Invite. I was about to toss it in the garbage”, he paused and added with a naughty gleam in his eyes “Not quite sure what made me change my mind”.
They bantered back and forth for some time. Playful, silly, inconsequential talk punctuated with easy laughter. The salt of a relationship.
Later in the morning as Khushi got ready to leave for home, an indescribable sadness permeated her heart. She wasn’t afraid of or even expecting their censure, it was the prospect of witnessing their unquestioning blind trust in her that swamped her heart with sadness.
“Bittersweet”, she mused, pulling her car out from the parking garage, “That’s how life tastes to me, but I made my choices and I can’t really complain now”.
It was late-afternoon and Khushi sat on the window seat of her bedroom, basking in the elusive winter sunshine that streamed in through the glass window.
Her turbulent, tear soaked eyes were focused on the wide expanse of the pale blue sky and her forehead was furrowed in intense concentration. She was engrossed in a silent communion with her best friend, the goddess.
“Because you are the only one who sees what’s hidden in my heart. You are the only one who can read my innermost thoughts, even the ones that are deeply buried. Too deeply buried to be accessible even to me. You know my intentions. So please try to understand. Please…”.
Her cellphone on the table buzzed upon recieving a text from Arnav.
I love you, sweetheart and missing you already. Take care of yourself and call me after your meeting with Aman. And, Khushi, be kind to yourself. Consider that an order.
They had decided to meet up at a small cafeteria that was midway between their homes. By the time Khushi entered the crowded joint, the Sun had already dipped beneath the horizon. Aman waited at a semicircular booth overlooking a crowded street and sidewalk.
Initial greeting and exchange of pleasantries over, the two of them sat in silence for a while, the easy camaraderie they’d once shared having given way to a polite, awkward formality.
Unnerved by the silence, both of them launched into a spate of small talk, discussing everything… Kashmir, jobs, politics, football, family…everything but what they’d shared in the past.
“I’m sorry”, suddenly Khushi cut him off in mid sentence, “I shouldn’t have taken that long to make up my mind. I shouldn’t have taken you for granted like that”.
“I’m really, really sorry”, repeated Khushi with a catch in her voice. As she brushed away a single tear from the corner of her eye, Aman stared at her with a sudden stab in his heart.
“You don’t stop loving someone just because your love is not reciprocated. Even if you and your ego commands you to, you can’t. You just can’t”, he concluded, hit by the realization that their breakup, their physical separation hadn’t been able to diminish the strength, the intensity of his feelings for Khushi.
“Khushi, I don’t blame you for anything. Not a thing. So please don’t apologize. If anything, I should thank you for your honesty. You’d laid all your cards on the table right from the get go. You never professed to love me, never led me to believe our feelings were mutual. I was I who’d chosen to live in a fool’s paradise. Believing with all the misplaced confidence of a fool that I’d make you love me one day. Persistently ignoring the writing on the wall”.
“The signs were all there, Khushi. All those little red flags that should have alerted me to the serious flaw in my thinking, in my foolish hope. Like…how unaffected you always were by my kisses”, Aman said, looking out of the window.
“But I chose to keep my head buried in the sand”, he turned to look at her, his lips curving in a wry smile, “I chose to believe what pleased my heart and my ego. That your inexperience not indifference was the reason behind it.”..
“And the biggest irony of all is that if I were given a chance to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do it any different. It was a choice I made, it was a risk I took with my eyes wide open. And I have no one else to blame for the consequences”.