“And the biggest irony of all is that were I 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”.
As their gazes collided across the table, Khushi’s heart became suffused with the warmth of gratitude and genuine affection.
“You’re an amazing person, Aman”, said Khushi, “And you deserve someone who’s just as wonderful as you are. Someone better than me in every way. I hope and pray that you both find each other soon. I also want to tell you that I really…really value our friendship as well as every single moment that I’d spent in your company”.
Acknowledging her compliments and good wishes with just a smile, Aman took a sip of his coffee and changed the topic. He showed no outward sign of the breakthrough bitter thoughts churning inside his mind.
“Sure, I’m amazing. I’m that cliched good guy who never gets the girl. One who’s always seen as a dependable friend by girls. Never anything more”.
“So, how is he like? What is his name?, he however asked in his customary lighthearted tone, even summoning a teasing smile to somehow hover upon his lips.
Thrown by the unexpectedness of his query, Khushi flushed faintly even as her hazel eyes widened a little.
“Arnav”, she said, registering with wry amusement how much her heart savored the mere sound of his name, “And to answer your first question, well, you’ll have to meet him one day and decide for yourself”.
Watching her colored face and sparkling eyes, Aman felt a sensation akin to a hot knife searing his heart. All his good will teetered precariously in face of this fiery, burning emotion. It required a great deal of will power on his part to clear his throat and say, “And I will look forward to that”.
Perceptive enough to see through his painfully maintained front, Khushi changed the topic with a twinge of sadness, “How’s Anjali? How’s her residency going?
Anjali was Aman’s younger sister who lived with him because her husband, Shyam worked and lived in a different state. Apart from being a final year resident, she was also a mother to a seven month old.
“If running around like a headless chicken can be called being good, then she’s good, I guess. She is counting days until June”.
“I can very well imagine. It must be so hard for her and Shyam to live separately”.
“To add to her woes, her babysitter just broke the news of her inability to babysit on weekends. And with my parents in India for an extended visit, she is going crazy trying to find a suitable replacement. Let me know if you know of someone reliable. For just a couple months”.
“Anita babysat all through the senior year in high-school”, supplied Khushi after pondering for a while, “If you want, I could ask to see if she’s interested”.
Shrugging his shoulders, he said noncommittally, “I guess there’s no harm in asking. If she’s interested, I’ll let Anjali know and she can decide for herself”.
“Let me text her right now”, murmured Khushi, picking her phone.
“Hey..Aman wants to know if you’d be interested in babysitting Aryan“, she typed, “Some weekends for just for a month”.
Sitting up on her dorm-bed with a text book spread open on the lap desk, Anita glanced at the text and then stared blankly at the wall decal in front of her. It declared in bold letters, “Don’t let the muggles get you down”.
Few moments fluttered by before she took a deep breath and typed back, “Tell him I’m rather busy this month but I’ll see what I can do”.
“Tell him to call me with all the details“, she added with an irrepressible smile.
Finished preparing the lesson plan for her third grade class, Sujata shut the notebook and placed it on the dark oak end table. She glanced sideways at her husband, who sat back relaxedly in a recliner, book in hand. Engrossed in a book as usual, he paid no attention to the television’s flickering acreen.
“Did you take your medicines?, she asked and watched as he lifted his head and looked at her with his signature absentminded look. His mind, too deeply immersed in the world of letters, took some time registering her wife’s simple query.
“Yes”, he said, finally, “I did”.
As he returned to the perusal of a treatise on Middle Eastern History, Sujata lifted the remote from the coffee table and changed the channel. Soon familiar strains of a popular Hindi song from the 80s had filled the surrounding air with it’s cheerful, exuberant energy.
An involuntary, barely-there smile lit up her features even as her mind replayed and relived through a number of pleasant memories associated with that song.
Navin looked up too, his eyes solely focussed on the LCD screen for once. Wistful nostalgia had soon permeated his light brown eyes.
“We watched this movie in Lucknow, remember? Just a year or so before we moved over here..”.
Nodding, Sujata replied, “How time flies! This was almost 27 years ago, yet feels like yesterday”.
“Wasn’t it just a month before Khushu was born?”, Navin recalled.
As Sujata remembered herself as a heavily pregnant young woman settling into a cramped movie theater seat, the ghost of a smile hovering over her lips transformed into a full blooded smile. She suddenly looked at-least ten years younger.
“But of course, that hadn’t deterred you from going to check out this latest Bollywood sensation everyone was raving about. And dragging me with you”, Navin shook his head even as his eyes glittered with amusement.
Chuckling, Sujata said, “And to think that that sensation is still causing sensation at the box office, 27 years later, and our daughters, who weren’t even born when he first debuted are watching him now”.
“If his popularity was a mystery to me at that time, it has evolved into an unsolvable conundrum now”, Navin said with disgust and went back to his book.
After a while, he looked up and asked, “Where’s Khushi? Did she return from her meeting with Aman?
“She upstairs in her room”, said Sujata, her face suddenly clouding over with a barrage of uneasy thoughts. After a while, she blurted out, “I don’t know what’s wrong with Khushi these days. She has been acting so different, so unlike herself ever since she came back from Kashmir. Absentminded. Always lost in thoughts. And then, there is this indescribable sadness that I glimpse in her eyes from time to time. Apart from scores of other small things that I guess only a mother can notice’, murmured Sujata vaguely, thinking about her abysmally low appetite, the faint shadows under her eyes, “I’m worried about her”.
“Try talking to her”, suggested Navin perfunctorily, mentally dismissing her concerns as a product of her usual idiosyncrasies.
“I did try, once or twice. She just laughed it off saying I was overthinking unnecessarily”, replied Sujata, her frown deepening the finely etched stress lines on her forehead.
Sighing, Navin looked at her worried face and said, “If you ask me, either you really are thinking too much or Khushi needs some time and space to come to terms with whatever’s troubling her. Don’t we all need that sometimes? Let her be. She’ll come to us when she’s ready. We both know she has a mature, sensible head on her shoulders, very well equipped to deal with whatever life throws her way in a responsible manner. Trust her and don’t worry too much”.
“I do trust her, Navin. But how can I not worry? How can I just be a mute spectator and not do anything? Isn’t it my duty, my responsibility as a parent to try and help her? Guide her, if needed?
“Worrying neither helps nor guides, Sujata, and you need to keep in mind that constantly nagging your twenty seven year old ‘child’ will only push her away from you. It won’t help anybody”.
“Then what should I do? I can’t see her like this; it hurts me. Maybe you’re right, maybe it is my overbearing attitude which has pushed Khushi away to the extent that she no longer feels close enough to share her problems with me”, said Sujata with her shoulders slumped, “But I can’t help it, Navin”.
The sheer helplessness in her voice sliced through the wall of Navin’s calm rationality and shutting his book, he came to sit beside her.
“Come on, Sujata, stop thinking so much. That’s your biggest problem, you worry way too much”, he said, before putting an arm around her and squeezing her shoulder reassuringly, “I promise I’ll talk with Khushi if it makes you feel any better, okay? But I’m pretty sure it’s nothing serious, nothing to be worried about”.
As Sujata sighed and relaxed visibly, Navin glanced at the flickering TV screen and smirked derisively, “That ridiculous ‘kabootar’ song was such a rage those days”.
His rather transparent attempt to distract her mind was not lost on Sujata.
Smiling, she replied, “Remember when Khushi was 3 or 4, how adorably she used to sing it. Booter ja…ja..
Chuckling in remembrance, Navin surveyed Sujata’s relaxed features, suddenly catching an elusive glimpse of the 22 year old he had married in her. With a twinge of regret, he looked back at the journey that spanned almost three decades. He wondered just how and when the two of them had allowed themselves to get lost under the mantle of parenthood and worldly responsibilities.
Getting ready for bed, Khushi stood in front of the dresser mirror, running a brush through her thick mane of chestnut hair. After a short while, she rested the brush atop the dark oak veneer of the dresser and leaned closer to the mirror to survey her neck.
If anything, the marks appeared even darker now, she noted with dismay, and that was the precise reason she was reluctant to face her mother and had decided upon going to bed earlier than usual, feigning a splitting headache as an excuse.
As she gazed at the marks, memories of his tumultuous love making, startling vivid in nature, struck her with an impact that was potent enough to take her breath away. With her heart pounding, she remembered the passion, the intensity, the raw want which had fueled his every single caress, every single kiss. And further, she recalled his emotional state which had triggered it all.
Contentment rained gently as she relived the moments when she had helped him surmount mental roadblocks to share some of his deepest pains, regrets and fears with her.
“How different his eyes had seemed in the morning…so rested..so serene…so alive, she smiled, “And how different he looks…when he laughs like that”.
Overwhelmed by a desire to hear his voice, she picked up her phone called him.
“Hey”, his smiling voice reached him even as she slipped under the covers, propping up pillows against the headboard to rest her back against, “I was just going to call you. So, how was it? Hope everything went smoothly”.
“Yes, it did”, Khushi sighed, “Aman was so unbelievably gracious about it. Not that I was expecting anything less from him, he really is a gem of a person. I could sense his hurt, but all he allowed himself to express was a desire to make me feel better about it. Constantly reassuring me that I did not owe him any apology. I felt so bad”.
“Don’t feel bad, sweetheart. You were honest with yourself and with him and in my opinion that’s a rare quality in today’s world. In fact, there must be very few people in this world who understand the value of honesty in a relationship as much as I do”, said Arnav with his lips twisting wryly even as he slowly applied brakes and halted his car at a redlight.
“I guess you’re right”, she replied after a short pause, “And I’m glad I took the initiative to meet him and have this conversation with him. I think both of us needed this closure..”.
Khushi hesitated for a few seconds before bringing up the topic that had been rankling her mind for the longest time, “And Arnav …?
“Yeah?”, encouraged Arnav, one arm resting on the steering wheel, cufflink gleaming in the light of the street lamps.
“I know you didn’t ask for my advise…but I really think that you and Lavanya need to meet too. So the two of you can sit down face to face and have a conversation as well. A proper conversation that could not only help her see your point of view but help you understand her perspective a little better too…”.
The silence at the other end stretched interminally and caused Khushi’s heart to quicken in nervous anticipation.
“Yes, I’m still here…and no, I didn’t mind your advise. In fact, lately, even I’ve been thinking along the same lines. Even though I seriously doubt that anything constructive will emerge out of it”.
“How can you be so sure?
“Because I know Lavanya and you don’t”, he replied succinctly, “She refuses to sign the divorce papers either because she enjoys watching me suffer like she claims she does or because, deep down, she’s still harboring hopes for a reconciliation”, he continued, his voice dripping with sarcasm and bitterness, “Either-way, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll succeed in bringing about a change of heart because she is one of the most pigheaded persons I’ve ever met”.
“Atleast try, Arnav”, said Khushi, her heart feeling a twinge of empathy for the shadowy form of Lavanya which refused to leave them alone.
“I will”, Arnav said and then swore loudly as the next traffic light turned red on him too.
“That was just me venting out my frustration at these damned traffic lights”, he clarified sensing her surprised silence, “Every single one so far has made it a fucking point to turn red as soon my car approaches it. But yes, I’ll call her tomorrow. You have no idea how frustrated I feel stuck in this legal quagmire, this seemingly never-ending status quo. Even more so after last night’s events and you want to know why?
Though she figured that it was probably meant as a rhetorical question, Khushi couldn’t stop herself from repeating, “Why?
“Because I’m going crazy with wanting you so damned much”, he said, forcefully, his turbulent eyes reflecting the bright neon signs of the store fronts his black beamer was sliding past, “And although I must confess that sex has got a lot to do with it, that’s not all there is to it, Khushi. Not by a long shot”.
“I know, Arnav. You don’t even have to say that and…”, began Khushi and a barely perceptible quiver in her voice that made him instantly regret his outburst.
“Did I just try to force her hand here?, he frowned as realization hit him, “Underhandedly trying to make her agree to an idea, a concept she has never been comfortable with”.
“But don’t mind me, Khushi”, he interrupted her, “I totally get your thought process, your belief that lies behind this temporary moratorium on our relationship”, he continued, “I know that’s what you were going to say, right? But, I’ll be fine. Now that I’ve gotten all that suppressed crap out of my system, I feel much better. And five months is not that long of a time anyway”.
Moments after he hung up, Khushi sank her head on the pillow and smiled a little ruefully.
“That wasn’t what I was going to say, Arnav”, she said to herself, “And maybe it was for the best that I never got a chance to say it”.
“Are you sure you don’t want to continue for another few months?, said Dr. Mallick, “Though undoubtedly, you’ve come a long way since your very first session, I seriously think that you would benefit from continuing with these”.
Pausing, Dr.Mallick flashed his dimpled smile, “And my intention is nothing but pure unadulterated altruism here”.
“Yeah right, Neville, Lavanya chuckled huskily, “With your bills burning humongous holes in my bank balance, do you really suppose I’m going to believe you that easily”.
She paused with her smile fading and felt a little jolt of surprise. Like she always did these days, whenever she caught herself smiling or being lighthearted.
“Neville, I would love to continue”,she continued somberly, “but I’m going to be out of state for the next three weeks. My sister Manya returned from Japan last month. She has a wonderful new job in California now. She insists that I visit her there. Refusing to accept no for an answer, she actually came over last week to take me with her”.
“A change of place will do you good”.
“Dad and Manya think so too”.
“Well, I wish you all the best in life and anytime you wish to return to us, I’ll be glad to be of service to you”.
“Thanks, Neville”, replied Lavanya, “Thanks for everything. I know you were only doing your job but still I want to thank you for all your help. Words can’t express how much these biweekly sessions, your words, your silences meant to me. They were my lifeline at a time when every single breath had seemed like a struggle, a challenge. And though..”, Lavanya paused with her eyes clouding with pain, “I realize I have a long way to go…a long…tortuous way…you are one of the reasons why I was able to come this far”.
“You using the word realize in the last sentence gives me a lot of professional satisfaction. It tells me that I hadn’t been doing my job too badly”, said Neville, gazing at the intriguing murkiness in her eyes and thwarting a sudden disquietude in his heart. He struggled to accept the idea of her walking out of his life for good.
While it was universally considered unethical for a therapist and his or her client to engage in a relationship other than professional, a therapist allowing his emotions to entangle with that of his client or vice versa was a commonly experienced and acknowledged professional hazard. Even though Neville fully realized this, he found the strength of his feelings unusual and a tad disturbing.
Neville K. Mallick’s eyes were reflective as he watched Lavanya leave his office and life.. Lavanya Raizada might be seriously flawed but she was also one of the most intriguing women he’d ever met in his life. Professional or personal.
Instinctively he knew that he was not likely to forget her anytime soon.
Lavanya had just reached home when her phone rang. Pulling her car, silver Audi A7, to a standstill inside the spacious three car garage, she picked up the phone. The name on the screen caused her heartbeats to quicken.
She hadn’t heard his voice in almost a year. Not since he had chosen to walk out of their home, walk out on her. That too at a time when she was barely alive, she mused bitterly.
Despite it all, her heart felt considerable lighter just at the prospect of hearing his voice again. It made her realize that unbeknownst to her, and somewhere along the way, her anger towards him had begun fading away. And right now, it was at a point where it was indistinguishable from nothingness.
She recalled how she would keep this anger close to her grieving heart. She would feed it, nurture it even…all in that hope of dampening the guilty clamor in her heart somehow.
Anger at what she perceived at his unwillingness to reciprocate her love. At his unwillingness to either recognize or value the depth of her love. At his stubborn refusal to see beyond that one mistake…that one lie…
In her view, nothing justified his walking out on her, abandoning her, and leaving her suffering like she was. Nothing justified his sending out those legal notices so cold-bloodedly without attempting to sit down and talk to her even once.
But now…all that anger, all that pride that had prevented her from approaching him in the past year seemed to have slowly melted away leaving behind plain hurt in it’s void.
The short pause that followed her greeting was heavy with tension and anticipation…punctuated by her heart beating loudly.
“Hey..How are you? His voice was strained yet confident as ever and when it finally reached her ear, it made her throat choke.
“Good. And you?. Despite her aching throat, she replied in her signature lackadaisical manner which was more a matter of habit than anything else.
“I’m fine… So how’s everything else?
“Not too bad”, replied Lavanya…thinking bitterly that if a third person were listening to their stilted conversation, they wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that the two of them were either strangers or at best very distant acquaintances.
“She’s good too. How about Manya? Your Dad?
“They’re both doing good . Manya moved back from Japan last month. For good. “.
“Nice”, Arnav murmured perfunctorily, “Is she still with Infosystems?
A long drawn out pause followed her affirmation. It was broken by both trying to speak at the exact same time.
“We need to talk, Lavanya”, Arnav said quietly, “We really need to sit down like two mature adults and talk. It’s something we should’ve done months ago”.
His voice was even-toned and devoid of emotion, she noted. But it was also devoid of any trace of resentment, rancor or sarcasm. Elements she was accustomed to hearing in his voice.
“We’ve allowed this to fester for too long. It’s high time we arrived at a solution…at an agreement of sorts “, he continued, wearily,
“I agree”, Lavanya replied, mistakenly reading a hint of reconciliation in his statements. A sudden jolt of joy thrummed in her heart, making her uncharacteristically speechless in the process.
Thrown by her unusually calm, reasonable demeanor and ready acquiescence, Arnav’s eyes flickered in surprise…before settling contentedly. Just like Lavanya, Arnav too presumed a diametrically different reason behind this changed attitude. A self serving one. The heart in each case only saw what it wanted to see, only believed what it wanted to believe.
“Can I meet you somewhere tomorrow?, he asked, quickly cutting to the chase,”In the evening?
A sliver of disappointment seared her heart when Lavanya remembered that she was flying out to California the next day.
“I’m flying out to LA tomorrow. How about today?
“That won’t work for me, I’m afraid. I have an important meeting in the evening. When are you coming back?”, Arnav asked with barely concealed impatience.
“In three weeks. Middle of February”.
“I guess”, Arnav sighed resignedly, “I’ll just wait for you to come back because I’d rather we talked face to face”.
Even though it was Saturday, Khushi had gotten up quite early to attend the annual OAFP (Ohio Academy of Family Physicians) seminar. She was falling short of the 50 mandatory CME (Continuing Medical Education) credits that were required every year and this four hour seminar offered an ideal opportunity to catch up on them.
Carefully arranging her freshly trimmed side bangs with a lightly moussed hand, she flashed a smile at her reflection. Though she was far from conceited, she couldn’t help noticing that she looked her best. It was just one of those days when anything and everything looks good on one.
Ever since Arnav had shared his conversation with Lavanya with her, she’d been unable to stop herself from replaying it in her head over and over again. And every-time she did that, her heart felt a lot lighter. She remembered his upbeat, optimistic tone and his confident reassurance that Lavanya seemed to have finally realized the futility of holding onto the dead carcass of their relationship. What had pleased her kind heart the most was the fact that Lavanya had sounded amicable and willing to talk and move forward.
As she drove her car towrads The Lakewood Inn, warm sunlight slanted in from the car window and turned her thick chestnut hair into glittering brown gold. She did quick Math in her head.
“If all the legal formalities take two weeks…that would be three plus two…five…one month and one week. And then I’d be able to introduce, really introduce, Arnav to Dad and Mom. And Anita too”, she grinned to herself imagining her reaction.
Her imagination began to run riot at this point, and she tried her hardest to stop her heart from singing with joy and excitement. And failed miserably for most of the way. Even the residual guilt that still resided in a corner of her heart couldn’t stop her from dreaming today.
It was almost 11: 45 by the time the last speaker begun wrapping up his excellent presentation on ‘the latest guidelines for management of common chronic diseases’. Though purportedly concentrating on the powerpoint slides, Khushi’s mind had remained miles away all through the morning, sometimes immersed in memories, sometimes dabbling in dreams. Sometimes content with reliving memories and sometimes impatient to realize dreams.
Driving back home, as she waited at an intersection, she recognized the cross road. It led towards Arnav’s apartment, she remembered from last Saturday.
“It’s been only a week since we last met…yet it seems so much longer…”, she thought even as a sudden, deep yearning for him settled in her restless heart.
“The light’s going to turn green soon…I’d better decide soon…”, she thought with rising desperation. And just before the light turned red, she took a deep breath and made a right turn.
Khushi pressed the doorbell and waited with her heart foolishly pounding. Her misgiving burgeoned with every passing second and her eyes mirrored every single one of them.
“I should have just kept away”, she murmured to herself, “5 weeks is nothing compared to 5 months…and even Arnav was okay with us staying away for now. What is wrong with me?
She didn’t hear the elevator’s steel doors slide open at the far end of the carpeted corridor. Clad in work-out gear, black track pants and gray T-shirt, Arnav emerged out taking a swig from a chilled bottle of water. Striding down the corridor towards his apartment, he twisted the cap back on, pushed his slightly wet hair away from his forehead and then halted in midstride.
Khushi’s back faced him affording a generous view of her curves and dips that were accentuated by the flattering outfit she wore.
After spending some time in admiring her, he walked towards her with his eyes glinting mischievously and a smile curving his shapely mouth.
Circling her tiny waist with his hands, he chuckled as she started in surprise and brought his lips close to her ear.
“Well…well…well”, he said huskily, “Look who’s here. Ms. Khushi Moratorium-On-Our-Love Gupta”.
“What are you up to?, he teased, nuzzling against her ear, stirring their nerve endings to riotous life. With her heart racing and warm color flushing her cheekbones, Khushi turned around to face him.
Tipping her head back with a shy smile, she surveyed his face, taking in his penetrating gaze, his mischievous smile.
“Are you doing something this afternoon?, she asked after clearing her throat, a little annoyed at herself for feeling like a gauche schoolgirl.
His smile widened into a naughty grin, “Nope. What do you have in mind?
The warmth and musky scent emanating from his freshly worked out body was too much to resist and with a sigh, she wrapped her arms around him, resting her cheek against his chest.
“Lunch..”, she murmured inhaling his scent in.
“And after lunch?”, his hand traced the curve of her back and waist and rested firmly on the small of her back..
“Movie “, replied Khushi with a smile, “A desi movie”.
Ignoring his protesting groan, Khushi disengaged herself from his arms and glanced at her watch.
“Oh my God…It’s 1:30 already”, she cried, “Go change…quick..If you don’t hurry, we’ll need to watch the movie first. It starts at 2:30”.
Sliding his card-key through it’s reader, Arnav looked at her and shook his head, “Seriously? That’s all you can think of?
Khushi gazed at his retreating back with her eyes curiously soft and pensive.
The movie was just an excuse. All she wanted was to see him embrace life once again. Slowly but surely, one day at a time and without misplaced guilt eating him inside out and bashing him for being happy.
“So what did you think of it?, Khushi asked hugging his arm as they walked across the crowded lobby which smelled strongly of butter and popcorn.
Arnav glanced down at her eager face. An expectant smile danced on her lips while her eyes sparkled with what appeared life-force to him.
“Well”, he began teasingly, “Silly, puerile, juvenile, ridiculous…These are some of the words crossing my mind…but..”, he paused and chuckled, “I will not say them”.
Khsuhi studied his face…his eyes swirling with lazy humor, his signature smile reaching his eyes for once. He had never appeared so relaxed, so young and carefree to her.
With her heart bubbling with several effervescent emotions, she tightened her hold on his arm as the exit doors slid apart and a blast of chilly wind slammed on their faces.
“We all need a little silly in our lives sometimes..”, she replied, prettily wrinkling her nose at him.”It’s therapeutic, Dr. Raizada and I call it Vitamin S”.
There was a sudden flash of pure devilry in his eyes.
Freeing his arm, he wrapped them tightly around her waist and pulled her against him.
“And how often do you recommend..Vitamin S.?, he asked, the smolder in his eyes suggesting an entirely different kind of Vitamin S..
It was quite obvious, Khushi thought with her heart racing, that Silly was not what he had in mind.
With her eyes dancing with sudden mischief she chose to deliberately misunderstand him.
“Well since you aren’t particularly fond of desi movies, once a month should be fine by me”.
“I’m not talking about movies”, he drawled, his eyes making her toes curl, “And you know exactly what I’m talking about”.