Khushi snuggled deeper into the curve of Arnav’s shoulder sighing in pure bliss as his fingers drew imaginary, abstract patterns on the skin of her shoulder and arm. In the aftermath of their tempestuous lovemaking, they lay enveloped in the warmth and oblivion of an invisible cocoon. Secure in the arms of their lover, it was easy to relegate unwelcome thoughts of roadblocks their relationship faced to the furthest recesses of their minds. For a little while at-least.
“I should really get going now”, she said moments later, addressing it more to herself than anyone else.
Arnav murmured in agreement and reluctantly removed his fingers, while Khushi raised her head, dropped a kiss on his cheek and slid off of the bed.
Hearing the faucet running in the bathroom sink, Arnav lay with an arm folded behind his head, his flickering caramel irises reflecting a train of deep thoughts swirling in his mind. His pondering was interrupted by the the now familiar sound of Khushi’s ringtone. Turning on his side, he extended his arm and picked her phone from the nightstand. “Home”, it flashed on the screen and a brief shadow flitted across his features as he placed the still ringing phone back on the nightstand.
After a while he’d gotten up too and clad in just his denims stood gazing out of the wide window with his hands shoved in pockets. Night had long fallen across the urban landscape and the Cleveland skyline glittered around Lake Erie, it’s reflection rippling upon it’s inky waters. It had stopped snowing, he noted with relief before looking down at the brightly lit road below. Barely an inch of snow powdered the road and the cars zipping along it seemed largely unaffected by it.
Hearing the bathroom door open with a click, he turned around and partially rested his weight on the window sill, his form silhouetted against the panoramic view. His eyes were lazily watchful as they followed Khushi silently. Rushing about, gathering her stuff together, checking her phone with a worried face.
“Come here”, he said quietly, and their gazes collided across the room, one conveying to the other that it recognized and understood the turmoil that raged within it.
As she approached him, Arnav caught her by the waist and pulled her closer so she stood in between his legs, their faces at the same level for once, their noses almost touching.
“Do you want me to come to your home with you?, he murmured cupping her neck.
Khushi reared back like a startled colt, her lovely hazel eyes appearing huge in her face.
“To talk to your parents”, he replied patiently, his eyes intent and serious.
“About what?, she said foolishly, transiently thrown off by the unexpectedness of his question.
“About healthcare reforms”, he deadpanned with an inward eyeroll before adding, “About us, of-course”.
A wide variety of emotions ebbed and flowed from her heart, coloring her face with it’s invisible brushstrokes.
“What are you going to say to them?, she asked finally, her gaze holding his in it’s firm grasp, the anticipatory stillness of her expression hinting at the significance of the response she waited for.
“What am I going to say to them?, he repeated, even as he gathered his scattered thoughts to form a reply.
“That I love their daughter”, he stated plainly, without any frills or embellishments.
“And while we can’t predict the future, we look forward to, we want to spend the rest of our lives together”, he added, his eyes softening at the hint of moisture in her eyes.
“I’ll be completely honest with them. I’ll tell them that in the eyes of this world and it’s society, I’m still considered a married man but I don’t agree with it. As far as I’m concerned, as far as my beliefs are concerned my marriage ended the day I moved out and filed for legal separation”, he continued, each and every syllable infused with easy conviction, “I’ll lay all the cards on the table. I’ll tell them how my divorce is pending in court because my ex wife refuses to sign on a piece of paper but I will also share my firm belief with them…that in my opinion, I divorced myself from my ex- wife, physically, mentally and spiritually a long time back and that divorce should not be subject to warped man made laws that vary from state to state and country to country. Ridiculous, archaic laws that keep a person tied to another person when he or she very clearly doesn’t want to and forces a person’s pursuit for personal peace and happiness to be dependent on them. The logical, rational god that I believe in can’t be on the side of these man made laws either. This is what I will say to them, respectfully but with utmost honesty”
“Or something to this effect with lesser words maybe”, he added with a sudden grin, “before turning towards you and letting you take it from there”,
Khushi shook her head sadly…
“They won’t understand, Arnav.They won’t understand your nonconformist views any more than they’ll understand the reasons for my going against those beliefs and ideals that I’d always held dear. They are very much a part of the world, the society you were just referring to”.
“Well”, Arnav shrugged his shoulders, his nonchalance highlighting the gulf of ideas that separated them, “They are entitled to their beliefs just as we are entitled to ours. We are both adults and last time I checked this was a free country”.
After remaining quiet for a while, Khushi shook her head again, “There is no way I can make them see our point of view without hurting their feelings…without this hurt generating the whole gamut of negative emotions in them”, she said with her voice thick with emotions, “They are my parents, I know them”.
“But wouldn’t they prefer honesty to deliberate concealment? , Arnav said gently, “Granted honesty will hurt, but wouldn’t the knowledge that their child has purposely concealed unsavory facts hurt so much more? I know I would prefer an ugly truth over a pretty lie any day..”.
“I will need to think about it…Arnav…I can’t decide in a hurry”, said Khushi, resting her cheek on his shoulder, “And I think before you talk to them, it’s only right that I sit down and talk to them first”.
“That is fine with me”, he said tightly wrapping his arms around her, “It’s just that I hate the idea of keeping our relationship hidden from your parents. It doesn’t sit well with me. It’s not as if we’re convicted criminals on the loose or something”.
Grinning despite the heaviness in her heart, she realized that was precisely what he had aimed for…and just like that, seeminly without any rhyme or reason, her mood was elevated again. The reassuring strength of his encircling arms, she surmised wonderingly, might just be one of the reasons behind this sudden shift..
Moments later, as Khushi stood in the foyer putting her coat on, Arnav left after asking her to wait, reappearing after a while with a spare key card in his hand.
“Keep this, Khushi”, he said, “In case you decide to come again and I’m not in, you don’t have to wait at the door”.
While Khushi silently put the key in her handbag, Arnav gazed at her mutely for few seconds before pulling her roughly against him.
“I wish you didn’t have to go”, he murmured thickly against her hair and before they knew it they were kissing again, with their frustration at a need for keeping physical distance, or maybe a lure for the forbidden, fanning their passions to dizzying heights.
Using cold reason as an unwelcome crutch, they broke apart with great difficulty and were soon in an elevator again going towards the level of the bridge that led to the parking deck. They were not alone, an elderly gentleman gave them company, his wrinkled face showing the kind of blank impassivity that humanity especially reserves for elevator rides.
Arnav’s lips were pursed, his eyes distant as he stood with his hands shoved in pockets making no attempt to ward off his personal darkness that was closing in on him again after being successfullly kept a bay for most of the day..
On the other hand, the irrepressible happiness in Khushi’s eyes caught the dim light of the elevator as her heart relived and embraced the memory of his words over and over again.
“That I love their daughter”
“And while we can’t predict the future, we look forward to, we want to spend the rest of our lives together”.
Suddenly Khushi’s eyes widened as she realized with mild shock that this was the first time she had heard him broaching the subject of a future together. Her eyes softened even as she mentally shook her head. Trust him to overlook asking her first.
With a mischievous smile hovering on her lips, like a hummingbird over a flower, she glanced first at his aloof profile and then at the stranger amidst them.
With no preamble whatsoever, Khushi addressed him in pure Hindi, her voice light and frothy with underlying merriment, “Aapne humein pehle kyun nahi bataya ki aap apni saari zindagi hamare sath bitana chahte hain…hmmm? Humse poochne ki zaroorat bhi nahi.
A mildly startled expresssion flitted his eyes, before his lips curved into an amused half smile. With his smiling gaze locking with hers, his lips parted confidently and then froze. Khushi chuckled because she could almost hear the rusty spoken-Hindi machinery in his brain creaking and groaning while struggling to churn a suitable response out.
Thankfully for him, at that very point in time, the elevator came to a halt and it’s doors slid open.
“I’m still waiting…”, she said..glancing sideways at him as they walked towards the parking deck.
Chucking he began, “Will you…
“Nope”, interrupted Khushi in mock seriousness, “I asked you a question in Hindi and I won’t settle for a response in any other language”.
“Oh..fine..let me think”, he said with an indulgent smile, wrapping an affectionate arm around her waist and drawing her close, “But seriously, how old are you? Eight?.
Before he could come up with a reply, they reached her car and all her silly, inconsequential lightheartedness vanished suddenly leaving not even a single trace behind.
After a brief embrace that came within an hair breadth of transforming into a lingering, passionate one, Arnav firmly unravelled her arms from around him and opened the car door for her.
“Remember what we discussed today, Khushi”, he instructed seriously, watching Khushi settle in the passenger seat, “Talk to your parents. Don’t keep putting it off”.
Arnav had just emerged from the elevator and was walking back to his apartment, when his phone rang, breaking the stillness of the long, brightly lit corridor that was decorated with console tables and mirrors at regular intervals.
Even without glancing at the screen, he knew who it was. Biweekly evening phone conversation had long become a sacred tradition in their family of two and one that Astha upheld with utmost ferocity.
“Hello Ma”. These two words floated out to Astha, who sat in the family room of their New Jersey home with a cup of tea in hand. They were sufficient for her heart to perceive a subtle shift in him and she had a pretty fair idea of the reason behind it too.
“I was waiting for your call”, she complained perfunctorily, “Were you busy?
“I was just about to call you”, replied Arnav cradling the phone between his ear and shoulder while he unlocked the apartment door and walked in, “How are you? How was the doctor’s appointment?
“I’m alright”, she replied, “Doctor’s appointment went fine too …all the labs were within normal range. Cholesterol was borderline high…but he didn’t start me on any medication yet”.
“He probably told you to watch your diet and exercise regularly, right?
“Yes”, replied Astha in a flat voice and gradually a strained silence born out of unsaid words, unexpressed emotions, unresolved grievances stretched between them.
Settling in a couch, Arnav paused for the briefest of moments before saying, “I’m sorry, Ma. I’m sorry I couldn’t come home last weekend”.
With his eyes darkening, he continued, ” I…I … just wanted to be alone. Hope you understand”.
“I wish I could”, Astha replied, her voice throbbing with hurt, “But no, I don’t understand, beta. I don’t understand because you don’t seem to realize how difficult it was for me too. Having to live through that day. To be completely alone that day”.
“I’m sorry”, he said again, his eyes perturbed with genuine contrition. After a short pause, he added, “And you don’t have to be alone, Ma. I’ve asked you so many times to move here, move in with me”.
“And I’ve refused every single time. My answer is still the same. What will I do there? You’re out of the house for most of the day and I don’t know anyone there. My life…my friends, my home…they’re are all here”, she replied and added with a sigh, “But I do miss Srinagar and I can’t wait for spring to come so I can go there once again”.
“I, too, will apply for some time off in summer”, Arnav said, adding a tad wistfully, “I miss Srinagar too..”.
A barrage of memories flashed and faded in front of him, bringing with it a breeze of nostalgia.
“That quay with the houseboat tethered to it. Floating lights. Sound of oars cutting through lake waters. Jagged, snow capped peaks. Saffron scented breeze…Khushi…”.
“How’s Khushi?, his mother’s voice interrupted his train of thoughts.
“She’s fine”, he replied, adding after a pause, “I saw her today”.
With an exaggerated sigh, Astha asked a question she’d never asked Arnav before, “When is the divorce going to be finalized?
Realizing that her question signified a long overdue acceptance of what he’d always considered inevitable, he relaxed visibly and replied, “In June for sure, but it might be sooner if Lavanya signs the divorce agreement papers. I talked to her a few days ago and I’m …hopeful”.
“Does Khushi’s parents know?
“No, not yet, but she’s going to talk to them soon”.
Astha closed her eyes and cringed mentally. Judging from the meeting with Khushi’s parents and her assessment of them, she could predict their reactions quite accurately.
“I know you consider yourself too old and too smart to pay any heed to your mother’s advise”, began Astha with her voice laced with sarcasm, “but still, I consider it my duty to remind you that no matter how progressive the society and the times we live in, some things have changed little over the years. Like whenever a rule of society is broken, it’s always women who are at the receiving end of most of it’s wrath, of most of the repercussions in general. Don’t get me wrong, I like Khushi, I really do. Last week, when I called her to find about your whereabouts, I could sense how much she cares about you. Cares too much in some ways. And that’s where I worry about her. Despite all her outward appearance of being an independent, mature professional, I feel she is being somewhat naive and unpractical”.
“I disagree”, Arnav interjected, “And like I remember having said before Khushi is an intelligent adult better equipped than most to make her own decisions. And while I understand Ma, I really do, that you have our best interest at heart, I also know that there is absolutely no point in continuing with this discussion. The situation we’ve found ourselves in is complicated and far from perfect, I do realize that, but trust me, we’re trying to deal with it the best way we can”.
Arnav knew her mother wasn’t mollified in the least so prudently, he changed the subject, “Are you going to Tampa next weekend for Aakash’s wedding?
“Yes. And you?
“No…I’ve taken too many days off this year already. And then there is this three day Annual Academy Conference I have to attend in New York next week. I’ll return Friday”.
After Arnav hung up, he sat in silence for a long time, his face thoughtful, his eyes oddly restless. Though he hated to admit it to himself, his mother’s words did affect him. They always did. Slowly, invisibly, insidiously, they permeated through his consciousness and seeped into his thoughts and at times he didn’t even realize it.
The predominating thought rankling in his mind as he went to bed that night was one of protection. Protecting a person he didn’t even know existed a few months ago.
Meanwhile the object of his musings was sitting at the dining table, facing buried in laptop, anxiously scouring through the catalogue of an online clothing store that specialized in Indian wedding clothes. Wearing well worn PJs and Tshirt and her hair tightly braided, she checked yet another page and groaned in frustration.
“I can’t decide! I like this pink lace and crystal sari..but it’s such a rip-off. 500 bucks! Jeez…that’ll buy me a plane ticket to London”.
Sujata, who was finishing cleaning up the kitchen, pursed her lips and said, “Why are you so worried, Khushu? There’s still one full week left before the wedding. Plenty of time”.
“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, Mom”, Khushi murmured before showing Anita, who sat next to her, yet another dress, “This one or the pink one?
Her vacillations were beginning to get to her younger sister too for she took a deep breath and said, “Just buy the pink one, Di. The color suits you and lace is so in. And most importantly this is the only nice sari that’s available in store and can be shipped on time”.
“Let me see”, their mother came to stand behind them, “Yes, that is a beautiful sari. It will look good on you”.
“Isn’t it a rip-off though?, Khushi asked again, eliciting a facepalm from Anita.
“It is”, Sujata said, “But that’s what happens when you choose to shop at the very last moment”.
Resolutely getting up to fetch her wallet, Khushi gave her mother a sudden hug.
“Now that is more your style, Mom”, she smiled at her, “Some good, old fashioned, straightforward nagging”.
Smiling back at her, her mother studied her face curiously. Her hazel eyes sparkled like stars and her skin glowed. She hadn’t appeared so happy in weeks.
Much to her dismay, Khushi was unable to stop hot color from spreading across her cheeks under her mother’s searching gaze. To hide her sudden confusion, she turned towards Anita and asked, “Did Aman call you about the babysitting?
“Yes, he did and so did Anjali. The two of them sounded so desperate for a babysitter that I relented despite my busy schedule”, Anita said in a casual voice, “I’ll start after we return from Tampa. It will only be for a few weeks anyways”.
It was barely a couple hours after he woke up that Arnav finally admitted it to himself. He was craving Khushi. Craving her with his mind, body and soul and with an intensity that was almost like a drug withdrawal. In an attempt to work this feeling off, he went to the gym and worked out longer and harder than usual.
By the end of it, his shirt was soaked in perspiration, his throat parched with thirst and the first thing he did on emerging out of the gym’s double glass door was to whip his phone out and text Khushi.
His last night’s resolve to keep their interactions to a minimum before the divorce was finalized seemed to be evaporating fast with the aftersoon sunshine.
Good Morning, swetheart. How are you?
Good Morning 🙂 Slept in today. Just woke up”
When Arnav discovered via her texts that she was going to be busy with her sister and mother for the rest of the day, he was half relieved despite the taste of raw disappointment in his mouth.
Just getting ready for our Tampa trip. We leave on Friday afternoon. Wish you were coming too.
“Perhaps, its just as well that I am not, he thought with a rueful smile, “It would’ve been sheer torture to behave like acquaintances in front of everyone and keep my hands to myself”.
To their collective dismay they discovered that between the two of them their next few days were jam-packed with work, meetings and conferences.
When do you return back from New York?
Friday. My flights lands at 6 AM, local time”.
And we fly out to Tampa in the afternoon…:( I’ll be back on Wednesday.
In the middle of a gloomy week, Khushi made up her mind. There was no way she’ll be able to go to Tampa and enjoy the wedding without meeting him first. Inexplicable sensations in her heart, not entirely pleasant, made her feel she had to, simply had to, meet him before leaving. If not a matter of life or death, she mused driving back to work on Thursday night, it was certainly a matter of maintaining one’s mental sanity.
Friday Morning, 6:30 AM.
Pushing the door open, Arnav let himself in, his carry-on bag trailing behind him. And if his blood shot eyes and stubble were any indication, he was exhausted after a 5 hour overnight flight. He had taken his coat off and was hanging it in the foyer closet, when a pair of soft arms wrapped themselves around him from behind.
A smile lit up his eyes even as he slid the closet door shut.
“What are you doing here? So early?
“I warned you giving me your apartment key wasn’t such a great idea, she replied,
“I can see that”, he smiled and turned around to hug her tightly.
“I have a surprise for you”, she smiled back, before dragging him to the dining room.
A breakfast awaited him on the small table. Stack of freshly made golden pancakes drizzled with maple syrup, scrambled eggs, toast and juice, all surrounding a simple flower arrangement with red carnations.
Standing next to the table, he admired her efforts for a moment, looking impressed, “Wow…this looks wonderful”.
Beaming with satisfaction, she said, “You must be hungry”.
He turned to take her in his arms again. “Ravenous”, he replied with a half smile, his eyes glittering with a different kind of hunger.