Getting out of the room and walking towards the fire exit, she sped down one flight of stairs to reach the floor below.
“What’s the matter with me”, her brain struggled hard to understand her racing heart, clammy palms and chaotic thoughts. Thoughts clambering out from her mind’s hiding places, the deepest layers, and threatening to overtake her mind.
Drawing in a deep, ragged breath, Khushi mentally shook her head.
“I’m just tired. It’s just the stress from the last couple of days. I should have known that it’s never a good idea to ignore stress. That doing that just pushes it deeper down. And it’s insane to even think of going to Arnav’s room at this time. But, I have to see him before he leaves. I have to ask”.
Khushi knew Arnav’s room number because she had heard him mentioning it to his mother and it was an easy number to remember.
Arnav had drifted off to sleep while working on a powerpoint presentation for Monday. His open laptop lay on the bed to his side and his glasses were still on. Deep asleep, Khushi’s timid knocks didn’t penetrate his mind for a while. When they finally did, he frowned, surprised even in sleep, and his eyes fluttered open.
“Who the hell”, he murmured confusedly after glancing at the bedside clock, his eyes bleary with sleep.
Reaching the door, he opened it and froze on seeing who it was. Reading the apparent surprise in his eyes, Khushi hesitated at the doorway, suddenly unsure of herself.
“Khushi?, he spoke finally, and stepped aside to let her enter the room.
Shutting the door, he turned around to face her. She stood with her vivacious face oddly frozen and a storm of undecipherable emotions swirling in her eyes.
“What’s wrong, Khushi?”, he asked, folding her in his arms, his voice warm with concern.
Khushi’s tensed body relaxed and she curled into his solid contours. Feeling his heart thudding next to hers.
She knew why she was here. The realization and the thoughts that led to it deeply saddened her. She knew what she wanted to ask him. Her unasked question compelled her to face unpleasant, complex truths about them, about their relationship, about their situation . She felt like someone she didn’t want to be. The other woman…
While she realized how futile her question was at this stage of their relationship, she couldn’t prevent herself from asking it.
“Arnav…”, she raised her head and met his eyes, keeping a close watch on every flicker, every swirl of his caramel orbs. The room was silent except for the sound of the air conditioner. And her question, although a whisper, sounded unnaturally loud.
“Did you ever love Lavanya?
With her heart picking up pace, she watched fascinatedly as his caramal orbs slowly froze over and lost their warmth and transparency.
“What kind of question is that?, he asked, his voice incredulous.
“I just want to know”, she persisted, a cold shiver rippling down her back as he disengaged his arms and sat down on the edge of the bed. His eyes were piercing as he steadily regarded her.
“You don’t know the answer to that?”, he asked, his voice deceptively soft.
Quick to recognize the hurt in his voice, Khushi bit her lower lip and replied, “I know you love me. I’m not questioning that. Nor am I questioning the fact that when we first met you were both physically and emotionally separated from Lavanya…but..”.
She paused and surveyed his grim expression tentatively. Her eyes were concerned yet conflicted. Although she didn’t want to distress him by revisiting painful memories, she felt strangely compelled to purge out the doubts that the nightmare had left behind in her mind in it’s wake. Compelled by miserable, little understood forces that pulled strings from the hidden crevices of her mind.
“But you once mentioned that you realized the truth about Aarav’s paternity when he was around three…”.
“September 2012”, Arnav said in a distracted voice, his eyes dark and murky with a flood of memories.
Her question took a while piercing through the gray fog of pain that flooded his brain, “You were together for almost three years before that. As husband and wife. Enough time for something that started off as compromise to evolve into something else…to turn into…”.
Her eyes were agonized as her voice trailed off, leaving her question unsaid. “What’s happening to me”, she thought even as she waited for his answer, “What’s the point in asking him these questions? What do I want to hear? What do I hope to achieve? It was like she was still trapped in her nightmare.
Arnav’s eyes flickered imperceptibly. Just for a moment before his mind clamped upon the undesired memories that threatened to stir in their frozen graves. He blinked and that fleeting expression vanished completely.
He met Khushi’s eyes and surveyed their turbulence. He fathomed a naked need for reassurance in their murky depths.
“Well, it didn’t”, he answered shortly, his demeanour clearly indicating his distaste for discussing his shared past with Lavanya.
“It never turned into something else”, he elaborated on his statement after a pause, “It started off as a compromise and it remained just that. Till the very end. And I really don’t understand”, he continued coldly, “the necessity of asking me this question right now”.
Despite his obvious annoyance, his words acted as a salve to her restless heart. It was a moment of self realization for Khushi. She realized that at any given moment a person can be both selfish and selfless. She realized that human intentions are just as complex as human behaviors.
On one hand, his words assuaged her hidden insecurity, her hitherto unacknowledged fear of the phoenix rising. Her fear of losing Arnav.
On the other, they thwarted the guilt, which although attenuated over the months, still lurked amongst the shadows of her heart. Guilt that her graphic nightmare had mercilessly exposed. Guilt that she might’ve been party to the death of a marriage. Guilt that she might’ve inadvertently harmed the interests of another human.
Cold relief flooded through her…followed in quick succession by warm mortification.
“I’m sorry”, she began, looking close to tears, “I don’t know what came over me..”.
As his frozen gaze continued to pierce through her eyes, she blinked in embarrassment and two long streams of tears ran down her cheeks.
“I had a horrible nightmare”, she explained, wiping her tears with her palms, “I was in Pampore again…in a blooming saffron field. It was so vivid, I could even smell the saffron in the breeze. But then I noticed that the flowers were burning. The whole field was bbburning”.
She was opening crying now and didn’t even realize when Arnav had risen up and engulfed her in an embrace.
“So?, he asked, by way of reassurance, one hand rubbing her back, “It was just a dream. Don’t let it affect you. I hope that you don’t believe in omens, premonitions and all that crazy stuff. Come on, Dr. Gupta, I’m sure you know better than this”.
“I don’t”, she said in between sobs, “I think I’m just tired”.
“I understand”, said Arnav, his eyes soft and sober. He could understand how torn she felt between him and her parents. Between the person she was raised to be and the person she had to be.
“The past few days must’ve been very stressful to you. But look at it this way, Khushi. The worst is over. Now, you don’t have to hide anything from your parents”, he continued as Khushi lifted her head and looked up at him.
“And we just got to be a little patient”, a smile lifted the corner of his mouth.
Their smiles mingled and Khushi’s spirit, blessed with the typical buoyancy of youth, soared upwards.
Her hands relaxed, freeing his T-shirt, and her arms wound around his neck.
Their lips met and very soon, what started of as a tender comforting kiss turned into an impatient one with impending separation fanning passion. After a while as they broke apart with reluctance, Khushi said worriedly,
“You’ll miss your flight”.
“Damn”, exclaimed Arnav glancing at the clock.
Khushi lingered in his room. Curled up in bed, she watched him get ready with her heavy heart thrumming with very early-morning melancholy. The star spangled sky was still pitch black, she noted, turning her head to glance out of the window. And dawn was still farway.
“Cheer up”, Arnav’s voice dispelled her reverie. He stood in front of the dresser mirror, dressed in khaki chinos and a black and white checked shirt, running a hasty comb through his still damp hair, his eyes fixed on her woebegone reflection.
Pulling herself together, she smiled at him, their eyes locking in the mirror.
Their goodbye was brief. Both were determined to make light of the situation and not accord their impending temporary separation any undue weight.
“I’ll text you when I reach Cleveland”, he said as they walked out of the room together, his bag’s wheels trailing on the carpet behind him, “But don’t stay up waiting for it, you have a long day in front if you”.
Placing his bag upright, he pulled her into a hug. The overhead muted lighting slanted on them and he smoothened her tousled hair with a ghost of a smile, “And don’t worry about anything, nightmares included”.
“I love you. That’s all you need to remember”.
Navin and Sujata sat at a window table of Restaurant Makkaresh in the Moroccan Pavilion of Epcot. The Morocco Pavilion is part of the World Showcase within Epcot, a theme park at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
Bright sunlight streamed in through latticed red stone screens and cast interesting shadows throughout the space. Handcrafted metal lanterns with inlaid colored glass hung from a high beamed ceiling and added color to the subtle tapestry of shadows.
Tired out after spending the whole morning in exploring four miniature countries, the middle aged couple settled back in their comfortably upholstered seats, waiting for their two girls to join them.
Navin’s phone, resting on the tiled surface of the table signaled the arrival of a text. It was from Khushi.
We’re almost there. The line is moving at a snail’s pace! I hope the ride lives up to the hype…You and Mom can go ahead and order for us. I’m sure there’ll be a long wait for the food too. Anita wants you to know that she’s starving and can devour a whole Moroccan horse 😛
As Navin read Khushi’s message out loud to her, a wistful expression suffused Sujata’s dark eyes. She missed their childhood, she thought with a sigh. She missed that unforgettable closeness mothers have with their children when they’re little. Not that they loved her any less now. They didn’t. It just wasn’t the same anymore.
“Sujata”, her husband’s impatient voice brought her train of thoughts to a screeching halt.
“Kahan ho? What do you want to order?, he handed the menu card to her.
They studied the menu in silence for a little while and after a parsimonious exchange of words decided on what order to place.
After their server had jotted down their order on a notepad and retreated, Sujata said, apropos of nothing. “Our Khushi has changed so much”. The raw pain and disappointment in her voice was unmistakable.
Navin remained silent for a while, taking his time to gather his thoughts before answering.
“I do share your sentiments to a certain degree but I wish you wouldn’t be so harsh on her”, he replied, “Let alone talk, you’re not even letting yourself have an eye contact with her”,
“Because I’m angry”, Sujata interjected, “I’m very angry with her. There was a time I used to be proud of the way I’d raised my daughters, proud of the time and the effort I’d invested in their upbringing. I was so content with my success in keeping them near our roots despite the all pervading influence of this alien environment. How could she change so much? How could she discard her 27 years worth of upbringing, values and morals so easily for that man?
“How did you decide it was easy for her without even attempting to talk to her first? Without even attempting to find what made her do it. The circumstances, the thought processes, the absolute need that must’ve compelled her to make this decision. Don’t be tricked by her smiles, Sujata, I know she’s under a lot of stress”.
“You were always too lenient with the girls”, Sujata said bitterly, “You always want to justify all their actions”.
“There is a fine line between gratuitous leniency and healthy parental trust, which I try not to cross”.
“I did trust her, see where it landed us”, Sujata shot back acidly.
Navin sighed wearily and looked out of the window. He was suddenly tired of the whole conversation, the whole topic. “Sujata, let’s not talk about it for the next two days”, he said, “I don’t feel too good these days”.
His words brought about a miraculous transformation in Sujata’s demeanor and a dramatic shift in her attitude. Everything and everyone was relegated to a remote corner of the brain as her concern for her mate, her life partner, her one and only love took supreme precedence.
“What’s wrong, Navin? I hope your blood pressure is not up. I know you haven’t been watching your diet like you should. Have you been taking your medicines regularly?
“Relax, Sujata”, Navin smiled at her, “I’m just tired”.
“But you said you weren’t feeling well”, Sujata persisted.
“I said that just to have you throw a morsel of your kind attention in my direction”, Navin teased.
“Navin, Sujata smiled and shook her head.
With her eyes softening with concern she added, “Accha, I’ll talk with her when we reach home. Don’t worry too much about it”.
Cole Eye Institute (CIE)
Arnav had spent half the morning at the Ambulatory Surgery Center, performing intricate Nd:YAG laser surgeries to treat conditions as diverse as diabetic eye changes to glaucoma to complications of cataract surgery. After that, he had rushed to his office which was housed in the sprawling academic wing of the institute. With a jam packed schedule, he didn’t get any chance to mull over the events of the last few days or even fret over the fact that he’d had no sleep last night..
Coffee and passion for work kept him going.
As one of the associate program directors of the CIE Residency Program, he took active part in the resident recruitment process. Screening online applications and interviewing young medical students aspiring to be ophthalmologists was a regular part of his job.
He had three interviews scheduled for today and was now in the middle of the last one.
Settled back in his burgundy leather chair, he listened attentively while a fresh faced medical student spoke enthusiastically of her well founded interest in ophthalmology.
With instruction to continue talking and assurance of his attention, Arnav skimmed through the pages of the folder he held in his hands.
Good scores in standardized tests, excellent letters of recommendations, research experience, his brain took notes.
He jotted down cryptic notes for reference during the final selection process.
His cellphone beeped, alerting him of his scheduled power point presentation in the auditorium that was due to commence in 15 minutes.
Quickly wrapping up, he spent the next few minutes in selling their program, expounding upon the various advantages their program had over others. After that he enquired if she had any questions and finally got up for a parting handshake.
“Well, Emily, it was really nice talking to you. We really appreciate your interest in our program. Feel free to call us if you have any more questions”, Arnav said, before turning towards Jessica, their program coordinator walking in to lead the candidate towards her next interview.
When he returned from the lecture-presentation, he was totally unprepared for the surprise that awaited him at his office.
“Dr. Raizada”, Jessica called out from her open office as Arnav strode down the corridor towards his. Her voice held the warmth of a smile.
“Mrs. Raizada is here. I asked her to wait in your office”.
Arnav’s face froze into into an immobile mask. It veiled the fury he felt at her inconsideration in showing up at his office without bothering to check with him first.
Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he turned the door’s knob and walked in.
Lavanya stood by the window with her back towards the door and she didn’t hear him at first.
“Lavanya?, he cleared his throat and alerted her of his presence.
As their eyes met across the room, Lavanya felt her heart beginning to stir into life again. Somethings never change, she mused wryly as the familiar magnetism of his presence drew every fiber of her being towards him. Despite all the water that had flown under the bridge in this past one year.
“Hi”, she dimpled at him, her eyes taking in his changed appearance. The noticeable weight loss, the faint shadows under his eyes, the glasses she’d never seen on him before.
“Hi”, Arnav replied unsmilingly before walking over to the small sitting area, which consisted of burgundy leather sofa and chair and a glass top coffee table.
“You should’ve called me before coming”, he couldn’t resist pointing as they took seats, “My clinic starts in 20 minutes”, he added glancing at his Maurice Lacroix that was half covered by blazer sleeve.
“I’m not going to take too much of your time”, she replied, making good use of sarcasm to mask the hurt she felt at his indifference. “I was here for a job interview…So thought I’d stop by for a little bit “.
Mollified, Arnav leaned forward and decided to started afresh, “How are you? He managed to keep most of the bitterness out of his voice.
Lavanya shrugged in response and turned her head to look out the window.
The following silence was heavy with years of unresolved rancor, anger, hurt and awkwardness and stretched interminably.
After a while, mindful of his clinic, Arnav said, “Let’s decide on the time and place for our talk”.
As Lavanya continued to gaze out of the window, Arnav tried again, “Where do you want to go? We could meet this evening if you’re not doing anything else”
“Muse”, she murmured half to herself before turning to face him and articulating clearly, “Can we go to Muse? Tonight?
The sudden, brief flicker in his eyes didn’t go unnoticed by Lavanya’s hungry heart.