“Don’t lose your cool”, was the last instruction Arnav silently directed towards himself before taking his seat opposite Lavanya a with brief, unsmiling greeting. The awareness that Lavanya still hoped for a reconciliation surrounded him like an armor and prevented undue solicitude from escaping through it. Even as he settled back in his chair and attempted to relax, the glittering diamond still adorning her finger caught his attention. He stiffened. Utter frustration at her and life in general rose up from the core of his being and almost negated his forcedly maintained equanimity.
“How are you? Lavanya’s husky voice penetrated through the deepening mental fog.
“Good”, he replied perfunctorily, focussing on her facial features for the first time. Noting the signs of ravages of time and fate, he was unable to curb a twinge of empathy in his heart. After all who understood the soul shattering travails of coping with the loss of a child better than him?
“And how about you?, he asked but didn’t wait for her reply. Breaking their eye contact, he bowed his head and cursorily skimmed through the wine list.
“I’m still alive”, she replied, “And that surprises me sometimes…
Arnav glanced up at her, his demeanor shifting as his eyes watched her struggling with tears. It was only natural that her stilted expression of grief resonated deep within him. Dark clouds of bleakness hovered over his consciousness and out of it’s volition, his hand extended itself and covered hers on the table.
“It was just meant to be”, he said gruffly, his vision blurry, “There’s nothing you and I could’ve done to save him and nothing we can do to bring him back. What can we do?, the helplessness on his voice was evident, “Except hope and pray that he is happy…in a better place”.
Arnav withdrew his hand as she rummaged through her handbag for a tissue and carefully wiped her tears. Her heart was leaden with not only grief but also remorse at the cruel, heartless words she’d blasted him with. Twisted, angry, lethal words deliberately spoken to inflict pain. To stab, cut and rip his heart apart. To hurt as must as she’d been hurting.
And she’d been wrong..so wrong.
The pure unadulterated grief in his eyes smote at her heart with sorrowful regrets. After a short pause, she said, “I’m sorry, Arnav. I truly am”.
Wariness crept into his eyes again and he was glad when the restaurant’s sommelier walked up to help choose a wine to go with their dinner. It gave him a chance to assemble his thoughts, to search for the kindest way to bridge the gulf between their individual expectations from each other. His thoughts were sad as he distractedly ordered for some Sauvignon Blanc and waited for the sommelier to leave their table. To him, the prospect of causing possible hurt to a fellow human had never seemed particularly pleasant.
With him out of hearing distance, he turned towards Lavanya again.
Her velvety eyes were still shiny with tears, regrets and remorse.
“I shouldn’t have said those cruel…cruel words to you”, she spoke in a whisper, “That was unforgivable of me”.
Arnav’s eyes were piercing as they bore in hers, intense in their determination to put a point across. “That’s alright”, he said, “They’d hurt…hurt terribly at that time but now..”, he paused and shrugged, “They don’t affect me any more”.
“I should’ve called you before..apologized to you months ago but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. These past months flew by in a blur. I’d had to take Prozac, undergo therapy..”.
Arnav mused even as his eyes flickered with understanding. His voice was gentle as he said, “I understand. Hope you’re doing better now”.
His attitude vacillated between indifference and pity and with every passing moment, Lavanya became more painfully aware of it.
An uncomfortable silence stretched interminable while Lavanya’s heart fluttered like a desperate caged bird attempting to find a way. A way towards that elusive something, she’d spent a lifetime in trying to grasp.
“Arnav, there is something else I want to say today”, she said after a while, her voice stilted with tension.
“I know you didn’t believe when I said this before, and there is no reason for you to believe me now, but I still want to state that when I’d called you about my pregnancy I really believed you were the father”.
With his eyes freezing with skepticism, Arnav placed his wine glass on the table and squarely met her gaze. His jaw tautened and his temper, usually kept tightly reined, started to fray at the edges.
“Lavanya”, he said in a deceptively quiet voice, “Please don’t insult my intelligence. This is my life, not a fucking Jerry Springer show”.
“I’m not trying to absolve myself of dishonesty. I realized you weren’t Aarav’s father the day he was born and I did hide that fact from you”, she said with her features spasming with pain, “But when we married I didn’t think I could be carrying Jason’s child”.
A cold shiver of sadness flitted down Lavanya’s spine as just for a moment her mind dwelled on a pair of laughing brown eyes. Eyes full of hope and optimism despite the rare neurological disease, Neuromyelitis Optica, their young owner had struggled with all his life.
“Yeah? You really believed that?, Arnav replied with an eyebrow cocked, his voice dry with cynicism.
“Seems like you need a refresher course in basic Obstetrics and Gynecology”, he added with his eyes glittering like hard frozen ice.
Lavanya bit her lip and averted her gaze. The realization that she was fighting a losing battle was just beginning to dawn upon her. She had done nothing to earn his trust and perhaps it was foolish to expect him to believe…
“I had my period just a week before the graduation night”, Lavanya tried again, “I had no way of knowing that it was a false period and that I was…was already pregnant. I hadn’t lied when I said I was on the pill that night”.
Arnav listened to her with undisguised skepticism, his mind fixating on her last two words.
Lavanya’s words acted as a spell and conjured up the memories of that life-altering night in front of him. Memories he’d always wanted buried in the deepest vaults of his brain.
Graduation Night, Ann Arbor.
Temptation was a nightclub in downtown Ann Arbor, usually filled to the hilt with university students on Friday and Saturday nights. Arnav had never considered himself a nightclub person but tonight, flying high on post graduation euphoria, the pulsating techno music, the crowded bar and the packed dance floor seemed tolerable, even enjoyable, to him. And after several shots of tequila sent racing through his veins, Temptation became one of his favorite places on earth.
Much to the envy of his friends, he could always hold his alcohol well and while all his companions were reduced to puking in the bathroom, making fools of themselves on the dance floor or tipsily laughing at the inanest things, he remained just a little more than buzzed.
Opposite from the bar and at the edge of the blue and red laser lit dance floor was the lounge area which offered convenient seating for people who preferred sitting, relaxing and people watching to dancing. Settling in a red leather couch with a cocktail in hand, Arnav glanced up as Lavanya walked up and sat down beside him.
An awkward distance had crept between them since she’d confessed her love three months ago. They were drifting apart with Lavanya trying her hardest to move on from him and Arnav attempting to facilitate that process by maintaining his distance.
As he took a sip of his drink, Lavanya cast him a sideways glance. Still dressed in blue dress shirt and pants that he’d worn with a tuxedo jacket for the graduation banquet, he had a silk tie loosely knotted around his neck while his profile, lit by colored mood lighting, appeared dark, distant and mysterious. Arnav was among those who turned intense and contemplative when buzzed and tonight, Lavanya found it irresistibly sexy.
Hugging his arm, she rested her head on his shoulder. Inhaling his quintessential scent, she had a sudden epiphany. Not only had she miserably failed in trying to move on from him, she had no intention of even trying again.
She wanted him, she had to make him hers, her miserable heart whined like a stubborn child, if not for a lifetime then at least for tonight.
The knowledge that she looked her best in a one sleeve, midnight blue, Balenciaga short dress supplied her with the confidence to take the next step…
“I missed you, Arnav”, she murmured slipping a hand under his open shirt collar and caressing the column of his neck, slowly.
Surprised, Arnav glanced down at her and stalled her hand with his firm grip. As their gazes collided, the suggestion in her eyes was bold, clear and impossible to miss.
“Lavanya, you know how I feel about you”, he began..
“I haven’t forgotten”, she smiled bitterly before rising from the couch and offering him her hand.
“Wanna dance?, she flashed a disarming smile at him, “For old friendship’s sake? Please? Pretty please?
Minutes later, she’d dragged a decidedly unenthusiastic Arnav onto the dance floor packed with sweaty bodiesis ear.
An hour later Arnav found himself in Lavanya’s bedroom, surrounded by a haze of alcohol fueled lust…which his better nature penetrated every now and then.
Later on in his life, there had been several occasions when he’d looked back at this momentous night with a heart full of regret. At these times, he was always tempted to dump all blame on alcohol and Lavanya’s deliberate seduction, but he could never succeed in doing that. Although his judgement might’ve been a little impaired, he knew he hadn’t been drunk that night. He felt he could’ve stopped her if he wanted to.
“Sure you want to do this?, he’d asked one last time, tightly grasping Lavanya’s hair as her fingers and lips caressed his granite hard abs and traced the path of hair that ran from his navel downwards.
In response, her fingers had unfastened his pant’s waistband and then moved further down to pinch the pull tab of the zipper and slowly slide it down.
A night of lust and temporary acquisition of one’s heart’s desire had soon erupted into a dark, desolate morning swarming with regrets, hangovers, bleakness, guilt, and heartbreak.
Coming back to the present, he sighed and interrupted Lavanya in mid sentence. “Even if you’re telling the truth”, he said running a harried hand through his gelled hair, “There is no point in raking up the past now. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s time to look forward not back”.
Meeting her gaze and firmly holding it for maximum effect, he said, “It’s over, Lavanya”.
His eyes narrowed with incredulity as she stared back with her eyes blank and went off on a tangent. Her fist tightening, her nails digging into the flesh of her palm were the only visible indications that his words had actually registered in her mind.
Her speech was rushed, almost incoherent as she tried to keep within her grasp, something that slipped like sand between her fingers.
Like a sun-drop one can’t imprison in one’s grasp no matter how hard one tries.
“I wish I hadn’t decided to keep Aarav’s paternity hidden from you when he was born. I wish I’d tried to convince you earlier that it was a honest mistake. But I was afraid, Arnav. Afraid that I’d lose you if I told you the truth. It wasn’t easy for me either. Even single day I woke up with this burden and every single night I had to take it to bed with me. It was suffocating me, slowly sucking out my soul from me”.
“It-does-not-matter-anymore”, Arnav said with gritted teeth, suppressing a desire to vent his utter frustration by smashing the first object he could lay his hands on.
A vein throbbed at the angle of his tensed jaw as she ignored his words again.
“I know you’d honestly tried to make our marriage work… I wish I’d tried to reciprocate those efforts more often instead of allowing my miserable baggage of insecurity and fear to take over my whole existence. Instead of fighting for what you couldn’t give me, I should have cherished what you did. But there were good moments too…Arnav…weren’t there? Like the time we went to Tennessee, when Aarav was one. Don’t you remember that?, Lavanya inhaled a deep shuddering breath and met his gaze, “It’s not over yet, it can’t be over yet”.
The magnitude of her almost pathological obsession with him was gradually dawning upon him and left him more than a little baffled. He didn’t quite know how to react to it. Anger vied with pity for a second and anger won.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s over”, he said in a voice thrumming with anger, “As far as I’m concerned it was over the day I walked out. The day I decided that I’d had enough”.
Lavanya fell into silence after that leading Arnav to hope that she was finally seeing reason, finally accepting what was admittedly a bitter truth for her.
The server came with their orders and even as he placed their entrees in front of them and refilled their wine glasses, Arnav exhaled the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding for a while.
He’d ordered one of his favorite dishes, trout seasoned with lemon, pepper and herbs, yet it tasted like sawdust today. Even Lavanya picked at her pasta dish, making no attempt whatsoever to initiate a conversation.
“It’s high time we read the writing on the wall and tried to move on in life”, he said after a while, ” Dwelling on if onlys and what ifs won’t serve any purpose”.
“Are you with me, Lavanya?, he added impatiently on getting no response from her, “Do you get what I’m trying to say?
“I need time to think”, she replied at last, raising her head and meeting his direct gaze.
Dropping his knife and fork on the plate with a clatter, he pushed his plate back and stared at her with tumultuous eyes, “Think about what?, he asked with forced patience.
“Whether I want to sign the divorce papers or not”.
A sentence that acted as the metaphorical last straw. A hot wave to anger to roared through his blood stream like molten lava leaving a painful, singed trail in it’s wake. Not trusting himself to speak he rose abruptly and extricated his wallet out from a trouser back pocket. Without a word, he placed a bill on the table, put a glass on it, and walked away.
He was in the parking lot when he remembered he’d forgotten his phone on the table.
Lavanya noticed his phone and even as she picked it up with the intention of going after him and giving it to him, it started to ring. The picture of a beautiful hazel eyed girl flashed on the screen.
Khushi Gupta calling…the screen read.
As soon as she heard his voice and it’s intonations, her heart lurched with dread. Without him saying a word, she came to know that his meeting with Lavanya hadn’t gone well.
They’d just retuned to their hotel after spending the day at Epcot and a freshly showered Khushi sat on her bed talking to him, while Anita lay on the bed next to her, her head propped up with pillows, her eyes sleepily focussed on the flickering TV screen.
“Then she said she’ll think about it”, Arnav ended, his voice still laced with bitter anger, “Fucking hell”
Khushi’s leaden heart quivered with pity and guilt as she replied, “She just buying time, Arnav, she doesn’t want to let go of you just yet. She can’t stop herself from loving and hoping”.
“It’s not love, it’s a pathological obsession that’s kept her out of touch with reality. After all that’s happened between us, all that I’ve said to her, how can she still hope? Where the hell is her pride? What the f*ck does she hope to achieve by this neurotic behavior?
Sensing his supreme frustration at the situation, Khushi tried distracting his mind, “Don’t worry too much, Arnav, I’m sure everything will work out fine in the end”.
“Now if only I could believe in that too, she mused ruefully before saying, “By the way, you didn’t ask me how my day was?
Taking another sip of Jack Daniels, Arnav sighed and asked, “So, how was Epcot? What are you guys doing tomorrow?
Listening to her pleasant, sensible voice talking about normal, inconsequential topics, Arnav found himself relaxing gradually. After a short while, things ceased to appear as gray or as bleak as he’d previously imagined. After all there was nothing she could do to keep him tied up after June. And come to think of it, June wasn’t all that far off. It was almost March already…
After they’d exchanged goodnights, he was lulled sufficiently to call it a day and go to bed.
“And don’t drink too much”, Khushi chided him at the end before hanging the phone up.
The Guptas reached Ohio on a sunny, cloudless Wednesday morning, grateful they didn’t have to come back to bad weather.
Khushi busied herself doing laundry, cleaning out her closet and volunteering to cook lunch. Rushing from one task to another, she forbade her mind to dwell on gloomy thoughts.
Just focus on positive thoughts today, she told herself while ironing a pile of freshly laundered clothes.
“It will all work out fine. It’s only a matter of time”.
Perhaps it was the rising aroma of the fabric softener, perhaps it was the actual physical act of smoothening the wrinkles out but ironing clothes had always helped her relax.
It was soon late in the afternoon. Sunlight filtered in through the vertical blinds of their patio door and slanted on the dining table. After setting the table, Khushi lit a vanilla scented candle to ward off the smell of fried onions. She sniffed in appreciation ladling out yellow dal, lauki ki subzi and plain boiled rice, she’d just cooked, into serving dishes.
“There’s nothing like simple home-cooked food”, Navin sighed in contentment as he pulled a chair to sit at the table.
“How’s mom’s headache now?, Anita, who was already sitting, asked.
“I think she’s coming down with something. She’s running a fever too. I just gave her some Tylenol”, Navin replied, filling his glass with water.
“I’ll take her food upstairs”, Khushi said quietly getting up, her eyes flickering with a melange of emotions.
Placing the food tray on the bedside table, Khushi sat down on the edge of the bed and gazed down at her mother. She saw a face, relaxed in repose, but still showing every sign of a lifetime spent in worrying for her loved ones.
Even as her soft hazel orbs welled with tears, Sujata’s eyes fluttered open. Noticing her tears at once, they suffused with a mix of surprise and concern.
“Kya hua?, she asked sitting up.
“Nothing”, Khushi murmured, averting her face and blinking her tears away.
After a while, she added, “I brought your lunch up, Mom. Don’t stay hungry, it will make you feel worse”.
“How’s your headache now?, she asked watching a whole gamut of emotions flit across her mother’s suddenly softened face.
“It’s better”, her mother replied and before she could add anything more, Khushi turned towards her, helpless as certain words tore out of her heart accompanied with a sob soaked in pain, “I’m sorry, Mom”.
With her eyes glistening, Sujata pulled her head onto her lap, murmuring comforting words and stroking her hair, even as she cried like she hadn’t in a long time.
“Don’t ever shut me off, Mom, she said with her words indistinct, “You can scold me, yell at me, but never shut me off like this”.
“I was going to talk to you when we returned, Khushu”, her mother replied, “I just needed time to let everything soak in”.
Raising her head, Khushi grabbed a tissue from the nightstand and blew her nose, “First eat your lunch and get better. We can talk later”.
As they exchanged watery smiles, Anita made an entry with a huge grin on her face. It was clear that she’d been openly, unabashedly and unapologetically eavesdropping.
“Not fair! There was a full blown Hindi soap going on here and nobody thought of calling me. You know how much I love drama”.
“Shut up, Anu”, Khushi said good-naturedly, extending her arm to grab another tissue.
Anita gazed at her sister’s pale, washed out face and sighed. Even as her brown eyes softened with compassion, one of her sudden, impulsive ideas popped up inside her brain without any sort of warning.
“Di, let’s go to the mall. And you will have to come with me. I refuse to take no for an answer”.
The Twelve Pines Mall was bustling with people of all ages in-spite of it being a weeknight. Teenagers texting and walking along glamorous storefronts, sweethearts aimlessly strolling with their hands clasped, gangs of noisy, high spirited youngsters and sleepy babies in strollers…all contributed towards it’s distinctive heartbeat.
“Where are you taking me?, Khushi said with a laugh as Anita impatiently tugged at her hand.
The telltale signs of stress and sleepless nights in her eyes were temporality alleviated by her amusement at Anita’s antics.
“I told you already”, Anita said with exaggerated patience, “We’re here for your birthday present. I won’t be here for your birthday tomorrow so I thought I’d take care of it before I went back to university”.
As Anita led her into an Apple Store, Khushi’s eyes widened with surprise.
“No…Anu”, she protested in a whisper, “I refuse to accept anything too expensive from you”.
“Relax Di”, Anita said with a smile, “I’m not buying anything”.
Arnav approached the Apple Store with his eyes worried. He was still at work, getting ready to leave for home when he’d received Anita’s text.
“Meet me at the Apple Store in Twelve Pines Mall. ASAP. It’s super urgent”.
Luckily for him, this particular mall wasn’t too far from his hospital and he reached there in 20 minutes. It was lucky that he didn’t get a speeding ticket, of which he had several already. His subsequent calls and texts to Anita had been totally ignored, which had only added to the numerous misgivings brewing in his mind, all of them centered around Khushi.
No sooner had he entered the store, which was as crowded as always, that he ran smack into Anita and Khushi. The half mesmerized, half delighted look on Khushi’s face told him that it was a surprise for her too.
Both of them turned towards Anita with half exasperated, half amused looks on their face but before they could say a work, Anita turned towards Arnav with a smile, “I’m so glad you could make it, Arnav. Anyway, meet my Di, soon to be birthday girl, who’s turning 40 tonight, and Di, meet Arnav, your birthday present”.
As Arnav and Khushi stared dazedly at each other, Anita burst out laughing at their expressions.
“Before Di does something to me, I’d better get going”, she said still laughing a little.
“By the way, I’m meeting a friend here and she will drop me home”, she flung over her shoulder speedily heading out of the store.
Arnav smiled down at Khushi, his caramel eyes swirling with amusement, “Your sister is really something. I like her”.
“I know”, Khushi returned his smile..
Their smiles slowly faded as they hungrily surveyed each others strained features, their eyes silently conveying how much and how intensely they missed each other.
“How are you?, Arnav asked after a while.
“Good”, she replied with her throat aching, “And you?
Arnav shrugged nonchalantly and glanced around the store. It was packed, pretty much like the rest of the mall. Suddenly, something snapped in him. With a sudden movement, he extended his arm and caught hold of Khushi’s hand in a tight grip.
“Let’s get out of here”.