With their hands still clasped, they emerged out of the Apple store and passed in front of Abercrombie & Fitch. Khushi glanced at him, taking note of his tautened jaw, pursed mouth and eyes raging with discontent.
“It’s ridiculous”, he bit out after a while, “The way that woman is hellbent on manipulating and controlling my life”.
“If she thinks she can fucking succeed in keeping me imprisoned in her psychotic obsession, and put my life in a limbo, she is highly disillusioned as well”.
They walked for a short while, maneuvering through the drifting crowds and then, paused in front of Tiffany & Co’s elegant window. They turned towards each other and Arnav gazed down at her with his eyes stormy with defiance and a myriad of other emotions.
“And this moratorium”, he left the sentence unfinished, his tone clearly and scoffingly expressing what he thought of it.
“As if this were 16th century England and we were friggin Romeo and Juliet”.
Born with a slightly quirky sense of humor that reared it’s head at the unlikeliest occasions, Khushi’s suppressed a giggle and averted her gaze, matching it in sobriety with the gravity of the situation.
Even as she sighed gazing at the store window, she recognized in him a pertinent need to vent all his frustration out.
“Moratorium be damned”,he said suddenly and grabbed her hand again, “We are going to our apartment. That’s it. We didn’t make any promises to anymore so there’s no need to feel guilty”.
It was one of those freak days in February when the weather is warmer, mellower and raises false hopes of an early spring. Almost invariably, it snows the very next day.
The sprawling mall parking lot was aglow with strategically placed halogen lights. A gentle drizzle fell on the car tops without even a whisper or a sigh.
Silently, Khushi allowed him to lead her towards his gleaming black SUV. His mental turmoil traveled across their clasped hands and she felt it as her own. Yet, she didn’t stop him. She waited. Waited with a ghost of a smile hovering over her lips.
“We are two mature, consenting adults and it’s ridiculous that we’re being treated like this..”, he said finally, turning towards her, his face bearing all signs of a nerve wracking week, a frustrating conversation, dashed hopes and a budding rebellion.
As Khushi sighed and remained silent, Arnav surveyed her peaked face for while and then groaned and pulled her into a tight embrace.
“I’m being so damned selfish”, he murmured against the skin of her neck. His muscles relaxed a little.
“I miss you so much that it’s driving me insane. Why didn’t you stop me?
“Because I knew it was a matter of time before you realized it yourself”, she replied softly, her ribs almost crushed by the fierceness of her embrace, “When my father raised this condition in Tampa, it was just the thought of my beliefs, my comfort, my peace of mind that had caused you to remain silent and not refute his decision. And I knew that these same thoughts will stop you this time around too”.
As he raised his head and looked down at her, she smiled at him, “My guess was that you’d realize after getting in the car. But wow, it was even sooner”.
Even as he smiled back at her, the rain picked up without warning and drummed a staccato rhythm on the car’s roof.
While Khushi shrieked in alarm, Arnav fished the car keys out from his blazer pocket and pressed the unlock button. Pulling open the back door for her, he watched her slide in and said with a wry smile, “We just have a couple of hours. Let’s celebrate your birthday in the back seat”.
As Khushi shot him a glance with narrowed eyes, he chucked wickedly, “I’ll behave, I promise”.
Soon Khushi sat with her head resting on his shoulder, surrounded by a soothing cloud of his cologne and leather polish. The rain splattered against the window panes and she watched tiny drops running down in meandering rivulets. It was semi-dark in there, with weak, yellow light of the street lamps filtering ineffectively through the fogged windows.
The prospect of spending two hours in his company was indeed the most precious gift she could have asked for.
Time can be like sand when you have a lot of it, she mused, or pure gold when you don’t.
She sighed in contentment.
Temporary contentment born out of a conscious decision to block all worries about the future and just savor the present.
After a short while, with the rain still pouring torrentially, they readied to spend the next two hours in the spacious backseat of Arnav’s BMW X5.
“Since we’re going to be trapped here for a long time, we might as well make ourselves comfortable”, said Arnav shrugging his blazer off and leaning forwards to place it on the driver’s seat.
Even as Arnav turned the heat and the seat warmers on, pushed the seat back for more leg-room and reclined the backrest to a comfortable angle, Khushi took her beige trench coat off and hung it in the back of the seat in front.
Encircling an arm around her shoulders, he drew her close and Khushi nestled her head into the curve of his shoulder. She was however unable to relax. Her nerve endings tingled as his hand lightly caressed her shoulder, his fingertips gliding over the thin knit blouse and feeling the softness of her skin.
His touch, his proximity, his scent roused memories of their shared intimacies and desire bubbled through her veins like a pleasantly mild intoxicant.
Even as her breaths became increasingly disjointed, she spread the palm of her left hand over his heart and smiled feeling his clearly tachycardic heart.
Their faces turned towards each other and even as their smoldering gazes collided and their lips merged, Arnav used his free hand to press a button on the top of the backrest. He pushed it back further with the weight of his body.
He kissed her with desperate, pent-up hunger, his tongue forceful and demanding as it dueled with its counterpart, thirstily exploring the familiar crevices of her mouth.
Even as the kiss continued unabated, he adjusted his position relative to her, his hand slipping inside her shirt and tracing the serpiginous contours of her waist, wondering caressing the softness of her skin, impatiently feeling the pliability of her flesh.
Her body shuddering in response to his touches, she winced as he bit her bottom lip hard.
“Arnav”, she protested, mindful of how easily she bruised.
“Sorry”, he whispered against her parted lips, his breath warm and minty, and then proceeded to salve it with his tongue. When he captured her lips for another soul stirring kiss, Khushi buried her hands in her thick, soft hair and arched her body closer.
A hand ventured higher, and cupped a full breast covered by an unpadded silk brassiere. “How am I going to survive until June?, he groaned against her neck.
With better sense prevailing however, he straightened up and leaned back, taking deep breaths to get his bearings back.
As Khushi did the same, he leaned forward and grabbed a small water bottle from the front cup holder.
Uncapping the bottle, he tilted his head back, took a swig and then passed it on to Khushi.
The irony of two mature professionals reduced to behaving like hormonal teens in the backseat of a car did not escape them and soon the beautiful sound of their laughter mingled with the melodic rhythm of raindrops drumming on the car’s roof.
Perhaps the best way to get back at life, when it’s being a female dog, is to just laugh at it.
After making good use of common sense, humor and self control, they succeeded in bringing about a deliberate shift in their mood. Moments later, Arnav broke the companionable silence, that’d fallen around them like a warm blanket.
“Hmm”, she replied hugging his arm and resting his head on his shoulder.
“Much as I look forward to June, there’s a part of me that’s…”, he paused for a few seconds, few seconds of mental struggle to rise over a man’s natural disinclination to express one’s vulnerability. A disinclination that is taught early in life by society’s archaic rule book of acceptable gender specific behavior. Where men are expected to be stoic at all times and keep their emotions veiled from society. Irrespective of that innate humanness which makes their emotions as intense as the opposite sex.
“Scared. Scared of looking at the future with such hopes…such rose tinted glasses”, he said at last. In Khushi he was slowly finding that rare, undefinable space where he felt comfortable enough to strip his soul of pretensions, armors and expectations.
Recognizing a recurring fear of hope in a person who’d dwelled in darkness for too long, Khushi set her own fears and misgivings aside and stepped into a now recurring role of his comforter.
Sliding onto his lap to eliminate all distance, she cupped his stubbled cheek lovingly and bravely met the bleakness in his eyes , “I don’t know what the future holds, Arnav, but I want you to know that I’ll be by your side every step of the way”.
Wordlessly, he hugged her in a fierce embrace and buried his face in the crook of her neck. To Khushi, his silence was more eloquent than the fanciest serenades, the shiniest stones and the floweriest love letters.
After a few seconds, Khushi cleared her throat and said in a bright voice, “So what are you giving me for my birthday, Dr. Raizada?
“Raising his head, he met her smiling gaze with his overtly bright one and replied somberly, “Nothing I can think of will match the sheer awesomeness of Anita’s gift..but I will definitely strive to please…Dr. Gupta”.
Chuckling at Khushi’s expression, he added, “What do you want? Ask…and thou shalt receive”.
“I’m so going to make you eat your words”, replied Khushi with a mischievous smile even as she leaned forward eagerly and fished his phone out from the blazer pocket.
“Your passcode?, she asked, still perched on his lap, her index finger poised over the screen.
As Arnav hesitated and rightly so because never in his life had he shared his phone passcode with anyone, Khushi repeated impatiently, “Passcode?
Even as he meekly supplied the passcode, Khushi commanded Siri to turn the voice recorder on and snuggled up comfortably against him. He tightened his arms around her and she brought the phone close to her lips.
“Today is February 24th, 2014 and Arnav and I are celebrating my birthday sitting in the backseat of his SUV…It’s a beautiful rainy night…a night to remember…I can hear the raindrops splattering on the roof and the windows…and through the windshield, I can see occasional forks of lightning ripping through the pitch black sky. Just a minute ago, Arnav asked what I wanted for my birthday and followed it by a grand declaration, ‘Ask and thou shalt receive’…Aha…I would have to be incredibly foolish to not take advantage of this blank check of sorts…So here goes, Dr. Raizada…This will surely teach you to think before you speak…My thoughts are going to be random and all over the place…but make no mistake…I want each and everything I mention here”.
As she paused, smiled and met his gaze, his eyes became oddly tender. Pressing a kiss on her forehead, he murmured, “You got it, love”.
“One, you and me and a long vacation in India. Real India. Little, unknown places. Roads less travelled. Letting the experience slowly seep in…Two, visiting Saffron Fields every year at harvest time. Taking part in the actual harvest…Three, okay, this one is totally random. Spending a night under the stars. Preferably under tropical sky…Four, visiting Diagon Alley…Five, having a library full of books in our…”, she hesitated and Arnav’s lips curved as he finished it for her, “home“.
Cocooned in a warmth of their own making, they were soon oblivious to the outside world. Immersed in each other, they strung multihued dreams together on threads of hesitant, half fearful hope.
It was past five by the time Khushi returned from work. It had snowed as expected and traffic had been slow. Entering through the garage entrance, she hung her car keys on the metallic wall hanger, took her coat, scarf and boots off and walked through the narrow wood floored passage to reach the family room. She knew exactly what to expect, she smiled sniffing appreciatively. It was her birthday and as always, her mother had cooked up a storm for her. All her favorite dishes including sugar free red velvet cupcakes.
But there was something else her mother expected her to do before that special dinner…
“Khushi”, Sujata called her from the library. It was a spacious, well appointed room and one of it’s corners were taken up by a tall, carved sandal wood stand with a filigreed silver canopy. It was their mandir and a housed a beautifully painted idol of Devi Maiyya. Originally set up by Navin’s mother when she’d visited them once many summers ago, the entire household attached a lot of significance and sentiment to it.
Quietly, Khushi padded over to stand beside her. Reverentially joining her hands, she closed her eyes.
Enveloped by serene incense scented silence, mother and daughter duo were soon engaged in heartfelt but diametrically different monologues with the Divinity.
“Please keep Khushi on the right path and forgive her sin. Do with her life what your supreme wisdom deems is best for her. If Arnav is her destiny and her happiness, so be it. Just make it easier for all of us. Please bless her and Anita and Navin with a long, healthy life and all the happiness in the world”.
“Only you can see what lies in my heart. My intentions and emotions, my reasons and decisions are all crystal clear to you. No one can understand me like you do. No one can understand Arnav like you do. No one can understand humans and human nature in general like you do. So please don’t be too harsh in judging us. Like the rest of your world does. It was never our intention to hurt anyone. Do forgive our mistakes…and make everything alright soon. For Arnav. For me. For Lavanya”.
Her moist eyes reflected the flickering flame of the oil lamp kept on her mother’s pooja thali as she turned to face her as instructed and accepted prasad from her.
“Today is your birthday”, Sujata said, tying a saffron thread around her wrist, “And I just want you to be happy today”.
Reading between the lines, Khushi sighed in relief. She knew that their long overdue conversation had been postponed yet again. Postponed but not forgotten by any means.
Khushi Gupta, MD.
Khushi’s LinkedIn profile picture smiled at her yet again after Lavanya typed her name in the Google search box for the nth time since Monday.
Khushi and Gupta was perhaps a rare combination of first and last names because that was the only hit she’d ever gotten.
And there was no doubt it was the right one too.
Right from the time when she’d first seen her face flashing on Arnav’s iPhone screen, she’d been unable to free her mind of that laughing image.
Or free her heart from the blazing fire it had become engulfed in..
Time and again, she tried breaking the chains of her obsessive unrequited love that had kept her burning heart imprisoned for so long..
Time and again, she failed.
A gray, damp fog of hopelessness began to close in upon her soul…sapping it of all it’s joy, all it’s residual hope. And also, it’s will to live…
“Maybe it’s time to draw curtains”, she smiled to herself, “Once and for all”.
She looked strangely at peace.
Flat Rock, OH.
When Anita arrived at Aman’s condominium early Saturday evening, Anjali was ecstatic to see her. She confessed to harboring a secret fear of her backing off at the last moment.
She talked nonstop, propelled by nervous energy, as she took Anita on a tour of the house, showing her all necessary things or facilities she might need to use while taking care of her seven month old, Aryan.
“See all the emergency numbers are here on the fridge. Fire…Poison Control…Weather Emergency”, she said towards the end of the tour, with Aryan hanging onto one of her hips, drinking noisily from a sippy cup.
“Relax Anjali”, Anita said calmly, “I’ve taken care of even smaller babies. It’s going to be okay”.
She was surprised when Anjali gave her a quick, grateful hug, “You’ve no idea how great it feels to have someone familiar taking care of Aryan. Usually my parents take care of him but they’re in India right now and it’s so hard to find good, reliable babysitters for weekends. He sleeps through the night now, so once he’s asleep you can take off. I’ve asked Aman bhai to sleep in his room. He should be here soon”.
When she left for her night shift shortly after, Anita was kept on her toes, and sometimes knees, by Aryan, an energetic kid who enjoyed putting his newly learnt crawling skills to good use.
Firmly strapping him on his high chair, she was feeding him dinner when Aman finally made an appearance. Both Aryan and his caregiver’s faces lit up as he ambled into the kitchen, wearing jeans, sweatshirt and a friendly smile on his boyishly handsome face.
As they greeted each other and exchanged customary pleasantries, Anita sighed inwardly.
“Yup, it’s as strong as ever”, she told herself silently, painfully aware of her suddenly erratic heartbeats, “And it’s just as well that I’m not the kind of girl who makes a bumbling fool of herself in her crush’s presence”.