Despite being dressed in endless layers of warm clothing, woolen hat, gloves and scarf, Anita couldn’t keep the wind’s icy fingers from creeping inside, threatening to freeze her very bones.
“What the hell?!, she swore impatiently, pressing the door bell yet again with a gloved finger.
Anjali opened the door and gazed at her with a confused expression on her face. She looked comical with hair tied back untidily and a glistening slather of beautifying night cream on her face.
“Hey”, said Anita, stepping in, not forgetting to add an aggrieved, “What took you so long? I almost turned into an icicle at your doorstep”.
She proceeded to peel off the layers from her petite person, not noticing Anjali’s embarrassed expression.
“You didn’t get Aman Bhai’s text?, Anjali finally asked.
“What text?, Anita murmured, hanging her coat in the foyer closet.
“That Aryan was running a fever so I switched tonight’s call with a friend. I asked Aman to text you almost two hours ago”.
“No way!, Anita shrieked in dismay, “You mean I drove all the way here for nothing. And I didn’t receive any text from Aman”. Owing to the horrendous driving conditions, it had been a particularly long and arduous drive from her university.
“It’s all Aman Bhai’s fault!, Anjali angrily pursed her lips, turned around and stormed off towards the family room, closely followed by half irate, half amused Anita.
Aman, lounging lazily on the couch, sat up in alarm at the sight of the two ladies charging at him.
“You forgot to text her and made her come all the way from her university in this weather! How could you?!, Anjali cried.
As Aman looked satisfactorily mortified, and rose to apologize, a plan, whose nature was evident by the naughty gleam in her eyes, began to hatch in Anita’s mind. Only fools look the other way when life insists on throwing such golden opportunities at you, she mused.
Apart from not believing in wasting opportunities, Anita also believed it was regressive of women, sometimes even sworn feminists, to always wait for the guys to make the first move, so to speak.
“And if a guy gets turned off by girls who believe in taking initiative”, she had once told her friend, Aarti, “Then he is simply not worth making a move on”.
“My Saturday is totally wasted because of you”, she said with a sigh, “I could’ve been watching this new movie with my friends right now”.
“See what you did, Bhai?, Anjali said indignantly,”I feel so bad, Anu. We will, of course, pay you for today”.
“Yeah”, said Aman, looking relieved, “That’s an excellent idea”.
“No”, was Anita’s response, uttered in a nicely executed dignified-offended-embarrassed voice, “I’m not going to accept money for something I didn’t even do”.
An awkward silence descended around them.
As Aman apologized yet again, Anita interrupted him with a sweet, understanding voice, “It’s okay, Aman. These things happen, don’t feel too bad”.
“But”, she paused and met Aman’s eyes, “If you are already feeling bad, why don’t we remedy that by having you take me out to this new movie I want to watch”, she finished smoothly with a poker face.
“Oh, that is an excellent idea”, Anjali, eager to retire to bed with a guilt free mind, said, while Aman protested, “Some other day, Anita. The roads are really bad”.
“I just drove 45 miles on them”, the aggrieved voice was back as Anita throughly rubbed it in.
“Would you please stop fiddling with the radio?, Aman spoke up finally, after ten minutes of constant station changing that had felt like nails on chalkboard to him.
“Wait, I’m trying to find a song I like”, murmured Anita.
“You might as well give up now because we’re almost there”, said Aman as he swerved the steering wheel of his white SUV and pulled it into an open, parking lot.
“Found it”, she sighed happily as Bruno Mars’s boyish tenor filled the car.
Aman parked the car and turned the ignition off.
“Trust girls to love this song”, he chuckled, turning to look at Anita.
Their smiling gazes merged for a few languid moments and never had life seemed so beautiful to Anita.
It was still lightly snowing when they got out of the car and wading through about three inches of slush and snow as they hurried towards the entrance doors. Once inside the warm lobby, they heaved a sigh of relief.
They bought tickets after Aman unsuccessfully tried to change her mind about which movie to watch. Vampires were not his thing. Most definitely not.
Anita refused, point blank. “This is the movie I’d be watching with my friends right now, HAD you remembered to send that text”, she said with a pout.
With a resigned fine, Aman gave in, pulling out his wallet from his hip pocket.
“Anyway”, she added with an impish smile, “It’s not as if this is a date or something and I have to worry about my date getting bored”.
Aman shot her a quick sideways glance and shook his head, “You are a unique piece. One of a kind”.
He was confused. He was amused. He was confounded. He was curious. Unknown to himself, he’d just fallen down the rabbit hole, right into Anita’s wonderland.
“Shouldn’t you call your parents and let them know?, he asked, as they stood in line to get popcorn next.
“There’s no need”, Anita said as they headed towards their hall, “You are already stamped with parent approval”.
Aman tilted his head inquiringly, thinking, “What is she talking about now?
They entered the almost-full hall, a testament to the inexplicable popularity of vampires in popular culture..and found good seats with difficulty.
“What do you mean?, he finally asked after they’d settled in their seats.
“Well, my parents already like you a lot. They never thought twice before allowing Di to go out with you. So…”, she continued merrily, giving little thought to the words steaming from her mouth, “If they could trust a guy with one daughter, it’s only logical to presume that he’s been duly stamped with their approval? Right?
Anita’s grin petered out gradually at Aman’s suddenly furious expression.
“Sorry”, she said quickly, her eyes wide and contrite, “I spoke too much. Again. And that was a particularly stupid thing to say”.
Aman kept his eyes strictly trained on the screen in front, his indecipherable face a canvas of flickering shadows”.
“Sorry”, Please…forgive me. I have this problem. A long standing one. Dad calls it a bad case of ‘Foot In Mouth.
As Aman crossed his arms and ignored her, she tried again, “And I’m trying, really, really trying to get rid of it”.
Still not eliciting any response from him, Anita first sighed and then resorted to threatening him, “If you don’t forgive me, like right now, I’m going to burst into tears”.
Alarmed, Aman turned his face towards her. “Ok fine”.
He studied her puppy face in the semi darkness, his eyes gradually thawing with amusement.
“Besides having Foot In Mouth, you are hopelessly crazy too”, he whispered softly as the movie had started.
“How do you treat it?, Anita whispered back with a twinkle.
“Foot In Mouth? Hmm, Lemme see”, he smiled in a way that caused her heart to miss a beat. “Open your mouth”, he commanded next in a professional voice, “Let’s see how big the foot is”.
Laughing, Anita opened her mouth a little, totally unprepared for the hand full of popcorn, Aman suddenly stuffed her mouth with.
Chuckling at her expression, Aman faced the screen again. “Keep eating. That’s the best treatment”.
One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire Cat in a tree.
“Which road do I take?, she asked.
His response was a question.
“Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know”, Alice answered.
“Then”, said the cat, “it doesn’t matter”.
Finding an empty parking spot on the fourth level of the Visitors’s Parking Ramp, maneuvered his car in, parked, and turned the ignition off. After a moment’s pause, he drew in a deep breath and turned to look at Astha.
There were issues to be resolved, people to be taken care of, a life to be lived. He didn’t have the luxury to give in to weakness.
“Let’s go”, he said, his caramel eyes firm and resolute.
With an air of resignation and a sigh, Astha gathered her handbag, opened the door and stepped out, while Arnav lingered in the car, picking his phone up and glancing at it’s screen with an indecisive tilt to his head.
He’d called Khushi twice before leaving and at that moment, he engaged in a debate with himself, wondering if he should try calling her again as opposed to waiting until morning.
Considering it was highly uncharacteristic, quite contrary to her nature, to not reply to his calls at once, it wasn’t unreasonable to presume that she might have retired for the night, he told himself. It was past 10 after all.
While a part of him felt that Khushi was entitled to all details of Lavanya’s act, including what he saw as her purely vindictive note, there was another, far fiercer part, that surprised him by it’s intense protectiveness towards Khushi. A part that caused him to resist calling her again.
He could find a way to prevent her from knowing about that note, he reasoned with himself, his eyes hardening as a grim addendum was added to this previous, comparatively softer, thought -he will find a way. He will make sure he did.
After a brief stop at the reception to have IDs verified and visitor passes issued, Arnav and Astha walked down a sterile, faintly ominous, hospital corridor, headed toward the ICU. Their footsteps sounded half reluctant, half resigned as they approached the dreaded destination. However cataclysmic the destination promised to be, they had realized, facing it was all but inevitable.
Silently, Astha prayed, glancing sideways at Arnav’s taut profile from time to time, fervently wishing for the ordeal to be over soon.
While Arnav’s revelation had, quite understandably, lowered Lavanya’s standing in her mind, she prayed for her too. Thinking of someone, embracing someone, as a family member for so many years, she’d, but naturally, come to attach to her a certain amount of sentiment, which was hard to forgo in a matter of hours…She felt sorry for her, her miserable spirit, that had attempted to sever ties with it’s physical form, yet still held onto it with tenuous threads.
Hospitals are places that never tire, never sleep, and even at that hour, it’s corridors buzzed, crackled and beeped with positive energy and ironically, life. Despite the fact that it housed dysfunctional bodies, broken minds and a hushed air of gloom in the background.
They’d soon reached the dark wood and beige granite ICU nursing station, and as they halted in front of it, a middle aged Filipino nurse with short, spiky hair look up inquiringly.
“Only one visitor is allowed at a time and her dad is with her right now”, they were told in a helpful voice after Arnav had tersely introduced himself, his frozen countenance belying the turmoil, the conflict that lay beneath.
After being directed towards the family waiting room, they headed towards it, unaware of the curiosity and pity with which the nurse’s eyes lingered on their retreating backs for a fleeting second.
They’d but taken a few steps when she called them from behind.
“Dr. Raizada, Dr. Saxena, who’s taking care of your wife, is here to round on patients. You can talk to him, if you like, and ask about Mrs. Raizada’s progress. He’ll be happy to answer your questions”.
“Thanks, Rose”, a ghost of a smile lit up Arnav’s features temporarily and after asking his mother to proceed to the waiting room, he walked up to Dr. Saxena, a Critical Care fellow, who stood in front of a work station, one installed next to each room, logging in to patient charts.
“We were successful in taking her off of the ventilator earlier tonight. She is still on supplemental oxygen, of course “, Dr. Saxena, a tall, slight man in his late twenties, informed after a brief exchange of introductions, a sense of belonging to the same fraternity forging an instant connection between the two.
“She’d gone into blood loss induced hypovolemic shock resulting in MOF- most significantly ARDS and ARF. As of now, her CXRs, vitals, urine output and labs show a positive trend. She hasn’t gained consciousness yet but Glasgow Scale is at 13, which is reassuring. We’re still waiting for the sedatives to wear off and Neurology is on board, closely following her progress”.
As they moved on to a detailed discussion about Lavanya’s care-plan, progress and prognosis, Arnav found himself exhaling slowly, emptying himself of a little of the weight that constricted his chest and leaning his shoulder against the wall.
Astha’s face was expectant as she glanced up at Arnav entering the room. She sighed in relief when Arnav sank into an adjacent chair, quietly filling her in with Lavanya’s reassuring progress.
A cold, shadowy sense of relief ribboned around their persons in a room which was filled with dazed, helpless humans, who’d suddenly found themselves trapped in their worst nightmare. The possibility of loss of a loved one.
Manya, who had been in a similar state until a few hours ago, entered the waiting room with a Starbucks cup in hand. With her little sister out of danger, and relief coursing through her veins like a revitalizing drug, she was in a slightly saner frame of mind.
But that didn’t prevent red hot anger from singeing her nerves at the sight of the person, whom she thought at least partially responsible for her sister’s pitiable state. With her own mind reeling from unbearable guilt and self-directed anger; she found relief, at a subconscious level, to direct those emotions some where else.
As she paused at the doorway, a fleet of lancet sharp words tried to rush out of her lips, none managing to escape.
With a single glance at her face, Arnav rose from his chair and quickly bridged the distance between them.
“Wow, I’m surprised to see you here”, Manya said in a low, trembling voice, “Shouldn’t you be somewhere else? With someone else? Celebrating over a glass of Champagne, perhaps?
“Shut up, Manya”, said Arnav tersely, his voice firm but oddly devoid of anger, “I know we have to talk, but not here”.
Astha came to join them and as she extended her sincere sympathies, Manya accepted it with bad grace- a barely coherent murmur and a shrug.
“We’ll be right back, Ma”, Arnav filled the tense pause before heading out of the room. Manya hesitated for a second before catching up and falling in step with him.
“Let’s go down to the lobby”, Arnav said as the approached the elevators, his face impassive, his gaze steadily fixed ahead.
As the elevator glided down to the first floor, Manya was swamped by a sudden onslaught of memories. These memories were of supposedly happy moments but with passage of time, they had eroded into bitter, grotesque ghosts of their former selves.
Memories of Arnav and Lavanya’s wedding and the unforgettable sensations attached to it. Smell of roses. Ripples of laughter. Hum of conversation. Lighthearted bantering. Aunties gushing over how perfect the bride and bridegroom were for each other.
Without warning, guilt incised through this fog of memories and turned them into dust and ashes.
“I shouldn’t have taken up that job offer in Japan. I should’ve been there for La. I should’ve retuned after one of the many days, Lavanya’s voice had sounded so dejected on the phone. I should have pressed more to find what exactly was going on in her life. It’s my fault, I should have persisted more. If nothing else, I should’ve stayed back after Aarav’s funeral, after Arnav moved out. Lavanya needed me. I was all she had”.
“Let’s go”, Arnav’s voice broke the chain of her cruel, self incriminating thoughts. He stood with a hand on the elevator door jamb to prevent if from closing again.
“Listen, Manya”, Arnav began, shoving his fingers in jeans pockets and glancing down at her. They were walking down a corridor towards the lobby.
“I’m really sorry for Lavanya. And you. Your Dad. I really am”.
“Of course”, Manya hissed with a fresh surge of anger, “Of course I believe you. Of course I believe that even though I’m well aware that it’s coming from an insensitive, heartless person, who has no scruples about abandoning his grieving, depressed wife and carrying on an affair behind her back”.
Having reached the spacious, softly lit, stubbornly cheerful lobby, they now stood near a seating arrangement, that curved around a fireplace and was flanked by a grand piano on one side, and a wide pillar, covered in small brass plaques with donor names, on the other.
Arnav sat down in a winged, upholstered, chair and signaled Manya to join him. His face, impassive as ever, was seemingly oblivious of the harsh words, just flung at him.
Nothing could’ve been further from the truth. The deepened crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, the tautness of his shadowed jaw, the whiteness around his mouth were subtle signs, most likely to be missed by a casual observer.
“I don’t know what Lavanya wrote in that note”, Arnav finally spoke, “But it was unfair to drag Khushi’s name in this mess. Implying that Khushi was, in any way, responsible for the many problems of our already dysfunctional marriage is not only cruel but untrue as well. I met Khushi in September. This fact alone should give you a fair idea of how untrue her accusations were”.
Manya’s eyes met Arnav’s and their subtle flickering reflected her surprise at this fact.
She fell into a long, pensive, retrospective silence that was broken only by the soft crackling of fire. Despite it’s many preconceived notions, biases and prejudices, her mind could not remain impervious to the evident truth of Arnav’s words.
“You abandoned her at the worst possible time. When she was already coping with such a devastating loss”, Manya finally said, her face crumpling, her voice breaking even as she vehemently struggled to maintain her composure.
Grabbing a tissue from her coat pocket, she pressed it to her eyes and inhaled a long, aching breath.
Arnav averted his eyes to afford her some privacy and fixed them on the multihued blaze of the flames. “You forget that it wasn’t just Lavanya’s loss”, he said bitterly, “It was mine as well. Had we continued to live together after Aarav, I doubt we’d have been of any solace to each other. We were more likely to have just continued ripping each other apart. Viciously. Blindly. To forcefully own what the other lacked”.
Rising from his seat, Arnav stepped up and took the chair next to Manya.
He turned towards her. With his eyes catching the glow of fire, he said wearily, “Somethings are just not meant to be, Manya. And Lavanya needs to accept this. She needs to accept the whole reality, the whole truth, however unpalatable it might be for her. She needs to let go”
“We’ve tried, Dad and I, we’ve tried so many times…”, murmured Manya,
“She can’t do this on her own”, replied Arnav, “She needs help. Professional help”.
Manya’s phone rang at that point. It was an unknown number and Manya’s heart, conditioned by the recent unfortunate events, accelerated with a fresh surge of anxiety.
It was 11 O’ Clock, almost four hours since Manya had left their home. Khushi was downstairs in the library, sitting in her favorite chair, her legs drawn up and her arms hugging the knees. Blankly, she gazed out of the window, her eyes dry and turbulent.
With her fists balled, she was oblivious to both the pain from nails digging into her clammy palms and to the frequent palpitations in her heart.
The TV was still on in the family room. It hadn’t occurred to her to turn it off. Her cell phone had rung several times. She hadn’t even glanced at it.
At around 11:30, her mind was suddenly assailed by an overpowering deluge of panic. Unfolding her cramped limbs gingerly, she rose from the chair and walked up to the home phone. Picking up the receiver, she found Manya’s number on the Caller ID and called her.
“I have to know. I need to find out”.
“Who’s this?, Manya asked even as Arnav rose to return to the waiting room.
There was a long drawn out pause as Manya’s surprise clashed with Khushi’s struggle to frame the most difficult question of her life; difficult in terms of how much she dreaded knowing the answer.
“How’s Lavanya doing?, she finally asked, her forehead gleaming with beads of perspiration.
“She’s out of danger now”, Manya replied in an unexpectedly calm voice, which made Khushi’s knees weaken with a cool shower of relief.
Grasping the edge of the desk with one hand to steady herself, she said huskily, “I’m glad. I truly am”.
Arnav had but taken a few steps when an inexplicable, indescribable sensation in his heart made him halt in mid-stride and glance back at Manya.
“Listen, I’m sorry…”, Manya began before realizing that Khushi had already hung up. As she put the phone away, she glanced up to find Arnav towering beside her chair. His eyes were incredulous, blazing with fury as he asked,
“Was that Khushi?
It was a statement more than a question and his suspicion was confirmed by the guilt, he observed suffusing her eyes.
“Do you mean to say”, he spoke slowly, his voice shaking with anger, “you’ve already called Khushi and told her about Lavanya. About that blasted note. You actually called a person you’ve never even met before instead of trying to talk to me first”.
“I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, Arnav, Manya replied defensively, “And we did trying calling you. Several times, in fact”.
“My phone was broken. Smashed in anger because your sister wouldn’t leave me alone”, he replied frustratedly, “But that still does not justify your calling Khushi first”.
“I said I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. That note just made me see red…Though I do realize now that it was impetuous of me to go to her house”.
Arnav stared at her, dread filling his heart and a frown marring his forehead.
“Wait a minute. You actually went to her house…
“I said, I am regretting it already”, Manya replied, rising up too and facing him, her gaze wavering Arnav’s fiery eyes bored through it. But gradually a touch of defiance crept into her stance, “It’s not that she’s completely innocent. She should’ve had the common sense to stay away from a technically still married man”.
“And who the hell do you think you are to pass judgement on people you know absolutely nothing about?, he countered in rage, “Stay away from her and keep her out of this fucking mess. She has nothing to do with it”.
Not trusting himself to stay there any longer, or even to speak another word, Arnav strode back towards the elevators, running fingers through his hair.
Halting just before the elevators, he slid his phone out from his leather coat pocket and called Khushi. Leaning his shoulder against the corridor wall, he called her again and again, his desperation increasing with every passing second.
“Pick up the phone, Khushi. Please pick up the phone”.
After a short while, he typed her a hurried text, his blood shot eyes, dark and stressed.
I know you’re still awake. I was near Manya when you called her. Call me back. Please. Lavanya’s decision had nothing to be with you. That note was a lie. We’ll get through this, Khushu. As long as we’re together, we will. Have faith in me. In us.