After a few fumbling moments, her fingers were finally able to turn the key and successfully unlock the door. She divested herself of the various layers, cocooning her, and then hearing the TV, walked down the corridor into the family room.
Finding no one there, she turned off the TV and the fireplace, indignantly reminded of the fact that the blame for wasting resources almost invariably and quite unfairly fell on her.
With a quick glance at the large, wooden clock on the mantle, which showed 11:30, she rushed upstairs, the spring in her step, the sparkle in her eyes unable to conceal the thrill of a heart’s first awakening.
Upstairs was awfully quiet with both Khushi’s and her parents’ bedrooms dark, and no sliver of light rimming the base of the shut doors.
“I must have the most boring family in the whole world”, she mused entering her room and turning the lights on, “11 O’Clock on a Saturday night and everyone’s fast asleep”.
“They could’ve at least waited up for me”, she thought, a trifle hurt, even as she brushed her teeth and hair and changed into a worn out and comfortable pair of PJs.
Sliding under the comforter, she all but stayed in her bed for a couple of minutes before throwing it off of her and sitting up with a sigh.
A minute later, she was in Khushi’s room, quietly sneaking into her bed, something she’d been regularly doing ever since Khushi had moved out of their shared room to a separate one.
Khushi kept her back towards her, pretending to be fast asleep, but there was something undefinable about her breaths, a tangible tension emanating from her dark contour, that raised Anita’s antennas as once.
“Di”, she whispered tentatively at first.
Khushi didn’t reply but Anita could feel her wipe her eyes and gently blow nose into a crumpled tissue.
Sitting up at once, she turned the bedside lamp on, and then leaned across to peer into her face.
“You’ve been crying”,she stated, her dark eyes taking in her puffy eyes, reddened nose and warm complexion.
“No, I’m not. I just got a cold. Let me sleep”, replied Khushi huskily, without opening her eyes.
Ignoring her excuses, Anita asked, “What’s wrong?, her voice demanding and worried at once.
“Nothing is wrong”, replied Khushi irritatedly, opening her eyes and meeting her sister’s concerned gaze.
“I’m not buying that”.
Shifting her position and sitting up in a seamless, swift moment, she glared at Anita, her face framed by loose tendrils of chestnut hair, her eyes flashing with sudden cathartic temper- something that’s, unfortunately, easiest to vent on loved ones, people one feels closest to.
“Why can’t you leave me alone? Can’t a person have some blasted privacy in this house? Why do you always have to come barging in my room?
She stopped, observing hurt register in Anita’s eyes, her heart feeling an immediate, answering stab of contrition.
“Sorry”, she said in an agonized voice, extending an arm to clasp Anita’s hand in hers, her eyes warm and pleading, “That was real douchey of me”.
Anita sighed a long, noble, forgiving sigh before surveying her sister’s peaked face and asking worriedly , “Di, Is everything alright?
Anita watched transfixed, as Khushi battled, with all her strength, to keep her face from crumbling like a worn out wall. Winning, she rearranged her features to a stoic calm, cleared her throat, and said, “No, Anu. Nothing’s right anymore”.
As her voice cracked towards the end of the sentence, Anita leaned forward and hugged her tightly, “Tell me, Di, you’re scaring me”.
“The nerve of her.How can someone be so insensitive? Not even caring that Mom and Dad were listening too. I would have kicked her butt”, exclaimed Anita, her face indicative of the overwhelmingly fury she felt after Khushi recounted the evening’s incident with barely restrained tears, “And made sure she never has enough nerve to show up at our door, unannounced. Or any door”.
“Why didn’t you?, she asked next, directing a fraction of her ire at her, “Why didn’t anyone?
“We were all shocked…it happened so fast- like a whirlwind showing up from nowhere”,replied Khushi with her voice thick, “And despite all those words she threw at me, I couldn’t even get angry. I still can’t get angry because a part of me empathizes with her and Lavanya too”.
“Well, I can’t empathize with this..this Lavanya at all. What kind of person makes her family, her dad and her sister, go through this hell just because she can’t freaking get over a man?”, responded Anita, “An asshole of the highest order, in my opinion. Ok, he’s not interested in you. Sure, it hurts. Sure, it hurts like hell. Get over it. Get a fucking move on. Don’t try to make everyone around you miserable by trying to keep a man chained to you, and cutting yourself and writing attention-seeking, crappy, psychotic notes that blame other people for all your troubles”.
Khushi was quiet as Anita continued to spout a stream of passionate invective, her brows knitted into a frown, her hands forcefully articulate.
Her hazel eyes were sad and tinged with wistfulness as they rested on her younger sister’s face. Not too long ago, she would have reacted like that too. Not too long ago, she would’ve been just as angry. She wished she were able to get angry today because didn’t lack of anger indicate guilt and a lack of conviction in oneself? For a person who’d always lived her life with her head held high, this affected her deeply, more than she realized.
“Anyway”, Anita paused and took a deep, calming breath, “I’m really disappointed in Mom and Dad too. How could they just stand there and not say anything in your defense? Did they atleast say anything when that sister-from-hell left?
“No”, said Khushi averting her gaze to hide the quick ripple of hurt in her eyes. On an impulse, she decided to withhold Sujata’s angry words from Anita. There’s no point in making Anita more upset at their parents than she already was, she thought.
“Because, she wasn’t completely wrong“.
The intensity, with which these five words ripped at her heart, showed no signs of abating with time.
“I shouldn’t take it to heart. I’m sure she didn’t actually mean them”, she attempted to nurse her wounded heart, unsuccessfully. Her ineffectual consoling hissing off like a drop of water on burning coals.
“Are they really mad at you?, asked Anita after a pause, her tone changed, her face suddenly appearing scared and very, very young.
“I went up to their room after Manya left. Mom wouldn’t talk to me and Dad said he had a bad headache and that he would talk to me later”.
An answer that Anita found very unsatisfactory because she angrily blurted out, “If I were you, I would move out of this house this very moment”.
“They’re hurt, Anu. And shocked”.
“And so are you!
At that, a heavy, humid silence diffused into the air, which was broken by Khushi, clearing her throat and asking Anita to bring her Motrin and water from downstairs.
That night, she went to Pampore again. Once again, a shadowy form gliding amongst those purple flowers, with the breeze rushing through her hair as fragrant as her memories.
Her heart pounded because she knew, even in her sleep, what came next. The sepia hued air. The glowing, flickering faces of the mountains. The smell of smoke and burnt flowers.The fire roaring through the saffron fields.
This time around, however, she saw something else too.
A great ball of fire that was loosely wrapped in leaping flames. Orange, red, yellow and blue. Twirling, swirling, shifting forms against the dark skies, it slowly stilled into a permanent shape. Right in front of her terrified eyes. It was a bird. A fiery, unforgiving bird that rained sparks and embers upon the hapless earth. It was a Phoenix.
Waking up with a start and a premonitory sense of doom, she sat up in bed, gulping mouthfuls of oxygen to steady her galloping heart. After a while, she turned to look at the bedside clock. It was 6:30 and still dark outside. Hearing a plow truck scraping the ice and the snow off of the road outside, she extended an arm to pick a glass of water from the nightstand.
No sooner had she brought it close to her lips that, without warning, she felt her world shiver, crash and crumble around her. She was left standing amidst the rubble with the foundation quivering with aftershocks underneath her feet.
“What if there really was a chance?, she whispered, raking her fingers into her disheveled hair.
Her father’s voice wafted to her.
“Many relationships and marriages can be compared to the Phoenix…”
And her own…
“Did you ever love Lavanya, Arnav?
The memory of that imperceptible flicker in Arnav’s eyes when she’d asked him that question erupted in her mind. A memory that had persistently lingered in a hidden recess of her mind.
“What right did you have to take away our last chance?
In a different part of the city, even Manya was unable to sleep, restlessly tossing and turning in a recliner near Lavanya’s bed. Lavanya had drifted off to sleep again soon after gaining consciousness, and their Dad had agreed to go home, after much persuasion, to rest for what remained of the night.
The conversation she’d had with him was still replaying in a loop in her head. The revelation about Aarav’s paternity had been a complete shock to her. While it did explain a lot of things, including Arnav’s previously incomprehensible decision to leave Lavanya soon after the funeral, his seemingly heartless refusal to even consider reconciliation, a lot of questions still remained unanswered and relentlessly teased her mind.
She couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that her sister, whom she’d always believed she knew inside out, would deliberately set out to deceive someone.
That she would unscrupulously attempt to snare a man by using a pregnancy he wasn’t even responsible for. It wasn’t unheard of or even rare, that much she knew, but to imagine her own sister performing such a dastardly act shook the very core of her being.
“There has to be more to this”, she concluded, uneasily closing her eyes and realizing that she wouldn’t be able to get a moment’s rest until she knew what.
She’d just dozed off and slept for a few restless minutes when Lavanya’s voice reached her in her sleep and woke her.
“Where’s Dad?, she was asking her, her eyes dark and worried.
“I sent him home to try and get some rest”, answered Manya, rising from the recliner and stretching her cramped limbs.
It didn’t take her long to notice the tears rolling down Lavanya’s cheeks.
“I should have thought about him”, she said, “How could I have been so selfish?
“Don’t think like that, Lavanya”, said Manya, sitting at the side of her bed, struggling to find the right words to console her with.
“You are not well, it isn’t your fault. Depression is a disease like any other and I don’t even need to tell you that. You need to start antidepressants again, Lavanya, and take them regularly this time”.
“I wish there were a magical pill to make everything right with your life, but there isn’t”, Lavanya’s voice was seeped with hopelessness and despair.
Manya sighed and hesitated for a second before a certain firmness entered her eyes.
“Of course, there’s no magic in those pills or in anything else in this world for that matter. Just taking antidepressants and expecting your life to be miraculously transformed is foolish, and you, being a doctor, should know that better than me. Besides taking medicine, one also has to acknowledge the basic flaws in one’s thinking and struggle daily to correct it”, said Manya, holding her gaze significantly, “And one has to accept and own responsibility for one’s past actions as well”.
Lavanya’s gaze wavered like a boat in stormy seas before a confession, veiled as a question, finally ripped through her defenses and escaped from her lips.
“How do you know?, she whispered.
“Arnav’s mom told Dad”, Manya replied with commendable equanimity because all she wanted to do was to scream and shout and shake her till her teeth rattled.
And ask how she could’ve been so fucking stupid.
“And you and Dad believed them”, stated Lavanya in a flat voice, her dark eyes strangely empty and haunted, “Even you think that I’d deliberately and deceitfully snared Arnav in my trap”.
“I don’t want to believe it, La, please help me understand”, Manya pleaded, clasping her cold hand in hers.
“The possibility of Arnav not being responsible for my pregnancy didn’t even cross my mind when I first called and told him about it. Maybe it was wishful thinking, maybe it wasn’t, but that is the truth…On our wedding day, when I realized that Arnav was marrying me strictly for the sake of our child, I was struck with panic and doubt for a brief moment of time. But I quickly overcame it, letting myself believe that there was no way I could not be carrying Arnav’s child. You know that because of Endometriosis, I’d been on BCP for years now, maybe that’s what added to the confusion along with the fact that I had false periods just a week before Arnav and I were together. And a couple of weeks after that one night with Jason, when I was so…so…desperately trying to get over Arnav”.
Manya’s eyes widened at that name but she didn’t appear completely shocked. A number of unrelated memories slowly drifted to her from another, invisible, unknown dimension, always lurking at the edges of existence.
Those humorous brown eyes. That unforgettable laugh. That wicked sense of humor. Their first meeting…
It was their Dad and Christine’s smallish wedding reception and she clearly remembered every single detail of it. The decor, the food, the music and most importantly, the vague awkwardness she and Lavanya had felt for being in constant limelight as the two grownup daughters of the bridegroom.
A common acquaintance had introduced Jason, who’d just flown in from a different state, to them with an eye roll inducing flounce.
“Lavanya and Manya, the two beautiful daughters of the bridegroom…and Jason…the only son of the bride”.
“Doesn’t that make us siblings”, Lavanya had said with a laugh as they shook hands.
Jason’s response had been exaggeratedly outraged and his eyes frankly admiring.
“Most certainly not. Never”.
“But I did not deliberately deceive him to trap him into marriage. That’s not who I am but nobody seems to believe that”, finished Lavanya even as her voice choked.
“When did you find out?, asked Manya even as she squeezed Lavanya’s hand tighter.
“The day Aarav was born”, replied Lavanya, tears falling freely now, “His blood group…I was devastated, I couldn’t even enjoy my first motherhood. I thought of telling Arnav but just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I realize I was selfish, afraid of losing him on one hand and living under the constant fear of being found out on the other. It was driving me crazy, Manya, slowly and surely, but still, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. I was too afraid of losing him”.
“And then, just a few months before Aarav left us forever, my worst nightmare came true. He found out”.
Even as Manya’s eyes filled with warm tears, she felt a fresh wave of irritation wash over her senses. Irritation mostly directed at her own sister.
“Forget him, for God’s sake. Quit crying over him. A marriage that comes into being just because of a pregnancy hasn’t much going on for it in the first place. You should’ve realized that and moved on with your life. He doesn’t love you, Lavanya, probably never did, and you should stop trying to make him”.
“He did love me”, said Lavanya, her voice confident and wistful at the same time, “In his own quiet way, he did love me. But I was far too busy grappling with my demons to see that”.
Manya took a deep breath to calm her overwrought nerves, “He-does-not-love-you-now. And that’s all that matters. He loves Khushi. I saw that in his eyes…and much as the thought distresses you, distresses me even, it’s time to accept it and stop dwelling in the past”.
There was a sudden transformation in her sister’s expression, from wistful to vehement, that took Manya by surprise.
“If Khushi hadn’t entered his life, hadn’t allowed herself to get involved with a married man, our marriage would’ve still had a real chance of getting fixed. She took that chance away from me and that’s why I hate her so much”.
“Lavanya, a man is just as responsible for an affair as a woman. And the fact remains that Arnav had never once wavered from his decision to terminate this marriage. It was only a matter of time. He does not love you, he wants to move on, and as far as he’s concerned this marriage is already over. That’s all we should be concerned with at this point”.
As Lavanya remained silent, Manya held her by the shoulders gently.
“If not for your own sake, for my sake, for Dad’s sake”.
“I’ll try, Di”, Lavanya said brokenly, “Even though it’s very hard, I promise I will. But I’m telling you the truth, Arnav did love me…there were so many moments…so many memories we could’ve grasped and used as building tools to resurrect our marriage”.
Exhaustion was catching up with her, her thoughts fraying, her voice increasingly incoherent with every word.
“But they are still there. They might just be a handful, those little memories, those small moments, that rain, those roses, those nights, but they’re all still there. Like stars. You can’t see them when the sun rises, you can’t see them them because your eyes are blinded by the brightness of the sun, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there”.
It was past 6:30 AM, with Lavanya still asleep, when Manya got a text from Khushi. She wanted to meet her, the cryptic text read, and could she stop by at the hospital cafeteria on her way to work.
Hesitating for a painful second, Khushi took a deep breath and finally opened the door. A blast of frozen air slammed against her warm face, temporarily numbing it.
She could hear Anita’s urgent footsteps, hurrying down the stairs in an obviously desperate attempt to catch her before she left.
“Di, I’m coming with you”, she said in between pants, running a hand over her unruly mane of hair, she’d had no time to fix.
Shutting the door again, Khushi turned to face her with her eyes tender yet determined at the same time.
“No, you’re not, Anu, and I have to go to work after meeting her”.
“Why do you have to have this, Di?, Anita cried, her heart wrenching at the uncharacteristic pallor of Khushi’s face, her young mind terrified by the torture, the suffering, she glimpsed in the depths of her hazel eyes.
“I don’t know”.
Even at that early hour, the cafeteria was a flurry of activity and cheer, a warm hub amidst the cold, precise, business like environs of the rest of the hospital, it’s blinds firmly shut against the bleakness of that snowy morning. Flocks after flocks of residents, belong to different specialties, dropped in after morning rounds to grab a quick breakfast before the craziness of the day completely took over them.
Laughter, conversation, beeping pagers, shuffling feet, smell of fresh coffee, omelettes and syrup, popping of toasters- and the deep baritone of the large, strapping, African American server, who announced the readiness of orders at regular intervals.
It didn’t take Manya long to locate her and as she threaded through the sea of humanity, coffee cup in hand, she couldn’t help wondering what had brought her there.
Khushi looked up as she approached her table, both noticing signs of a rough night on each other’s faces.
Pulling a chair and sitting opposite her, Manya met Khushi’s eyes across the table.
“What do you want..?
“Honesty in answering my question”, Khushi said. Her directness throwing her off balance for a moment, she blinked and said, “Go ahead”.
“Do you really believe if I were not in the picture, their marriage would’ve had a chance of survival? And are you aware of the circumstances that had led to this marriage in the first place?
Manya took a few moments to group before answering. “I’ll answer your second question first, yes I do, Arnav’s mom made sure that we did last night”, she said wryly, “Now, to come back to the first question, I can’t be absolutely sure, no body can be absolutely sure, and Lavanya doesn’t agree with me, but I seriously doubt it”.
They were silent for a while before Manya swallowed and leaned toward her a little, “I’m sorry..”,she began but Khushi interrupted her.
“I don’t want an apology from you”, she said brusquely.
With the vision of her father’s ashen face and her mother’s humiliation rising in front of her eyes, Khushi placed her coffee cup on the table and met her gaze, “Because I won’t accept it”.
Maybe it were Manya’s nerves, already stretched thin, maybe it was Lavanya’s resentment towards Khushi finally rubbing off on her, or maybe just the simple fact that nobody likes their magnanimous apology being summarily rejected, but Khushi’s words brought about a subtle shift in Manya’s attitude.
“Well, much as I am sorry for being rash and saying those things, especially in front of your parents, I feel that it’s time you did some introspection of your own too. Don’t you think it’s wise to stay away from married men, even almost divorced married men? I’m sure your parents will agree with me”.
“I don’t remember asking for your opinion so please save them”, Khushi said getting up, her dull eyes lighting spiritedly for a moment.
However, Manya’s words replayed in Khushi’s mind as she walked down a corridor towards the parking ramp.
“I can’t be absolutely sure, no body can be absolutely sure, and Lavanya doesn’t agree with me”.
The thought that she could be responsible, even partly, for the almost destruction of a life, for someone wanting to end her life, consumed her mind like fire consuming wood.
That thought ripped through her self belief like a blunt saber. They forced her to doubt her choices, her judgment, her own self.
Thoughts, discordant and chaotic, reveled in the temporary anarchy of a shocked mind, turning and twisting it in different directions at once.
She felt exhausted, fatigued and stressed. Numb with shock, all she wanted was to retire to a dark corner. All she wanted was time to regroup, to lick her wounds, to discipline her thoughts she seemed to have no control over at the moment.
A waft of cold air ruffled her hair as the automatic glass door leading to the parking ramp, swung open and a person walked in.