She started halted in mid-stride, her heartbeats painful, her mind numb, her face shell-shocked.
A few swift footsteps on the carpeted floor later, he had her in his arms, his heart heavy with guilt, a sense of responsibilty.
They stood quietly by the wall, out of the way of the constant stream of people. Exhaling slowly, he looked down at her and each surveyed the harsh footprints of last night on each other’s faces, their concern for the other flowing and merging in silent streams. Yet they both felt a difference. There was a change in themselves, a shift their equation, that they were too weary to analyze in the haze of the smoke that surrounded them.
“Don’t worry, Khushi. I’ll…”, Arnav began before halting abruptly, bitterly aware how empty and false his words sounded in light of the recent events.
“What are you doing here?, he asked after a pause as full implications of her presence in the hospital sank in slowly.
“To meet Manya”, she replied even as they slowly stepped away from each other.
As he stared in surprise and confusion, she said in an unemotional voice that should have alerted him.
“I wanted to ask her something”, she said with a hint of a tremor in her voice.
“What?, he asked, curiosity taking precedence over onvious displeasure for a moment. He watched her confused face, as if she herself didn’t know what she wanted to ask, hear or know. Taking a step forward, he took hold of both his hands in hers.
His voice simmered with anger as he said, “I know she went to your house. I’m sorry…”.
She didn’t fully hear him with her mind preoccupied with his earlier question. And even focusing on that seemed to require a lot of her effort.
“I asked”, she said incoherently, “If she honestly thought there was a chance. Even a small chance. And she said…no one could be absolutely sure. No one at all. But Lavanya thought there was…”.
“Khushi”, Arnav’s voice was a tender caress as he said, “Don’t listen to anyone. Not even yourself. Just listen to me…and believe me when I say that I’m sure, absolutely sure, that there was no chance. None at all”.
Arnav studied the silent agony in her eyes with a surge of self loathing for being unable to protect her from the space she was at, for not being able to foresee it considering how well he knew Lavanya.
He watched as she unsuccessfully fumbled for words. He frowned trying to understand the melange of emotions in her heart’s cauldron.
Khushi closed her eyes and took a deep breath, waiting for the tears pricking the back of her eyelids to burn away.
“I need time, Arnav”, she whispered, “I need time to make sense of it all. Of me, of my thoughts. It’s not about you. It’s not even about Lavanya. It’s just about me”.
She opened her eyes and they melted into his. His eyes were warm with pain and the back of his fingers like feathers as they brushed her cheek. His somber eyes held the shimmer of a smile and something else….
There was a quiet melancholy about that morning neither could ever forget. The roads were covered with ice, their hearts with undefined ache, and a Frank Sinatra song echoed softly in that drafty corridor.
You must remember this.
A kiss is just a kiss,
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply.
As time goes by…
“Alright, I’ll wait”, he said and added with a ghost of a smile, “You take care, kiddo“.
Khushi smiled waveringly at the song and his Casablanca reference, her heart wrenching as she thought that under different circumstances her eyes would have lit up at this reference to her favorite movie. Under different circumstances she would have asked him a million questions about the movie, taken delight in discussing it with him. She wished they were just two people loving each other, leading simple uncomplicated lives…
With her vision blurry, Khushi stumbled out into the frigid morning. She felt hollow inside, rusty fingers of guilt slowly tearing her heart apart, love woven into her being feeling a little stolen.
Arnav’s mind refused to think about Lavanya. It refused to accept any moral culpability for her state. Although he had earlier regretted spouting those harsh words, with Lavanya firmly on the road to recovery, those initial regrets had vanished too.
He had a ruthless streak in his nature that he neither tried to deny or justify. One needed it, he’d learnt the hard way, when it came to dealing with people with blinders like Lavanya.
For one’s own sanity.
The stark differences in his and Khushi’s temperament made him sigh a little as he entered the still crowded cafeteria.
Spotting Manya, he strode over and pulled a chair across from her. Their table was in a remote corner and pale sunshine filtered in from the crevices between the half shut horizontal blinds.
“Are you here to fix your guilt trip like Khushi too? , spoke Manya maliciously, slabs of sunlight falling on her stylishly cropped, salt and pepper hair and an angular, intelligent face.
Arnav leaned back and met her gaze, his eyes hardening into steel. He slid a Manila folder across the faux wood table top to her. “I suggest you use your time, energy and non existent psychoanalysis skills in trying to make sense of your own sister”, he said icily.
With his deliberately cruel jibe hitting home, Manya’s eyes flinched before she looked down at the folder.
“Those are divorce papers”, Arnav added after a short pause, “The last time she was requested to sign them, Lavanya shredded them in response. Hope you’ll succeed in making her see better sense this time”.
“She is still in the ICU for God’s sake”, Manya lashed out, her eyes incredulous, “Can’t you wait until she’s out of the hospital at least?
“I don’t see any benefit, for any of us, in delaying the inevitable”, he replied, “This is not just about Lavanya anymore. You made sure it isn’t”.
With a sudden movement, Manya rose from the chair, causing the chair’s legs to scrape back on the tiled floor, “Why don’t you come up and give them yourself? I mean, you were going to see her, right? And believe it or not, but I want her to sign those damned papers too”.
The Psychiatry Consultant spent over an hour with Lavanya. Much to Lavanya’s mortification, she had turned out to be her former med school batch mate, a fact that acted as the proverbial double-edged sword. Ease of familiarity vying with having to forgo the bliss of anonymity.
In her consultation report, a detailed history and evaluation was followed by a standard recommendation for restarting antidepressants alongside scheduling outpatient Psychiatry and Psychotherapy follow ups.
Semi reclined on the adjustable hospital bed, Lavanya gazed down at an ivory card, she still held in her left hand. It was her new psychotherapist’s business card.
She struggled to get over the fact that with uncharacteristic unprofessionalism, Dr. Neville Mallick had refused to see her any further.
She felt rejected all over again. Memories of their sessions played non stop in her head.
Perhaps, she mused, agitatedly toying with the card, he was the only person in the world who was acquainted with her real self. Sans filters. Sans masks. Sans pretense. Just her in all her self absorbed ugliness.
Immersed in thoughts, she neither noticed the knock at the door nor the sound of approaching footsteps.
Neville came to a standstill at the foot of the bed and met the surprise in Lavanya’s upturned gaze.
His own expression was indecipherable, yet somehow different from the detached professionalism Lavanya was accustomed to.
“So, you did it”, he stated.
“I’m sorry”, she replied huskily, after a pause, her dark eyes tormented and apologetic.
“You don’t need to apologize”, he said with a self depreciating dimple, “I should. It’s obvious that I wasn’t doing my job properly”.
“No, Neville”, Lavanya interjected, clenching her eyes as a sudden dark realization wracked her mind, “It wasn’t you. It was me. I’m a twisted, flawed, irredeemable piece of soul that nobody and nothing can fix. I thought I was getting better. I really did. But then…I heard his voice again. But then…I met him again. And just like that…this inability to let go…this stubbornness…it started all over again”.
She crumpled into the frustrated, angry tears of a person who recognizes a necessity to change, who wants to change but predicts failure even before starting..
Sitting on the side of bed, Neville handed her tissues. In silence, he watched her wipe her face. His eyes were contemplative as he summoned all knowledge at his disposal, all secrets of the human mind, to make sense of his own thoughts.
After a few moments he gave up. Wounding an arm around her shoulders, he offered her his own.
Lavanya looked up at him in surprise. Both were aware of having stepped on an invisible line that had always defined their previous interactions.
“I wasn’t any good as your therapist”, he said with a wry smile, “Maybe I’ll be better as your friend. If you’ll allow me”.
There was something about this woman, he mused. A maddeningly complex woman. A woman who flirted with darkness and danced on the edges of sanity. A stubborn, selfish human. A simple, petulant child.
Something about her that made him want to save her.
There were far more people than allowed at a time in a patient’s rooms, but with half of them belonging to the medical fraternity, a few rules were unobtrusively bent in the background.
There was Dr. Neville Mallick in a chair next to the patient’s bed, Manya at the foot of the bed, and Arnav, leaning against a wall with his arms crossed and his face frozen in an impassive mask.
With the initial introductions over, an uneasy silence had fallen across the room and it’s occupants.
Neville was still cringing from the look he’d decoded in Arnav’s cold eyes while politely shaking hands with him. The kind of look doctors get before being slammed with a lawsuit.
After a moment, he rose up from his chair and cleared his throat. The tension in the air was too much for him to take.
“Alright then”, he said, glancing at Lavanya,
“Hope you feel better soon. I will call you sometime today”.
Without a word, Manya rose too and left with Neville to allow them privacy.
Left alone with Lavanya, Arnav tensed up immediately, swamped by negative memories and the sensations they evoked. He imagined he could feel the magnetic vibes of a dark abyss trying to suck him in.
Taking seat next to her bed, he leaned back and impatiently jiggled his leg. When he felt he couldn’t avoid any longer, he met her gaze, his eyes blank and cold, his mind grasping for suitable words.
“How are you feeling now?, he asked.
“Better”, Lavanya replied in a mild voice which surprised and raised his guards at the same time.
The space between them filled with a silence that stretched in sync with his nerves.
Pursing his lips resolutely, he finally decided to cut to the chase.
“Lavanya, for everyone’s sake, I hope you’ll be more reasonable this time and not delay signing this any longer”, he said, placing the folder on the bedside table.
Even as he surveyed her face for reaction, she took in a deep shuddering breath.
“I will sign them”, she nodded, “As soon as I’m able to”.
Misconstruing her words and reading yet another delay tactic in them, Arnav shook his head in disbelief.
“Fine”, he rose from his chair without another word, an inner disgusted voice telling him he should’ve known better, “I hope you get well soon”.
Without another word, he turned to go, his eyes simmering with anger, when Lavanya spoke again.
“Arnav, wait. I can’t sign them right now because of my wrist. I…I injured some tendons and can’t grip a pen yet. I should get the movements back in a day or two”.
Her words were followed by silence and a gradual relaxation in his stance.
“Sure”, he said in a softer voice, flicking an assessing glance at her, “Feel better soon”.
Two Days Later.
The Gupta household was still in a state of collective shock. On the surface, things appeared near normal. Her mother would talk about the mundane and the ordinary with her but avoid acknowledging the elephant in the room.
Although hurt, Khushi wasn’t entirely surprised by her mother’s preferred coping response. It was something she’d come to expect from a long experience. Drawing from the same experience, she also expected her to come around in a few days and eventually communicate with her.
What she most definitely hadn’t expected, what surprised and hurt her the most, was her dad’s uncharacteristic silence. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon and returning from work, she’d noted his car’s absence in the garage with a sting of disappointment.
Later, as she sat down at the dining table with a plate of warmed food in front of her, her eyes followed the movements of her mom as she cooked dinner.
“Where’s Dad?, Khushi asked.
“He had a doctor’s appointment”, her mother replied.
“Is he alright? What happened?, she cried, feeling inexplicably, uncharacteristic jumpiness.
“Just a regular Physical, he said”, Sujata murmured.
Out of nowhere, Khushi’s eyes pricked with tears and pushing her chair back, she rose and walked up to her mom.
“Mom, I’m sorry”, she began,”Because of me you and Dad had to face such humiliation”.
As Sujata remained silent, her back still facing her, and headed towards the fridge, something, held together until now by tenuous threads, snapped in Khushi.
Walking up to her, she said slowly in a shaking voice, “Since you already believe what Manya said about me, what Lavanya believes about me, is not untrue, I’m not really surprised you have nothing left to say to me”.
Khushi left the kitchen, the house, without another word, not paying attention to, only half hearing, her mother’s voice calling her from behind.
She reversed the car with uncharacteristic abandon, tires skidding on the icy concrete of the driveway, her mind having no idea where she wanted to go. She ended up at his apartment’s parking lot.
Using her key, she opened the door and stepped into the foyer. She could smell his scent lingering in the apartment. His cologne, dark roast coffee and something that was quintessentially him.
A sense of relief suddenly washed over her. Her legs felt paralyzed. Leaning against the door for support, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
It felt like home.
She soon realized she wasn’t alone in the apartment. She could hear voices filtering from the dim lit living room.
In a trance, she stepped forward and froze into immobility. She could clearly hear them.Their words. Their emotions. Their regrets. Their sorrow.
“Yes, Lavanya, there were times when I loved you, when I tried hard to hold onto that love. But you wouldn’t let me…you never made it easy for me”.
“Arnav, can we try one more time? Just one more time? Please”.
“No, Lavanya. It’s too late. One can’t turn the clock back. Time moves on and with it, people change, everything changes…
Khushi felt like a ghost, silent and invisible, an imposter and a thief. Without a sound, she drifted out of the apartment and the door clicked shut after her.