“Thus with my lips have I denounced you, while my heart, bleeding within me, called you tender names.
It was love lashed by its own self that spoke. It was pride half slain that fluttered in the dust. It was my hunger for your love that raged from the housetop, while my own love, kneeling in silence, prayed your forgiveness.”
~ Kahlil Gibran, The Forerunner: His Parables and Poems
Cole Eye Institute.
The air in the Operating Room was hushed as a diamond keratome delicately held in a surgeons’s gloved hand hesitated yet again over the cornea of a patient’s eye. To Phil, the anesthetist, and rest of the OR staff, it was clear that something was amiss.
Settling on the operating chair and focusing through the microscope on the outer edge of his patient’s blue iris, Arnav took in a discreet deep breath. The fine tremor in his fingers was imperceptible to all around him, yet to him, it seemed to like a flailing red flag.
Tiny beads of sweat precipitated on his forehead even as he closed his eyes and mentally shook himself. He could hear the soft notes of Chopin’s Raindrops ebbing and flowing in the background. The scrub tech, well versed with Dr. Raizada’s OR music preference, had played it in advance, but today, instead of soothing and helping him focus, it only served to grate on his overwrought nerves.
He took a deep breath again and swallowed a profanity. With a clank, he dropped the keratome on the instrument tray and raised his masked face off of the operating microscope.
Later, his mind was a microsm of words, ideas and memories as he drove aimlessly on summer roads. He tried his best to not dwell on the prospect of being away from work for an indefinite time. It was an unsettling thought although he was glad to be out of the ambivalence that had preceded this decision.
It had never been just work for him. It was his passion and at times his one and only coping mechanism- his lifeline even. Dr. Shiener hadn’t been surprised when he met him earlier in the day to tell him about his intention to resign. He must have seen it coming just like he did, he thought, replaying the day in his mind.
Dr. Shiener, Chair, Dept Of Ophthalmolgy, a tall, fit, sixty-five year old with a ruddy, good-humored face had not only been not surprised, he was extremely understanding as well. The hospital grapevine had supplied him with more than a fair share of Arnav’s personal life and unknown to him, he admired his stoicism, his seemingly inexhaustible supply of strength. But like they say, he thought, the mighty fall the hardest.
“A sabbatical will do you good”, he’d concurred after a long conversation that had ended with him accepting Arnav’s resignation with a touch of sadness. He instinctively understood that his tremors were a small part of a bigger weight he’d been walking around for too long with a facade of normalcy.
“Don’t read too much into it”, he’d tried his best to reassure him,”I’m sure it’s just a temporary, stress related phase. You’re not the first surgeon to experience it either. Take a break, recharge your batteries and come back again. You’ll do just fine”.
Perhaps it was his subconscious that made him drive to her neighborhood without realizing, and pull into the parking lot of that park again.
Just two months ago, he’d walked out of this same park with his heart trapped in a vortex, his back aching to be touched by her voice, his feet praying to be stopped.
And today, he was here all alone, burning in the ashes of his own destruction. And he didn’t even fully understand why.
He got out and strolled down a paved pathway, his face pensive, his hands thrust in trouser pockets. It was exceptionally hot and humid and the park nearly empty. He headed towards the edge of the lake. Toward the latticed gazebo.
The breeze became cooler as he approached the lake, it’s touch calming to his restless body and mind. His strained mind began indulging in uncharacteristic whimsical thoughts.
He turned the clock back in his mind. It was that day again. A red kite fluttered in the sky. Geese honked on the verdant slopes. He imagined her waiting for him in that gazebo again. There were so many things he’ll do differently this time, he thought, his steps subconsciously becoming fast and purposeful, so many emotions he’ll express differently, so many emotions, thoughts, his and hers, that he’ll attempt to understand better.
Anything to protect her from his unleashed demons- from his blazing trajectory of self-destruction.
It was a simple thing. Arnav had wanted her to stop him. Arnav had wanted her to stop him from leaving so badly that her silence tore at him with steel claws. It flung him headlong into a sea of pessimism and hopelessness. It almost affirmed what he’d tossed at her in anger- ” I think, just like your parents, you are no longer sure about us, our relationship. You’re having doubts and that is the real reason why you’re resisting commitment”.
Then, there were her words. Khushi’s words that stalked him after he turned his back and left her standing in the gazebo. Arnav had always prided himself on the imperviousness of his defenses. He rarely allowed anyone’s words, not even his own mother’s, to penetrate his defenses; just as he seldom accorded them the power to hurt him, and even less so, hurt sufficiently for him to acknowledge it.
Khushi’s words and, even more so, her silences had done just that. Initially, her words, their memories, were lancets that left his heart with the bitterness of his own bleeding response in their wake.
“So let me get this straight. According to you, I had loved Lavanya once but not only kept this fact deliberately concealed from you but also lied about it in Tampa. You didn’t mention the reason but let me connect the dots and guess. To lull you into a false sense of right ? To convince you into having an extramarital affair with me?”.
Then, anger and pessimism acted as a potent cocktail; it ended up convincing him that he was a fool to believe in love. It began to cement the idea that it was his messy past life, it’s shadows and Khushi developing cold feet about him and their relationship that made her distance herself from him.
“And judging by the baggage I brought into our relationship, by the ugliness I dragged her through, why am I even surprised?”, he had concluded the next evening spent in the company of his favorite bottle of Scotch, “It was too good to be true. She was too good to be true”
“All that spiritual connection crap that I’d imagined”, he’d muttered angrily before pausing to take a sip. His Adam’s Apple bobbed as he struggled to tear away memories of Srinagar and her from his burning heart. Like a caress, a prayer, an unwanted panacea, they stubbornly lingered, enraging him and his pride.
Realizing he was drinking way too much again, he had angrily striden across the living-room to reach the kitchen; he had then splashed the remains of his drink into the stainless steel sink. Memories continued to hound wherever he went.
She was in the kitchen again.
“Arnav, drinking won’t help”, she said quietly but firmly, “It never does”.
“I don’t remember asking for your fucking advise”, he bit out in his buzzed state, telling himself that her words, their memories, do not, should not matter to him anymore.
The first few days following the breakup were torturous with memories of their last meeting creeping up on Arnav at unexpected times and places.
Repetitively replaying it in his restless mind, he became increasingly convinced he was right in suggesting a breakup.
“She didn’t even once try to stop me”, he kept returning to this thought, sometimes while driving, sometimes in a classroom, sometimes while looking out at the glittering skyline, shedding a few tears into a narrow-necked bottle of beer, “It was almost as if she’d wanted a breakup too”.
“You loved me alright, Khushi”, he concluded one melancholic afternoon driving back home from the hospital, “But not enough. Not enough for it to survive the fucking ugliness that is my life. And what reason did you have anyway? I should have thought of that…before dreaming…like a fool”.
The ringing of his phone had interrupted him and he had glanced at it with an eagerness that was out of line with all his previous musings. That had set his heart aflame with self-directed anger. The disappointment he felt upon seeing his colleague’s name on the phone screen did nothing to alleviate it.
It was later that night, two days after their breakup that Khushi’s call came. He was sitting in bed with his lap top, struggling to get a power point presentation ready for the next morning. Even as his heart leaped, his pride let the phone ring twice before he picked it up from the bedside table.
“Arnav”, her voice had sounded strained, haunted, confused, “I’m sorry”.
It had sounded so unlike herself that his heart wrenched despite itself. At some level, it convinced him she was better off without him, his complexities, his baggage, his expectations and that he was better off without the false hope of love…that he was not destined for it.
“I love you, Arnav”, she had then added, apropos of nothing, her voice breaking.
A fog of cynicism, misery and faithlessness had covered his heart by that time, effectively suffocating all positive thoughts. He recalled bitterly the numerous times Lavanya had professed her love for him. As if love were a magic word whose simple declaration could rid him of the misery, she herself was responsible for.
Like all failed relationships, his relationship with Lavanya had left it’s marks too. Only, he neither saw nor felt them. Through invisible strings, they pulled his heart in inexplicable, unforeseen, ways.
“Lavanya loved me too”, he replied without thinking. He was met with a stunned silence. It was a low blow and a part of his brain had realized that as soon the words escaped from his mouth.
“What is that supposed to mean?
Suddenly exhausted, he had replied, “Maybe that you’re better off without me and that I’m better off without love”.
Without waiting for her reply, he had hung up, lying awake till the break of dawn that night. His heart torn and bleeding between remorse and increasing certainty she was better off without him. That she deserved better than him.
He blocked her on his phone, drank himself to sleep every night and perversely hoped for her to show up at his door one day. He ignored her emails, cursed love in one breath and in the next, dreamed of her pushing past all walls and doors to claim him as he was, to assure him…to convince him…of her love. He was a miserable mass of contradictions and too soul-tired to think or know any better.
May, 6th, 2014.
Bab’s Underground Lounge.
He shouldn’t have come.
That was the first thought running in his mind as he settled back in his chair nursing a drink. He looked across the table at Phil and Tess. Phil was perhaps the only person in he knew in Cleveland who came even remotely close to the category of friends.
An anesthetist at Cleveland Clinic, he was extrovert, funny, witty and someone Arnav got along well with both within and outside the hospital setting, often hanging out with him after work to get drinks. Over the course of the last eighteen months, Arnav had, by and large, shunned all forms of social life, ignoring many heartfelt attempts by Phil and his wife Tess to draw him out of his shell.
While they waited for a fourth person to join their little party, Arnav listened to their good humored flirtatious banter with a little smile, forcing himself to take part in the conversation when it veered towards NFL and it’s latest scandal painting the headlines.
He realized with a sharp stab to his heart how they avoided talking about their son, Mike. Mike had been Aarav’s friend.
It wasn’t long before Madison, Tess’s recently divorced friend and the person they’d been waiting for showed up, or before Arnav realized that they might have been discreetly set up.
Within an hour, it became clear that set up or no set up, Madison was interested in him. She insisted that they’d met once before, many years ago in Michigan, and had even exchanged numbers. And for the life of him, he couldn’t decide if she was telling the truth or utilizing a particularly ingenious pick-up line.
The flirtatious glances, the subtle innuendoes, the feigned unawareness of her dress riding up her thighs, the accidental touches – they all came fast and furious, leaving Arnav unmoved, faintly contemptuous and thinking of ways to leave without appearing rude.
Declining to go to the basement dance floor with the rest of them, he weaved his way through the Saturday crowd towards the bar, his heart like burning coals, his thirst unquenchable.
It was while waiting for his drink, vodka martini with a single olive, that a faint voice, a voice he would have recognized anywhere in the world, reached him. He froze. With his heart quickening, he glance sideways towards the area where sofas grouped around giant screens formed intimate seating arrangements.
There she was, standing with a group, grinning up at a tall, good looking man at her elbow.
There she was, as stunning as ever, partying with friends, appearing totally unaffected by their breakup.
The blood running through him was suddenly all glass shards, bitter poison, ashes and tears. He turned away and took a large sip of his drink, grimacing as it burnt down his throat. His eyes were stormy as he picked his drink again and downed it entirely in one swig.
Even as he signaled the bartender for a repeat, he shot a cursory glance at the person who’d come to stand beside him at the counter.
It was the man Khushi was talking to, he noted grimly before his identity was revealed by his friend who joined them at the counter too.
“Hey Aman, good to see you, bro. And good to see you with Khushi again”, it was clear that his friend was buzzed, “Keep it up, man, don’t let her escape your clutches this time. Show her who’s the man..sorry a-man”, he’d finished with a loud guffaw.
Even as Arnav drew his own bleak conclusions, his chest constricted, his head throbbed, and a certain masochism prevented him from walking away.
It was a few minutes later when their eyes met. Averting his eyes almost at once, he sensed him walking across the pool hall toward her, his heart a vortex of anger, jealousy and misery.
She came to a standstill next to him and rested a small hand on the granite counter. Even though he felt her gaze, body heat and scent, he kept his eyes focused on his drink. His jaw was taut and ambient lighting slanting on his open collared white shirt made it contrast sharply with his skin.
“Did you read my email?, she cleared her throat and asked after a while, her voice all but drowned the soft jazz-music they were surrounded with.
“No, I didn’t”, he replied tersely without looking at her, “And I’m not going to so stop wasting your time”.
“Arnav, please look at me”, she persisted, refusing to leave his side, “I need to know why. I need to know”.
When he finally pushed his drink away and turned to look at her, the anger simmering in her eyes made her flinch.
“I’ve already told you “, he said, a vein pulsating violently on his high forehead, “Because I’ll be better off without love and you’ll be better off without me. Now go rejoin your friends…don’t let me…”
They were interrupted by Madison, who came behind Arnav and addressed him with a slightly proprietatorial hand on his shoulder, “Shall we go, Arnav? Phil and Tess are waiting for us”.
As he walked away with Madison, he glanced back once. Khushi stood completely still, her eyes wide with disbelief, stirring into life only when Aman joined her. He could discern hurt in her eyes too and his burning heart was glad..
Some drinks and darkest lanes of mind later, Arnav was convinced he’d done the right thing. By closing time, he’d descended deep into a quagmire of destruction; he wanted to burn himself, the bridges behind, and powerless to stop.
It was almost five by the time they reached his apartment. A deeply conflicted man wanting to use sex as a perverse tool of self-destruction. A woman wanting to shed baggage from a failed relationship in a mindless night of lust.
It was a mistake. Arnav realized that as soon as the apartment door clicked shut and he found Madison’s curves pressed close against his body. The muted light of the chandelier slanted on her upturned face and her parted lips.
Arnav stared at her attractive features with bleak eyes. He even felt a small twinge of desire that he was honest enough to acknowledge even in his buzzed state.. Yet, he hesitated, grappling with a dizzying sensation of standing at the edge of a precipice. Nausea rose from his stomach in a robust wave.
“What was stopping him?, he wondered confusedly, “They’d both agreed on a breakup. He was officially single…
Words he’d once uttered to Khushi slowly came back to him…
“My heart is free. It’s doesn’t feel married because the day I decided to move out, culminating our longstanding emotional separation with a physical one, was the day our marriage ended. As far as I’m concerned at least. I believe marriage is much more than a set of signatures on paper or empty recital of vows. I don’t believe these alone can either make or break a relationship”.
Then he realized. It was so simple, it made him stop breathing for a second. His heart wasn’t free…it belonged to Khushi…and he knew that. He had never stopped knowing that.
If he was being honest, fidelitous to his heart and beliefs at that time in Srinagar, he was being honest, fidelitous to his heart and beliefs now. To him, it was ironical that society considered him married at that time and free now. What was considered wrong had felt right to his heart at that time, and what was considered right felt wrong to his heart now…
Madison’s voice interrupted his thoughts. She stared at the various emotions fleeting across his face with fearful eyes.
“Arnav? Are you okay?
Arnav stepped back and assured he wasn’t a psychopath. He felt sick to his stomach..
He’d emerged out of the bathroom to find she was still in the living room, still waiting for a cab. Wanting to be rid of her as soon as possible, he reluctantly offered to drive her home. After accepting his offer with alacrity, she’d casually mentioned that a girl had called while he was in the bathroom.
“Did she leave a message?, he’d asked with premonitory trepidation.
“No, she hung up after hearing my voice”, Madison had answered with her eyes filled with a hint of accusation.
“She sounded surprised”.
He reached the gazebo. As he climbed up the two steps to enter it, faint sounds of a wind chime floated in it’s silence and sunlight filtering through it’s lattices highlighted it’s emptiness. He sank down on the wooden bench, almost crushed by the loneliness closing in on him.