Anita’s voice made Arnav relax his hold and set her hand free. He slipped it in the pocket of his faded jeans.
“Hi Arnav”, she said with a smile but with a certain quality in her voice that let him know that she hadn’t forgiven him yet, “I remember you, alright. I never forget people who believe Lord Of The Ring is better than Harry Potter. In fact, I maintain a special black list for them”.
As their eyes clashed, Arnav tilted his head amusedly in understanding of the duality of their conversation. With a hint of a smile glinting in his eyes, he said somberly, “If there is anything I do to get off of your black-list, do let me know”.
“We’ll see”, replied Anita with a half smile again, her heart a little mollified despite her misgivings.
Isha, who stood next to Anita, and who’d had the opportunity of witnessing their monumental introductory handshake, looked at him with surreptitious interest.
Dressed in faded blue jeans and a black golf T-shirt that molded his expansive shoulders, he looked a fine male specimen as always and as unlikely as ever to escape female attention of within a few miles mile.
Isha, madly in love wish with her Vinay, however, had no interest in him other than as a prospective match for Khushi. The machinery of her mind, naturally blessed with Emma-esque matchmaking tendencies, was already in motion.
After Anita had introduced them to each other, they were joined by Madhu and Sumita too.
“Arnav”, Madhu appeared perplexed expression after she found out who Aakash’s friend was.
After they had greeted each other warmly and Madhu had enquired about Astha, she turned towards Aakash with a confused face, “Why didn’t you just say that Arnav was coming?
“Oh I wanted to give you a surprise”, Aakash said airily before changing the topic. He didn’t want her to ask, justifiably so, what made him give up Ophthalmology to dabble in writing instead?
Arnav was introduced to Sumita too and setting aside her resemblance with Sujata, he greeted her with an open mind.
Khushi’s eyes were downcast and pensive as she ate her lunch. Breaking off a piece of hot phulka with slender fingers, she paused, her hand suspended over the plate, her hazel irises flickering with conflict.
Oblivious to her surroundings, she didn’t notice a pair of concerned brown eyes, which kept converging on her bowed head as often as they were able to, which wasn’t much, or as much as they would have liked, because a barrage of questions flying in from all directions kept their owner occupied for most parts.
How does one reconcile a love that is stubborn, digs its heels in, and refuses to go away with a self preserving need to salvage your pride and self respect?, Khushi’s agonized heart asked her.
While anger, justified anger, fueled the latter, the former didn’t seem to need anything to thrive. Nothing at all. It had long become a part of who she was. It seemed to have secretly crept into the crevices and recesses of her heart and soul.
“It lives and breathes with me”, she realized with an inner sob even as her pride clamored for attention and berated her for her weakness. It reminded her of his cruel words. His destructive anger. His vengeful action.
“He freaking slept with that woman“, her pride spoke sarcastically, “Who are you trying to fool? Have some shame. Don’t be so unbelievably spineless. So what if he feels remorse now? That won’t erase the enormity of what he did while purportedly being in love with you?
Determinedly, she squashed a voice that refused to believe that he could ever do that to her. To himself. To them. That their love would fail to prevent him from doing that.
She steeled her back and raised her head. Meeting his eyes, her hazel orbs shot an arrow of fire and ice at him. It was a declaration of war. Once bitten, twice shy, they said to him.
Arnav choked, his food choosing that very moment to down the wrong way. As he teared, choked and coughed, he noticed the weather of her eyes swiftly change from anger to concern to panic.
Well meaning suggestions rained in from all directions. Amidst all this almost comical confusion, there was a sound of chair legs being scraped back as Khushi got up, poured water from a pitcher and walked around the table to reach his side.
His coughing fit had subsided by the time she handed him water. As his eyes met hers over the glass, his irises melted in an apology but Khushi averted her gaze.
As Khushi settled in her chair, she sensed several eyes on her and clearing her throat, she addressed her aunt about something they’d already talked about twice since morning.
“Maasi, did you get a chance to talk to the tailor about those alterations? I hope he’ll be able to return it before Mehndi”.
Arnav’s eyes couldn’t leave her alone. There was something bleak about her forcibly cheerful demeanor that smote at the very core of his heart. He saw someone trying hard to be the girl she once was, the girl she no longer was, the girl he had met in Srinagar a year ago. Once a form sketched with bold strokes, her outlines appeared to have blurred and her colors faded since their last normal meeting on her birthday.
Stewing in melancholic regret, he was glad when Manohar drew him into a conversation that mainly involved convincing him to stay at their house and overruling all his protests.
“I really can’t impose on your hospitality..”, he began to be cut off by Aakash.
“Of course, if you don’t want to share a room with me, we’ll understand. And you don’t have to worry about my bruised feelings”.
“It’s not that”, he said with a chuckle before giving up and graciously accepting their offer.
An expectant alertness emanating from Khushi helped considerably in his decision making and when he did, he sensed her body relax, filling his heart with tenderness.
He looked down into his plate confusedly to hide the sudden misting of his eyes.
Being the incorrigible pragmatic he was, it didn’t take long for that soft mist to fade and be replaced by the steel of determination. It was about time he moved on from reminisces and regrets, he thought with impatience. Time to fix what was broken. Time to decimate this unbearable gulf between them.
After lunch, when Khushi retired to her room, she was ridiculously conscious of every muffled sound that permeated down from the terrace room.
Lying on the bed with a thin Jodhpuri quilt covering her, she listened to the intermittent whir of the air conditioner and quashed a mad desire to rush upstairs, grab him by his collar and either shake him and punish those lips of his with a fierce kiss.
She ended up crying instead, her breaths shallow and shuddering, her tears making a damp patch on the bedsheet.
She stopped only when wind burst their window open, causing it’s curtains to bellow hysterically in panic.
A loud rumble of thunder drew her mind to more practical matters like clothes that were hung on the clothesline on the terrace. Rising from the bed, she shoved her feet in slippers, grabbed a tissue from it’s box on the dressing table, took a long time concealing all evidences of crying and finally headed out.
Ignoring sounds of fun and revelry coming from the drawing room, she reached a small fibre glass covered atrium at the back of the house where a tiled staircase leading up to the terrace was situated.
She reached in the nick of time because as soon as shepulled the last clothing off of the nylon clothesline, the wind gained momentum and first few raindrops, warm and fat, splattered on her upturned face.
With her arms filled with warm clothes she opened the creaky terrace door to go downstairs, hesitating for just a second to glance at the room and verandah on her left.
Seeing the door bolted from outside, she sighed with relief, refused to acknowledge a sliver of disappointment she felt and rushed downstairs.
As she turned, she almost ran into the arms of the person she’d been trying to avoid all afternoon. Standing about a step or two below her, their eyes were almost at the same level. They clashed for a brief moment before she wrenched hers away.
The sound of rain thundering on the terrace came to them with a waft of cool air. It mingled indistinguishably with their racing hearts.
She felt a piece of clothing drop from her suddenly weak arms and even as she bent to retrieve it somehow, she heard his voice say, “I’ll get it”.
As he somberly deposited a black tank top back into the pile in her arms, their eyes met and locked.
“Khushi”, his voice was pleading and his eyes piercing in their focus. Mesmerized, she stared into their depths fathoming a pain that tugged at her heart.
“Oh God, why is it so hard for me to resist this man?, her heart cried overcome by a fear that the battle that lay in front of her was much too formidable for any real hope of victory.
“Let me go”, she whispered, wrenching her eyes away from those caramel mazes again. She needed to stay strong, her mind told her and she tried using every resource at her disposal to achieve that. Recalling his words, image of that woman’s hand resting on his shoulder, sound of her voice…
When she attempted to move past however, he rested a hand on the wall, deliberately blocking her way and causing her traitor heart to react in ways she didn’t want it to.
“Khushi. We need to talk”, he pleaded, eliminating distance inch by inch with every word. His nearness was excruciating as ever. Even as her lungs filled with his evocative scent, she took in a shuddering breath. She finally turned her head, her face mired in the same turmoil her heart was in.
“What is left to talk about?, she hissed, her hands curling tightly into clothes, her eyes filling with angry tears.
Climbing up a step, he gathered her in his arms with an inaudible sound. Even as his arms tightened around her like a vice, he nuzzled soft misty words against her hair. His husky voice cracked as he repeated them again and again.
“I’m sorry, Khushi. I’m really, really sorry. And that’s why I’m here”.
Holding the clothes as a shield between them, she stood like a statue, tears raining unabated on her marble cheeks, her heart aching with it’s dilemma.
Releasing her, he took the clothes from her arms, and holding them with one arm, nudged her upstairs with an arm around her shoulders.
The rain had slowed and making a dash to the verandah in front of Arnav’s and Aakash’s room, they avoided getting drenched.
Depositing the clothes on a wicker chair, he pulled her into his arms again, her fingers curled into his shirt hardly knowing if they wanted to pull him in or push away.
“Look at me, Khushi”, he said, looking down at her bowed head, his eyes torn in their acute need for acceptance..
After a few moments punctuated by the rhythm of falling raindrops, she looked up at him. Her anger toward herself rose as anger toward him already began softening and melting into tears. She wished she were able to hold onto it like most other people. She wished, not for the first time, that her inner universe had more fire and less water.
His eyes flickered through her face and raising a hand, he wiped away a tear rolling down her cheek, letting his hand cup it in a soft caress.
“Khushi, I didn’t mean to hurt you”.
Her eyes, deep and still, studied his, flicking from one to the other. After a while, her fingers uncurled and pushed against his chest.
As he released her, she took a step back and fought for composure.Her face crumpled for a brief second before she sucked at a tear that reached her bottom lip. Taking in a rasping breath, she said, “But you did….
Arnav pulled her in his arms again. As he hugged her tight, he could feel every bone of her too thin body trembling.
“Khushi, I know this doesn’t justify anything but each time I hurt you, it hurts me even more”, he said, burying his face in her neck.
After a while, he raised his head and paused, finding it incredibly painful to recall and talk about what was perhaps one of the lowest moments of his existence. But it had to be done. The sooner, the better.
“Khushi, that night, we…Madison and I…”.
Perhaps it was the mention of that night, perhaps it because the voice that had haunted her for so long had a name now but something shifted inside her. She extricated herself from his arms and stepped back from him.
A slow fire simmered behind the pain in her eyes as she listened to him.
“I can’t even fully understand or put into words what came over me”, he said bleakly, “All I know is that I came into my senses before we could…”. He paused with his eyes imploring her to believe him.
“I’m not surprised”, said Khushi quietly and truthfully because perhaps deep down this was something she’d believed in all along.
Even as his features relaxed, she continued with a spasm of pain flitting across her features, “But what about the intention with which you invited her to your apartment? What about our future? How do I know that everything we have a fight you won’t veer toward this cynical, destructive path again? How can I believe, how can I know that this won’t happen again? If I do decide to get back with you, will I be able to live with this fear?
Arnav pulled her close with his arms possessively wrapped around her.
“What do you mean, “if I do decide to get back with you”?, he said, his voice gruff, his eyes glinting with unshed tears, “The choice is not yours to make. You are mine. You belong to me”.
She glanced up to meet his eyes. Tears spilled from her eyes. She said bitterly, “Yours to hurt and break?”.
He shook his head. With a glimmer of a smile, he said, “No..Mine to love and cherish”.
“Until our next fight…that is”, she retorted.
Arnav paused to think and was momentarily mesmerized by a tear precariously balanced on the upper rim of her lip. Wordlessly, he leaned in, touched her lips with his, picking her tear with the tip of his tongue. As he lingered to suck the saltiness off, her fingers bunched into his T-shirt, the back of her fingers acutely aware of his hard chest, the sprinkling of fine hair and the heart beneath.
He raised his head to look at her, his eyes warm and sincere, “No, hamesha”.
As her eyes softened and became still, he leaned in again for another kiss.
With her heart racing in response, she had to summon all her self-control to uncurl her fingers and push against him.
Things were moving way too fast. Again.
“Arnav, stop”, she protested as he pressed a kiss, several kisses, against the side of her neck.
As he raised his head to speak, the creaking sound of the terrace door being cautiously opened by someone alerted them. It gave them ample time to disengage, school their faces into suitable expressions, and step back from each other.
It was a very tired and sleepy Aakash. After needlessly sitting downstairs for a long time, he had reached the end of his tether, finding it difficult to keep his eyelids open any longer. He walked in with an inane remark about the weather, pretending he didn’t notice her cousin’s red eyes or nose or the air of intimacy that still surrounded her and his friend.
Khushi responded to his small talk in kind and Arnav watched her with tender eyes, touched by how successfully she was able to pull off a happy mask.
After a while, she picked up her clothes from the wicker chair and walked off, pulling the terrace door shut after her.
The clouds still hovered ominously but had stopped raining and Aakash gazed at his younger cousin’s retreating back with worried eyes.
“Big brother instincts kicking in?, Arnav’s light hearted voice broke his reverie.
Aakash turned towards him with a teasing smile, “Of course, what did you expect? Even though I’m helping you get my little sister back, her happiness is and will always remain my topmost priority”.
Arnav sighed and sank into a wicker chair.
“I owe you one, Aakash”, he said, wearily stretching his legs in front of him, “I can never thank you enough for trusting me with Khushi’s happiness”.
The self depreciation in his voice warmed his friend’s heart.
“Thirty plus years is a long time, bro. After knowing you , on and off, for that long, since literally our diaper days, I think I’ve come to understand a thing or two about you”, he replied with a wink, his casual words effectively veiling, in the typical fashion of men, emotions that ran beneath.
“Think of it as a return for all those times you saved me from trouble by owning up to my…misadventures”.
Arnav’s face broke into a lazy grin as his mind flew back to the halcyon days of their boyhood.
“I assume you are referring to that little stash of Playboys you were caught with”.
“Man, doesn’t it seem like yesterday”, Aakash nodded with an answering chuckle.
Soon they were immersed into happy reminisces of their shared childhood, their deep voices interspersed with chuckles and guffaws, both picking up neglected threads of their friendship with ease, effortlessly bridging gaps in time and distance that had come in between.
After a while, Arnav went to shower and a still jet lagged Aakash crashed into one of the two twin beds on each side of a nightstand for an afternoon snooze.
It was dark when Arnav woke up, his mind fogged with sleep. The realization he was in India and Khushi a few steps away drizzled gently on his soul. While that thought was like benediction itself, he was unable to stop thinking about the pain he’d seen in her eyes or being affected by it. The urge, the soul-deep need to erase that pain, to take it away from her, took his mind off of his own. He was in a brand new space; perhaps the space where true healing has been found since time immemorial.