It was summer again, almost two years since the starry rooftop evening he’d proposed to Khushi and one year since that ill fated birthday party at Bab’s when a poorly understood impulse had made him draw Anita in and shut a perpetually busy mouth with a kiss. And he’d always maintained since the two incidences that while the first made him an honorary member of the fool’s paradise club, the second made him a jackass – nothing like colloquialism to describe who you really are – of the highest order. What kind of man does that to the younger sister of a woman you were supposed to be pining away for at the time? And what kind of man does that to a young girl – a very young girl – too naive and artless to hide an infatuation for her older sister’s….well…her older sister’s nothing actually, leading her on and then sending her crashing in a ruthless succession? The guilt of having hurt her had relentlessly gnawed at him when he returned from Vivek’s wedding and he’d ultimately – and proudly – decided to do the right thing – the honorable thing – by her; a resolution further strengthened after Anita and Navin Uncle office visit three months back. When the time was right, he, Aman Aggarwal, would fix her heart. He was determined to unbreak her heart.
The summer brought hope along with the realization that certain hazel eyes seemed to have faded away further in his mind. His mind no longer dwelled on them and their owner with the same intense longing, the same painful sense of loss it once did. In fact, there were long intervals – comfortable long intervals – when his mind didn’t dwell on them at all. The initial surprise that he felt at this realization had soon wafted away to a far flung recess of his heart. A bitter sweet realm of memories, now benign and livable, a space he knew he would continue to revisit in the years to come – who knows – maybe even with a fond smile someday.
The sky was a glimmering blue, the air was warm, and after a long time, Aman Aggarwal’s heart felt light and free. He’d recently moved into an apartment too and much as he loved his parents, it was a relief to be on his own for a change, free to come and go as he pleased, not having to think of ways to dodge his mother’s relentless machinations to get him hitched. He was done with being a willing participant in arranged – semi arranged, quasi arranged – marriages.
At thirty, he felt in control of his life for the first time – which was kind of ridiculous by contemporary standards – he thought. It was liberating and sobering at the same time. It also made him revisit and rethink his decision regarding Anita for a while. Would it be wise considering what he felt for her wasn’t close to what he’d once felt for Khushi – the entire spectrum of emotions and sensations he’d classified as love at the time.
Although the fact he was able to get over her within a couple of years was making him reflect – with the added benefit of hindsight – if it had really been love after all. Wasn’t love supposed to be ever lasting – or at least longer lasting than just two freaking years? Wasn’t unrequited love supposed to be a chronic condition with alternating remissions and relapses and no definite cure? Like Lupus or Rheumatoid Arthritis? Or was that just a popular culture myth? What even is love?
After a lot of inner debate one moonlit evening, he had steeled his back and decided to call Anita. He was unable to leave a message though – his mind blanking out like a deplugged television screen – when the call went to voice mail. She never called back and his reaction was ambivalent to say the least. There was hurt, there was disappointment and there was something akin to…relief that he couldn’t quite deconstruct.
He went on a few dates after that to clear his mind – dates beginning with right finger swipes and otherwise – and most of the time they ended on a not unpleasant but strangely unsatisfactory note. The couple times they progressed to physical gratification – at times with a speed that surprised the inner traditionalist in him- it left him cold. No matter how mind blowing the transient pleasure by itself was, it all felt too mechanical, too forced and too empty in the aftermath. Maybe he was getting old or maybe he was already an old…old man trapped inside a supposedly modern thirty year old’s body.
On one of these outings, when he was feigning an interest in his date’s favorite sitcom and squeezing his brain to come up with a witty remark, a brilliant observation, a funny comeback or – damn it all – even another topic that could possibly be of interest to her, he started missing Anita badly. Their easy camaraderie, their companionable silences, their inside jokes, their shared values. Her cheer, her spunk, her lack of complexity. Her adulation.
That night in his apartment, after a particularly frustrating date, Aman almost called her again. He decided not to at the last moment, turning his phone off and slipping it under his pillow. It was less than two months since he’d last called her and he had no intention – none at all – of forcing her hand in any way. It was up to her if she still wanted to renew their friendship or not. The proverbial ball was firmly in her court now so to speak. He spent long hours thinking about her that night. Lulled by a combination of sleep and wine, he even allowed his mind to break an unwritten gentleman’s code by comparing and contrasting the two sisters.
Anita. She wasn’t as beautiful as Khushi, there was no doubt about it, but he found her attractive alright. She had a…different appeal to her. She didn’t make his blood quicken the ridiculous way Khushi used to, he sighed, but that might very well be because he’d never actually put his mind – that often maligned part of every man’s mind – to it until now. And you can’t make important decisions about your future and who you would want to feature largely in it based on an arbitrary measure of sex appeal, on how much a person quickens your blood. Rubbish.
If such were the case, his mind took an unexpected detour, he’d already be in hot pursuit of that new medical assistant – what was her name – Mira.
On that note, Aman clutched his hair and groaned. He was officially mad now. He was beginning to understand why a lot of his friends – all on the wrong side of thirty- had ultimately capitulated and let their mother hunt and choose for them.
It was 3:30 in the night and Anita’s fingers flew non stop over the keyboard, her wrists cramping as she worked on a paper for ENG-4649, completely engrossed in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and how it’s wit and satire were used to express the author’s feminist, egalitarian and anti-elitist views.
“Pygmalion falls in love with the statue he created and when Aphrodite brings the statue alive, he forgets that the statue is now human. She has a mind of her own”
She jumped when her cell phone pinged, signaling the arrival of a text. Without even glancing at it, she knew who it was. A person, who, in all probability, was similarly occupied this late in the night.
She read the text and smiled. There was something oddly comforting about virtual friendships – especially of the 3 AM kind like theirs. For one, the cloak of anonymity – which in their case wasn’t truly so because even though they weren’t friends in real life, they did meet each other once – is liberating. Liberating in the sense that the wearers are able to reveal innermost thoughts – silly thoughts, embarrassing thoughts, unthinkable thoughts – without having to face your friend at work, at school, or across the dining table the next day. Then, the ability to communicate through typed instead of voiced words is kind of convenient too. Words are words, one might argue, forgetting that typed words can be edited before they’re sent out while voiced words – the proverbial arrows – can’t. Once your lips form the words, a permanent speech bubble is sketched in a record book somewhere. You can’t edit, you can’t erase, you can’t take it back. You’re doomed for life. So this typed communication is particularly convenient for a person like her, Anita thought wryly, whose filters have been a work in progress for the longest time now.
She read the text again. It usually started like this – one of them sending out an absurd out of the blue remark amidst the burning of the midnight oil – the pulling of an all-nighter – the desperate juicing of little gray cells. It was strange how they always talked like bosom pals…diaper buddies…like they’d known each other for ages. Anita never thought much of it except that their funny little inconsequential chats took her mind off of the daily grind and lifted her mood. They made her smile, they made her chuckle; they were like an electronic ice cream break – and that too for free. And most likely, they were the same for him too.
“Do you mind if I swear?
“I just saw a picture of my dad posing with hewhomustnotbenamed” His smile makes me sick and murderous”.
“Damn. Is your dad in politics?!
“No, he’s not. Not yet.This was at a fundraiser event but that is besides the point, my fingers are itching to type some French”.
“How gallant of you to ask permission, dear sir, and although the reason itself is justifiable enough, I insist you keep your profanities gender neutral”.
“Holy Crap. Gender Fucking Neutral. That is going to be hard. Like learning a whole different language 😉 Although I agree with you on principle”.
“You’ll be fine. You’ve made a stellar start already. And thank you…I’m glad you show every sign of not being a sexist asshole. And there you go. Asshole is as gender neutral as they come”.
“As long as they don’t take away my F word from me, I’ll be fine”.
“OMG, look at the time. I have to wake up in three hours”.
“And the worst part is you’re not even asleep”.
“Exactly. I’m still working on a paper. How about you?
“So you decided to text a random girl you’ve practically never met at 3 AM in the morning to ask if it’s okay to swear. Cool”
“You’re not a random girl I’ve practically never met. You’re the girl I helped join the Mile High Club!
“I got confused, okay?
“It’s really not that funny”
“Do you have a girl friend?
“Nope. Straight as a gun barrel. I did have a girlfriend…until two days ago”.
“Oh. I’m sorry”.
“Don’t be. I’m fine now”.
“Was it painful? The breakup?
“Doubt if breakups can ever be painless. Not if you’re serious, anyway”.
“It’s a long story and you have to wake up in three hours”.
“It’ll be okay, J, keep your chin up”.
Anita was about to hang up when on an impulse, she typed, “He called me. Last month”.
“Who? Your ex?
Anita stared at the screen and sighed, “He’s not my ex”.
“So you guys are back together? Great”.
“Wait…you’re going too fast. I can’t call him my ex coz we were never really together together, if you know what I mean…”.
“Hmm. You need to tell me your story too”.
“Yeah. I will. One day. But right now I have to really get back to my paper”.
“Coz you have to wake up in less than three hours and you’re not even asleep”.
“Goodnight…but you never finished what you were going to say. He called and…?
“Nothing. I never took his call. I wonder if I should have…?
“Well, the fact you’re still thinking about it kind of answers your question, right?
A week later, on Anita’s 21st birthday, her parents took her to a nearby Chinese restaurant to celebrate.The sun was still up at eight and in between spoonfuls of chicken egg drop soup and conversation, she checked and replied to birthday messages from friends and family.
Her eyes lit up when Di called again – the third time since morning.Their separation was still relatively fresh and on special occasions, it pinched them even more than usual.
“I miss you, Di”, she wailed exaggeratedly as her parents looked on with amused smiles, “Why did Arnav Bhai have to take you to Florida? Away from all of us?
She hadn’t realized her sister’s phone was on speaker.
“Because he is wicked”, his deep humorous voice reached Anita’s ear and she imagined him grinning slyly, bringing his head close to her sister’s as he spoke to her, “Because he wanted your sister all to himself…Away from everyone”.
With her eyes gleaming naughtily, Anita said, “Arnav Bhai, why do I feel that you’re very cleverly passing off a true statement as a joke?
“Did I say I was joking?, he replied seriously, before chuckling at Anita’s feigned outrage.
Even as she heard Khushi whispering in the background, he sobered, wishing her happy birthday in an affectionate voice and urging her like always to visit them as soon as possible. After she’d talked to Khushi to her heart’s content, she hung up with a light heart, her mind entirely focussed on the mouth watering entree being placed in front of her.
Later in the night as she prepared herself for a long night of studying, hair in a braid, coffee mug on desk, Aman’s name lit up her screen again.
Anita took a deep breath, several deep breaths, pulled a chair to sit at the desk and picked up her mug with one hand. It was an exercise meant to relax and instill confidence; it was too bad that her phone silenced at the end of it. Just a second after her hand poised over the glass top, ready to pick her angrily buzzing phone.
Her divided heart raced as she stared at it, willing it to erupt into sound…and relieved by it’s silence at the same time.
And when it sprung into life again, two minutes later, she picked it at once. Even as she silently rebuked herself for this spineless display of eagerness, Aman’s voice, sounding uncharacteristically strained, spoke in her ear.
“Happy Birthday. I’m glad I made it in time”.
“Yeah. It’s only 11:30. Thank you”, she said, sounding incredibly foolish to her own ears.
Even as she heard Aman clear his throat, she chewed a cheek, softly tapping a pen against the table’s edge. As time stretched along with silence, she took a deep breath and opened her mouth. Aman spoke before her.
“Are you doing anything tomorrow?
“I want to take you out to dinner”.
“Why?, she heard herself ask mechanically before she could stop herself.
Happy New Year!! Here’s wishing you and yours love, happiness and prosperity in this new year ❤
With this chapter, Part 2 of this story starts, which will again have 8 chapters. When this part ends, we’ll teach the prologue 🙂
Hope you enjoyed this, will look forward to your feedback as always. Thanks for coming with me this far 😊
PS: Those of you who’re reading both ALS and SS, and possibly wondering about a particular name’s presence (Foster) in both stories, just ignore it as a silly quirk of mine 😛 (I have this name in all my stories – even my first story – The Impenetrable Heart) and the two stories, the two characters, are absolutely unrelated 😊