The door to their office manager’s pigeon coop of a office was slightly ajar. Aman could see Yvette was busy talking on the phone with a large number of held calls flashing away in impatience. He hesitated for a moment before inhaling resolutely and knocking on the door. He’d been putting this off for the longest time, although the concern in question had never completely left the back of his mind. Yvette looked up and gestured him inside with a head movement. Aman walked in and took seat opposite her, looking about the room as she continued to talk. Yvette had been with his father for as long as he could remember and there wasn’t much in terms of decor that had changed over the years. Except for the family pictures scattered around the room – a cluster of photo frames on the desk and the file cabinet, a collage on the wall – that kept on increasing in number, much as the gray in her hair did.
“Yes, Aman”, she smiled, hanging up. She was used to him or his father dropping by unannounced to bring up issues pertaining to their practice and sometimes, simply to chat.
“There is…something that has been bothering me for the past few months. It’s about one of our new medical assistants”, he said without preamble, “It’s not related to her work though”.
They exchanged a look – a long look- that contained within, the non verbal communication of close acquaintances. She zeroed in on what he was trying – had been trying for many months now – to address, and verbalized it. It was a delicate situation and it was clear that neither really wanted to talk about it.
“Yes”, he said with an element of relief, “I’m sure everyone has noticed those bruises she tries hiding with makeup unsuccessfully”.
“She always has an explanation”, Yvette said with resignation in her voice, “But we are on the same page, Aman, because thinking along similar lines, I tried getting her to open up to me once. Not entirely unexpectedly, she laughed it off. And did such a good job of convincing me it was an accident that I walked out of the conversation feeling unsure about my initial impression”.
“Is there anything else we can do?, Aman asked after mulling over what his office manager told him for while.
Yvette sighed with genuine sadness. Her youngest daughter – the baby of the house – was thirty- two too, just like Mira.
“Unfortunately not. Suspicion of partner violence is not reportable like suspicion of child abuse is. Unless the victim herself presses charges, there is little anybody else can do. As frustrating as they sound, that’s how things are. I did make sure she has knowledge of all hot line numbers and resources”.
“Do you know if she has her family here?, Aman asked.
“Not sure about that. I do know she moved from India about twelve years back and that she has a ten year old girl. She loves showing her picture. She has a whole bunch of them on her phone. She’s adorable”.
With a glance directed at the wall clock, he inhaled in resignation. “I guess, it’s a delicate situation. One can just hope for the best…and – well, keep her under our collective radar for the time being”.
An unknown restlessness crept up under his skin as he talked, his mind conjuring up a shadowy figure – a vile creature – who would hurt a woman, a mother, like that. If their suspicions indeed were true that is.
“And I’m doing both already”, Yvette smiled reassuringly as he rose, adding, “Do you want coffee? I was about to make some”,
“No thanks”, he smiled, “I’m going out to lunch”. As he headed toward the staff exit, he ran into their topic of conversation. She appeared to be coming in for an afternoon shift, donning neatly pressed navy scrubs, her hair knotted at the nape of her neck.
She acknowledged him with her staple greeting sentence – that had grown dull and mechanical with overuse – and her overtly bright smile that never quite managed to reach her eyes.
“Hello, Dr. Aggarwal. How are you doing today?
“Good, Mira. How are you?”,he replied with an easy friendliness that made him a favorite with staff and patients alike. It was a relief of sorts to have her just show up at their office every day. It made him hopeful that perhaps he had been – they had all been – mistaken after all. That they were all being – collectively and colossally – foolish and over imaginative.
Next day was Anita’s birthday and his heart was not at peace the entire day. Memories of her last birthday – the naive adulation in her eyes, his momentary insanity – they all fought for space with his resolve to set things right. He tried to dissuade himself at one point, citing her previous unanswered phone call as a case in point and at another, he was ceased with a strange longing for her – her liking, her soothing approval and admiration of him as a person…her easy friendship. By 11:30, he’d convinced himself – half convinced himself – of the many merits of his resolve.
When he finally called Anita, it went to voice mail again. And with a sudden irritation at the limbo he seemed to be stuck in, he called again, his body relaxing when she picked rather too promptly this time.
“Happy Birthday”, he said, after a pause, “I’m glad I made it in time”
“Yeah. It’s only 11:30. Thank you”.
Aman turned the TV off and cleared his throat, finding himself to be at an uncharacteristic loss of words. As time stretched along with silence, he heard her sigh audibly on the other end.That familiar sound brought a smile to his face. He imagined a barrage of words gathering inside her mind, ready to spill over into the silence.
“Are you doing anything tomorrow?
“I want to take you out to dinner”.
“Why?, he heard her ask and his smile widened in a mix of amusement and relief. Her reply was so…her and it made him realize just how much he’d missed her in his life. Her youth, her energy, her cute thoughts.Their inconsequential chats, their carefree banter.
“Umm because I want to but I don’t think I worded it very well. Let me try again. Could I take you out to dinner tomorrow?
After listening to her silence for a while, he added, “We could even watch a movie if you like”.
“Oh…I just remembered I’m not free tomorrow”, she said suddenly and going by her regretful-how-could-have-I-forgotten tone she either was telling the truth or had evolved into a really fine actress since they last talked to each other, “I already made plans with a friend”.
And just as he fought with a sharp stab of disappointment, she added, “We could go the following weekend”.
AG: How can you want something and not want something at the same time? What is this mindfuckery?
AF: The same kind of mindfuckery that’s causing old man Hamlet to spout “To be, or not to be: that is the question. It’s official. I fucking hate Shakespeare”.
AG: “Brave of you, an English Major, to admit that! And anyway, there was apparently a method to his madness, I’m just plain mad”.
AF: “We’re all mad here. They should start putting Prozac in the water supply now”.
Aman picked her from her dorm on the dot and as Anita settled beside him, pulling the seatbelt across her, she wondered at how surreal it all seemed. It was a wish you’d wished for with all your heart – with all it’s blood and all it’s beats – coming true when you’d stopped expecting it to. It was like living a day dream you’d given up on – wrenched it away, wrapped it in tissue paper, and stowed it in a secret space somewhere. She was happy, of course, she said to herself as Aman shot her a sideways smile, reassured by the dear familiarity of his warm good looks – a face that had featured regularly in her dreams at one time. She was very happy, of course, she repeated. Maybe just a little bit dazed. Who wouldn’t be?
He turned the car radio on and her eyes widened in surprise. It was unreal. Even the song was the same…Then their eyes met briefly and she wasn’t sure anymore if it was just a coincidence….
He took her to a nearby Emagine theater first, and even as they entered through the sliding doors, he leaned in conspiratorially to say that he’d heard that the sequel to the movie they’d watched together almost a year and a half back – of a popular series featuring a cute shimmery faced vampire – was now playing in theaters.
Anita chuckled, finding herself relaxing for the first time that evening. She’d forgotten just how easy it was to get along with Aman, although he seemed to doing most of the talking tonight. She could see how hard he was trying to get her to relax. To recalibrate their equation – their friendship – to normalcy. To turn back the clocks and start over.
Even as her throat choked with emotion, she grinned and said, “I’ve heard it’s terrible”. Somewhere along the way, without even realizing, she seemed to have lost interest – an eventuality she would’ve considered impossible as recent as a year back – in the series.
“Let’s find out”, his eyes twinkled down at her, “Let’s find if it’s possible to up the first movie in terribleness”.
They laughed as they waited in line, their eyes gelling together just a moment longer than necessary. Anita wondered what he wanted from her…from them…from life.
Although she couldn’t find answers to those that evening, she did find out what the refrain – something being so bad that it’s good – meant. They chuckled their way through the movie with Anita a little startled and a little embarrassed by her former self – who’d considered herself a die- hard fan of the series.
He took her to a Fondue restaurant after the movie; she was reminded of herself telling him how much she loved them once. Her heart felt like it would burst with emotions – not all of them entirely understood – a she slid into a seat opposite him, their hair gilded by the soft overhead light. It wasn’t long before the months melted away. Before they were engaged in one of their inconsequential banters again. Before everything was just like yesterday again. Almost…
He took her back just before midnight, leaving her with just a warm smile and a wave. There were no speeches, no apologies, no declarations; and Anita found her body relaxing with relief. His eyes had gleamed with a promise though – a quiet promise for a tomorrow. A shared tomorrow.
Anita was back in her small single occupancy dorm room, changed in pajamas, lying on her back and staring absently at the Audrey Hepburn poster on the opposite wall.
The music major next door had been unable to book a practice room as usual. Her repetitive clarinet notes set her nerves on edge even as her mind tried reliving the evening – one moment a time. She was too tired to pick up a fight. She was too tired to think…to sleep…to find her ear plugs.
Her phone’s ringing aroused her just as she was drifting off to an angry – clarinet infused – sleep. She scrambled up to a half sitting positing and smiled seeing who it was.
“Did I wake you up?, her sister’s voice reached her, filling her mind with a comfort similar to that from a hot chocolate on a cold night.
“Serves you right”, Khushi added, “For not calling me back. Where were you, missy? I called you twice”.
“Oh I’m so sorry, Di”, Anita said, “My phone was on silent. I was watching a movie. And then it was too late to call you. Or so I thought”.
“With whom? Aarti?
Anita’s lips curved into an amused smile. Only sisters had this right to be so unabashedly, unapologetically nosy.
She took a deep breath, “With Aman”.
Her eyes flickered anxiously as she waited for her sister’s reaction. She still hadn’t told her about all that had transpired between her and Aman last year. Not that she didn’t want to tell her, it was just that with all that had been going on in their lives recently, the topic never got a chance to be brought up by either of them.
“I see. How was the movie?, her sister asked casually. In the spaces between words, she somehow managed to convey she was right here for her, waiting for whatever Anita needed to share, whenever she wanted to do so.
“I know we need to talk. I just don’t know how…where to start. It’s so complicated”.
“Why don’t you come visit us over the summer?
“Don’t you two have other plans for summer? I mean, I don’t want to get in the way considering somebody took you all the way to Florida just to have you all to himself”.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll make sure you won’t get in the way”, Arnav’s voice, rich with amusement, reached her from somewhere in the background.
“Oh…come on, Di”, Anita said with mock irritation, “Why do you always have you phone on speaker?”.
“Because I’m doing the dishes, darling”, her sister chuckled amidst clinking of cutlery.
“How come you’re always the one doing the dishes”, Anita asked tongue in cheek.
His voice was loud and clear, very close to her ear, as he replied next. Anita could imagine him ambling into their kitchen, coming to stand behind her sister, possibly putting his arms around her as he replied, his eyes gleaming with his sly brand of humor.
“Because it’s a woman’s job of course”, he said provocatively and even though she knew very well he was joking and even though she heard Khushi laughing at their back and forth, she decided such an outrageous statement deserved a befitting reply.
Before she could start however, her sister said firmly, “It’s decided. You’re coming to visit us next month”.
“And I second that”, Arnav concurred affectionately.
Maybe it was the coffee she had after dinner, maybe it was because she still couldn’t wrap her mind around what was probably the best evenings of her life. A dream come true. But it was 2 AM and she was still wide awake.
She checked her phone before slipping it under the pillow again. A few moments later, she was sitting up in bed, her back resting against pillows and headboard, her hair framing her small, heart shaped face untidily.
AG: Have you ever felt like you are not you any more? Like you’re watching yourself from afar, watching yourself play a role…pretending to be you?
Anita stared at her screen and sighed, realizing how absolutely wack she sounded. That too on a day which was the happiest of her life.
AG: “Ignore my previous message! I’m probably crazy or tired or both”.
A/N: Thank you so much for your feedback. I enjoy reading each and everyone of them. Next chapter in about a week 🙂