With his father cutting down hours as a first tentative step toward retirement, the practice was busier than ever.
Despite that, Aman was unable to keep his earlier conversation with their office manager out of his mind. Not as he went down the appointment list steadily. Not as he traversed through the well oiled mental machinery of information hunting, diagnosis and treatment with his approach as always alternating between lightheartedness during patient interaction and a cool astuteness outside of exam rooms. Given his inadvertent glimpses of Mira’s marital life, he had been unsurprised when Yvette shared the news of her divorce or when she asked – perfunctorily, he was sure – for his input regarding her requested transition from part time employment to full time. What did surprise him however was the casual mention that she was a full fledged physician herself – a foreign graduate not yet certified to apply for residencies in the US or to work in the capacity of a physician. It was no wonder, Aman thought with hindsight, that she seemed so self assured and so different from every medical assistant he’d ever worked with. With an involuntary sigh, he accepted a patient’s EKG report from her, hearing her murmur, correctly, that it was atrial fibrillation.
He could feel her eyes were still glued to the tracings when his pen scratched across the report to initial. He rolled his chair back and looked at her. Her profile – sharply etched and delicate – was as proud and aloof as always; he couldn’t help but wonder about the journey – the long journey – that had brought her where she stood today. He couldn’t help but wonder about the scars and weights she must have collected en route.
She looked up and their eyes met. He said the first thing that came to his mind. “Did you try applying for a residency here?
A shadow passed through her eyes, shuttering them.
“I did participate in the Match last year”, she said, “I did not match”.
Aman waited for her to elaborate and she did, after a short pause. “My USMLE scores are good but it’s been a while – more than seven years – since I graduated from medical college and…that’s always a deal-breaker with most residency programs”.
“Most but not all”, Aman said with encouragement in his voice, “I’m sure there are exceptions, especially if your application is strong overall in terms of scores, experience and recommendation letters”.
She stacked reports together and smiled at him. “I don’t believe in miracles, Dr. Aggarwal”.
He watched her walk away before rising to head toward a patient room himself, the EKG report flapping gently in one hand.
“I believe sales are a scam”, Aarti announced flopping down on a vacant leather couch in the mall’s aisle, her words immediately inviting her companion to cast an ironic glance at an assortment of shopping bags resting against her legs.
Unfazed, she continued, not entirely seriously. “It’s quite simple really. First change tags to hike retail prices and then announce a deceptive 50% off sale to fool fools like us”.
“Another capitalistic ploy to manipulate the herd, huh? , Anita said, sitting next to her, “I would have loved to believe – this is one of my all time favorite conspiracy theories – but sadly, it has already been debunked”.
The two friends stretched their legs, rested their backs and sighed in chorus. They were home for the 4th July weekend and had decided to spend an entire Saturday together.
“College sucks”, Anita said, apropos of nothing, “Especially when you can’t decide on a career and your mom thinks choosing to major in English is the biggest mistake of your life”.
“Or when you want to become a doctor but are afraid of life long commitment at the same time”.
“Or when you think the messed up reasons you DON’T want to become a doctor is because a) your mom wants you to and b) you want to beat the stereotype”.
“When returning to your old room feels like you’re visiting a museum”, said Aarti in an equally gloomy voice.
“When you’re sleepy but struggling to keep awake to keep work on assignments. All the fucking time”
“And when you do hit the bed, all that caffeine in your system keeps you up”.
“When your social life is a solitary tub of ice cream and a book”.
They continued back and forth for quite some time, their grievances tinged with increasing doses of silliness and humor, until their voices dissolved together into helpless laughter. After they’d sobered, Aarti, switched to their code language, Hindi, to draw her attention to a stranger, morose middle aged white man, who’d just slid into a seat opposite them. “Isn’t he like a gora version Shakti Kapoor?, she said with a giggle.
He was. “Haan”, Anita giggled, mirth rising up in her chest in uncontrollable waves. She cleared her throat, rose and extended a hand for her friend. “Let’s go. I’m hungry”, she said and bit her lip. She wasn’t sure about retail- therapy but what worked just like therapy was her and Aarti laughing over the silliest things imaginable. It definitely made life lying ahead seem less of a frightening vacuum.
They were still giggling as they walked toward the exit and completely out of the blue, Aarti asked her, “How’s your friend? Mr. Aladdin Foster?
“Mr. Aladdin Foster?, Anita chuckled, “Where did that come from?
“Well, he did comment you’d reminded him of Jasmine although he chickened out and deleted the comment within seconds”.
“Not fast enough for Aarti though”, Anita said wryly.
“No one is fast enough for Aarti”
“And he’s not my friend. We chatted on and off for a few weeks. That’s all. We don’t anymore”.
“Not since three weeks”, she thought slowly as they ambled through the mall parking lot toward Aarti’s car, her heart seemingly heavier inside her chest.
“He seems like a cool guy”.
“How do you know?
“I’ve been keeping tabs on his profile”.
“Everyone seems cool on Facebook. Everyone puts their best face forward. And why exactly were you stalking his profile?
“Just in case”, Aarti flashed her a sideways grin. The mischief flashing in her eyes was unmistakeable.
“What case?, said Anita, feigning innocence, although after five years of solid friendship, she could easily guess the direction her thoughts were headed toward.
“Let’s just say I smell romance”, she said as they approached her car. Once inside, it felt like a mini furnace and Aarti rolled down windows to allow a breeze to waft in in waves.
“I think the heat is getting to you”, Anita raised her water bottle to her lips and laughed at the same time, “You need hydration. You need AC. You need life”.
“It would be so much fun”, her friend continued irrepressibly, pulling her car onto a street and showing no appearance of having registered her words, “I’ve always wanted to study an inter-racial romance up close”.
With her eyes twinkling at this preposterous statement, Anita crossed her arms and played along with her, “First, the way you say it, it sounds more like an inter-species than an inter-racial romance; second, this is twenty- first century not nineteenth, inter-racial romance is no biggie anymore; third, you already know my views on this; fourth; you are being an ass”.
“Imagine the kids – with your gorgeous skin and their dad’s copper hair and gray eyes, they’ll be stunning”, she said with a wink as they waited at a light, laughing as Anita squirted water out of her bottle at her.
“Although Sujata Aunty!”, she chuckled, dodging the water, “I can just imagine her reaction when you bring him home for the first time. Make sure you hide me somewhere in a corner first”.
Her friend’s amusement was contagious and despite herself, Anita couldn’t help but grin herself, albeit reluctantly.
“I think you might be projecting your own longings onto me”, she said slyly when the car moved again, recalling that age old adage about offense being the best defense, “How far back did you dig into his Facebook, huh?
“Right up to ‘Arian Foster Joined Facebook’ some years ago”, she laughed.
“You creep”, Anita said, “That falls under the official definition of Facebook stalking”.
“There is an official definition for Facebook stalking?, Aarti asked, momentarily distracted. She shook her head. “People have way too much time on their hands”.
“Yeah. People like you”.
Aarti, incorrigible as always, was unfazed. “Ah..the things I do for my bestie!
They continued their back and forth, savoring every minute of it; and it was as Aarti pulled into her driveway that Anita decided to drop the bombshell she’d been inexplicably reserving until now. If she had meant it to be a diversion tactic, she couldn’t have been more successful.
“Aman asked me out”, she said quietly, “two months ago”.
Aarti seemed openly baffled as she parked the car, turned toward her and asked, “Why?
Anita wasn’t quite sure why she reacted to her single worded question the way she did but her reply sounded sharp and irritable as she said, “Why did he ask me out? Because he wanted to ask me out maybe”.
She watched her friend blink at her tone slowly. With a stab of remorse, she quickly changed the subject, stringing together a train of forcibly lighthearted sentences as they both got off and walked toward the front door.. “We can talk later. Auntie must be waiting for us. She said she was going to make that wonderful spinach lasagna of hers. Only she can make spinach taste so good. And what do you want to watch after lunch? GBBO or Suits? Pick one”.
As they waited after pressing the door bell, Aarti shot her a gentle smile. An invisible wave of understanding rippled between them. “It’s okay, Anu. Stop talking so much. You make me tired just listening to you”.
“Look who’s talking?!
Anita was relieved when Khushi didn’t bring up Aman in their next conversation the following evening. Anita knew that like Aarti, Di had been surprised as well when first told about Aman’s unexpected reentry into her life. She had also been able to sense her lukewarm reception of the same; it still rankled somewhere deep inside her.
It was their long weekend too and so far they’d spent most of it house hunting, she was told.
“Already? You guys literally just moved in” , Anita said, “And I love your apartment. It’s so perfect for just the two of you”.
“Wait”, she added as a thought struck her, “You’re not pregnant, are you? Oh My God…I’m going to become an aunt – a maasi”.
“Will you please let me speak, Anu Maasi?, she heard her sister chuckle at the other end, “Sorry to disappoint you but no, I’m not pregnant. It seems the entire world wants me to get pregnant. And we’re not moving any time soon. Not until summer next year anyway. We’ve just started looking for one. These things take time”.
“Ah well”, Anita said sagely, “There is no hurry. And please don’t tell me you’re on speaker again”.
“No, I’m not”.
“What are you doing?
“I’m making a French toast casserole for a potluck brunch tomorrow”.
“What’s that noise?
“That’s Arnav, vacuuming”.
“Wow, he has been vacuuming for a really long time. He must like vacuuming a lot”.
“Not sure about that”, her sister laughed, “But he’s pretty thorough. Doesn’t stop until he’s covered every last inch of vacuum-able surface. Are you guys going somewhere tomorrow?
“Yes”, she hesitated for a second, “Aman’s parents invited us to an outdoor party. You know how their parties are. There will at-least be a hundred people there, if not more. Aarti will be there too”.
She heard her sister murmur something inaudible into the phone and changed the subject. An undefined bleakness – an unknown fear – she couldn’t quite put her finger on suffused her heart slowly.
The feeling remained unabated for the rest of the evening, even while she watched TV – mostly news – with her parents and talked about current affairs in general and rising racism in particular with her father, and about college and the advisability of changing her major with her mother.
She went upstairs right after dinner she couldn’t summon much appetite for. Considering dinner was her favorite dish – biryani, it was highly unusual for her. As she lay down on her bed after the nightly ablutions, her chest was tight and her fingers tingly.
She didn’t even realize when or how or why she started crying, her face pressed against her pillow, it’s down filling drowning her sobs and absorbing her tears.
Something woke her up in the middle of the night. Reflexly, her hand reached for the phone on the nightstand to check the time. It was 2 AM. And there was a message from Arian.
A/N: Thank you for reading 🙂 I will look forward to your thoughts as always. And I would like to repeat that the presence of a common name, Foster, in both of my ongoing stories was not planned. It’s just an inexplicable (and silly) quirk of mine 😊 The two characters are not related.
Hope you enjoyed this,