AF: Hello Stranger.
AG: Where were you?
AF: No, where were YOU?
AG: No, where were YOU?
AF: Why? Did you miss me?
AG: In your dreams”.
AF: I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.
AG: Fine. I missed you like a girl misses a locked journal she has lost the key to.
AF: Is that supposed to be deep?
AG: Haha. I don’t know. I tried.
AF: And I missed you like eyes miss a dream that’s lost
AG: Wow, that’s beautiful.
AF: And corny as hell.
AG: Haha…I know you are kidding! Just like I am! We are both safe.
AG: Why do we even do this?!
AF: Do what?
AG: Two strangers exchanging meaningless words.
AF: If you find out, let me know.
West Palm Beach.
If truth were to be told – despite it maybe coming as a disillusion of sorts to the single and the romantic: however beloved your significant other mostly is (and remains over the years), no real, red blooded marriage is without a downside or two. And to Khushi, an unwelcome spike in the need to regularly socialize neared the top of the list. Gone were the day when adulting could temporarily be put on hold and an entire weekend slaughtered at the altar of a favorite show’s seasons, if the mood be. Moodily thinking along these lines, Khushi sighed as Arnav pulled over at the curbside of a charming beach front house alongside a manicured front yard. It belonged to Dr. Foster – chairman, Ophthalmology Department; and an invitation to a welcome lunch for brand new residents – the program’s first ever batch – was what saw them there at that moment, a little after noon. It was supposed to act as an icebreaker, providing the eight fledgling doctors with an informal setting wherein they could get to know each other and the faculty and the staff. The thing with social events like this was that they were vastly different from time spent with family, cousins or close friends; these were more obligation than pleasure – or at least that’s how they seemed to her as someone relatively new to them. As Arnav parallel parked in a small wedge of space between cars, she watched in absent minded admiration – she sucked at parallel parking – before bracing herself against a long afternoon devoted to being introduced to new people – all known to her husband – and squeezing out meaningless small talk.
With the car coming to a standstill, Arnav turned to look at her, his lips curved amusedly. He picked her hand from her lap and squeezed it lightly, “You can’t wait for it to be over, do you?
“I’ll be fine”, she said lightly, “I’m getting better, I think”.
“A better actor”, she clarified with a grin, the two of them then turning to open the door and step into brilliant sunshine.
“And then”, she said slipping her fingers in his palm, “You’ll be with me. I’m still quite fond of you, you know”.
“I am eternally grateful”, he said somberly. His eyes were hidden behind aviators but she could imagine their waltzing mirth – their expression down to the tiniest swirl – as he spoke.
A chalkboard stake impaled in grass directed them to the back of the house. Khushi had a brief sweeping glimpse of blue and white canopies, greenery, a blur of people, before their hosts, having spotted them, sauntered over to greet them. She’d met the Fosters twice before – once at their daughter’s wedding and once at a mutual acquaintance’s home. While they’d been nothing but pleasant on both occasions, she had been unable to make up her mind about them. Although one thing was clear. She couldn’t picture herself fostering a close friendship with them in the near future. Or ever. And that was that. Pun unintended.
Of the two, if she were ever forced to make a choice, she preferred Mr. Foster to his wife, Karen. Karen Foster, who, short of being blessed with exceptional genes or having gone under a wizard’s knife, appeared a couple decades younger than her husband. And while Khushi truly believed this was none of her concern, she couldn’t help noticing the way she could say the politest – the most charming of things – while looking – appearing to look – right through you. Of course, it could very well just be her imagination….
She didn’t really know them well enough to form an opinion…
When their hosts had moved on to other guests after a lighthearted conversation ranging from nothing in particular to how their house hunting was coming along – they’d been looking at houses in the area recently – the new residents – having spotted their program director – converged on him from all directions, their guests in tow. While Arnav treated them to his unique mix of reticence, friendliness and dry humor he treated everyone in the world with – be it a janitor or a hotshot politician – the young physicians in training were clearly in awe of him, which was no surprise considering a big part of their professional growth in the next four years – even future careers – rested in his hands.
As Khushi talked to an earnest young man belonging to her alma mater, she felt Arnav’s light touch on the small of her back. She smiled inwardly. It was a sign he wanted her help in engineering their escape. It was essentially a plea to be rescued. His daily quota of words was probably close to depletion, she thought amusedly, shooting her husband a sideways glance.
The sun was blazing down from a cloudless sky. When it’s rays began to prick them like needles, they got food and drinks and settled at a small round table under a canopy. Khushi took a sip of watermelon lemonade and looked around while Arnav, who’d had difficulty running just on coffee and bagel since morning, focussed wholeheartedly on food.
She wasn’t surprised to see Arian there. He sat at a table nearby, presumably with family: a red haired girl with an overheated cranky baby, and a small bird like woman whose girlish voice seemed at odds with wrinkles. Knowing that the Fosters had twin girls in high school besides the one who’d recently got married, theirs seemed to be the kind of family that’s skewed heavily toward the female gender.
After Arnav’s hilarious refusal to believe that the man at the wedding and the singer at the bar were one and same, he had since then come around and humbly acknowledged he was wrong. The man in question himself had been able to clarify when he came to their office some weeks back to be evaluated for lasik.
Khushi had mercilessly ribbed him about it for days. And Arnav had tried to defend himself by deadpanning that all copper haired stubbled white men looked the same to him.
Given it was a name they had in common now, they looked up from their plates at the same time. It was a richly timbered voice they recognized in light of their many visits to Green Martini. Even the apparent pleasure it was tinged with couldn’t successfully disguise it from them.
“Arian”, Arnav said, not looking displeased to see the younger man either, rising to accept his extended hand.
Khushi remained seated, listening as they exchanged pleasantries before moving on to talk about Arian’s post lasik vision. He’d had lasik done two weeks back and judging by the way he waxed eloquent about the ways the procedure had changed his life, he was one satisfied customer. Arnav’s lips quirked amusedly. “You’re making me sound like a wizard or something”, he said with a chuckle.
Arian had this way of talking where one could never be sure if he were serious, amused, exaggerating or all of the above. It reminded Khushi of someone. Even as she frowned slightly to remember, Arnav turned to look at her.
“I don’t think you’ve met my wife…
As their hands clasped in a fleeting handshake, Khushi felt his gray eyes pause for the full stretch of moment. Before she could give it a thought however, the younger man smiled at her. “I heard you were the one who helped Dr. Raizada have his eureka moment”. He had an insanely attractive smile, Khushi noted, boyish, bold and sweet, all at once.
“I don’t have a good memory for faces”, Arnav said with a laugh.
“I believe you”, Khushi said, catching her husband’s gaze across the table. She smiled as his eyes flickered humorously with memories of their second – third, if you counted the intersection one as first – meeting in Srinagar.
Turning toward Arian, she explained, “He didn’t even recognize me the second time we met”.
“And you are still with him?”, Arian remarked cheekily. While Khushi laughed, Arnav didn’t say anything. An indulgent half smile played on his lips, still having the power to wake those good old butterflies in her stomach.
Rochester Heights, Ohio
It was too hot for an outdoor party, even under canopies and shades, Anita mused. And considering the amount of fun everyone seemed to be having, she was clearly in the minority. She rested her elbows on the bridge’s chipped wool rail and stared at the lake’s murky green water below. She hadn’t really wanted to come but her mother had insisted. “They were so gracious about the whole thing. They are clearly making an effort to maintain our friendship and it’s only right that we reciprocate in kind”. The thing being Khushi Di breaking off with Aman and choosing Arnav Bhai instead. Although it was old news and her mother genuinely fond of Arnav Bhai now, this ‘thing’ had a nasty habit of cropping up in conversations every few months or so. Like it did this morning when Aarti called to say she’d decided against going because a) it was too hot and b) she was in a mood to continue watching Suits for the rest of the day. The idea had seemed extremely appealing to her because she knew that not only Aarti, Aman and Anjali wouldn’t be at the party either. But she’d barely begun to hint at a possible change in plan that her mom was reminded of the ‘thing’ again.
It was a low bridge and she could make out her reflection on the rippled water surface. She could also make out the almost imperceptible flow of water too. She had a sudden sense of deja vu. It was on the same bridge two years ago that she had stood exactly like she was standing now, moodily staring at water and missing Khushi. There had been ducks too, she remembered, and she had been busy feeding them when Aman’s voice had startled her.
He had stood there, Anita mused turning her head, right at the very end of the bridge on that side.
“Hey…your mom’s looking for you”, he had shouted, slightly out of breath from volleyball.
“Okay..thanks for letting me know”, she had shouted back before turning to face the lake again. Mad at her parents, all she had wanted was to be left alone but he had sauntered over anyway to talk to her.
Snippets of their conversation came to her. It seemed just like yesterday. Except it was not. She could feel the words in the air. Except they didn’t feel like they belonged to her.
“What’s wrong, kiddo?
“Nothing. And I didn’t care much for that kiddo”.
“Sad that Beiber’s going to be deported to Canada?
“He’s not…and I couldn’t care less”.
“What? You’re not a belieber any more”.
“I hate my life”.
“Well, as far as interfering parents are concerned, I’m 26, a practicing physician, yet that doesn’t deter my mom at all. Remember two things. One, you can’t change or exchange your parents. Two, I’m sure you love them enough to want them to stay in your life. So there is no point in getting mad about every little thing, you’ll just wear yourself out. Sometimes, allow them to interfere to make them feel good about themselves, and at other times, put your foot down. Picking your battles wisely is the key”
She could feel her heart filling with same warmth, the same affection, the same hero worship she’d perhaps realized in full measure for the first time that day. Her heart constricted inside. For the time gone by. For the people they once were. For life how it once was. And for something else she was unable to put her finger on.. The more her mind tried to catch it…the further it slipped.
His voice startled her once again. She turned her head to find him standing right next to her. His arms rested on the railing just like hers were. He appeared to gaze at the murky green water too.
“I thought you weren’t coming”, she said with a smile.
He turned to look at her then; there was something in his eyes that she’d never seen before. Something that she tried to fathom without success. His features were drawn – stressed – he looked different from the boy – the young man – who’d once talked about life and it’s battles with her.
“Aman…, she began and stopped when he extended his arms to take hold of both of her hands in his.
Taken by surprise, she stared first at their joined hands and then at his face.
“Aman”, she heard herself repeat, unable to make sense of the sudden upheaval in her heart.
“So we’re here again”, he said softly, his warm brown eyes brilliant under the sun, “After two years”.
“I was just thinking the same”, Anita said with a wavering smile, “It seems like yesterday”.
“But it’s not”, he smiled back at her, “Yesterday is over. Gone. Much water has flown – literally flown – under this bridge here. This is today. And it will belong to us. Just the two of us”.
Aman tugged at her hands gently as he spoke, his eyes fixed on hers. Even though they sought for an affirmation, they gleamed with a quiet confidence as well. It wrenched her heart.
She went to him, allowing him to fold his arms around her.
After a moment or two, she took in a deep breath and relaxed, her heart an odd mix calm and turbulence.
Ek bar waqt se lamha gira kahee……
Wahan dastan milee
lamha kahee nahee
A/N: Apologies for being late by four days 😔 Thank you for your presence. Hope you liked this chapter, would love to hear your thoughts as always. Part B of SS: II -8 will be posted in 7-10 days.