He looked 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 reached for her, taking hold of both of her hands in his.
Taken by surprise, she stared first at their joined hands and then up 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, “Doesn’t it seem like yesterday?”.
“But it’s not”, he smiled back at her, “Yesterday is over. Gone”.
“So much water has flown – literally flown – under this bridge here”, he continued softly after a short pause, “This is today. And it belongs to us. Just the two of us”.
Aman tugged at her hands gently as he spoke, his eyes fixed on hers. Even though they searched for affirmation, they gleamed with a quiet confidence as well. It wrenched at 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.
The moment she’d wished for with all her heart once was here – at a time when she least expected it, at a time when she’d almost given up hoping. And it must be the unexpectedness, she told herself, it must be the inability to wrap her mind around a dream’s sudden switch to reality that made her heart feel like…like it did now.
Yes, that must be it, she repeated to herself, gingerly resting her head against him. She stood still and listened. To the sounds of a late summer day and to his voice assuring that they would take it slow, that he would let her set the pace. Her throat ached as he vowed that he would support all of her dreams and aspirations, that they would always walk together toward a future that was to be theirs alone, that they would soon leave past with all it’s shadows far behind.
Anita nodded. There was hope and a quiet determination in his voice. It tugged at her heart. He really was a gem of a person – a one in a million kind of person – the kind of person who deserved to be happy, the kind of person who deserved all the happiness in the world…
Aman offered to drive her home and if their parents, who were present at the time, found it odd, they didn’t comment. On the way back, they listened to music and talked and laughed. It was almost like the old times. It was almost as if that conversation on the bridge had never happened. It was almost as if the two years in between were but a dream.
They drove down leafy roads and passed small lakes with murky green surfaces. Anita half turned toward the sun, sighing even as she squinted her eyes.
Of course, she was happy; of course, this was what she’d always wanted. Of course, she was the luckiest girl in the world. Now, she just needed to stop her heart from being so…so stupid.
Later that night, she went to bed right after dinner, partly because she really had a headache – which was what she told her parents – and partly because she doubted her parents suddenly deciding to talk about Aman at the dinner table was a coincidence.
She couldn’t sleep and after tossing and turning for a while, she turned the lamp on, pulled a battered John Grisham – her dad’s – from under the bed and started reading it. It was a fast paced legal thriller and as gripping as it was, her mind kept slipping away from it, toward unrelated snippets of random thoughts.
“Maybe I should consider Law. Hmm. I’ll have to prepare for LSAT and I was never great at standardized tests….I could sign up for preparatory classes though. I could try. I could try interning with a local law firm to see if I like it. Note to self: dig up info on law school admission”.
“Seriously? Is this really how life changing career choices are made, are supposed to be made?
“One fine day, you just start imagining yourself as female version Jake Brigance or Harvey Spectre and bam…your life course is irrevocably redirected”.
“Are you decision – challenged, Anita?
“I don’t know. I can’t decide”.
She giggled at the ridiculousness of pulling her own leg, swiping away at unexplained moisture in eyes at the same time.
“Wish I could talk to Di or Aarti? Will it help though, considering their reservations about Aman being the right guy for me are the world’s two worst kept secrets?
Aman is too old for me”, Anita scoffed inwardly, remembering what her sister had said, “Rich considering Arnav Bhai is six years older than Di and six is just one less than seven!
Of course, her feigned obliviousness aside, she knew quite well that that was not the only reason behind her older sister’s reservation…
“Well, it is my life and my decision”, Anita’s stubborn streak made an appearance just before her eyelids drooped and flickered shut , “and I’ve every intention of not only ignoring all well- meaning Debbie Downers of my life but my own stupid heart as well”.
“Of course, I am happy”, she murmured sleepily after a while and turned to her side. Her body relaxed slowly and her breathing became even and just a little noisy. After remaining asleep for barely an hour, she awoke with a start. Lying in the twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness, she tried to recall why but failed. That it was a dream was all she remembered as she drifted off to sleep again. A elusive dream that refused to be caught, a riff of strings slipping away willfully from her mind’s grasp.
As the smell of freshly brewing coffee wafted into her office, her nostrils quivered and her fingers halted over the keyboard in a moment of impending weakness. No, she shook her head, picking up her water bottle instead and uncapping it. She needed to vanquish a habit – an old, unhealthy habit – of staying awake way beyond midnight each day, sometimes lying wide-awake in Arnav’s arms, listening to his even sleep- time breathing, mostly creeping out of the bed like a thief, splurging countless minutes on internet until sleep finally beckoned. Yes, she needed to work toward ensuring she got her 8 hours every day. Cutting down on coffee seemed to be the obvious place to start even though much like the proverbial chicken and egg conundrum, she couldn’t decide what had caused what in the first place.
Debanti, her colleague and friend, entered their shared office and flopped down on her chair. As she made a familiar exasperated sound, Khushi shot her a questioning glance, “What’s up?, she asked.
“Nothing”, her friend leaned back against her chair and took in a deep breath, “It’s just that…certain patients”, she grimaced, “make this doctor uncomfortably aware of homicidal tendencies she never realized she possessed”. She went on to tell her about a patient who’d not taken her legitimate refusal to prescribe more of his favorite narcotic well.
“I hear you, Deb”, Khushi nodded feelingly, sending off a series of e-prescriptions to local pharmacies, “I totally hear you”. She herself had just worn herself thin trying to convince an aggressively overprotective (politically correct for downright obnoxious) mom who was a frequent flier, that a) all her nine year old son had was common cold b) it was caused by a virus c) there was absolutely no need for antibiotic d) unnecessary use of antibiotics did more harm – serious harm – than good. The mother in question, however, had interrupted her in mid sentence to declare that a) she knew her son’s body better than her b) she knew he needed antibiotics and c) she knew she would ultimately end up bringing him again…and she had no intention of fattening her or anybody else’s wallet by paying co-pay again.
As angry as she became with her rudeness, her absolute refusal to listen to the logic of her argument experience borne pragmatism and professionalism helped her maintain her cool. Refusing politely once again, she wished her a good day, smiled kindly at her clearly embarrassed son and exited the room, her increasingly loud rants scorching her back.
It was good to have a friend to vent to, Khushi thought as they continued to exchange grievances in between patients as much as their overbooked schedules permitted.
By lunch time, they’d both recovered their humor and reclaimed their lightheartedness, having gone back to talking about this and that and nothing like they usually did. Khushi always felt like she’d known her forever and not just a handful of months like she really did.
Khushi suppressed a yawn as she compulsively tidied her desk – not that there was any real need to, she had the insight to realize – her eyes pausing momentarily over a small collection of photo frames that rested on one side. Her eyes crinkled and softened. Her world. Her life. Her shade. Dad, Mom, Anita and…Arnav.
She had finished her salad and was scraping the bottom of her mixed berry yogurt when Arnav sauntered in, pausing to exchange a pleasantry or two with Deb before turning toward her. Their eyes exchanged a glow even as Khushi exclaimed, “I thought we weren’t going to eat out today”. Ever since Arnav’s recent suboptimal cholesterol report, Khushi had been trying to cut down on eating out, struggling to enforce healthier eating habits in general.
“I wouldn’t complain if I were you “, her friend said sagely from her desk before she could speak and Arnav chuckled, half turning toward her friend, “Exactly”.
“What about the quinoa salad I packed you? I would hate to see it going to waste”, Khushi said.
She watched as his eyes flickered with humor – with the definite suggestion that something uncomplimentary about her salad was being thought and about to be said. Much to her satisfaction – and secret amusement – the look her eyes shot at him shot the fetal thought to pieces as well. He said meekly, “It won’t, I promise”.
With a grin, Khushi rose to her feet, bending to grab her handbag from under the table.
As they stepped outside through the staff entrance, Arnav drew her close for a kiss, his fingers curled around her waist warmer than sunshine.
Over a hurried lunch at a nondescript Chinese restaurant with great food around the block, Khushi ate and talked about her morning at the same time while Arnav mostly listened – or at times, pretended to listen – with grunts and monosyllables, speaking in a complete sentence only after he’d finished his meal.
“Oh…before I forget. How’s your schedule today? Can you accommodate a walk in?
“Someone you know?”, she asked as they headed out, with Arnav taking a moment to glance at and silence his buzzing cell phone before replying. “Yes, you’ve met him too. Arian. I met him earlier today when he brought in his grandmother for post – op. He returns to campus tomorrow and since he doesn’t have insurance or a primary care doctor, he was wondering if you’d be willing to fit him in today. But it’s ok if you can’t. He’ll understand”. .
Warm air rushed in as Arian slid the windows down and sneezed again. They were thankfully at a red-light and grabbing at a handful of tissues, he rested his weight against the backrest, rolling his head back and closing his eyes. “I’m dying”.
“Oh stop being such a wimp”, his companion chuckled amusedly, “I’ll make you a nice soup and you’ll be as good as new”.
“Chicken Egg drop. No celery or carrots”, he said with his eyes still closed and his grandmother chuckled again.
The light turned green and the car behind him – full of high school kids – honked obnoxiously and repeatedly. He glanced at the rear view mirror and to piss them off, he lingered deliberately before easing his foot off the brake.
After a while, he pulled into a supermarket and parked. Turning toward his grandmother, he blew his nose noisily and held out his hand for the list.
It was a little grocery list written in the neatest, most beautiful handwriting he’d ever seen. His eyes skimmed through the list. “Three pounds of brussels sprouts”, he exclaimed, “Seriously?
“They are very nutritious”, she said primly, “And very delicious if cooked right. Then, they help with my constipation too, although the help comes at a price. It can make one feel very very gassy….
“Okay, okay, I get it”, Arian raised a hand in protest, “Too much information. I will be right back. Do you want me to leave….”, he sneezed again, “the air conditioning on?
“Arian, sweetie”, her grandmother put a hand – delicate, wrinkled and veined – on his, “Let’s just go home. I can do this later”. She lived at an assisted living facility – a two bedroom ranch condominium – nearby.
“It’s ok. We’re here anyway…”, Arian replied, placing a hand on the door handle.
“You are an absolute darling”, her grandmother declared, her eyes brimming with what made her his favorite person in the world, “Do you know that?
Arian turned to look at her, “You do know I do all of this to get a mention in your will, right?
“Of course, I do”, she said equally seriously, “Your nefarious machinations are no secret to me”.
“But I’m not going anywhere any time soon”, she said through the open car window to his back as he walked away from the car.
Arian half turned to grin at her. “Dang”.
If Arnav was almost a foot taller than her, Arian was a giant of a man – at the moment, a miserable giant of a man – who made their small exam room seem quite cramped. He was a cooperative patient, sitting quietly while she auscultated his lungs and heart – not talking and almost making her deaf, like some patients did – and helping her feel his neck lymph nodes and peer inside his ears and mouth. He was fit, in excellent health, and probably had not had a cold in a long time.
“I have never been this sick in my life. What is it, Doc?
His earnest tone and general air of misery made her lips quiver. She crossed her arms.
“Acute Viral Nasopharyngitis”, she said gravely.
“That doesn’t sound good at all”, he grinned. “Will I live?
“I’m sure you will”, she grinned back at him, “Since it’s just a fancy name for common cold”.
He had an important test in two days, she was told, and he needed ‘a quick fix, a magical draft or potion or at the very least, something that wouldn’t knock him out like most over the counter meds did’.
With a twinkle in her eyes, Khushi regretfully told him that ‘Potions’ as a subject was yet to be included in the official curriculum of medical schools and all she – a humble doctor – could offer him was the boring third option.
“I guess, I’ll have to make do with that…and my grandma’s chicken soup”, he replied with an exaggerated sigh.
Khushi brought him samples and wished him luck for his test as as they shook hands, he spoke seriously for the first time, transforming into an almost different person as as he did so, “Thank you so much, Dr. Raizada, for taking time out from your busy schedule and seeing me. Really appreciate it”.
Khushi again noted a flash of something undefined in his eyes…a look – a fleeting flicker of interest, of assessment. She wasn’t sure if were just her imagination.
Twilight was falling when he reached Gainesville University Of Florida campus after a four hour drive. As he ascended up to the sixth floor of Beaty towers, toward his shared two bedroom apartment, his phone beeped.
“Where are you?
He left the elevator with a small smile teasing his lips. “I’m right here”, he typed, sauntering down the corridor.
A/N: Thank you for still being here. Next chapter, Wednesday, 29th, around Noon, USEST, late night, IST.