“Hello? Is this Anita?
Anita hoped that the amount of time it took her to compose herself and speak was no where as long as it had seemed, standing in the chilly air, furious and confused, watching bemusedly swathes of holiday shoppers going in and out of mall doors. And when she finally did, she was rather proud of the way she sounded, friendly and poised and cool, her voice infused with just the right amount of amused excitement. “Yes, it indeed is”.
“Good to have a voice attached to the words”, he said, his own voice amused, warm, relaxed, it’s humorous cadence, it’s easy familiarity putting her at ease, bringing a smile to her face. It was as if they still were in that little cafeteria in Amsterdam, coffee cups in between, facing each other with eyes weary with travel – picking up conversation from where they’d last let off. It was as if a part of her had never quite left.
“I agree”, she said, beginning to walk toward her car, “although”, she said thoughtfully, her lips quirking just a little, “don’t you think it’s easier to communicate with bare words, words that are voiceless and faceless”.
“Sure”, he said without missing a beat and she thought she heard a single strum in the background, a finger habitually plucking a string as he talked. “Once you attach a voice and a face to words, filters kick in”.
“And that might not be a bad thing”, Anita murmured, pulling open the car door and sliding in carefully, placing her now tepid hot chocolate in the cup holder, tossing her shopping bag on the back seat.
No?, he said with a teasing half chuckle, “but then voices and faces, tones and expressions have been known to give away secrets that no amount of filters – withheld words – can hide?”.
Anita digested this in silence for a while, blinking, her eyes focused on flurries seemingly suspended in a street lamp’s gold cone. What were they talking about?
He laughed and echoed her thoughts, accompanying it with a single dramatic strum. “What are we talking about? Anyway, let’s begin again?”, his voice was brisk, “Hey Anita”.
She laughed too, “Hey Arian”.
“So how is life treating you now? How is the boyfriend? The boyfriend who is not a boyfriend, the giver of bracelets, the enabler of sky high tears? , he asked lightly, in the unselfconscious manner of an old friend who had every right in the world to say these preposterous things to her. And the funny part was that despite being aware of the strangeness of it all on some level, it didn’t make her uncomfortable.
“So”, she said with a deep breath, “Aman and I got back together. So far, so good”.
His reply came at once, without even the slightest pause. Was she…looking for it? “Congratulations. All’s well that ends well, huh? His enthusiastic delight brought a smile to her face: a smile that traveled far and wide slowly to transform her entire face.
“Even though, generally speaking, I’m skeptical about romantic love of the everlasting variety”, he said, his voice humorous and serious at once, “far be it from me to rain on a friend’s parade and love of the everlasting variety is exactly what I wish for you today. And more”.
“Thank you”, she said, her smiling flickering but staying in place, and something unidentified in her chest losing weight slowly. She had a sense of things falling in place – of people beginning to fit in slots that were labeled, unambiguous and…safe. The relief was sweet and it’s slightly bitter edge largely ignored and unquestioned.
“And I guess there is something else I need to thank you for. And no, I’m not talking about our airplane encounter”.
“Really? What did I do now?
“Remember that time when I told you about not being able to decide whether I should go out with Aman? And you said something like if I’m still thinking about it, I should…or else I’ll always look back with regret and wonder if I should have…Well, maybe you didn’t say the second part but I thought it after reading your text…and that’s what made me decide”.
Slightly out of breath, she paused and waited for him to say something and when he didn’t, she said, “Arian? Are you listening? Hope I’m not boring you?
“Yes, I’m still here”, he said, ignoring her second question, “I’m just marveling at the irony here because where my relationship with Regina – my ex – was concerned, when I look back, I only regret the times we made up after fights – countless times – when I – we – tried to mend what was, in hindsight, always meant to be broken. But, every situation is different, I guess. And although”, he laughed shortly, a quicksilver change in mood, “I have no memory of saying that to you, I’m glad it helped. Like I said earlier, all’s well that ends well”.
Anita remained silent, still reflecting on his words. It was freezing and Anita turned the ignition and heat on, watching absently as the windshield wipers sprung into action, arching away the already accumulating snow.
“Why was it always meant to be broken?
“It’s hard to explain. I mean, I know that now…after learning like most people do – the hard way. But there are certain differences, specially ones relating to how you visualize your future…how you view your existence, your life in general that are hard to overlook and near impossible to surmount. But then again, every person, every love, every relationship is different…so I don’t really know…
Anita listened with a rapt, wondrous attention. It was as if after a year of fencing lightly with words and humor, of sidestepping issues delicately in a shadowy dance, the sabers were dropped & the masks slipped away..
“Do you miss her?, she couldn’t help asking and in the dead silence that followed, she agonized over if her question was out of line.
“We are together all the time”, he said wryly, “She’s in our band and we’re still friends.”.
Anita tried to wrap her mind around all of that. And she thought her life was complicated. Before she could turn in her two cents however, he added with a laugh, almost as an afterthought, “I do miss the foolishness of my dreams sometimes”.
“Alas dear Jasmine, such is life”, he said with comically exaggerated drama and rather transparent intention of making her laugh. And she did, protesting at the same time to stop calling her Jasmine. It made her cringe, she said emphatically, like, seriously cringe. It was one thing to see it in typed words and another to hear it.
“I can’t help it. As a clueless white male”, he teased, referencing their earlier conversation, “ I can’t help equating brown with exotic”.
“But you are her spitting image”, he added, “Has anybody ever told you that?
“No”, she lied, “Because they all know that I would not take kindly to being compared to a Disney animation character – especially an orientalist caricature created by – you’re probably right – clueless white males”. Of course, that Jasmine used to be her all time favorite princess was a different matter altogether, best left alone at the moment. She had no time to wonder if she’d offended him because he chuckled amusedly and asked in a deliberately incorrigible manner, “How about your man?
“Yeah? Has he ever told you that?
“Don’t call Aman my man, it’s not funny, it’s been beaten to death already ”, she said with a touch of annoyance, “And no, he hasn’t. He’d better not if he fears for his life”.
The snow fell thick and fast as she leaned back against the backrest, her phone pressed close to her ear. She listened to him laugh – a deep, rich infectious sound – and a smile unfurled on her face slowly and refused to leave.
“So I take it, everything’s fine between the two of you now”, he said sobering, his voice, although serious now, carrying a trace of his earlier mirth still.
“Yeah”, she said, with a nonchalance she didn’t quite feel, “I guess. Well, actually, there was nothing that was not fine to begin with except that Aman was in love with my sister at one time…at around the same time I fell in love with him to be exact”. She paused, realizing it was the first time she’d uttered these words out loud to another person. She felt a jolt of surprise, at herself and the way the words sounded. Arian said something in the background softly. It sounded like an exclamation but she only half heard it. It sounded like it was addressed to his own self, anyway.
“The one who’s down here with her husband? he asked.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”, she said, her voice suffusing with warmth, “There’s only two of us and I love her to death. You would too if you ever met her. She is like that…
A long silence followed her words and stretched. And just when she lowered her cell to stare at the screen, to confirm they were still connected, his voice, faint and far-away, erupted from the phone again, “I would love to. Maybe next time you’re here?
“Sure”, she said evasively and changed the subject, “Anyway, I’d better go home now. There’s a 700 page novel I need to start and finish in one night. I hate being a procrastinator sometimes”.
“But that’s one and a half page per minute”, he said with mock seriousness,”three times my normal reading speed”, chuckling when she told him off just as seriously for being obnoxious.
“Beautiful book”, he said, his voice compensating for the bareness of words by it’s underlying quiet passion – that of a prolific reader – a lover of words – she could whole heartedly identify with, “One of the best coming of age sagas I’ve ever read”.
On the drive back home, Anita didn’t dwell much on a sudden consuming interest in a book she’d picked and put back down countless times in the past, somehow unable to garner requisite interest to continue. And that night, she inhaled each page with a strange urgency, a search-fullness, as if wandering through the labyrinths of someone’s mind every time she turned a page.
Anita was home during the holidays – a week after her phone conversation with Arian – and the same lightness of being that she had felt at that time – a sense of things falling in proper, well demarcated places in her mind – was still with her as she scampered about the house with light footsteps. Her high spirits brought smilies to her parents’ faces and when she talked to Aman next, she found herself telling – in bits and pieces – about Arian, how they first met, how their strange friendship evolved over the last one year. On some level, she realized it was for her own benefit that she felt compelled to tell him about Arian – to further clear the fog and delineate the lines – and if a part of her had expected some sort of reaction from him – a tinge of jealousy maybe – she was fated to be disappointed. Aman listened to her with his trademark indulgent humor – his amused air – she’d begun to associate with him in terms of majority of their interactions. It was as if, she thought with sudden peevishness, her hands busy whisking a cake batter stilling momentarily, that the thought she could be interested in somebody else or rather somebody else could be interested in her was too…too improbable to cross his mind.
“I guess you guys talk about books and stuff”, he said, his voice seeming like it was trying to sound interested.
“Yeah, I guess”, she said, swiping some batter off and licking her index finger contemplatively. She realized Aman hadn’t even asked why she was crying on the plane in the first place. She inhaled deeply and pursed her lips, trying hard to rein in words that strained to escape her. It was fast becoming a losing battle when she heard him say, “I’m sorry”.
She relaxed, her breath escaping her lungs slowly.
“If I were responsible for even a single one of those tears”, he said, “I’m really sorry”.
Her heart dilated with emotions – defined and undefined – warmth, nostalgia, pain of growing and passage of time.
“It’s okay”, she said gruffly, “like you said, it’s all in the past”.
Taking in another deep breath, she composed herself. It was a lovely December morning, with the sun glowing over virgin snow fields and icicles melting drop by drop from the roof and windows. She was young, she was alive and she was lucky enough to have her first love in her life. There wasn’t – there shouldn’t be – any room for this silly…unexplained melancholy that swirled around her from time to time in chains of muddy gray mist.
As usual she tried to compensate by trying harder by adding an extra shot of cheer to her voice, “Anyway, what are you doing on New Year’s Eve? Do you have any plans?
“No”, he said, “Nothing as of now. Why? Do you want to do something?
“Why don’t you come over to our place?, she said, “Di and Arnav bhai are coming for a week tomorrow & Mom has invited Isha Di and Vivek bhai and your parents over too”. Since Isha and Vivek who’s recently flown in from India were staying at Vivek’s uncle – Aman’s dad’s house – her mom had had to invite them as well. Not that she had been particularly keen too.
“It should be a lot of fun”, Anita said with a hint of mischief.
“Depends on what your definition of fun is”, Aman laughed and she laughed with him.
“Isn’t it exciting that Vivek bhai got a job in Orlando? Khushi Di is ecstatic. Maybe we should all move to Florida”, she teased, knowing very well how intensely Aman hated hot weather.
“Never”, he said, “Not in a million years”.
“Not even for me?”, Trying to sound sweetly flirtatious, she noticed she sounded like a threatening blackmailer instead.
“Nope”, he laughed, and rolling her eyes at her embarrassed self, she joined in.
Picking her phone from the bedside table, Anita set an alarm for five in the morning. Why did they have to pick a red eye? It still will be pitch dark on her drive to the airport. Mindful of her exceptionally deep sleep, she increased the alarm’s volume to it’s highest before placed the phone back on the table again. With a contented smile, she allowed herself to fall back against the pillow. Morning, come soon..
For once, she wasn’t afraid to close her eyes, of the strange dreams she’d been seeing a lot of lately. Upon waking, she never remembered them – not the details anyway – and what they all had in common was a metallic aftertaste of fear – of panic almost. That sensation was indelibly imprinted on her mind now. It was like she was about to miss a train or have her exam paper snatched or lose her way or something. And no matter how hard she strained her brain, it never let her remember what.
Darkness on the edge
Shadows where I stand
I search for the time
On a watch with no hands
I want to see you clearly
Come closer than this
But all I remember
Are the dreams in the mist
These dreams go on when I close my eyes
Every second of the night, I live another life
These dreams that sleep when it’s cold outside
Every moment I’m awake, the further I’m away
A/N: Next update Thursday, Jan 25th, 12 Noon, US EST, Thursday Late Evening, IST