“Your brother in law is one hot man”, Aarti whispered all of a sudden, causing Anita to flush, hush and nudge her in a cautionary manner, embarrassed. After all, from where they sat, on the second bottom step of the back staircase leading to the kitchen, he was almost within listening distance, leaning against the kitchen counter, immersed in what appeared to be a medical journal of some sort. She studied his features worriedly, relieved when he gave no indication of having noticed their presence, let alone heard them. As he cleared his throat absently and turned a page, Aarti whispered again, mischievously, incorrigibly, although several decibels lower, “I feel like a giddy fan girl. Your Khushi Di is a very lucky woman”.
“Shut up”, Anita whispered back, her silliness amusing and annoying her in equal measures. Before she could rise and drag her friend away however, the man himself spoke, that too without as much as raising his head to forewarn them, “What are you two whispering about?
Aarti jumped, visibly almost, making it impossible for Anita to hold back a wicked chuckle. At the same time, since she was the one blessed with a sharper presence of mind – one that had proven handy many a sticky situations in the past – she came up with a reply first, keeping it straight faced even when he trained on her his steady albeit amused gaze, one brow raised in question. Sassily facing him, she said with gaily dancing eyes, “We were just talking about how boring you were”.
A fresh chuckle escaped as his eyelids moved in a visible double take, “Excuse Me”.
“Well, I mean”, she said, “Look at yourself, Arnav bhai. Who reads a journal – a medical journal – on New Years’ Eve when the whole world is busy partying the night away?
He laughed and turned another page and when Khushi appeared behind them, trying to squeeze past them to reach the kitchen, he looked up at her and said, “Khushi, I’m being harassed in your home”.
“Tattle Tale”, Anita said before turning in mock indignation at Aarti when she switched camps swiftly.
“Yes, Khushi Di, Anita is being mean to your husband. Full on kitchen drama. A hapless son in law at the mercy of a conniving, wicked sister in law”.
Even as Khushi burst into appreciative peals of laughter saying it was too funny to imagine Arnav as a hapless son in law, Anita watched with much fascination a subtle transformation in his facial expression – right in front of her eyes. Smitten, transfixed, mesmerized were the words supplied helpfully by her mind’s inbuilt thesaurus. She averted her eyes, turning around to glance at her sister – she had changed into an aubergine sweater dress and it went without saying that she looked radiantly, angelically beautiful. No wonder.
Wiping away a tear, Khushi sobered before catching her eye and kneeling to wrap her arms around her, “My Anu can’t be wicked to save her life”, she teased Arnav, meeting his visibly amused eyes over her shoulder, “Sari duniya ek taraf aur meri Choti ek taraf”.
“Ha, take that, Arnav bhai”, Anita said, allowing her eyes to clash with his, the deep affection threading all that empty banter warming her heart.
Her brother in law, unflappable as ever, winked from over the rim of his coffee mug, “Well, I’m sorry but I’m the one who gets to take her away with me”.
“Well, just you wait”, she vowed, her voice purporting to sound threatening mostly bubbling with mirth instead, “Pretty soon, I’m going to move to Florida too”.
“Oh no, you can’t”, Aarti spoke even as Khushi crossed the kitchen to stand beside Arnav, taking a sip from his mug, the whites of her lovely eyes gleaming as they smiled up at him, “You told me that Aman hates Florida”.
A terrible silence followed and her friend, instantly realizing the folly of her words, shrunk into herself of embarrassed regret. Anita felt her face flush. She cleared her throat. “Well…That’s..”.
Of course, it had to come out one day, this thing that had just started between her and Aman. She knew that. It was just that this was far too sudden and far too unexpected for her liking. It wasn’t often that she felt at a loss for words that she did at the moment. She wasn’t even sure if Arnav bhai had an inkling about the whole thing and she would definitely have preferred him learning of it in a less dramatic fashion. Although…sneaking a peek at him, the flicker of awareness in his expressive eyes, the sudden alert concern for her discomfiture, conveyed – better than any words could – that he did. More than an inkling. Moving on to her sister next, she received that achingly familiar big sister protective cum commiserating look that made her feel better at once. It brought to her mind numerous times when she would fall on her butt – doggedly learning to roller skate – and Khushi would swing to her side at once, offering her a hand with the same look in her eyes.
“It’s too early to even think about that”, Di said dismissively but with a golden voiced lightness that effectively shattered all surrounding awkwardness.
“And anyway”, Arnav joined forces with his wife, addressing her with a smile that was miserly in physical expression but not in warmth, “Nobody can stop Anita from going where she wants”. “Right, Aarti?, he gathered her contrite friend in his conversational fold too, in a way making sure that she didn’t feel overly guilty or excluded. It was small spontaneous gestures like this, Anita mused suddenly, that made who he was as a person shine out through his carefully cultivated veneers. It was what made her the happiest for her sister because it made her realize that despite all outer differences they were essentially similar at the core of their beings, in things that mattered most. Aarti, whose expressive eyes had been silently apologizing to her all along, perked up instantly. “Right”, she grinned at him, pulling her in a side hug, “That’s our Anita, alright”.
Tired of being the focus of everyone’s attention, she jumped to her feet citing an imaginary chore as an excuse.There still was some time before the other guests and…Aman arrived. Arnav crossed over to the family room to keep their dad company in watching some sport or the other on TV, and their mom – showered and changed and stunning as usual hurried down the stairs to take care of last minute things.
While Khushi and Aarti helped her in setting ceramic chafing dishes on the island, Anita grabbed mitts to take one of the desserts out of a beeping oven. She’d baked an apple upside down cake and as she set it down gingerly upon a cooling rack, her nostrils flared in appreciation of warm upward wafts of cinnamon and apple.
“It’s perfect”, she declared after upending the cake upon a serving platter, her heart abuzz with the joy of baking that – she told herself spiritedly – no man and no amount of man- trouble would ever be able to extinguish. Even as everyone – her mom, Di and Aarti- gathered around to look, she declined with emphasis, Aarti’s offer to act as an unofficial taster. Even Arnav bhai sauntered back into the kitchen, although Anita was sure it wasn’t the lure of her cinnamon and apple that brought him there. He hovered around Di as she chopped a salad, offering suggestions – he fancied himself as a salad expert apparently – that she absolutely didn’t need. Their innocuous banter was somehow so warm and soft and intimate that Anita found herself turning toward the fridge, her cheeks warming for no reason at all. These two. Really. Even their mom smiled away to herself as she lit a scented candle, her face luminescent with contentment, even more so when Arnav bhai asked if there was something he could do to help.
Aarti’s parents – who were invited too – arrived first and her mother, Nidhi Aunty – the coolest and her favorite of all of her mom’s friends – responded to her child’s cheeky wave with a grin, saying, “Sujatha, I think you should just adopt Aarti. I had almost forgotten what she looked like”. Aarti had been practically living at their home since the holidays started.
The rest of the guest arrived together fifteen minutes after and Anita, with Khushi close behind, reached the door first, eager to welcome their cousin, now with a four month baby, eager to reunite eighteen months after her highly eventful Allahabad wedding. With Mom and Dad and Arnav bhai walking over as well, their small foyer seemed to teem with people and greetings and excitement and chaos.
Anita engulfed a laughing Isha in a bear hug before moving on – with cut back effusiveness – to her husband Vivek – who held a baby carrier – and then moving on – reflexively – to Aman’s smiling presence beside him. His eyes met hers and even as they flared with embarrassed amusement, she stepped back, horrified, aware of several gazes trained upon her.
“Hi Aman”, she said with a gruff nonchalant propriety that was a little too late, she realized instantly with an accompanying inner facepalm. Grasping at steel from unknown sources, she poured it down her spine and proceeded to greet Aman’s parents – who, although in midst of exchanging pleasantries with mom and dad, had been casting a glance or two in her direction as well.
Aman’s mother was a sweetheart – petite and chic and ever smiling – although, sometimes in the past, she’d caught a fleeting expression or two that had made her pause and wonder…if social saccharine had a role to play in maintaining that face, if it were just a facade. As much as these rare doubts surprised her and made her think, she also knew that unlike Di she could have a nasty suspicious mind at times so she never accorded them much credence. And right now, the affectionate warmth with which she greeted her and Khushi and even Arnav not only proved how genuinely large hearted she was but also how wicked she’d been to even entertain such thoughts.
There was bonhomie, smiles, laughter all around, everyone was getting along with everyone else – even Aman with Arnav – and there was no awkwardness whatsoever between either Khushi and Aman or their respective families.The shadow of a previously broken alliance and past hopes seemed to have been left behind for good. The only gripe Anita had with the evening – if any – was that Aman seemed different from how he usually was with her when they were alone. He appeared uneasy – almost wary of her at times – and she wondered wryly if he expected her to jump on him…right in front of his parents again. It was clear he hadn’t told his parents about them yet, and since she hadn’t either she wasn’t really in a position to find fault with that. Still, the fact that he almost appeared embarrassed of her…of their budding relationship…hurt a little. Even when she tried to tell herself that given his history with Khushi, it was normal for him to feel this way…and that conversation with parents, when it finally materialized, wouldn’t be easy for him. Later in the night, helping her mother take out dinner, she even imagined an entire conversation in her head. “So yeah. At one point, I was in love with the older sister and about to get married to her but as you know, it didn’t work out so I’ve decided to go with the younger one instead. At least this way, we won’t need to meet and know a whole set of new people, start the process all over again. You know what I mean?
As she chuckled darkly at her own thoughts, Aarti asked if she’d finally lost it like she’d always predicted.
Smiling a little in reply, Anita filled a serving dish with warmed food and gestured toward the double sided fireplace that separated the family room from kitchen, “Isn’t everything too fucking hunky dory, too one big happy family over there?
Aarti chuckled, “Let’s all sit in a circle and play pass the pillow after dinner, your favorite Hum Aapke Hain Kaun style”. Laughing at her own joke, she crooned, “Aaj hamare dil mein ajab yeh uljhan hai, gaane baithe gaana, saamne samdhan hai”.
They held onto to their sides, laughing helplessly for several long moments before sobering instantaneously when Aarti thought something burning in the oven, raising a comical false alarm. She was luckily wrong but Anita found her dark mood passed and her heart filled with gratitude for Aarti and their friendship.
And when Aman smiled at her in their one and only few seconds private time, she was convinced that her sense of hurt was not only unwarranted but silly as well.
Later in the night, with the guests bade farewell, the fire in the hearth cooled and the house tidied, a new year, just minutes old, crept about the dark and silent home, holding secrets that none of them knew.
Khushi stood before the dresser mirror, trying to taking her earrings off, a simple task somewhat complicated by her husband’s arduous ministrations on the side of her neck. She closed her eyes and sank against him, ordering him to take them off instead. He leaned in, his breath warm against her skin, his fingers’ touch arousing a million nerve endings. After he was finished, she opened her eyes, meeting his in a languorous smile. Arnav placed the jewelry on the dresser, his gaze attracted by several objects that lay atop, clustered together on a colored glass plate like an offering to a shrine.
He recognized the small container of saffron – their saffron – from Pampore and the book – And The Mountains Echoed – his first ever gift to Khushi. The rest of the space was taken up by dried rose heads. Picking up one with a slight frown, he met her eyes in the mirror again and before the question in his eyes could reach his lips, she replied, “That afternoon when were walking back from PF Chang’s”.
She picked the saffron box and opened it, bringing it up near her face to smell it. Instantly, she was transported to that night again. It’s been three years, she realized with a jolt of surprise even as Arnav turned her around, gathering her close, ensconcing her in the comforting familiarity of his warmth, strength and scent..
She heard his heartbeats and the faint sound of fireworks somewhere outside. They’d come a long way but a brand new year lay ahead of them waiting to be traversed still. Forward.
“Happy New Year”, she said huskily against his sweater and Arnav pressed his lips on the top of her head. “Happy New Year to you too wifey”.
Refusing to dwell upon an indecipherable aftertaste those earlier misgivings had left behind in their wake, Anita first tried to distract herself with Netflix and and then with social media. There were videos on Arian’s wall, she noted, resisting opening them for some time and for some reason and wasting an inordinate amount of time on other walls and other videos instead. It was almost an hour later that her resolution that was poorly understood to begin with made a sudden U turn and she found herself on his wall again.
Ultimately, she fished her headphones from a cluttered bedside drawer and decided to view the latest video, although she didn’t actually view just listened, keeping her eyes shut as a guitar riff opened the acoustic cover of an old forgotten song. After their phone conversation from last week, there was a familiarity attached to his smooth flowing voice now – to it’s timbre, gravel and inflections. She preferred listening to music with her eyes closed, she told herself, and kept them closed.
There are dreams that sail away to sea
And some that stay at home
There are dreams in need of company
And some that stand alone
There are dreams that stay inside all day
And never see the light
And if dreams come true
I swear to you
I’ll dream of you tonight
In a corner bar the local star
Destroys a passing chord
He sits behind a Mason jar
And dreams of his reward
Then he takes his break
And he counts his take
A dollar buys a beer
A quarter of his life is gone
And what’s he doing here?
Times are hard
The old backyard is covered in cement
The people seem afraid to dream
And dream don’t cost a cent
There are dreams that stay inside all day
And never see the light
And if dreams come true
I swear to you
I’ll dream of you tonight
And if dreams come true
I swear to you
I’ll dream of you tonight…
The song drew to an end, replaced by a deep silence, yet she neither moved nor opened her eyes, not even when his voice spoke again, close against her ears.
“Hope you enjoyed this. Here’s wishing you and yours a very happy new year”.
A/N: Thank you for reading and for your kind words 🙂 Next update, Thursday, February 1st, Noon, USEST, Late Evening, IST.