With it being early September only, summer was far from over, even though some trees just outside his window showed in patches some precocious strokes of color. Aman, walking into office at the stroke of eight was welcomed by a waiting room filled to maximum capacity and all seven exam rooms occupied. With his father not coming in until 9:30, he shrugged into his white coat, braced himself with drag of coffee and got down to work immediately, heading for the first patient. He was on the third patient, a frail old lady with a long list of complaints – not all of them real – when a thought that had been lurking in the back ground all along, burst suddenly into the forefront of his mind. Where was Mira?
After he’d patiently provided the patient with all the reassurances she came in to seek that day, he let himself out of the room with his forehead faintly furrowed. He hesitated at the assistants’ workstation and looked across the counter. Her chair was vacant. His eyes glided across to her work area. He surprised himself by noting the absence of a blue travel mug, a daily packet of mentos, a little leather planner that rested face down always. Her daughter’s picture wasn’t there either, he noted with an odd sense of dread before his frown appeared again, more in disapproval of his own thoughts this time.
The next lull in action found him walking toward their new office manager’s office, only to be met by her halfway through. She greeted him at once with the information he was going there for.
“Mira will be late”, she said briskly as impersonally efficient and smartly turned out as ever. She’s having some car trouble. She called me to say she’ll try to come in as soon as possible.
Even as Aman nodded, focusing on keeping his relief from showing, she went on to ask, “Do you want me to call around, Dr. Aggarwal, and see if anyone else is available to come in?
“Yes”, he said, considering the full waiting room and the fact that his father – who’d been cutting back on hours gradually – didn’t start seeing patients until 9:30 “That would be great. We seem all set to have a crazy day today”.
However by 9:30, the initial avalanche had dwindled down to a manageable trickle. And soon after the MA covering for Mira and his dad walked into the office, almost simultaneously, Aman, who’d been sitting at his desk in his private office, catching up on charts, allowed himself to succumb to a sudden impulse. It was so uncharacteristic of him that a dozen warning bells began to chime in the background altogether, gaining volume with every step he took toward the office manager’s office.
Getting Mira’s number from her, he returned to his office and called her. And when his call ended into her voice mailbox, half relieved, he went back to his charts again. After seeing another batch of patients and finishing some more charts, he leaned back suddenly against his chair, his hands motionless against the dark wood of his desk. He called her again and this time he heard her voice almost immediately, it’s tone roughened with the wariness of someone answering an unfamiliar phone number.
“Hey, Mira”, he said and although aghast at the way his heart had chosen to behave at the moment, he was pleased with the way he actually sounded. Casual. Pleasant. A solicitous employer.
“Who’s this?, she asked again, her voice sounding tough, formidable, battle ready.
Suppressing a smile, he said, “This is Aman”. “Dr Aggarwal”, he added after a pause.
“Oh”, she said as if at a loss for thoughts before rushing in with a barrage of explanatory words, “I’m sorry, I will be there as soon as possible. I got a flat tire. Two actually. There was this pothole I should have avoided. Both right sided wheels went…
He interrupted her, “It’s okay. I already know about it. And you don’t need to come back today. We already found someone to cover for you”.
“Oh okay”, she said and he heard her inhale deeply. “Thank you”, she added after a while.
“Listen”, he said, breaking the awkwardness that threatened to stretch between them, “I called to ask if you need help”.
“No”, she said quickly, “I’m good, Dr. Aggarwal. Thank you”.
“Are you sure?
“Do you need a ride? I could send someone..,
“No, It’s okay. I called a friend. She should be here soon”.
Aman glanced up at the wall clock. It was past ten and she’d called their office manager before eight.
“What about your car?
“I will take care of it”, she said with a hint of stubbornness he’d expected from her somehow, “I will call a towing and repair company when I reach home”.
Her voice was faintly breathless and he imagined her trudging along on the soft shoulder of freeway, wearing her pride like a fiery armor. He thought for a while and decided to ask her a direct question she couldn’t avoid answering even if she wanted to.
“Where are you right now?
She didn’t answer at once and in the pause that followed, he could almost hearing the whirring and clanking of her mental machinery.
“I’m almost home”, she said at last, clearly a master in evasiveness.
And just as she began thanking him again, as a prelude to concluding their conversation he was sure, he was seized by a stubbornness he never realized he too was in possession of.
“Mira”, he sighed, “Tell me your exact location please”.
“I don’t want to trouble anymore and like I said, I’m almost home. I like walking”.
“I’m sure you do”, he said patiently, “but that wasn’t the answer I was looking for”. He’d heard Meg at the front desk saying it was a shame that Mira had been only 10 minute away when it happened. He also knew that their office was over 45 mins from where she lived. “As your concerned employer”, he paused for a split second to grin at how ludicrously pompous he sounded, “it’s my duty to reassure myself of your…safety and wellbeing”.
She shared her location with a bad grace that she made no attempt to conceal and there was no conceivable reason as to why that should please him like it did.
He found her just as he had envisioned, trudging militarily along the soft shoulder of freeway, her fiery armor of pride encompassing her visibly almost.
She halted and turned as his car ground to a stop behind her on the pebbled asphalt, vehicles zipping past on the left side and on the right, a grassy ditch filled with dandelions disintegrating in the breeze.
Her eyes seemed to seethe and crackle as he got out of the car and walked toward her, even when she thanked him for his trouble, not forgetting to add that it was wholly unnecessary.
“You are still 30 minutes away from home. By car”, he pointed out in his gentlest voice which had no effect in preventing her hackles from defensively rising.
“I called my friend. She is busy but she said she’ll be here soon”.
“Tell her not to bother”, he said quietly, surveying the turbulence in her midnight eyes, “You’re coming with me”.
She shook her head and her chin lifted a little. “No. I’ll wait”.
They stood facing each other, the coal fire in her eyes clashing against the steady earth in his.
“Mira, please, allow me”, he said, brandishing his patience as an unconquerable weapon, “I don’t have all day. I have to be back at the office by one”.
Even though she gave in after that, her eyes were murderous and her lips mutinous. A sudden wish to tug her close and kiss her popped out of nowhere, taking over his senses for a short incendiary moment before he doused it with a liberal splash of common sense. It disturbed him immensely though; it was as if was discovering new facets to his personality: ones he wasn’t entirely comfortable with.
They rode in silence and once or twice, he turned to look at her averted profile, struck by the sadness – pure and raw – that seemed to emanate off it in waves.
He commented on the weather, attempted humor, attempted light remarks, asked medical related questions but to no avail. Besides a monosyllable or two, she kept her gaze trained on the sluggish day outside, seemingly far removed from her immediate surroundings.
They reached her apartment complex and, as guided by Mira, he parked his SUV into a numbered parking slot. He turned to look at her but before he could say anything, she thanked him again. All traces of fire had vanished from her eyes leaving in it’s wake a bare bone vulnerability that tugged at his heart in ways he never imagined possible.
“I’m sorry for being rude”, she added after a pause and for just a fleeting moment, her voiced seemed to crack, “When you…you were just trying to help”.
“It’s alright”, he said lightly, “We all have bad days sometimes. It’s normal”. “And I’m glad you didn’t quit”, he added as a joke, “Which was my first thought when I saw your work space all cleaned out, including your daughter’s pictures”.
Her eyes flinched as if he’d slapped her, confusing him immensely. “No”, she said, furiously blinking back tears, “I just…
“I’m sorry”, he said, his eyes contrite, not having the least clue as to what he’d done, what he was apologizing for and watching in dismay as her tears continued to rain, despite her obvious embarrassment, despite being swiped away angrily all the the while.
“You didn’t do anything”, she said, accepting a tissue he plucked out and offered to her.
Wiping her face and blowing her nose, she composed herself, almost succeeded in smiling sheepishly at him.
“My ex husband somehow managed to get full custody of my daughter”, words tore off her lips, her fists balled, her being visibly forcing her crumbling self together.
He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t at first. He just felt his body become as still as the deepest part of ocean. “Why?
“Because I’m not her biological mother, they say, because I’m just her step mother”.
“And your daughter?,
Her facade showed signs of cracking again, even though just for a moment, “At first she wouldn’t stop crying”.
“But now”, she flashed a watery smile, “she goes wait until I’m old enough to decide for myself, Mama, I’ll leave everyone and come to live with you”.
“She’s your daughter alright”, he said with a teasing smile which widened hers until she turned away abruptly to open the door, thanking him one last time.
The week he was to fly out for JD New Student Orientation in Chicago was here. Another end. Another beginning. And like all new beginnings in the past – he’d had far too many of those in his opinion – this too comprised of excitement and nostalgia in equal measures. A sense of accomplishment at having made it to a Law school of choice was balanced somewhat by the ghosts of his earliest dreams – those centered around one of the few constants in his life – his guitar. And much as his heart ached sometimes, the result was not entirely unwelcome; at least, he placated himself – it spared him of his almost superstitious fear of perfectness or near perfectness and it’s accompanying sense of doom.
These shadowy ghosts clung to him as that last week flew by at a breakneck speed, manifesting their presence in unexpected ways, in the most unlikely of places.
He cleared out his apartment in Beatty Hall, giving away or disposing of everything that couldn’t fit in a single suitcase.
With his guitar for company, he wandered through spaces, corridors, groves and paths. Collectively, they had been his only home the past five years. He sat down on library steps, watching the world go by through the shades of his sunglasses, allowing himself to wonder – just for a moment or two – what life would have been like had he got the big break he always believed he deserved until fairly recently. Or if he’d agreed to the conditions laid down by an interested record label a year ago. Or if he’d plowed on, at the cost of education, taking the leap of faith his band mates had always urged him to man up for.
His went out with friends, got drunk, got in a fight and made up immediately and only half believed in their overly earnest and half remembered vows to stay in touch.
He spent the evening before last with Regina and while the word goodbye was never expressly mentioned, they both knew it for what it was, no matter their numerous failed goodbyes in the past, no matter Regina’s denial, her refusal to act any different, her pretensions that nothing affected her. As averse to emotion as always, she laughed louder, talked faster, talked about everything but the proverbial elephant in the room.They shared a pizza and watched live concert videos together but Arian was not really there. He could already sense himself fading out of the room, taking one last nostalgic trip down past, down their their tumultuous relationship of five years. It’s unconventional twists and turns. It’s maddening circles. It’s forced reinventions and unexpected metamorphoses. Friends. Lovers. Estranged Lovers. Friends Again. Friends With Benefits. Mortal Enemies. Friends Again.
He shook his head mentally. He found himself wondering how their initial connection – the friendship that had started it all – managed to survive through all of that, through all that time. A part of him wanted to shake her, save her, shout the questions raging inside his head while another part was already on it’s way, far removed, watching from a distance with an unshakable sadness.
That she wasn’t entirely unaffected, he could feel of course, just as he could feel her stubbornly sticking to her mighty disdain for commitment, her belief that only the naive allowed themselves to become attached to things or people, legacy perhaps of a childhood of being parceled like an inanimate object from one set of foster parents to another to the next.
Although only a couple years older, she’d often tease him, scoff at him, for what she openly considered his unrealistic expectations of life and relationships, for his alleged cowardice in giving up on his dreams. All with a complete lack of malice, with that quintessential dark humor he had found cool at one time.
“In ten years, I can see you settled safely in the fucking suburbs, bald, harried, out of shape, baking vanilla scented cookies with your boring-ass wife”.
And somewhere along the way, he learned to stop arguing, learned to avoid arguments, learned, inch by inch, day by day, to mentally, emotionally, distance himself from her.
Sometimes, when she talked of his supposedly privileged childhood – and perhaps relatively speaking, it even was – certain moments from the past like uncontainable ribbons of smoke would spiral up from his sealed box of memories. In that moment, a horrific almost dark – comedic tableau would rise before him – a red haired toddler with ketchup smeared fingers and body – and that smell, that smell of a wasted life. He would force the ribbon back in the box and shove it into the furthest reaches of his mind. It was easiest to pretend it didn’t exist.
The video reached it’s end, the pizza box was empty and with a sigh, he turned, making to slide off the bed, ready to head out. And without a word, she was straddling him, kissing him, aggressively, rebelliously, sex being one of few ways she allowed herself to vent her inner universe and the only intimacy she allowed herself with him or any other man.
Even as he found himself wanting her – intensely wanting her – the most overwhelming emotion he felt was sadness, for her, for them, for what they could have been, for what they weren’t. He couldn’t bring himself to further complicate their goodbye, make it harder for both of them. “No”, he said, pulling away, stalling her hand with his. “We’ve got to stop this…”.
She listened at once of course, playfully slapping him and calling him a bastard before getting off of him.
“Guilty as charged”, he smiled up at her, “Technically and otherwise”.
Maybe it was the dim light or maybe his imagination but her smile seemed to waver for a second before she turned away, her hand reaching for a single cigarette lying atop a table.
“Don’t you have to leave?, she said without looking at him, searching for a lighter in a drawer, “I thought you were supposed to have dinner with your grandmother tonight”.
He rose to his full height and looked at her. A part of him couldn’t help but admire her confidence, her way of being unapologetically herself.
“Regina”, he said, “I know you’d rather die than accept help from anybody let alone a man but if you ever need anything…
She interrupted him with a sudden grin, “You already know what I need from you..
He rolled his eyes, “I’m serious”.
She looked into his eyes then, really looked, for barely a tick of a clock. “Sure”, she said casually with the air of it being just another moment, another day in her life.
“Oh and”, she said to his back at the doorway, “let me know when you realize your sub urban dream – complete with a boring-ass wife, snotty faced brats and a steel and granite kitchen reeking of vanilla and home made casseroles“
“Bitch”, he said, turning back to grin to her.
Arian couldn’t help chuckling when he entered his grandmother’s kitchen later that night. Vanilla and home made casserole – chicken and poppy seeds – was exactly what her kitchen reeked off. Even as his stomach rumbled reflexly – that pizza earlier in the evening hadn’t made even the slightest dent in his appetite – he decided to take care of the squirming cardboard box in his arms first.
“Grandma”, he said airily, “I have a present for you”.
Her grandmother turned around from the stove and trained her piercing blue gaze on the cardboard box.
“Where did you get it from”, she asked, not fooled in the slightest. Apparently, her gaze had X-ray functions as well.
“How do you know what it is?, he asked, setting the box on the wood floor, genuinely surprised because the cat – abandoned by his erstwhile apartment mate, her asshole owner – was quiet as a mouse.
“I can smell cat litter from a mile, honey”, she said, adding with a significant tilt of her head, “And that is one of the reasons why I’m not a cat person”.
“Damn”, he groaned with frustration, “Now what am I supposed to do with her? Steve doesn’t want her and I’m flying out to Chicago tomorrow. I’m stuck. I should have just let her out or something”.
“I can take her to the humane society tomorrow if you want”, her grandmother suggested, “But I’ve heard they’re awfully full these days. They’ll probably euthanize her. Maybe, I can keep her for a few days and try to find a home for her…
“No, it’s okay”, Arian said absently, pulling a chair, already searching air travel protocols for traveling with pets.
Later in the night as he watched TV stretched on the couch, too full to even flip the channel, Anita called.
‘Cause I’m craving, still craving something I can feel
Never thought the night could get so lonely
‘Til she called me up
Never thought these streets could’ve outgrown me
I guess it wasn’t enough…
A/N: Thank you for reading 🙂 Would love to know your thoughts/ feedback as always.
We’ll be reaching the Prologue in the next chapter (which will have 4 parts) 🙂