He patted around for his phone, the carpet below, underneath the couch, his pockets, before his grandmother without looking up from her knitting said with all the sharpness of old Miss Marple, one of her favorite TV characters, “Look between the cushions. It sounds muffled”.
She was right and it was Anita. Pressing his phone to his ear, he fell back against the cushions again. He knew what she was calling him for; he had been expecting it.
“155”, she said in a flat voice. No false bravado. No attempt whatsoever to hide her disappointment.
Inhaling deeply, he slid his free hand across his hair, a part of him noting that he needed a haircut. This was difficult. “Well”, he said, “I mean, it’s not the best…
“Oh please. It’s terrible”, Anita said emphatically, “I know it”.
It made no sense that he should find himself wondering whether there really was a crack in her voice like he thought he heard or that he should find such a tiny thing even mattering to him like it seemed to.
He sat up, his eyes gliding across the TV screen absently, across a sappy black and white goodbye his companion seemed engrossed in – notwithstanding her fingers spinning through it all newborn hats for local hospitals. Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. Probably, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
“There are a lot of law schools that accept that score…”, he tried tentatively.
“Oh please”, she said wearily, “None that matter in terms of reasonable employment rates for graduates. I don’t want to be stuck with a beautifully framed degree but unemployed and badly in debt. Everybody knows how the legal job market has shrunk in recent decades”.
She was absolutely right, of course. A thought not entirely related in seriousness or content to their current conversation rose in his mind. “When did you find out?, he asked.
“Just now”, she said, “Like a minute ago. I couldn’t bring myself to look at it earlier”.
He smiled a little and rose to his feet. He walked around the couch to the French windows, looking out at a gently tossing grove of trees and a charcoal and diamonds horizon beyond.
Aware of the pause that stretched between them – and they seemed to be getting a lot of those lately – he tugged his mind back to the matter at hand. He shoved his free hand into his jeans pocket and cleared his throat.
Before he could speak however, she sighed and broke the silence, always a step ahead of him where this was concerned. “I already know what I need to do. I already know you went through something similar last year. It’s just that I feel too burnt out to even think about December LSAT right now”.
“I want to die, Arian”, she wailed after barely a pause and Arian couldn’t help laughing, couldn’t help his mind from straining to conjure her, flesh, breaths and heartbeats her, how her lips looked when they released his name.
“Give yourself a break, sweetheart, couple of days, a week”, he drawled distractedly, “You’ll be fine. I didn’t do so great on my first attempt either…
He went on speaking, spouting what he hoped weren’t trite words of encouragement, barely noticing what he was saying, barely noticing that he was pacing, perhaps trying to walk off that strange restlessness spiraling up in his veins again.
Anita hung up and placed her phone on her desk. She took in a deep breath and when she raised her hand to push her hair off her forehead, her eyes stared mesmerized it’s shadow on the desk’s surface, the almost imperceptible quiver of her finger tips. Her heart refused to settle and she held her thoughts back with an iron will.
She brushed her teeth with a grim face – more meticulously than she had in ages – making a mental list of things she needed to do in the coming week. She refused to meet her eyes in the mirror. “You are an idiot, Anita Gupta”, she tossed back at her reflection as she stepped out of bathroom.
“I need to go out with Aman”, she told herself, her inner voice tinged with desperation, with near panic, “Like really go out…Maybe somewhere romantic. Somewhere fun. Maybe to Bab’s again”.
As she stripped off her jeans and shirt and changed into pajamas, she made plans, handful of resolutions and told herself everything was okay, absolutely okay, and that her mind, her life was firmly under her control.
Momentarily silliness. Yes, that’s what she must’ve experienced when he, when he…
She halted in mid step near the foot of her bed, a suddenness that set her heart racing. With her guards slipping away momentarily, her face relaxed into a defenseless crumple. Biting her lip, she lowered herself on the floor heavily, her knees drawn up, her back falling against the bed. He called me sweetheart. Sweetheart. Give yourself a break, sweetheart. The way his drawl sounded.
The level headed conviction that it was a carelessly uttered endearment, one devoid of special meaning these days, failed to take anything away from how she felt.
It was when she caught herself mouthing sweetheart under her breath, as if in a trance, that she jumped to her feet. With guards back in place, reinforced, in-fact, she clenched her fists angrily and declared war on her own despicable self – with sleep being the first casualty.
The following weekend, when Aman called, he surprised her by his impulsively declaring – completely out of the blue – that he missed her. There was an odd urgency to his tone – uncharacteristic and unprecedented – when he went on to complain that it had been far too long since they carved time out of their admittedly busy schedules for themselves. Just for the two of them. Anita, whose list of resolves in the wake of her last conversation with Arian included investing more effort, more time, more thought, into her relationship with Aman, was slightly puzzled by this unexpected shift of gears but pleasantly surprised at the same time, happy to have him on the same page as her. When he asked where she wanted to go, she surprised herself and perhaps him as well by naming the very place one would have expected them to avoid. Bab’s Underground Lounge. He was silent for a moment but didn’t say anything and as soon he hung up, she decided to head out to the mall to buy a new dress. Something pretty and feminine and romantic. Something to make him see her – and only her this time – as a grown woman. Something to bring the romance rushing back into their story again. Something to make her stop…
She was in midst of hunting – in futility, she was to realize not long after – for that elusive dress magically capable of transforming it’s wearers into prettier, taller, slimmer versions of themselves when Arian called. Going by their phoning history, this was by far the shortest gap between calls. She stared at his flashing name – Arian Foster – on the phone screen, her heartbeats loud in her ears as she waited, still as a rock, seemingly endlessly, for it to end into the voice mail box. And when it did, it left her feeling desolate and guilty and confused. Knowing Arian, she knew the ball was in her court now, that he wouldn’t call her again unless she did.
She settled for a plain off white peplum dress and hurried out, the background music, the surging crowds, the nauseating commercialism everywhere, suddenly seeming to close in on her, filling her heart with an unshakable ache.
The way back, she stopped by at a neighborhood park, not far from her dorm. With an open book lying ignored in her lap, she gazed absently at children feeding ducks and geese and struggled to draw – draw hard from her well of memories all the good ones with Aman, washing anew their taint, straining out the bad. Sitting in the waning sunlight, she grasped at these moments with all her might, trying to recapture what seemed to be slipping away somewhere, trying to build her life, to firmly cement her first love upon their foundation once again.
She went back two years in time and saw herself at Bab’s again; the whole duration of her stay trying not to be embarrassed by her younger self – her immaturity, her now repulsive optimism, her bordering on foolishness naïveté. She focused instead on the flashes of interest she’d glimpsed in Aman’s eyes that night, and their first awareness of each other by the pool table. She brought to her mind his words that sometimes in life endings and new beginnings are not separated by sharply demarcated lines. She closed her mind to their disastrous first kiss and the regret in Aman’s eyes that had followed it; she tried convincing herself that the timing had been wrong, that it had been two years too soon.
As the sun inched toward the lake and a gibbous moon rose up from it, she swatted away at mosquitoes and rubbed her tired eyes. She stubbornly vowed to hold on to these bits and pieces; on these handful of memories she vowed to try and build upon her future, her universe.
With her inner balance somewhat restored along that long moment of introspection, she finally rose to drive back to the dorm, toward a red horizon streaked with clouds.
The idea, the possibility that Arian waited for her call in Chicago somewhere, under a similar blush of dusk perhaps, beside a similar lake maybe, was a different matter altogether. It wouldn’t leave her alone. At times teasing her, at times tearing at her, it lurked at the fringes of her existence like a melancholic tune from afar.
Walking into Bab’s Underground Lounge was a bit like turning back the clocks and finding everything unchanged, untouched by time, except for one’s own eyes, one’s own self. Sliding into her seat, she took in a deep breath to compose herself, to help quell a disquietude clawing at her heart. Waiting for Aman to return with their drinks, she closed her eyes, forcing the romantic ambience to seep in slowly. trying to recreate the heart of of the person she was two years ago, struggling to get into her shoes again.
When Aman slid in beside her, closer than he’d ever been or tried to be, her eyes opened wide in slight alarm. He looked amused. “Why were you sitting with your eyes closed?
“I was meditating”, she joked with a sheepish grin and Aman, who didn’t seem to realize she was joking, didn’t seem to realize the mind-frame she was in, looked at her with genuine curiosity, as if she were a newly discovered eighth wonder of the world. It actually turned out to be the best thing he could have done because his expression made her want to laugh and lifted her mood somewhat.
A peppy song started and in the dim light, she studied his face. He seemed exhausted, distracted, worn out, as if she weren’t the only one with a string of sleepless nights last week.
He returned her stare with an amused smile, “So, Anita Gupta, what’s going on with you?
Words had always been her friends and refuge and she was relieved to be given a chance to talk – to amuse, to regale him with a deliberately light hearted account of her academic struggles in general, her LSAT preparation in particular. However, her heart wasn’t in it tonight.
When her words began petering, he made an attempt or two to keep up the conversation, to pick up another thread, but failed; it wasn’t long before an uneasy silence fell between them.
“We need to do this more often”, he said suddenly, leaning in to peck her on the cheek.
She smiled and nodded, meeting his eyes for but a second or two before imagining she saw mirrored in them her own tumult, before bowing her head to hide her sudden confusion.
She looked at their hands and swallowed, sensing in him a similar determination to take their relationship forward, to pull it out of the rut it seemed to have fallen into, and somehow sensing that he expected her, waited for her, to reciprocate – to meet him halfway at least. Rightly so. She understood that. What she didn’t understand was the wave of nausea surging up from her stomach or the tingle of dread in her icy finger tips.
Cold feet, of course, she told herself, almost convincing herself that it was normal to feel this way. She felt a little better, more like what the situation demanded. She focused on their hands again. They rested side to side atop the table, bluish pale in the overhead light and with a fresh gulp of air, she slid an inch closer and covered his hand with hers.
And when he turned his hand to clasp her hand in his, weaving their fingers, she repeated to herself – again and again – that everything was going to be alright.
Weeks flew by and summer transformed into fall. Why had she never realized how gloomy and depressive fall actually was, Anita wondered, as raindrops pelted on window panes and ran down in rivulets and leaves struggled to break free of the rain darkened branches outside. She didn’t call him back.
All of September. All of October. And she didn’t call him back. And just as she’d expected, he didn’t either. She forced herself to imagine him finding his feet in Chicago – studying, dating, making new friends, living the life of a busy first year JD student. She told herself she was foolish to feel guilty about not calling him back, about rudely severing their connection, that he probably didn’t really care anyway. Why would he? What was she to him? Or he to her for that matter? Which was all very well, except that at odd, seemingly ordinary moments, she found herself thinking of him in unexpected ways.
Like the time when was walking the woods behind their local library to help clear her head after hours of studying. A freshly fallen leaf on the sodden path had caught her attention and she had bent down to pluck it. Twirling the thin stem between her thumb and index finger, she had admired it’s color – dark copper brown – and strained to remember – for a long time – if it was the same color as his hair.
And then November came…and brought with it’s first snow his call, her phone ringing angrily in the silence of her room and her heartbeats in chaos.
I’ve got you under my skin
I’ve got you deep in the heart of me
So deep in my heart, that you’re really a part of me
I’ve got you under my skin
I tried so not to give in
I said to myself, this affair it never will go so well
But why should I try to resist when, baby, I know damn well
That I’ve got you under my skin
A/N: Next chapter, next Thursday, same time. Would love to know your thoughts as always 🙂
Lots of love,