She had a million reasons not to answer his call and even more to thwart something that had crouched dangerously in the fringes of her consciousness for long, deliberately left unseen, and that which – with all the magnetic force of the forbidden perhaps – threatened to spiral, to bring in anarchy to her inner universe, disorder into her existence. Life was complicated enough as it was. She chewed the back of a pencil, reducing the metal rim to a misshapen mess – a habit she thought she’d outgrown. She stared at the goose down air outside and listened to the wailing wind and scrambled for one reason, just one, as to why she should answer his call. She missed him, she accepted, spitting out the dislodged pink eraser, there was no escaping that. Not any more. She missed their conversations, their unconditional friendship, their discussions about everything and anything; and she wanted to know how he was doing in Chicago. Ok, so maybe she was a little attracted to him too, she confessed to herself impatiently, taking the proverbial bull by the horns, so to speak. Big deal. It wasn’t as groundbreaking as she was making it out to be. Her friend was an attractive male and she was a warm blooded female, she giggled suddenly into the pencil top, and it was hardly unusual or guilt-worthy to find someone attractive while being committed to someone else. It wasn’t like she was going to act on the attraction and it definitely wasn’t like she was heading toward a life of polyamory or polyandry! It was just a little attraction complicating their friendship, that was all, commonplace, ordinary, nothing that could not be suitably tamed. nothing that necessitated their friendship to be sacrificed. She had overreacted. She had been unnecessarily dramatic, she concluded.
Armed with her hastily put together excuse, she quickly grabbed her phone and answered his call. It was two months since they last talked, two months since she allowed his call to go unanswered. With a twinge of guilt, she inhaled deeply and launched headlong into words, giving him no space between words, no chance whatsoever to question her silence, to possibly ask for an explanation.
“So, I was reading this book. Grapes Of Wrath”, she began, as if continuing a conversation that seemed – for all the world – to have begun eons ago and was certain to continue for just as long, if not more, “And I thought of you. Remember you once said you’d like to know my thoughts on the way it ended”.
He remained silent – absolutely silent – and for an instant, Anita wondered if he’d hung up, fed up of her blow hot blow cold, erratic behavior, her unexplained intervals of silences. She thought that maybe she deserved for him to be fed up, that it would be for the best.
“Arian? You there?
“Hmm”, he replied and she wasn’t sure if he sounded moody or angry or what.
“Do you still want to know?”, she asked in a small voice, her wordless apology hidden between syllables, threaded around the sounds of her worded question.
She heard him sigh. “Yeah, go ahead. I’m listening”.
A shiver of joy skimmed through her heart and even as she spoke, word after word, sentence after sentence, linking one thought to the one that followed, a smile took forever to stop trembling, to let her lips be. Books were safe. Books were a common love capable of flooding their minds, flattening other thoughts, complex, unmentionable, uncomfortable, to the far peripheries, away from sight.
They talked every day from there on, after coming within an inch of letting go of each other. Books, collectively, Anita believed, were a world within themselves and it was in the safety of this world, far removed from reality, that they met each other each day between the covers.
From a limestone cliff, they looked down and across the expansive Yorkshire moors – meandering paths and tossing purple heather – and while Anita all but wept at Heathcliff’s tortured love, his dark grief, at his and Catherine’s ill fated love story, Arian, while admitting enjoyment of the atmosphere, the setting, the gothic elements, dismissed the hero as an abusive piece of shit.
They went back in time to year 1942, across the Atlantic ocean, alongside the coast of Brittany, watching with bated breath as allied planes with loaded bellies approached a beautiful, soon to be destroyed walled city; they both struggled to describe the beauty, the poignancy of a blind French girl and a German boy sharing a can of summer peaches amidst the smoldering ruins all around.
Under a blazing sky in Botswana, they inhaled appreciatively the subtlety and wisdom, the universal humanity, of a series of books whose purported premise was a private detective solving local mysteries.
They wondered what became of Theo, Pippa, Boris and Kitty, debating whether or not Theo and Pippa could have had a tolerably happy life – together or apart – at an imaginary point in future beyond the book’s conclusion.
They wondered about the meaning of the ocean at the end of the lane, remembered for no particular reason Arthur and Between The Lines, childhood shows they hadn’t even been particularly fond of.
They discussed A Time To Kill, Sycamore Row – Deep South and Racism – and Anita was content to confirm, like she’d somehow known, that they agreed on Politics, on the darknesses of certain chapters in history, and that he deemed them as passionately inexcusable as she did. That they followed it with an irreverent back and forth – at once outrageous and hilarious – of stereotypes commonly attached to the other’s race was a different matter altogether.
They stood beside a river in India, listening to it’s many voices, to a Ferryman’s wise words about time and timelessness, motion and stillness, about a river’s concurrent presence at it’s source, it’s end and everywhere in between.
They wandered through time and space together, talking of things they didn’t understand and listened to each other’s opinions: they entangled themselves in prolonged arguments and sometimes, they gave up abruptly, admitting that the other was probably right with the disclaimer that there was no way of being absolutely sure.
Although they talked of books and mostly books, an odd urgency – a strange tension – seemed to lurk beneath their impersonal words, sometime seeping out like resin – thick and potent – through cracks in conversation; Anita pretended it was just her imagination.
It was the middle of November and Anita was counting days until Diwali, until her family’s trip to Florida. The thought Arian no longer was in Florida was ambivalent to say the least – a disturbing mixture of relief and sadness despite her conviction that their friendship was extraordinary and special and pure mainly because of the distance that kept it separated from the real world.
She hadn’t even planned on telling him about the trip but it supposedly slipped out somehow. And the weird part was that she had no memory whatsoever of the when and how. Not that she was overly surprised, remembering as clearly as she did past follies of her motormouth.
She remembered she had been initially surprised when Arian said without warning, “So when are you guys leaving for Florida?
With her jaw dropping a little, she’d asked, “How do you know?.
A small pause had followed and she must’ve imagined, she concluded later, an indistinct sound in the background, muffled, remarkably similar to a swear word.
“That we’re going to Florida?
“Because you told me, remember?, he’d said, his voice vibrating deeply with suppressed mirth – probably at her absentmindedness, her unwarranted suspicious tone. This too, she concluded later on.
“Oh yeah”, she’d said with a laugh, flushing with embarrassment “I remember now”. Did she really? Remember?, she’d asked herself frowning at the same time.
“We’re leaving next week”, she’d cleared her throat and added, answering his original question, “Diwali and Thanksgiving are close together this year so by missing just couple of days I should be able to get a full week there”.
“Have fun. Although”, he had teased, “The hurricane season ain’t quite over yet. You know how they call Chicago the Windy City, I think it’s a joke”.
It had struck her afresh then that Arian wouldn’t be there, and although she had never had any intention or plans of meeting him, the thought bothered her relentlessly, inexplicably, like a toothache. Mired in thoughts, she had missed his question, leading him to repeat it again after a pause.
“Any plans of driving down to Miami this time?”.
”No, why?, she had been surprised, before belatedly remembering that imaginary trip had been her excuse for not meeting him the year before. “I mean, I might”, she’d quickly added, “It’s a beautiful city”
”Very”, he had agreed before quietly saying, “Well, I hope we’re able to meet this time”.
She had allowed her heart to settle into it’s normal rhythm, “You’ll be home? For thanksgiving?
“I might”, he’d said, adding after a pause, “Do you want me to call you while I’m there?
Anita hadn’t been able to reply at first and only after what had seemed like an embarrassingly long interval did she say noncommittally, “Sure”.
And just before hanging up, he had said something that mystified her and left her restless, bringing to life a night at Green Martini last year, and with it, many doubts long laid to rest. Did he?
“If you run into me, somewhere, some time, will you recognize me, will you walk up to me to say hi?
“Of course, I’ll recognize you”, was all she’d been able to whisper, barely able to hear her own words through all that clamor in her heart.
Khushi awoke slowly and rolled to her side. Stretching her limbs, she yawned, her eyes scrunched against light from a crack beneath roll-up blinds, slanting across the duvet’s folds in a gold quadrilateral, filtering through eyelids in a rose cloud.
She lay still and listened to the ocean for a while. It’s distant roar of the ocean sounded mellow, the waves crashing on the sands gentle – marked contrast to the ferocity of last night’s storm, which in the bright light of morning, seemed like a dream to her, a glimpse into a different, darker world. Lazily snuggling into the softness of her pillow, she savored the sounds, especially because the rhythm of the ocean was fused with a rhythm of a different kind today. Little Ria’s sleep – paced breaths.
She smiled, opening her eyes, remembering their little guest. They were babysitting Ria while Isha and Vinay were at the hospital, all poised to bring little Aditya into the world. Khushi was keeping her ears peeled for what she was sure would be a very memorable call from the hospital. Looking down at the angelic face, she covered her starfish hand with hers and grinned amusedly at the way she slept, prone but with her butt sticking up. She’d always liked children and it was with a sense of fascination that she lingered in bed, coiling soft curls around her forefinger and observing the half moon of eyelashes curled thickly against rosy cheeks.
When she finally rose and shoved her feet into slippers, she looked around their room with pleasure. It had been almost three months since they first moved in. But as much as she now loved their charming beachfront house, she still missed their apartment sometimes – the first two years of their togetherness it still held within it’s walls somewhere.
Three months already. She looked around the room – gray walls brought to life with pale blues, corals and generous lashings of white – and walked over to a wall to covered with white framed black and whites pictures. Memories of their journey so far – and what a journey it had been. Her eyes found and lingered on a favorite picture – their candid selfie on Chunar Fort’s terrace, their hair wind blown, their eyes crinkled with laughter. Her smiling eyes skim over the rest of the pictures. Pictures of their sojourn in Srinagar. Their wedding in New Jersey. Their island honeymoon. Solo pictures. Group pictures with family and a single picture of Arnav with Aarav.
Walking over to the window next, she rolled up the blinds to allow late morning light to rush in and flood the room. She couldn’t help pausing before the view for a moment, still not accustomed to it’s magnificence. Turquoise. Azure. Silver.
On the way to the bathroom, she stopped to straighten the couch cushions and picking up a medical journal from the floor beside it. Ria’s constant kicks had compelled her husband to flee to the relative comfort of the bedroom couch last night and she hadn’t even noticed.
Even as she smiled to herself, a sudden whimper from bed demanded her full attention. Awake, Ria sat up in bed, her curls tumbling all over her face, her balled fists rubbing her eyes. As soon as their eyes met, she asked for her mother, her quivering lips a warning that she had noted her absence.
Picking her up, Khushi hugged her close, talking about how her mama had to leave to get her a baby brother and unsure if she understood. She rubbed her back and attempted distracting her with her favorite toy – a beaten down bear with a missing ear. That seemed to work more than her words.
“Baby”, Ria said, latching onto that word and repeating it several times, each time with a different intonation, clutching her beloved bear in the crook of her elbow. After a while, she decided to reward her aunt with a smile that exposed all four of her teeth.
“Now give your maasi a kissey”, Khushi said. She brought her cheek closer and Ria dutifully planted on it a noiseless sloppy kiss. With a chuckle and a swing, she carried her off to the bathroom.
After morning ablutions were taken care of, Khushi took Ria to the kitchen – a space that was at once charming and practical with pecky cypress cabinets, whimsical accents and beige counters and walls. It was brightened by generous light from a window overlooking the yard, the beach and the ocean beyond.
It was strangely heartwarming to feed her in her high chair, with her mouth opening and closing like a little bird. She grinned when after finishing half of her cereal, Ria announced loudly that she was all done; and when clamped her mouth tightly against on coming spoons Khushi had no choice but to give in weakly. In a blue and white frilly romper, the one year old looked so adorable that Khushi couldn’t help kissing her on the way to her arms, as she lifted her off the high chair.
With her own stomach growling with hunger, Khushi decided it was time she went in search of her missing husband. She had a fairly good idea of where to find him too. Opening a sliding glass door and a mosquito screen, she stepped down three steps onto a covered brick patio with flowering chickabiddy vines around plaster pillars. Housing their grill and white wicker furniture, it also was home to an array of ornamental plants in terra-cotta and ceramic planters – Arnav’s pride and joy and daily recipients of his meticulous care. That her husband was not only fond of gardening but possessed a green thumb to boot was an unexpected discovery she’d made about him after marriage.
The air was warm, humid and syrupy – salt, wet earth and cold – hardy varieties of magnolia. With Ria in her stroller, Khushi ambled down a flagged path that meandered through the length of the garden to reach a small gate that opened onto a boardwalk sloping down into the beach.
She found him kneeling before a flower bed, staking some plants flattened by last night’s storm. intent on tying the stems to stakes with twine, he didn’t hear them approach at first and Khushi, halting at a distance, gladly took the opportunity to check him out. A stream of sweat ran down his temple and his eyes held the same intensity that he invested in pretty much everything he chose to do in life. Even as her eyes sparkled with a sudden outpouring of love for him, an excited Ria, who true to her mother’s prediction some months ago did develop a beautiful friendship with her Mausa Ji, which was how Isha laughingly addressed him in front of her, spotted him too. She tried attracting his attention by shouting her garbled version of the word, giving their presence away.
It did have the desired effect as her uncle rose to face them at once, his lips curved with special smile that he reserved just for her, his eyes crinkled. “I just heard from Vinay”, he said, “Little Aditya is finally here. They’re both doing fine. He said he’ll be here in a little bit to pick up Ria”. His eyes veered toward Khushi as he spoke and Ria tried – louder this time – to attract his attention again. With a laugh, he exchanged an amused glance with Khushi before kneeling down in front of her stroller. “Did you hear that, Ria baby? You’re a big sister now”.
It wasn’t sure whether she comprehended him or not but her visible delight at his words brought an answering smile to his lips again.
Ria stretched her arms, a cue, a demand to be picked but Arnav shook his head ruefully. Raising his soiled hands for her to see. “I can’t. My hands are yucky”.
Khushi watched quietly as he talked to her, making her laugh with an enviable effortlessness. The faint crows feet at the corners of his eyes became more pronounced with tenderness as he talked, stirring something deep inside of her. In that moment, a thought that has been taking shape for some time now pushed itself to the forefront, dilating her heart and making her earlier doubts and fears suddenly trivial.
“I’ll talk to Arnav today. It’s time we brought this out in the open”, she decided with a burst of optimism.
Sensing her eyes on him, he rose and walked up to her.“What are you smiling about?, he asks tugging her close by her waist.
“I was thinking….”, she began, meeting his eyes, resting her palms on his sweaty T-Shirt, palpating the hardness of his chest underneath.
“I am listening”
“Do you think…
She couldn’t finish her sentence however as her phone began to ring and expecting it from Anu, who was on the road en route to their home, she instinctively reached for her shorts pocket even as Arnav released her.
It was Anu, calling to update her with their progress. They were crossing Tennessee, she was told, passing through the Smokies to be precise. Mom and Dad were fine and relaxed, busy enjoying the scenery and getting impressed with her driving every mile. They were going to spend the night in Atlanta as planned before contributing continuing south early next morning. If everything went well, she was told, they expected to be with them by late afternoon tomorrow, the day before Diwali.
“Ma’s flight is around the same time too. I can’t wait”, Khushi said as they walked back inside, before remembering to inform them after Isha’s new baby, which, if anything, added more excitement to the mix.
Later in the day, they drove to see little Aditya at the hospital, stopping at a little Cuban place on the way back for dinner. It was close to eleven when they returned. And even as she changed into night clothes – a tank and pajama bottoms – her earlier resolution came back to her. She gazed at a crescent moon’s reflection and waited for Arnav to come up. Gathering her thoughts together, she told herself that her misgivings were unwarranted and that one could never go wrong with open communication in marriage. Even so, her heart fluttered when she heard Arnav approach, felt his arms wrap themselves snugly around her. She leaned back against his chest and he nuzzled against her earlobe, “What did you want to talk about?, he asked.
Khushi turned to face him and slid her arms loosely around his neck. Holding his gaze, she smiled a little.
“I was thinking”, she said.
“I am listening”, he chuckled mimicking her, as always, his teasing conveying tenderness – just tenderness – and never belittlement like it easily could.
She chuckled and took a deep breath. Even as her eyes grew in seriousness, she found it mirrored in the shift in his “You know I’ve been on the pill for almost two years now. Don’t you think I should stop taking it now?
The import of her question wasn’t lost on him, she could read than in his expression, yet he remained quiet for what seemed like a long time, his eyes flickering in consideration of her question, darkening with what was at once familiar and new.
Her chest constricted painfully as she watched him struggle. She could understand his pain. She could feel his fears like it were her very own. Yet, at the same time, she couldn’t help thinking this was the best way forward.
He cupped her neck with both hands, his thumbs – at once rough-skinned and tender – caressing her jawbones. She saw his Adam’s Apple bob once before he spoke. He spoke with apology in his voice, with an uncharacteristic hesitation that wrenched at her heart, “Khushi, love, can I have some time? I just need some time to prepare myself…I promise it won’t…
It was unbearable. She hugged him close, closing his lips with hers. She heard her voice break. “It’s okay. I understand, Arnav. There’s no hurry. You can take as much time as you want. We’ll do this only when you’re ready. Absolutely sure”.
After some time, they disengaged and exchanged a smile. It was a little unsteady but a smile nonetheless.
“Do you want to continue watching that movie we started yesterday? she asked.
“Let me change first. I’ll be right back”, he assented, following it with a slow peck on her lips.
Atlanta was three hours behind and for miles after miles wheels spinning on I -75, southern Georgia gliding past, they’d been alternating local radio stations with Kishore Kumar to beat the tedium. And when they finally crossed the state line, the orange in the Welcome To Florida sign gleamed brightly in the blue and Anita felt a rush of exhilaration – sunshine and champagne – in her veins. It was heady to be young and in control of the steering wheel. She slid the windows down and turned the radio up until her mother had no choice but to yell at her from the back seat.
Talk myself in
I talk myself out
I get all worked up than I let myself down.
I tried so very hard not to lose it
I came up with a million excuses
I thought I thought of every possibility…
I just haven’t met you yet…
A/N: And so we come back to where we started. Thank you for still being here 🙂 Next chapter, next Thursday, same time.