As she extended a hand toward him, a little shyly, he chuckled and pulled her into an embrace and even as she gasped in surprise, his blood flooded with a heady euphoric joy. “As fellow Mile Highers, don’t you think we known each other a little too well for a formal handshake?. He heard her chuckle before pulling away from him.
He had acted unthinkingly under a joyous impulse and although he kept it brief, reluctantly so, and even though it was purported to be nothing more than a friendly platonic greeting, he found himself regretful the instant she pulled away from him. He remembered her inaudible gasp of surprise, her body stiffening in his arms awkwardly. It immediately made him feel bad, unsure of himself, presumptuous even. If anything, it made him realize that despite his feeling that he’d known her all his life, there was much he didn’t know about her, that in some ways, he was treading unchartered territory – and that he’d better get his game right…
Her eyes glinted up at him in the dim light. Her earlier smile was all but gone with just it’s faintest traces clinging onto the corners of her mouth. She crossed her arm and surveyed his face, her thoughtful – unforgettable – eyes laser sharp. She was nobody’s fool, he noted, and bore her scrutiny with a half smile. He inclined his head slightly in preparation; the questions were coming and coming fast.
He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets, braced himself for the barrage seemingly taking forever to be launched. He kept his eyes trained on hers as he waited quietly, observing as he did a whole gamut of undefined emotions flitting across her eyes, emotions seeking expression and failing. She looked away and groaned, unfolding her arms, combing waves of hair back with agitated fingers.
“What”, he asked concerned.
“This is not a coincidence”, she said finally, her eyebrows knitting together in accusation.
“I never said so”, he said. He flushed guiltily at her confusion, at having held secrets from her for so damned long. Eighteen months to be precise.
After a pause, he straightened and guided her toward a nearby bench, a hand at her elbow. She didn’t resist. “I’ll explain”, he said, “First, let’s sit here”.
“So”, he said soon after they’d lowered themselves on the bench, “I know your sister and brother in law”. He paused and peered at her face. She looked attentive and dazed, all at once. “My dad and Arnav”, he said, “they work together. And that’s where I first met him, at their office, to be evaluated for lasik. Of course, at that time I had no clue that of all six billion people in the world, he would end up being related to you”.
“7.4 billion”, she corrected him quietly, her head bowed, her fingers taking apart a wilted plumeria, “But never mind, continue”.
He laughed shortly at the surreality of the moment, then took a moment to collect thoughts he’d lined up neatly the day before. “This was beginning of last year”.
“Ok”, she said, looking up, drawing her vowels out, “So how did you find out that of all 7.4 billion people in the world he was related to me? Her gaze grasped his, firm, steady, unwavering, seeming to hypnotize, to cast a spell – if he wasn’t already under one.
“I was coming to that”, he said, plucking the badly mauled flower from her fingers. He sighed. This was going to be difficult. “So, Arnav and Khushi”, he began, pausing to smile as she raised an eyebrow at his familiarity, “They are regulars at this place called…Green Martini”.
He watched as she flushed deeply, splotches of color rising from neck upwards, eyelashes flickering in confusion. He looked away, her embarrassment was painful to watch – the reason why he had upheld her lie for so long.
“You saw me there last summer”, she stated, “You recognized me, didn’t you? You must’ve noticed I was with Arnav and Khushi, and since you already knew I was in Florida visiting my sister, you put two and two together. Right?
“Right”, he said without looking at her, “I…
She rose to her feet and when he looked up at her, her eyes were shuttered and her face a frozen mask. “Eighteen months”, she said in a tight little voice, “You had eighteen months to let me know”.
Arian leapt to his feet too, “Listen”, he said, “I wanted to but…
“But you didn’t”, she finished for him, her voice shaking a little, her eyes grave pools of anguish and anger, “You chose instead to be secretly amused by me and my lies. You were probably enjoying yourself, weren’t you?
“It wasn’t like that”, he said aghast at being attacked like this and at once wanting to kiss her and realizing it wasn’t the best of ideas. His mind was all over the place and his heart was a mess.They had only just met and were already squabbling with the familiarity of old friends. And he wasn’t entirely sure if that was a bad thing or not.
Even as he watched, she turned to walk away from him. He hesitated for a moment before deciding to follow her. He didn’t quite trust her not to disappear into thin air. She was headed toward the boardwalk and walking fast, her fists balled by her sides. “Anita, wait”, he said, “Let me explain”.
“You let me go on and on about my imaginary trip to Miami and didn’t stop me even once”, she said continuing to walk and without looking back, “You even asked if I planned on visiting Miami again this year”.
He flushed and bit back a chuckle. “I’m sorry”, he said somberly instead, “I shouldn’t have. Way out of line”.
“And”, she said emphatically, ignoring his apology, turning to face him again, “You convinced me that I’d somehow let you know about my plan to visit Florida in November, for Diwali, when I clearly remembered having no intention whatsoever of doing that. You knew of my plan already, of course, although only god knows how”.
He cleared his throat. “Khushi is my primary care doctor, has been since summer of last year. And my grandma’s too as a matter of fact, for the past few months. We – er – talk on the phone sometimes. I don’t remember how or when this party came up but she once mentioned having invited my parents to it, that she looked forward to having her family over for Diwali. She is unaware that we…we know each other”.
She gaped at him, her lovely, generous mouth opened wide although not a single word tumbled out from it. When she did speak, her eyes flashed majestically and her voice dripped heavily with sarcasm. “Well, I do hope you enjoy the party. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” With that, she once again turned her back to him, pointedly making her way down the boardwalk to the beach.
“Anita”, he called after her receding back, debating whether he should follow her or not, “I don’t understand why you’re angry at me”.
“You don’t understand why I’m angry at you? Because you’ve just made me feel like a goose”, she said without looking back at him. Nearing the beach, she kicked her sandals off. “And because friends don’t keep secrets from each other”.
“Ha”, he said, with a smugness he couldn’t hide from his voice. He crossed his arms. “Friends don’t lie to each other either”.
She spun around to glare at him, “Ha. Classic Tu Quoque Fallacy. You forget that I lied to you a year ago. We weren’t friends then”.
He grinned at her, “We were too”.
No, we weren’t”, she said emphatically before turning and stepping onto the beach.
He looked down at his dress shoes and grimaced. Resting his arms on the white painted wood rail, he looked down across the curved strip of beach, watching as her small star lit form entered his visual field before determinedly receding away from him, her back erect, her hair flapping in the wind.
“Where are you going?, he called after her.
“I don’t know”, she replied over her shoulder, her voice still sulky,
“I don’t Know is pretty far off”, he said. He couldn’t resist it. “You’d better take your flying carpet. It will be faster”.
She halted and turned back slowly to face him. “You are hilarious”, she said with what sounded like forced acid into her tone. Light from the backyard slanted across and lit her features. Even from the distance that separated them, he could sense she was struggling to keep her face straight.
Holding her gaze by force of will alone, he said gently, “I’m sorry, Anita. I never expected it to go on for so long. And it all started because I didn’t want to embarrass you by…letting on that I’d recognized you, seen you trying to…”, he tried not to chuckle at the memory, “hide from me. And after, I kept waiting for us to meet so we could sit down like we did today and get it all out in the open”.
She continued to look after he had finished speaking and a subtle but unmistakable shift in her stance, in her expression, took shape before him. Taking a deep breath, she looked away, her eyes trained at the ocean at high tide, swelling, undulating, like a barely restrained beast.
“I need to think”, she said suddenly and bit her lip, “I need time to absorb all of this”.
The sand felt like silk beneath her soles and as she walked toward a nearby bench, she glanced at the waves warily, hoping the rising tide wouldn’t bring them any closer to her. She ran her fingers through her windblown hair, gathering it together on one side of her neck. She touched her cheek. It was still warm. It impressed upon her the reality of the moment and the moments that had preceded it, despite it all feeling like a dream or a movie. It was like running from an unknown threat in a recurring but blurry dream for a long, long time and then waking up one fine day, opening one’s eyes, and finding it right in front of you, well defined, unambiguous, in sharp focus.
She lowered herself on a bench, her mind flooded to the brim and overflowing with him – his eyes, his warmth, the feel of him, the sun warmed spice smell of him. The heart flipping thought whether he had flown in from Chicago just to meet her. Stop, she said angrily after allowing a few such unguarded moments to unfurl and create havoc in her heart. Her mind immediately got to work in crisis control mode, pulling down shutters and bolting doors, erecting defenses and etching boundaries. Arian was a friend. Just a friend, or even a little less than a friend as yet. A lot more than a stranger though. What was he? What definition did he fit in? Stop. The sooner she got rid of this temporary insanity fogging her senses and sensibilities, the better. For both of them.
She loved Aman, she stressed upon her mind and loyally repeated it twice; Aman was her first love, he had every single quality she’d ever wanted in a romantic partner. He was perfect for her. She took a deep breath and found herself relaxing slowly. Her veins suffused with confidence gradually.
Aman’s words on that little bridge in the park wafted over to her, mingled with the sounds of water rushing beneath it.
“This is today. And it will belong to us. Just the two of us”.
The path she had etched for herself lay in front of her and she was determined – absolutely determined – not to waver from it; because if she did, what kind of person would that make her, what kind of person would she have to see in the mirror for the rest of her life?
A movement on the boardwalk caught her attention. It was Arian, placing his folded jacket on the railing carefully. His tie was gone too, she noticed. As he unfastened the topmost button of his shirt next, she stiffened, an unexpected shiver traveling down her spine. What the hell did he think he was doing?
“What are you doing?, she called.
“I need to think too”, he said innocently, making his way toward her. His trouser legs were neatly folded, she noted, and his feet were bare. When he stopped in front of her, she looked up at him.
“Mind if I join you?, he asked with a smile in his voice. She blinked slowly, unable to look away, immediately transported to a cafeteria in Schiphol, to two kids talking about journeys, destinations and dreams over coffee in paper cups. A strong tide of nostalgia and something she couldn’t understand, describe or explain washed over her. Her throat choked and she felt herself weakening all over again. Gathering herself together, she smiled at him. As he smiled back, she felt she was being a boor – childish, immature, outright rude even – when he’d been nothing but considerate and helpful and friendly and nice, when he’d done or said absolutely nothing to fuel her inner storm…
“Of course”, she said, sliding over to make space for him. And as he lowered himself next to her, she ignored, tried to quell, a sudden rush of awareness. She crossed her legs and cleared her throat. She racked her brain to think of something to say, something cool, something suitable, something that would bring their equation back – safely back – to it’s old familiar footing.
They both ended up speaking at the same time, ended up laughing. With their back to the house, his face was half veiled in darkness. All she could make out was the flash of his teeth, the glimmer of his eyes and a strong sense of his presence in the air that separated them.
“You go first”, she said and he pointed to a cluster of winking light further down the curved beach.
“That’s my dad’s house”, he said. And after all the revelations brought forth by what was perhaps the most eventful evening of her life, Anita took the news with aplomb, just an interested murmur, a smile and a raised eyebrow. Had Arian pointed towards the sky and told her that’s where his house was, Anita thought bemusedly, she might have barely batted her eyelids. Or if a UFO showed up in the horizon right now, she might just have yawned and looked away. Even as she chuckled silently at her own thoughts, Arian shifted his position, half turning toward her.
“Your turn now”.
“Huh? His voice. It’s electronic version didn’t even begin to do it justice.
“What were you going to say?
“Oh”, she said remembering. She smiled a little, “Happy Birthday once again”.
“Thank you”, he said and after a pause he spoke again, a teasing tone entering his voice this time. “Where’s my present?
“There is no present”, she said with a laugh, summoning lightheartedness of her own to fall in step with his, “See, this is what happens when you keep secrets from a friend”. Her lightheartedness proved to be short lived however when he said quietly, in all apparent seriousness, “How about the pleasure of your company for the next three days I’m here?
With her heartbeats pounding against her ears, she jumped when her phone erupted into sound too, it’s ringtone sounding incongruently loud and out of place.
Don’t know what to say to you now
Standing right in front of you
Don’t know how to fade in and out
Don’t know how to play it cool…
A/N: Thank you for readership and your kind words. Next chapter, next week, same day, same time.
Looking forward to your thoughts as always.