It was fairly unusual for him to be all tied up in knots like he was currently and he was aware his state hadn’t gone unnoticed or uncommented upon among his family. His younger sister, Anjali, who along with her husband, Shyam, and their son, little Aryan, had flown in from Michigan the day before to spend Diwali with them, had chuckled and raised an eyebrow when he continued to stare at the bottom of his coffee cup long after it was done with her having to repeat what she was saying to him a couple of times before being able to attract his attention. Even the usually serious and often tiresomely intense Shyam had laughed out loud and pulled his leg and as for his mother, he still remembered the look on her face when lost in thoughts, he’d seemingly frozen in puja stance, hands joined, eyes clenched shut, opening them only when his mother nudged his arm. A half worried, half angry look had flitted across her face and with a sigh, Aman had realized that she probably thought he was still pining for Khushi. Had he not been so preoccupied, he might have found it comical. Except, he didn’t; since his phone conversation with Yvette, who called earlier in the day for Diwali wishes, his mind had been playing pieces of her sentences in an endless loop. “I talked to Mira yesterday”, she’d said when their conversation turned predictably toward their erstwhile shared habitat – the office, “I’m worried about her. It’s not healthy how she keeps herself completely isolated from the world, walled off from even a bare minimal of social life. Don’t tell her I said this. Having come to know her fairly well over the last few months, I know she’d rather die than admit what I just said. It’s a shame she doesn’t have any of her own family here – at a time one would be expected to need them the most ”. As she went on to say how she’d taken it upon herself to ask some of the office girls to keep calling Mira, even visit her when possible, Aman, who’d listened to all of this with an unexplained but escalating disquietude within his heart, heard himself assuring in a voice that sounded like somebody else’s that he would try to call her too.
And he did, twice immediately after Yvette’s call, except that both of these times the ringtone echoed for a seemingly interminable interval before disappearing abruptly into the netherworld of a voice mail box. Swamped pleasantly as he was by family, friends, festive food and cheer, it was after an unintentionally long pause that he was able to call her again, just as the late afternoon sunshine of an insipid fall day paled silently into dusk and the festive light sent off their cheerful glow into the cold night air. This time, he left a message, a short message in his best boss – like voice, instructing her to call him back as soon as possible and although he didn’t actually verbalize it in so many words, he made it sound – deliberately and misleadingly so – like he was calling with regards to a grave professional matter.
And now, it was late in the evening, shortly after dinner, and while everyone else convened in family room for a long night of chai and card games – their family tradition of sorts – Aman could neither keep his attention focused on his immediate surroundings nor hold his restlessness under check. What added to the already raging chaos in his mind was knowledge of Anita’s missed call coupled with his vague reluctance, his procrastination to call her back, his unexplained sense of suffocation – of impending doom – balanced with a certain dark guilt that the forced cheer, the feigned normalcy of a Happy Diwali text did nothing to alleviate. The most damning observation of all was that even his guilt was unable to keep his mind away from her. It was like a madness; it was as if his mind were possessed, no longer familiar, no longer under his control.
Mira called her after he’d given up all hopes angrily, going up to his room to change and call it a night.
“Hello? Dr. Aggarwal? Is that you? Is that really you?, her voice bubbled across the dark night to him. incongruently happy, unexpectedly cheerful, nothing like Mira’s reserved, poised, sparsely worded speech he’d come to expect of her. “Dr. Aggarwal? How are you?, she continued even as he frowned in confusion, almost doubting whether he had called the right number or not. Her enunciation was blurred at the edges and her vowels an inch short of colliding into each other – clueing him in as to what was going on with her. Startled, his eyes widened. “Happy Diwali!”, she said happily, “Many many Diwali wishes to all of you. Happiest Diwali ever”.
Aman sat down heavily on the edge of his bed, thrown by the sheer unexpectedness of coming across what gave every indication of being a badly tipsy Mira Das.
She seemed to noice his silence and a petulant note entered her voice, “Dr. Aggarwal. Dr. Aman Aggarwal? Dear Dr. Aman Aggarwal? Why are you not talking to me? I said, Happy Diwali to you”.
Aman cleared his throat. “Happy Diwali to you too, Mira. How are you?
“Great”, she said, “Wonderful. Awesome”.
“I’m glad to hear it”, Aman said, with a smile tugging at the corners of his lips, stretching it into a full blown grin slowly.
“Don’t tell my daughter”, she added in a conspiratorial whisper, “But I just devoured a tub of ice cream. A whole fucking tub of ice cream”.
He chuckled silently, falling back upon the bed, his phone pressed snugly against his ear, “I won’t. My lips are sealed”. Despite his amusement, a tide of emotion surged in his heart in ever widening waves; he was quick to chalk it up to compassion.
“You are a good man, Dr. Aggarwal”, she said gratefully, “And a great doctor. A handsome one at that”.
“Thank you for the kind words”, he laughed softly and shook his head, flushing a little as he wondered how much of their conversation she would remember tomorrow morning at the office when they faced each other again. He couldn’t wait to find out.
Later that night, as he tried unsuccessfully to fall asleep, he found himself overwhelmed – his mind completely saturated with fantasies – forbidden, sinful, delicious – that played themselves out on an untiring loop, that, after a weak attempt or two, he gave up trying to keep in check…
After a sleepless hour in a suddenly burning hot bed, he bolted upright and decided to go downstairs for a glass of water, to see if cold water would quench his parched veins and clear his head. For a person who’d always found excesses – be it in emotion, want or expression – not only lacking in common sense and distasteful but also more or less confined to the world of celluloid or print, the sheer strength of his desire – this almost mysterious magnetism toward another human being was quite possibly the single most dramatic thing he’d ever experienced.
As he swallowed thirstily, a sharp prickle of shame cut across the fibers of his being. He was tempted to write off what he felt for Mira as one of the most basic of needs known to man but was unable to, allowing himself to wallow in the cold misery of ambiguity instead.
What added to the confusion was his certitude that irrespective of how he felt toward Mira – how he now felt toward Mira or perhaps how he had always felt for Mira for years without knowing – his affection for Anita remained deep and unshakable and the protectiveness she inspired in him unwavering. Perhaps due to the complicated nature of their history, the wrongs he committed against her in the not so distant past, he felt that at the very least he owed her loyalty. He continued to think of her as a beautiful person, who, often times and in multiple ways still, despite or maybe because of her tiresome copiousness of speech, her optimism, her fiery never-say-die attitude, seemed little more than a child to him – although in recent months he’d tried to rethink how he saw her, how he thought of her…
The mere thought of causing her hurt – again – was as unacceptable to him as the idea of ever having to hurt his little sister Anjali.
“There is no present”, Anita 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 musical ringtone sounding incongruently loud and out of place. It was a welcome distraction, giving her chance to wiggle out of having to answer him without appearing rude, although something told her he wasn’t likely to either forget about it or refrain himself from repeating it.
It was Khushi. She exhaled deeply, tapping the screen, raising the phone up to her ear. “Where do you keep disappearing to?, her sister asked, her voice – more exasperated than worried – working in mysterious ways to reboot her system, to realign her universe back into it’s normal configuration. Almost. “Mom dearest is worried about you”, she added.
Anita’s head tilted slightly as she considered her statement; her lips twisted with sly humor while a shot of mischief bolted through her veins like an unlikely intoxicant, “Tell her I’m at the beach”, she said with a sideways slanting glance, “catching up with a friend – an old friend of mine. Like I was just telling him, who would have thought that of all the places in all of the world I would run into him here, my sister’s own backyard”.
“Who?, Khushi demanded with inelegant brevity, her voice laced with the kind of urgent, naked curiosity only older sisters and close friends are allowed to get away with. Sometimes.
“You might know him actually”, she said airily, her tongue in cheek tone not lost on his companion who chuckled throatily and rose to his feet at the same time. With his amused stare firmly trained on her as he stood looking down at her, he swiped a hand across the side of his jaw before burying it deep into a pocket – a mannerism, she thought bemusedly, that on account of her crazy awareness of him was already noted twice that evening and even tinged with familiarity as a result.
“Arian Foster? Ring a bell?”, she said to her sister even as she returned his favor in equal measure by staring back up at him. Now that she’d painstakingly regained her bearings – somewhat – she had no intention of letting on just how much she was affected by him.
It was hilarious the way her sister was plain unable to reply to that. She tried to imagine her facial expression – her beautiful hazel eyes widened into two perfect circles and her jaw adorably slackened. A chuckle bubbled out of her already curved lips. “Tell Mom not to worry, Di”, she said, rising from the bench, “I am coming over now”.
They walked toward the board walk together, beside the waves, under the velvet stretch of stars and perhaps deliberately slow. The backs of their hands brushed each other once and Anita, with a fresh jolt of awareness, engineered a discreet side step and widened the gap between them. It was a different matter altogether that even the gap seemed to ebb and flow with his infectious energy.
He seemed to be in high spirits, she noted amusedly, softly whistling a catchy tune – her phone’s ringtone – under his breath.
When Marimba Rhythms start to play
Dance with me, make me sway
Like a lazy ocean hugs the shore
Hold me close, sway me more
And as they approached their shoes, he even executed a little sway and twist rumba-esque step on the way, telling her that her ring tone was lit.
“Thank you”, she laughed and because she was weirdly possessive about her favorite dance number and maybe because she couldn’t just let go of an excellent opportunity to show off, she added, “By the way, here’s how you do it”.
She wished she hadn’t. They were at the beginning of the boardwalk and not only was the light stronger there, but also the impact of his smoky gray gaze as he turned to watch her silently.
“Not bad”, he said turning away with a little smile just as her cheeks threatened to spontaneously combust. “Let’s add dancing to our to do list”, he said without looking at her, shrugging his suit jacket on, “Time is short. We only have three days”.
“There is no ‘our list’ that I know of’”, Anita muttered sliding her shoes back on and Arian did the same in silence before bouncing up to his feet to face her again.
He sighed and tried hard to look hurt. It made her laugh.
“Diagon Alley is a just a little over 150 miles from where we stand”, he said, his irises flickering in mirth as he dangled before her nose what was clearly intended to be a fat juicy carrot, “If we leave early, we could be raising our butter beers to our friendship by mid morning”.
She wished she were less transparent when he leaned in closer to gauge her reaction and his lips curved at what probably were pathetic signs of her wavering, of coming within an inch of being sold on his idea.
She cleared her throat, schooling her features back into what she hoped was her non committal default expression.
“I’m sure my family has plans for tomorrow”, she murmured, beginning to walk toward the party.
“Of course”, he said, falling in step beside her, “We can be back by late afternoon if you like”.
With an anguished sigh, she halted in mid step and turned with a frown. “Why do you have to make it so – so difficult for me?
With a wicked chuckle, he leaned in slightly to grasp her gaze and continued to tempt her. A copper headed devil in the guise of man with speech as smooth as a river pebble. “Imagine this?”, he said and his voice sent a shiver down her spine. “The exhilaration of speed as we zip down the Florida Turnpike on my bike? Warm sunshine on your shoulders? Breeze in your hair?
She realized with a start that she was close to being hypnotized. With a giggle, she raised a hand and snapped her fingers loudly between their faces.
“Alright, Kaa”, she said, her laughter bubbling over into her voice, “Mowgli is done being hypnotized by you”.
They couldn’t stop laughing after that. For maybe a minute, or maybe an eternity, they continued to laugh, helplessly, sometimes swiping away a tear, sometimes leaning weakly against the wooden rail.
And after they had finally stopped, Anita’s eyes darted up to meet his, her heart dilating with sudden warmth. Shaking her head slowly at his stubbornness, she studied him thoroughly until a smile unfurled upon her lips slowly.
“Orange picking on the way?, she asked briskly and without missing a beat, Arian held up a hand for Hi5.
“Deal”, he said equally briskly, even as his eyes lingered on hers, snapping cheekily with triumph.
It might not be the right time
I might not be the right one
But there’s something about us I want to say
Cause there’s something between us anyway
A/N: This chapter turned out to be longer than expected and I’m sorry I was unable to reach the Teaser part! It will be included in the next chapter🙂
Hope you liked this. Looking forward to your feedback. Would love to hear from all of you!
Next chapter, next week, same day, same time.