Anita was glad that the first person they came across making their way back to the main hub of the party was none other than Khushi herself. Anita suspected she’d been lying in wait for them but she made it seem like she was casually heading toward something needing her immediate attention and just happened to run into them on the way. A performance worthy of the Golden Globes if not the Oscars. She caught her eye, observing a subtle flicker of amusement in their lovely depths. Ignoring it with an abbreviated eye roll of matching subtlety, Anita decided to keep her face blank and her voice breezy.
“Well”, she announced loudly to no one in particular, “Who would have thought?
Even as she admitted in the pause that followed that her sentence might have sounded foolish and racked her brain to redeem it by the addition of something light and witty, Arian, who had remained silent by her side so far, observing the sisters’ face off with a certain quiet amusement she could actually sense, remarked with a seriousness that neither of his listeners actually believed in, “That’s why it’s said that life is stranger than fiction?
“Absolutely”, Khushi said equally seriously, her eyes dancing in the dim light. Anita was grateful her sister decided not to interrogate them about the whens, wheres and hows of their friendship at the moment – just as she was sure that the said interrogation would come later in the night, that too with no holds barred.
Anita watched as Khushi flashed him a smile and said, “You can call me Khushi, if you like. Dr. Raizada sounds too formal…, she fumbled for the right ending phrase, “under the circumstances”.
Anita shot her a glare which her sister either didn’t see or ignored. “What circumstances was she talking about? To her, it seemed loaded with all kinds of unnecessary and unwanted meaning.
“Thank you, I will”, Arian said, and then added with a laugh, “Although I must say it sounds more comfortable to have Dr Raizada peer down at my tonsils than Khushi”.
“It’s okay”, Khushi said, “When you’re in my office, I’ll become Dr. Raizada again – long before the peering into tonsils part”.
“What’s wrong with his tonsils?, Anita asked curiously, looking first at Arian and then at Khushi.
Khushi laughed, exchanging a conspiratorial look with Arian. She put a finger over his lips, “My lips are sealed under HIPAA privacy regulations”.
“Thank you doctor”, Arian said with exaggerated gratitude, “I knew my secrets were safe with you”.
Anita tossed her hair back in annoyance, watching with sudden childish petulance ͏this profusion of inside jokes being sallied back and forth above her head; and inexplicably wanting to drag Arian back to the silver sands.
“Did you you two eat yet?, Khushi asked, turning a little as their mother signaled for her from a table in the far distance. “Please do before the caterers start clearing the table for dessert”.
“And please join us at our table”, she added over her shoulder as she hurried toward the family, who were all sitting together around a table under a tall magnolia tree overhung with lanterns.
As she left them, Anita turned toward her friend and asked, “Did you eat?
He hesitated, considering the question for a second before answering, “I think I’m going to go for seconds with you”.
Anita grinned at him. She found something indescribably endearing about the way he said that or perhaps about the half bashful pause that had preceded it.
“What did you eat?, she asked, “Do you like Indian food?
He was standing directly under a filigree lantern with it’s light bringing out streaks of copper from his wind tousled hair.
“Oh yes”, he said politely, “Everything except the fiery ones”.
Anita chuckled. Actually”, she said dryly, “If you exclude the fiery ones, it narrows down one’s choices to just a handful of dishes”.
He grinned sheepishly and her eyes were momentarily drawn to an unusual slit of a dimple appearing beside one corner of his mouth. “I’m afraid my tastebuds are wimpy as hell”, he said apologetically.
“I like samosas”, he added helpfully after a pause as they continued to head toward the foot tent, speeding as caterers appeared and seemed poised to carry the food away. How long were they on the beach together? She seemed to have missed a sizable chunk of the party – not that she the slightest regret of course. “And l loved something I tried for the first time today”, he said, “I’ve forgotten what it was called but it was kind of yogurt with dumplings with a sauce the color of my hair on top”.
Anita stared at him, even as she picked a plate and handed it to him, trying to decipher with a mystified frown what sounded more like a riddle than a description.
“A sauce the color of your hair?, she said, unselfconsciously piling her place with warm nans, chicken tikka masala and saag paneer.
“Uh-huh”, he affirmed and as he just as unselfconsciously filled half his place with tiny appetizer samosas only, she tried hard not to smile or comment.
“It’s sweet and tangy and melt in the mouth soft”, he supplied as they continued to head toward down the row of chafing dishes.
He halted in front of a dish and sighed, “This is what I was talking about. Dude, it’s fit for the gods”.
It was a dish of plain old dahi vadas, She broke into uncontrollable giggles as he proceed to serve herself the supposed food of the gods, something her dad studiously avoided because of it’s alleged propensity for causing excessive gassiness. Especially at the sight of the tangy tamarind chutney he’d rather accurately described as being similar to the color of his hair,
“What?, he asked, turning toward her, his crinkled eyes surveying her laughing face with a sort of languor that made her feel quite weak in the knees.
“Nothing”, she said, biting her lip and dragging her attention back to her own plate. “It’s your description of the dahi vadas – that’s what they’re called”, she giggled again. She couldn’t help it. “It was so unexpectedly accurate”.
As they moved together to the next dish, the last in the row, the queen of all dishes in her opinion, she turned toward him again. “However”, she said deliberately dramatically with a regal wave in the the direction of the dish, “Nothing – absolutely nothing – deserves the title Food Of The Gods as much as my lovely old friend here”. She cleared her throat, “Let me present to you, dear sir, ambrosia from heaven, food of the gods – the one and only Biryani”.
Not missing a beat, he fell in step with the silliness of her mood. Giving a somber little bow, he went as far as to affect a bad English accent, “Thank you, dear lady, for introducing me to it. Now would you be so kind to advise whether this heavenly scented ambrosia will treat my mucus membranes kindly – throughout its journey from entry to exit”.
Laughing, she raised a forkful toward him, “Would you like to taste a sample first?, she said in her normal voice, “I’m pretty sure they kept it mild because Arnav Bhai is not a big fan of spices and heat either”.
She had raised her fork without thinking – like she would to Aarti – and was startled by the intimacy of the act when he opened his mouth and accepted it from her.
As he chewed and considered with his eyes closed, Anita thought she heard her mom’s voice calling from the far distance. She realized with dismay that they probably were in her entire family’s line of vision.
She turned back cautiously and saw that her mother was indeed looking at her, doing some kind of furious waving motion with her hand to beckon her.
Feeling cheeky, she waved back at her with an accompanying dazzling smile.
Meanwhile, her new old friend opened his awe filled eyes and declared she was a hundred percent right about it. He also asked what the dish was called and not only did she inform him of it’s name and types but also launched into a brief summation of it’s history which he seemed to find fascinating. They were thus engaged, eating and talking while standing firmly rooted in the food tent, oblivious to the caterers carrying the dishes away and replacing them with an assortment of dessert – both desi and American.
Anita jumped when a pair of hands pressed her shoulders lightly from the back. “Arnav Bhai”, she turned and smiled at him. “I’m glad you two managed to get dinner”, he said, his grave dignified eyes flickering with a smile as they swept across both of them.
“I hope the food wasn’t too spicy for your taste”, he asked Arian in a pleasant voice and Arian assured him it wasn’t, especially – and this he added with a slight curve of lips – with Anita to navigate him through it.
And this proved to be the opening Anita had been looking for to explain what she now called ‘the great coincidence’ in her mind – her friendship and their acquaintance with Arian developing parallel but separate over the years – with the only person who figured it out choosing to keep mum until tonight.
“Isn’t it funny?”, she said to her brother in law without preamble, “that all this time we’ve both known Arian and not known about it”.
The amusement in Arnav’s eyes not only told her how confused her sentence sounded but also that Khushi had already filled him in with all pertinent details. As to when and how she found the time to tell him in midst of such a busy party was another of many mysteries associated to the two of them in her mind.
“If it weren’t such a cliche”, Arnav said with chuckle, “ I would say life is stranger than fiction”.
“Cliche or not, that’s exactly what I said”, Arian smiled, and the two men exchanged a look that suggested mutual liking.
As Arnav turned to leave, he insisted they join him at the table where the entire family – Dad, Mom, Khushi, Astha Auntie, Vinay, Ria – were sitting at dinner together; it was too early, of course, for Isha Di and her new bundle to be out partying. “Mom has been worried about you”, he added airily and unless she was wildly imagining things, she could have sworn she detected laughter in his voice.
“Would you like to meet my family?”, she turned toward Arian. She found that his eyes were trained on her, somber, intent, still, like they’d been there for a minute, or an eternity.
Their eyes collided for a brief moment and in that moment, her stomach filled with something weightless and hollow – like the plunging ghost of a butterfly.
As for him, a quick flicker of his irises dissolved the look into wisps of smoke and with a blink or two of his gold tipped and impossibly thick eyelashes, he segued smoothly into his previous demeanor.
“Sure”, he said with an enthusiasm that she did not quite share, “I would love to meet them. Didn’t you say your father was a botanist? Did you make him read ‘The Language Of Flowers’ like you were planning to? It was a book they’d discussed the month before – with Arian being of one of those rare men who, despite not being a fan of the genre, didn’t condescend to Women’s Fiction or their writers. To Anita, it showed an appealing level of self confidence different from the usual empty swagger and pretentiousness she was accustomed to encountering in college dudes.
“I did”, Anita smiled, “And although he loved all the flower references, and the way it sheds light on the reality of our Foster care system, he didn’t gush over it like I did. I think, excessive sentimentality makes him uncomfortable. But like me, he’s OCD about leaving a book unfinished so he somehow managed to plow through until the very last page”.
“I like him already”, Arian laughed as they made their way toward the table carrying their plates, dewy blades of grass crunching underfoot. Anita felt a twinge of nervousness that she couldn’t quite understand as they approached the table.
As they reached the table and Anita felt the weight of multiple pairs of interested eyes looking up at them, she shuffled her feet and then took a deep breath. It was ridiculous. She had no reason to be nervous like this.
Nonetheless, she beamed with gratitude when Khushi Di, aided by Arnav Bhai, took the onus of introductions and the smoothing over of initial awkwardnesses upon their dependable shoulders.
While Arnav rose quietly and pulled out two empty chairs beside him for her and Arian, Khushi performed the ritual of introductions with charm and aplomb and brevity in right proportions.
“Remember Dr. and Mrs. Foster?”, Khushi said looking in the general direction of their parents and sweeping in a single glance the rest of the table’s occupant’s too. And because majority of her listeners looked on blankly, appeared like they didn’t, she added with a minuscule touch of impatience, “Arnav’s boss and his wife?. He introduced them to you”.
At this, there were vigorous nods of remembrance, although Anita suspected that their father – notoriously absent minded – still didn’t have the slightest idea who Khushi was talking about.
“Well”, Khushi said in a relieved voice, gesturing toward Arian with her graceful hands, “This is Arian Foster, their son – and to our surprise, we found out today that Anita and Arian already know each other”.
At the end of her little speech, Di shot her an amused look that clearly stated that before the night was over she was sure to be squeezed clean of every single detail of their friendship.
As everyone sent him a polite flurry of smiling glances and awkward remarks, he himself seemed frozen for a moment in an indecisive stance, as if unsure whether to greet everyone with an all encompassing Hi or to go the more formal way by moving around the table shaking hands.
Anita, with a strange surge of protectiveness in her heart, looked up at him and signaled for him to follow her with her eyes. She led him around the table, introducing her dad, her mom and even Astha Aunty to him and waited as they shook hands and exchanged a pleasant remark or two.
She could feel her mom’s eyes on her on several occasions, a barrage of a million and one question piercing through her skin; she resolutely kept her eyes averted from her. Not because she was scared – she was no Di – but because there was a real danger of her breaking into giggles at the sight of her notorious stares.
“How do you like the food? , her dad asked Arian with a smile as they both slid into chairs and started shoveling their food in without further ado . Anita rolled her eyes at her biryani, her mouth too full to talk. Of course, that always has to be the first – and often the only – question everyone asks a guest of a different race.
Arian took his time chewing and swallowing before answering his question. Not seeming to have any problem with the question, he answered his dad cheerfully and at length, waxing eloquent about every single thing on his plate and asking a ton of questions too. With passion for food being universal and all that, it wasn’t long before everyone was roped into the conversation.
Anita hid a grin behind a glass of coke, for a person with admittedly wimpy tastebuds equipped to handle only a handful of dishes, he sure sounded extremely enthusiastic about Indian food.
She watched with amazement as even her mother succumbed his charm and humor and smiled quietly at him; and in response to a query if it were possible to make biryani at home, she confessed with some pride that her children loved her biryani.
“She’s right”, Anita said, “Mom makes the best biryani”. She risked smiling at her and immediately glimpsed a familiar steely glint that promised questions galore after the very last guest left the party. It reminded her of all those times in childhood, when catching her being particularly mischievous at a party, her mom, while maintaining a smiling conversation with her friends, would shoot her a glare that threatened, “Wait till we get home”.
Of course, she thought, meeting her mother’s eyes squarely and letting her smile run it’s natural course, I am twenty two now and not four. No one will be allowed to lose sight of this number or fact, not even me. I’m not Khushi Di, she repeated to herself with a surge of anger and pain she hadn’t even realized still remained within her.
She soon realized that Arian had been trying to attract her attention, surveying her side profile with interest as he called her name again.
“The Park opens at 9”, he leaned closer and whispered and despite all the pep talk delivered to self earlier on, Anita’s first instinct to glance across the table at her mother, who, luckily for her, was talking to Arnav Bhai, “Do you think you can be ready by 6? Or would that be too early for you?
She realized with a jolt that she had somehow agreed or maybe been hypnotized into agreeing to his plan to ride all the way to Orlando with him. And although the plan was fraught with dangers of all sorts, it was also the most exciting thing she’d ever looked forward to in her life. It’s just for a day”, she told herself. And I’m sure when I tell Aman, he wouldn’t mind. With his maturity and sometimes formidable wisdom, he might even laugh at her silliness in thinking that there was even a small possibility of his taking exception to an outing with a person who he already knew was just a good friend, and who she was determined to keep just that. She remembered with a familiar ache in her heart that besides texting her a brief, almost impersonal Diwali wish, Aman hadn’t even bothered to talk to her – have a proper conversation with her – since she reached here, let alone express or even imply that he missed her.
“Earth to Jasmine”., she heard Arian say and snapped out of her reverie. She turned to look up and found his face close to her- to the point that she could see in his irises her own diminutive reflections.
With her breath trapping somewhere in the middle of her chest, she turned away quickly. “6 is fine”, she said. From the corner of her eyes, she observed her mom pause in her conversation with Astha Aunty to glance across at her.
Anita pushed her plate back and looked at his companion’s plate to check if he was finished as well.
Refusing to look at her mother, she said softly, “However, I’m not so sure about riding a bike. Even as a passenger, I’m quite the novice”.
“I’m going to get dessert”, she added without waiting for his answer, “Do you want to come with me?
Halfway across the lawn toward the dessert however, he halted and half turned toward her. “How about a spin around the neighborhood to help you decide?, he asked perfectly seriously.
She stared at him. “Now?
He nodded to affirm. “My house is just a few houses down the street”.
She continued to look at him for an extended moment, a series of thoughts, some of them quite contrary to the rest, skimmed across her face in quick succession. Some kind of seabird cried out overhead in the silence between them. It sounded more like a rusty hinge than any other more poetic comparison, a part of her brain noted even as her mind kept up it’s battle of thoughts and ideas until it’s very conclusion into a half baked decision.
She saw Khushi talking to a guest a few paces to her right, with a sudden decision that set her heart pounding like a live caged bird inside her chest wall, she walked up to her and waited for her to finish talking. When she did and turned toward her, she said in as casual a voice as she could manage, “I’m going out with Arian”.
Her sister’s face registered a flash of surprise, perhaps at the abruptness of her statement, perhaps at the uncharacteristic dryness of it – but she was quick to conceal it.
“Ok, sure”, she said at last with a smile, her eyes thoughtful as they flickered about Anita’s face, seeming like they searched to express more but neither recognized what nor knew how.
“I will be back in an hour or so”, Anita added with a tentative smile. She found herself at a similar loss for words despite finding herself with every passing minutes, increasingly sure of herself and her decision
She waited outside his garage as he jabbed at the garage door key pad to open it. As a breeze whirled around, whispering in the trees, ruffling her hair, she hugged her arms, glad that she’d thought to change into jeans and a sweatshirt before leaving.
Their garage was empty except for his powerful looking bike – silver and orange – sidled against a wall.
“Your parents not home yet?, she asked as he led her towards it, “I thought I saw them leaving”. Anita had been unable to keep herself from noticing how Arian seemed to completely ignore his parents’ presence at the party.
He shrugged in response, his head bowed as he wipe down the dusty seat with a rag. “I have no idea”, he murmured without looking at her.
He lowered himself on his haunches to inspect either a wheel or some other part she had no clue about and she averted her eyes quickly from the way the fabric of his trousers stretched over his tautened thigh muscles.
After a moment, he bounced back on his feet with a movement that surprisingly light for someone so tall and athletic.
“So?, he asked with half smile in the dim yellow light, running a hand along the driving seat slowly, “What do you think?
“I don’t know”, she said, her eyes focused on the passenger seat which was not only a little elevated from the driver’s seat but had a back rest as well – which she thought was an excellent idea in the sense that it decreased the likelihood of a passenger blowing right off a speeding vehicle. However, she couldn’t see a bar or a handle to grab onto to keep herself steady; and she had no intention of wounding her arms around the driver to keep herself stationed on the vehicle and not the road. Flushing, she circled around the vehicle slowly, once, twice, wary yet filled with a reluctant fascination at the same time. She found foot rests – one on each side but no grab rails. Eventually, she came to a halt near him and shook her head. “I think, it’s a terrible idea”.
With a mysterious smile, he stepped up and swung out two grab rails from the side of the seat, snapping them into position.
“Would this change your mind?, he asked softly. Finding herself breathless all of a sudden, she focused her attention back on the machine and said in as casual a tone she could manage, “I guess. These will definitely make me feel a lot safer”.
But when they were on the road, led on by a yellow splash of light on the road ahead, she gulped mouthfuls of the cool wind whizzing by and found herself tasting his sun warmed spice scent it blew back to her. Above the din of the machine and her own racing heart, she felt invisible forces tugging at her; she felt a sharp sense of danger; for the first time in her like she was afraid of her own self.
She’s like the wind,
Through my tree
She rides the night
Next to me
She leads me through moonlight
Only to burn me with the sun
She’s taken my heart
But she doesn’t know what she’s done
Feel her breath in my face
Her body close to me
Can’t look in her eyes
A/N: Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts. Hope you like this and don’t find it too long! Next chapter next week, same day, same time.