In Arnav’s secret opinion, the best moments of a party were the ones following the moment when the very last of guests had been duly seen off. It was not that he hadn’t enjoyed the party. He had – to a certain extent. It was after all the first big one he and Khushi had thrown together as a couple and he had loved having their combined family around – even his mother in law – more than he could’ve ever imagined. Still, as he lowered himself into a couch, joining the rest of the family in their family room, he found his muscles relaxing in a deep breath in a way that made him grateful for his doors and walls and the pools of tranquility and comfort they enclosed within.
Khushi skimmed down the stairs, seemingly elated to be out of her sari and heels and into comfy sweatpants – his favorite pool. Flopping herself beside him, she turned to smile at him, the emerald in her eyes glowing dimly with a mix of tiredness and a sense of accomplishment. “We did it”, she said, her lips curved like they were wont to in that way that made them – her – irresistible to him.
With a smile, he leaned in instinctively before realizing that they were surrounded by their entire family. Straightening, he looked around the room. Everyone except Anita, that is. She was still out with Arian and judging by his mother in law’s expression, noticeable despite her animated conversation with Ma, she was acutely aware of her absence too. He had no doubt that it was his mother’s presence that prevented her from being more vocal and expressive of her inner unrest. Remembering Anita’s cheeky smile and wave to her mother earlier on, Arnav suppressed a smile and kept his eyes focused on local news playing out on the TV screen ahead. He wasn’t worried about Anita. He considered himself a pretty shrewd judge of character and even though his knowledge of Arian was admittedly limited and their acquaintance relatively short, he trusted him enough not to worry about Anu going out with him. While he mulled over how best to convey this to Khushi’s mom, or if he even should, Khushi, guessing her mother’s train of thought too, looked across the room, hesitated, and finally said, “Anita said she’ll be back in an hour. Arian’s house is just a few houses down from ours”.
Sujatha gave her a look that was inscrutable to him but no doubt loaded to Khushi before turning to Astha again, who while apparently regaling her with a lighthearted account of her routine in Srinagar, seemed just as aware of the mild tension in the Gupta family as he was. As she pleaded tiredness and rose to retire to her room for the night, his eyes met hers across the room finding reflected in them the slightest hint of his own amusement.
The channel of communication between mother and daughter widened tangibly after her departure.
“How does Anita know him?, Sujatha asked Khushi with as much casualness as she could muster in her naturally domineering voice.
“I’m not really sure”, Khushi said, with her voice sounded guilty for no reason at all. It made his heart surge with both exasperation and love, all at the same time. It was almost comical. Why was his wife sounding so guilty and mouse like when the whole thing – situation, if you may – had nothing to do with her…and nothing for anybody to feel guilty about. “I meant to ask her but never got the chance”, she added defensively and he couldn’t help shifting impatiently next to her. He kept his eyes glued to the TV though, just like his father in law. Wisdom dictated the advisability of keeping out of the ensuing conversation and he decided to stick with it.
“Why did you let her go then? How well do you know this boy – Arian – Arian Foster – anyway?, Sujatha asked, her worried frown suggesting her mind was already wandering toward the worst possibilities – murder, rape, mayhem.
“His parents must be football fans”, Navin remarked absently, his first contribution to the conversation, which, not surprisingly, earned him a look from his wife.
Arnav suppressed a desire to laugh out loud. No body on earth could accuse him of marrying into a boring family.
“What does that have to do with anything?, Sujatha said acidly in a long suffering voice, “Can’t you see I’m worried, Navin. Can you at least try to be more helpful? For once. Anita is out with a practical stranger, she’s not replying to her phone, it’s almost 11 and all you’re doing is sitting there watching TV”.
“What do you suggest I do then? Call 911?, Navin said impatiently..
As a rather loaded silence followed Navin’s reply, and Khushi squirmed in embarrassment next to him, like she invariably did whenever her parents squabbled in front of him, Arnav sighed and turned the TV off.
Navin, probably rethinking his response, continued hurriedly in a placating tone, “Suji, Arian is not a stranger. Arnav told me that both he and Khushi have known him for a while”.
Taking this as a cue to pitch in with his own two cents, Arnav nodded somberly in what he hoped was a reassuring manner at Sujatha. “He seems ok. Nice guy”, he vouched reservedly, meaning to imply that while he didn’t really know him all that well, he knew him enough for his turning out to be a serial killer or something seem unlikely.
“I agree. He’s my patient”, Khushi added, “And his grandmother, who is also my patient, is a sweetheart”. Her voice petered impatiently as if in realization of the utter uselessness of bringing up that his grandmother was a sweetheart as a guarantee against anything. It wasn’t. Pretty much, nothing was. She made an agitated movement with her hands and her voice throbbed with frustration, memories and remembered pain as she said, “I guess what is more important is that it’s Anita we’re talking about. It’s what we..”. As she fumbled for words, her voice strained by an onslaught of emotion, Arnav allowed his arm to stretch across the backrest and his fingers to brush against Khushi’s shoulder gently.
“I guess what Khushi’s trying to say here is that it’s far more important to remember that Anita is responsible and intelligent and perfectly capable of looking after herself”.
“And deserving of our trust”, Khushi added softly.
Even before she stopped speaking, sediments of their past journeys, collective and individual, drifted across the room, visible partially like dust motes in slants of memories and bringing about a perceptible shift into the atmosphere of the room.
The silence that followed and reigned for a while was broken by the door bell sounding cheerfully in a way that could only be Anita. Khushi leapt to her feet and headed for the door and it’s wasn’t long before Anita made a breezy nonchalant entry into the family room. She stopped in her tracks and looked around the room full of somber faces with what appeared to be genuine surprise in her eyes. Although, knowing Anita, he had serious doubts about it being genuine and judging by the way Khushi shook her head at her, so did she.
“Did somebody die?, she asked with a hand on her heart. It was too much for him and leaning back weakly against the couch, he began to laugh and it wasn’t long before flopping down next to him, Khushi joined him too. She was too much. Even her parents were unable to keep a straight face as they looked up at her. With a wink at Khushi, Anita lowered herself next to her mother. Hugging her arm, she kissed her on the cheek loudly before she could say a word. “My mommy is the best”, she declared to no one in particular.
Trying unsuccessfully to push her away from her, Sujatha asked, “Where were you?
“With my friend, Arian”, she said, actually allowing herself to sound surprised at the question, “I told Di. And I’m sorry I couldn’t reply to your calls, Mom, I didn’t realize I had put it on silent”.
If anyone deserved the title of the queen of looks, it was his mother in law, Arnav thought, as she shifted and turned to face Anita fully. “How come we’ve never heard you mention his name before?
Anita sighed deeply and thoughtfully; they could almost hear the furious whirring and clanking of the machinery of her brain. “Because I didn’t really consider him a real – life friend until today”, she said, her attitude a perfect mix of patience and reasonableness and her voice designed to make the asker question the logic of her own questions. She then proceeded to give them all a brief time line of their friendship, checking off imaginary bullet points on her fingertips as she spoke. “We first met two years ago on a flight from India. Then, we kept in touch via social media at first then talking on the phone. Then, a year back, Arian found out that by a freak coincidence I was related to Arnav bhai and Di whom he also knew through his dad, Dr. Foster, who happens to be Arnav Bhai’s boss. Am I correct, Arnav bhai? She paused to look across the room at him and as innocent as her face studiously was, he didn’t miss the gleam of mischief in her eyes, which sparked brighter still in face of his amusement, his skeptically arched eyebrow. “Correct”, he said before exchanging a look with Khushi, who seemed both amused and a little dazed at what ultimately boiled down to an unapologetic, deliberate display of glorious new wings by her baby sister.
“And tonight, Daddy”, Anita drew her dad closer into the heart of what was turning out to be a rather one sided conversation, “He decided to surprise me by coming to this party to meet me. All the way from Chicago. Oh – and did I mention that he majored in English too and…that he got into University Of Chicago Law school this year”.
Another silence fell across the room when she finished talking with even Sujatha seemingly at a loss for words.
Arnav stretched and rose to his feet, deciding to make good use of the pause to head up to his room. With a sigh, Khushi uncurled herself on the couch and prepared to join him. It had really been a long day for the two of them.
Anita looked up at the mantle clock and got up too. It was close to midnight. “I’d better go to sleep too”, she said to her mom before hesitating for a split second to add, “Arian wants to take me to Universal’s tomorrow and to avoid the worst of traffic, we decided to make an early start in the morning”.
There was another short pause before she addressed both her parents, her gaze sweeping across from one to the other, “I’m sure that’s ok, right?
Arnav and Khushi were halfway up the staircase when Sunitha’s reply wafted after them. Her voice was laced with sarcasm but oddly resigned – although to call it peaceful would have been a bit of a stretch. “I’m not sure if that was a statement or a question”, she said, “And why bother asking when it’s clear your mind is already made?
Closing their room’s door against faint sounds of Anita’s effusiveness, Sunitha’s reluctant amusement, and Navin’s soft laughter, Arnav and Khushi grinned at each other. Khushi’s eyes were rueful. “I wish I’d known at her age, as a new adult”, she said, “that to assert yourself with confidence, to set relationship boundaries without offending parents or anyone else could be this simple. She makes it seem so easy while I had to go through this unnecessarily painful and drawn out learning process”.
“Well, that’s what makes you you”, Arnav said, pulling her in, “Khushi. My Khushi”.
“Flatterer”, she scrunched her nose at him and with a laugh, he cupped her neck with one hand, his thumb caressing the delicate line of her jaw bone.
“Flattery will get you everywhere”, she declared, beginning to unbutton his shirt with a teasing slowness.
It was still dark when Anita slipped quietly out of the front door, locking it behind her. Arian had texted her a moment ago, at exactly 6, to inform he was waiting outside. The air was pre dawn crisp as she climbed down a short flight of steps from the stoop, not yet fully awake as she was far from being a morning person. When she saw him first, leaning against his bike in the dim lamp light from the median, it felt a bit like a dream but only until she had walked up to him to be welcomed by an equally sleepy eyed smile that matched hers. He hadn’t shaved either; it was clear he wasn’t much of a morning person either.
“Are you sure you want to do this?, she murmured, accepting the spare helmet he held out for her, “You look half asleep to me”.
“So do you”, he chuckled, without bothering to deny her observation, “We’ll coffee up before getting on the highway”.
Her helmet chin strap seemed a little loose to her, and even as he watched silently, she fumbled to adjust it with suddenly clumsy fingers.
“Here let me do it for you”, he said finally.
“No, it’s okay. I got it”, she said, flushing with a silly kind of desperation as the dratted chin strap refused to budge. After what seemed like aeons, and much to her embarrassment, she accepted his second offer to help. She kept her eyes averted as he stepped in, noting with a strange fluttering in her stomach the way he took care to ensure his fingers didn’t brush against her skin. She couldn’t resist looking up at him after a while, only to find his eyes strangely intent and fixed on her face. Even as their gazes joined for a fraction of a second, his eyes flickered and that look disappeared.
“There”, he said lightly and stepped back, “Does that feel better?
Even as Anita nodded mutely, he swung his body gracefully over the seat to mount the bike. his left hand squeezing the clutch lever even as his right thumb pressed start. As the engine fired into life, he looked back at her with an elated grin and alive eyes.
A/N: Next chapter, next week, same day, same time.