“How about you?, she spoke after a pause – with a lightheartedness that she didn’t quite feel, “Meet anybody interesting in Chicago?
He hummed and pretended to think for the longest time and when he did answer, it was with an enigmatic little smile that she wasn’t quite sure what to make of.
“Nope”, he said with an almost imperceptible shake of his head, his eyes trained steadily on hers with a silent import and something that felt like a challenge almost. Anita looked away. She tried to ignore the way her heart chose to behave then, the way her blood tingled through veins in little undefined bubbles. With a stubbornness that was perhaps innate to her nature, she tried to pretend a blindness – to herself and him both – to that which sparked and crackled between them like a live wire – interspersed between sentences, lurking beneath skins, betrayed by eyes. It was becoming increasingly hard however, she admitted even as she changed the topic and his eyes betrayed knowledge of her struggle with a knowing flicker of a smile he was quick to hide with those incredible eyelashes in a way that was quite devastating…
Yet. Yet, somewhere, she found herself patting herself on the back for her strength and determination. She felt she owed it to Aman. She felt she owed it to herself and her sense of worth to remain in the boundaries she’d long drawn for their friendship – their relationship – despite all that her friend, with a winning mix of boldness and restraint, seemed to be hinting at. An intention. A knowledge. A suggestion. A persuasion.
After lunch, and before they cut their way to Gringott’s, saving it for last, they wandered around Diagon Alley in silence, each seemingly immersed in private thought, perhaps reliving childhood memories, perhaps trying to capture the fast fading present into more memories.
Whatever the case, they wove in and out of the magical places – Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Ollivander’s Wand Shop and Florean Fortescue’s Ice cream parlor where Anita found herself too full to try the lavender flavor Aarti had raved about. They detoured into Knockturn Alley and didn’t find it even half as creepy as they’d imagined in the rather anticlimactic bright sunlight of Florida.
“London fog and overcast skies”, Anita observed as Arian tried on a death eater mask at Burkin and Borges, “That’s what missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it”.
“Very hard to please, are you?, Arian said, his chuckle muffled from beneath the mask.
Stepping in, he brought his masked face closer to hers, “Be prepared to have your soul sucked, sweetheart”, he rasped in a villainous voice.
With his words conjuring disturbing images, Anita’s breath went missing in the middle of her chest somewhere.
Matching him in what she hoped was playfulness, she slapped his masked face lightly. “I’d love to see you try, honey”, she smirked, “And anyway, aren’t you supposed to be a death eater? And not a dementor. Stop mixing up characters”.
With a laugh that sounded wicked and all him, Arian returned his mask and followed her close on her heels. With a racing heart she headed out the store like she really were being chased by dementors. Later on, she couldn’t recall what she stumbled over immediately after crossing the store’s door – probably some unevenness on the floor – but it was Arian’s sudden proximity, the pressure of his hand on the curve of her waist – it’s strength and warmth as he steadied her that she was to doomed to remember and replay with what could only be described as masochistic regularity.
“You okay?, he asked concernedly, his fingers relaxing but still maintaining their contact – light as a feather – on her body.
With a sheepish smile, she nodded and took a moment to collect herself. After he broke their contact and shuffled away a little, she squinted up at him and suggested it was high time they found their way to Gringott’s. As they cut their way down the bustling thoroughfare, beckoned by a dragon breathing fire atop the bank’s roof, she was overcome by a sudden weariness that she realized was only partly related to physical strain.
On the way back, the rushing air and the exhilaration it brought with it was tainted with melancholy at their day – the first of three, just three, she promised herself – coming to an end. It was unsettling; even as she allowed herself to recognize the discontent her disquietude was based on, she convinced herself of the fickleness of her nature, of the fact that there was something wrong with her, that she was no longer the person she’d always believed herself to be. Wasn’t it just two years ago that she had cried her heart out on that plane, pining for what she’d then believed she would never have – Aman. And now that universe had given her exactly what she’d wanted, instead of being thankful, instead of considering herself unbelievably lucky, here she was – grappling with discontentment….with where she was and where she wanted to be. Where she ‘now’ wanted to be.
Sighing deeply, she scrunched her face with disgust at herself, and as if on cue, Arian merged onto an exit lane, curving around the ramp before turning right at a light toward a gas station few miles up on the left.
He halted to a stop before a pump and disembarked to fuel up for what remained of the journey, Anita got off gingerly, and made for the restroom. It was late afternoon with elongated shadows of palm trees and long leaf pines crisscrossing her path as she walked toward the gas station store. Something made her hesitate and look over her shoulder as she approached the store. Her eyes immediately found his for leaning against his bike as it fueled up, they seemed to be following her, watching her with a curiously intent expression. She froze for what seemed like an improbably long moment, before he smiled and turned away and she turned and stepped aside to make way for a person coming out of the store.
When she emerged from the restroom, he was in the store too, looking at candy bars. He looked up as she walked up to him and asked what her favorite candy was.
“Do you want something to drink?, he asked as the drowsy looking cashier rang up two snickers and a bottle of water.
“I’m good, thanks”, she said, gesturing with her bottle.
As Anita shook her head, not realizing how morose she looked, he surveyed her face thoughtfully before adding with a grin, “Cheering charm?
Smiling at last, Anita rolled her eyes, “I’m fine, thank you very much. I don’t need no cheering charms”.
“Sure?”, he teased as they stepped out into the a day that was beginning to fade at the edges, the sun mellower, the air cooler.
“Of course”, she said in a matter of fact voice, ripping open her candy bar with her teeth, “It’s been such a…wonderful day. I’m just tired I guess”.
As they came to a halt before the parked bike, they munched on their bars and sized each either up quietly. “You do look tired”, he said after a while, “Thoroughly pooped as my nieces prefer to say. And..”, he stepped in to peer at her face up close, “there’s a spot of dust or something on your cheek”, he added. Anita swiped at her cheek unsuccessfully with slightly sticky fingers before Arian took over with a laugh, brushing her skin with a single firm stroke with the the back of his fingers, “No more bike ride tomorrow”, he said gently without meeting her eyes. His eyes seemed to be focused on her face still and her breath hitched as he raised his hand to it again. “A broken eyelash”, he said seriously by way of explanation, lifting it off of her skin with his thumb and index finger. When he met her eyes, a smile glittered in his, sunlight bouncing off gray – blue waves.
“Make a wish?”.
Without a word, she presented him with her fist, and he deposited the castaway eyelash on her wrist carefully.
Even as she puckered her lips and blew the lash away, he said amen loudly with such comically exaggerated feeling that she couldn’t help but laugh and laugh…
Despite all that was going on in her heart. And, she reflected as they sped back home later on, despite the fact that when she’d blown the eyelash away, she’d had to send it unburdened by a wish. Not that she associated or remembered ever associating any degree of belief to this childish ritual but because she had been then and was still struck by the fact that she had been quite unable to make a wish. She hadn’t known what to wish for…
“What’s for dinner, Khushu?, her husband asked walking into the kitchen, changed from work clothes into well worn jeans and T-shirt, and smelling deliciously of his shower gel. The parents were all relaxing in the family room after a long day of sedate fun and gentle exploration thoughtfully planned out by Khushi keeping their collective interest and individual limitations in mind.
“You”, she mouthed silently at him with a flirtatious grin. With an answering smile that left no doubt as to what he thought of her reply, he crossed the kitchen’s dark wood floor to reach her. With a quick sideways glance at the family room, he planted his lips on the crook of her neck and when he showed signs of lingering – especially when she felt the warm tickle of his tongue – she nudged him away with a silent chuckle and eyes widened by his audacity. And just so nobody in the family room got inkling of the going ons in kitchen, she answered his original question all over again.
“Leftover food from yesterday is what’s for dinner”, she announced.
“Again?, Arnav groaned.
“Again”, Khushi confirmed with narrowed eyes, hands on hips, daring him to turn his nose down at leftovers.
“Just asking”, Arnav raised his hands in mock surrender and retreated from the kitchen. Navin asked if he wanted to continue with a game of chess they’d been at for the past three days.
“Great idea”, Arnav said and after a token offer for help in the kitchen, walked up to a heavy ebony and rosewood chess board on the mantle and carried it carefully to a small table positioned in front of Navin.
“Ladies and gentleman, the clash of the titans”, Khushi announced dramatically from the kitchen as she set the table for dinner.
Rolling his eyes at his wife’s theatrics, Arnav moved a piece while Navin conceded that in their house Anita was the best player and that it was actually her who had introduced him to the game.
Of course, as soon as Anita’s name was mentioned, Khushi noticed, Mom’s worried expression, which, throughout the day, had never stayed away from her face for long, reappeared with a vengeance. Before she could say anything however, Khushi spoke up to inform that Anita should be back in time for dinner because she had texted her two hours ago from a gas station and she had been about two hours away at the time.
Inexplicably restless herself, Khushi paced around the kitchen to the sound of dishes being serially warmed in the microwave. She walked to the front of the house, and gazed out the living room bay window. She couldn’t shake off the image of what she’d seen earlier in the day, or rather before the break of day when it was still dark outside. She had been awake and in the bathroom when Anita’s text, asking her to lock the front door, reached her. Their bedroom window faced the front of the house and well…she’d been unable to stop herself from peeking.
Anita had her back to her so she only saw Arian as he watched Anita walking up to him. In the dim light of the street lamps, his features had been half veiled in darkness but she’d seen or sensed enough for her heart to be filled with a mix of wonderment and anxiety and…a million questions she wanted to shoot right away at Anu but realized she shouldn’t at the same time. Not for the time being, at least.
She was still there by the window when they arrived and not wanting to invite their privacy, Khushi stepped away.
Arian remained on the silenced bike as Anita hopped off and walked around to face him.
Under the dulled sky of twilight, his eyes were back to being gray again.
As she hesitated and tried to gather words, he looked right back at her in an assessing manner. With his lips curving, he said, “You can save your thank you for tomorrow. Or never, better still”.
“Tomorrow? I’m not sure..”, she began.
“Anita”, he said seriously holding her gaze, “Will you have dinner with me tomorrow?
Her heart pounded so loudly that she could barely hear his words or her own thoughts. All she felt was like she stood at a perilous crossroad and that the direction she chose now would set the path for the rest of her life.
“I’ll have to check with Di”, she said finally, “I think she has something planned for the whole day tomorrow”.
Something flitted across his expression and for a moment, just a fraction of a second, it seemed like he was going to say something. But the moment passed and all he said was, “Alright, sure, let me know. You have my phone number”.
With a heavy heart, Anita made her way to the front door. After ringing the doorbell, she looked back over her shoulder at him. He was still there, waiting to see her go inside the house, and even as she waved at him with a hesitant smile, the door was flung open by Khushi who greeted her with a huge smile and announced that she was just in time for dinner.
Arian, who was getting ready to take off, saw Khushi too and paused to send her a smiling Hi, Khushi across the front yard.
So, she was Khushi now, Anita noticed dazedly. Just yesterday, she was Dr. Raizada. She was still not quite adjusted to the fact that, separate from their acquaintance, Arian knew Arnav and Khushi too – had sneakily known them for over a year.
“Arian, come on in. Have dinner with us”, Khushi added with an easy informality that made Anita stare a little.
Arian seemed reluctant and just as Anita thanked her stars and was beginning to relax, Khushi said with a laugh, “It’s biryani”.
Seriously. What was wrong with her?
“Yesterday’s biryani?, asked Arian and even as Khushi nodded, he turned the engine off and sighed. “Man, I could kill for that biryani”.
Just like she could easily kill the two of them now, Anita fumed, already thinking of her little lie and worrying about getting caught somehow.
“Trying not to love you,
Makes me love you more…”.
A/N: Next update, next week, same day, same time.