They were all seated around the dining table already and looked up surprised when Arian walked into the dining room after them.
“I invited Arian in to have dinner with us”, Khushi said by way of explanation and even as Arian, much to her amusement, added apologetically, by way of supplemental explanation, that he couldn’t bring himself to say no to biryani, everyone, with their initial surprise vanished, sent up his way welcoming smiles and murmured words. Arnav rose and pulled out a chair for the younger man. “I’m glad you didn’t”, he said with a smile whose characteristic economy was as always compensated by warmth, “The more the merrier. And I’m sure”, he added with a touch of mischief only she could catch, “Khushi wants to hear all about…your day”.
“More than that”, Khushi said walking up with an extra plate and cutlery for him, “I want to know when you’ll be singing at the Green Martini next. Last week, Arnav and I were in downtown and as we walked past that place, we both thought of you at the same time. Without you, that place is not the same. In fact, we hardly ever go there now”.
“That is so sweet of you”, Arian said, flushing under his fading summer tan, “And I’m actually performing there tomorrow during happy hour. 5:30 -7”
“Oh you are?, Khushi said pleased and after she set his place, a convulsive movement at the periphery of her vision made her look up at Anita who had been standing quietly across the width of the table opposite Arian the entire time, unnaturally quiet as she listened to their conversation, her eyes flying somewhat nervously from one to another. “Anu, sit down”, she said, studying her face.
Anita met her gaze squarely and cleared her throat. Her eyes seemed to be conveying an urgent coded message which she didn’t quite understand. “I’m going to freshen up first”, she said finally, “I will be right back”.
After a moment’s hesitation, she sighed and her eyes drifted sideways to Arian to ask if he wanted to do the same.
They had a moment to themselves in the hallway leading to the powder room, which Anita had taken it upon herself to show to Arian to; Anita decided to seize it with both hands before he and her sister got more time to talk and specifically to compare notes about tomorrow.
“Does your offer still stand?, she asked and the abruptness of her question causing him to halt and turn and for his left eyebrow to rise a little. She frowned. With the family just a few feet and a wall away, she had kept her voice low but hadn’t counted on it sounding so…so conspiratorial.
“Of course, it does, Anu”, he said in an equally low voice – almost a whisper. He surveyed her face as he spoke and joining her hands behind her back, Anita tilted her face up – way up – and looked right back, bearing his scrutiny well, keeping all signs of a chaotic heart well under covers. Or so she hoped. She wished he wouldn’t call her Anu like that – like he’d known her forever, like he’d every right to. It just made things more complicated than they already were.
“Alright then”, she blinked and looked away first.
“I’ll pick you at five? Would that work? Or do you want to talk to Khushi first?.
“No, that’s ok”, she said. “Five sounds good”. She kept her gaze averted before turning to leave. No, she didn’t need to talk to Khushi. If anything, she needed to talk to Aman – who hadn’t called her once in the past two days…
A cold wave of bleakness rippled through her being. It wasn’t the first time she wondered why Aman decided to get back into her life when at times – more frequent lately – it seemed like he would have done just fine regardless.
As she headed for an upstairs bathroom, it was only anger – not completely understood – that threaded through holes in her spirit and held it up defiantly. She didn’t need permission from anyone – anyone – for just an innocent dinner with a friend. Just one evening out of a lifetime, she thought to herself, shutting the bathroom door and standing with her back against it. Her shoulders slumped even as anger drained out of her veins slowly, her blood turning cold with misery.
Anita reached the dining table again with what she had hoped to be clarity in her mind but was actually just a protesting silence.
Arian, already seated, was explaining to her dad how he’d got his fairly unusual name from. Acknowledging her appearance with a smiling glance as she pulled a chair opposite him, he continued to talk. There was something about the way he talked – was it his easy humor, was it his voice, was it his laidback demeanor – Anita mused, and not for the first time, that made even the most mundane and unadorned of details seem compelling to his audience.
“No, it’s not derived from the Greek Arius or the Sanskrit Aryan, it’s just a masculine form of my mom’s name, which is Welsh in origin”.
He paused to take a sip of his water and met her eyes over the rim of his glass. Caught staring, she hurriedly wracked her brain to find something to say. She was about to ask what his mother’s name was – to confirm if it was Ariana because that was the most logical inference – when Di beat her to it.
“Karen?, Khushi frowned as if trying to figure how Arian could possibly be a masculine form of Karen.
“That’s my stepmom. My mom’s name was Ariana”, Arian corrected. “She died when I was six”, he added with a lightness that seemed a little too deliberate to be true to Anita and whose purpose, she suspected, was to forestall offers of sympathy.
An uncomfortable pause that invariably follows any mention of death – even those that are distant – ensued before Anita asked him, “What does it mean?
“Ariana? Welsh Ariana means silver”, he replied.
“So your name means silver too”, Anita said with a little smile, thinking it was befitting considering the streaks of silver she spied in his eyes under the splash of the cool toned overhead light.
Arian however shook his head, rejecting the meaning. With an enigmatic tilt of his head, he paused for a second and said, “Arian is a suffix – it has to attach to thoughts, ideas…people to find meaning”.
“By that token, we are all Arians then”, Anita said with a laugh, without thinking, and their gazed clashed and held for god knows how long before Di with what she recognized as suppressed amusement in her voice pushed the conversation forward with a rather fatuous comment about names and their meanings. She turned to look at her and a teasing light in her eyes reminded her – with a devastating sense of guilt and pain – of a resolution that was reconfirmed barely moments ago in the bathroom upstairs – That however complex, however confused, the state of her own heart was, she mustn’t lead him on – if she hadn’t already. That she mustn’t lead him to believe – not any more – that they could be anything more than friends.
She chewed her food and stewed in misery, walling herself off from the increasingly animated conversation surrounding her – all about names one gets tagged with at birth – until she realized it was her they were talking about.
“It means grace”, Di was saying and she heard her mom pitch in to say that it also means one who takes pleasure in new joys.
“How apt for someone as fickle as me!”, she mused darkly, in a mood to self flagellate – to cut her own self into shreds. She felt Arian’s gaze, she hadn’t even known before that it were possible to feel something as intangible as a person’s gaze. She raised her eyes to confirm and there they were – those gray orbs – oddly thoughtful at the moment – studying her as if she were an indecipherable ancient manuscript. Fighting the rising butterflies in her stomach, she decided to take immediate actions to rectify any past wrong signal she might or might not have sent his way.
“Aman”, she began ruthlessly, with what she hoped was a suitably love stricken voice, uncaring that her whole family sat at hearing distance, “finds it hilarious how apt the second meaning is. He finds the speed at which my interests change exhausting”.
Even as she laughed at what wasn’t all that funny, his eyes flickered and turned away from her, the sudden tautness in his jaw line making his profile seem etched in granite.
Her arrow had hit it’s mark, she sensed that and just as she also sensed that she was bleeding – bleeding badly – as well, it became all the more imperative that she deepen the boundaries between them – cruelly if she had to. It wasn’t only that she felt committed to her first love Aman, with their shared values and background and his ‘rightness’ for her, but also that she couldn’t help feeling – especially now as Arian sat there amidst her family – that despite all the commonalities that made for a great friendship and despite what she’d always believed to be her relatively liberal outlook on such matters, there was no denying that the two of them belonged to two very different universes…
He didn’t linger after dinner and after walking up to the front door with him, she followed him out into a muggy windless night.
The thin T-shirt she wore seemed to stick to her skin as did her crop chinos and she had no idea why she’d stepped out when she could just as easily have seen him off at the door.
Even as she grappled with an inner turmoil she didn’t know what to do with, he halted midway to his bike and turned.
Her eyes immediately flew up to his and his flared enigmatically in response.
“What?, he asked softly and just the tone was enough to make her want to either throw caution to the wind and pour her heart out, which would have been counterproductive to what she had set out to do, or just bawl her eyes out, which would have been silly and childish. She did neither.
“Is it ok if we just meet there at five?”, she asked instead.
“I can pick you up”, he began but she interrupted him.
“I have to go somewhere else before so it would be easier for me to meet you there”.
“Sure”, he shrugged, looking down at a pebble which he eventually kicked.
Something in his voice suggested like he’d seen through her fib once again; perversely it egged her on to add.
“It’s not like it’s a date or something”.
He raised his head then to meet her eyes with something undefined sparkling in his.
“Of course”, he agreed and before she could slide in another word he swooped in, apropos of nothing, fast and unexpected as quicksilver, to peck her cheek lightly.
She froze – entombed in myriad sensations – and by the time she gathered her bearings and breaths back, he was halfway down the street to his house already.
It felt a little like somebody – kind, cruel or simply bored – had turned back the illustrious hands of time for her. Not only were the bustling sidewalks, the palm trees on the median, the gleaming shop fronts just the same as she remembered from over a year and a half ago, the hot and humid afternoon looked and felt exactly the same as it did the day Di and Arnav bhai led her into the cool interiors of Green Martini – to the sound of ‘The Sound Of Silence” – to celebrate her birthday. Heck, not only was she was wearing the same dress as last time – cap sleeved floral shift in palest peach – she had even borrowed the same pair of heels from Di. She paid her Uber driver and paused on the sidewalk for a moment, staring down at her beige heels and hit by a sense of what felt like deja vu but was a degree more surreal.
She even expected to be greeted by not only Arian’s voice by the ‘The Sound Of Silence’.
She wasn’t, of course but just as she was being ushered in and led to their reserved booth, she saw him walk into the stage and take seat behind the microphone on a bar stool.
Sliding into the booth, she took a deep breath and smoothed her hem unnecessarily. Even as she tried hard to hold on to her composure, Arian positioned himself and adjusted the guitar strap across his chest. He brought the microphone closer and looked up with a smile as someone – probably a friend or a fan – cheered loudly from the back of the premise. He paused for a moment, seemingly to inhale, and then turned to look in her direction straight across the dim lit hall.
His smile looked as beautiful as always as it seemed relieved – as if he hadn’t been completely sure that she would be there. It also made her realize how utterly foolish she had been last year to hope that the bar had been dark enough to hide her from him. He could see her alright. Just like last year.
She smiled back at him, and when he went on to make a mischievous ‘I have my eyes on you’ sign with his fingers, she shook her head laughed, hoping that the bar was at least dark enough to hide her tears.
His lips were still curved with the ghost of a smile as he hugged his guitar closer and positioned his fingers in preparation for the opening riff.
She frowned as she listened to the chord, trying to ignore her quickened heart and struggling to guess the song that was about to follow. It sounded familiar but annoyingly elusive to her immediate memory at the same time.
He brought his lips closer to the mic as he began and his eyes shut reflexely in concentration, “She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes”. Ribbons of light and entrapped motes were drifting down from above, flooding his white shirt with the palest shade of blue and a smile – small and secretive and amused – flickered on and off in between words, “She can ruin your faith with her casual lies. And she only reveals what she wants you to see. She hides like a child, but she’s always a woman to me”.
A/N: Next chapter, next week 😊