Anita wasn’t exactly asleep. She was wafting in and out of consciousness and going through the motions of her first – and last – she promised herself grimly as her stomach moved it’s acids in yet another sickening churn – hangover.
The sound of window blinds being swept up – with unnecessary briskness – jolted her into complete and painful wakefulness.
She felt her mattress sink and her Di’s face come into focus above her. She looked vastly concerned and faintly disapproving. As counterintuitive as it felt, something about her expression reminded her of none other than their Mama – who, luckily for her – was nowhere in sight and neither was Daddy.
“Here”, Khushi said, holding out three pills on her stretched palm, “Take these with juice. They will help with the nausea, the headache, the heartburn and the rest of the fun”.
Propping herself up gingerly, Anita ignored the sarcasm and accepted the medicines. After washing them down with a gulp of apple juice, she glanced at Khushi’s face and tried, without much success – to make light of the situation. “How come you know so much about hangovers, Di?, she began lamely, “I thought you were practically a teetotaler”.
“And who did you think you were last night?, Khushi countered, “A frat boy living it up?
Anita flushed shamefacedly and looked away, but despite the hollowness in her heart, she couldn’t bite back a giggle.
After a long drawn out moment of silence, they both turned and spoke – earnestly – at the same time.
Anita gestured with a sigh for Khushi to go first.
“Anu”, Khushi reached for her hand and clasped it in hers, “Don’t think I’m judging you but I thought we both agreed it was dumb to get drunk – if at all – in public places, that too in the company of someone you’ve known for a very short time”.
Without any sort of forewarning, Anita’s felt her throat clench painfully.
“I know. It was dumb”, she managed somehow to be immediately encompassed in a tight hug. And before she knew it, she – who had always believed tears to be self indulgent and weak – found herself surrendering to them the second time in the span of twenty four odd hours.
“Shh. It’s okay”, Khushi whispered, hugging her close, stroking and combing with her fingers her notoriously crazy bed head down, “We’re all dumb sometimes…And nobody knows it better than me”.
“I’m just worried about you, Choti”, she cried after a moment’s pause, “Worried and confused. What’s going on with you? With you and Arian. With Aman?
“I don’t know”, Anita replied in between silent muffled sobs, her heart invaded by snatches of memories that were as painful now as they were sublime.
“What do you mean I don’t know?
“There is nothing to be worried about”, she gathered herself together after a minute, “Arian is a wonderful friend I feel I’ve known all my life. And Aman…you already know about our history. We decided to be together and to take it slowly. One step at a time”.
Khushi made what sounded like a disparaging sound but didn’t say anything at first.
After sometime, she said, “Anu, like I always wanted to tell you, what you need to do right now is to gain clarity by stepping back from your so called relationship with Aman. For crying out loud, you’re only twenty two, barely out of high school. At your age, I was either studying my butt off or weaving dreams around celebrity crushes or fictional character lovers”.
“What does my relationship with Aman have to do my getting drunk?
“You know exactly what I’m talking about”, Khushi frowned at her, “Ar..
With her heart flipping, Anita jumped to change the subject, lest she be forced to face what she didn’t yet have the right mind frame for. With a silent desperate plea in her eyes, she interrupted, “
“You’re thinking too much, Di. And I think I’m old enough to decide what I want from life”..
“Ok, fine, accepted. Then talk to me. Tell me what’s bothering you”, Khushi’s voice was uncharacteristically unrelenting.
With her fingers twisting into her comforter, she looked down at them as she spoke, “I will. Just not yet. Because…because even if I began speaking, I wouldn’t know what to say”. Her voice sounded so bleak to her own ears that she cleared her throat and looked up as she added in a brisker tone, “I think I need time. I need time to think, to sort myself and my life out”.
Khushi’s eyes were assessing as she stared back at her and Anita averted her gaze nervously as if afraid of what she might find hidden there.
“Ok. Fair enough”, Khushi sighed after a while, “But listen up missy”, she added sternly, “Two months from now…is all you’re going to get to get yourself sorted out”.
“Or else?”, Anita grinned at her.
“You’ll see”, Khushi replied ominously before returning her smile.
Her beautiful hazel eyes softened and she said with a catch in her voice, “And of course, you’ll remember that I’m just a phone call away”.
Even as Anita’s heart constricted to remind just how much their separation affected her, she grinned wider to tease her sister with an absolutely horrible rendition of a current popular song.
“I’m only one call away. I’ll be there to save the day. Superwoman got nothing on me. I’m only one call away”.
Instead of getting amused or even irritated however, she just sighed, shook her head, and said her name thrice, softly, with love glistening from her steady eyes. She looked so softly beautiful, so lambent from inside out, that Anita couldn’t help thinking – not for the first time – just how lucky Arnav was to inspire her devotion, her infinite capability for love.
“Di, I’m so sorry about last night. I’m sorry if I embarrassed you”, she said in an anguished voice as thinking about Arnav led to memories of his opening the door for her last night, “What must Arnav bhai think of me? I can’t even remember why I called him and not you to open the door. I’m so stupid…
“He didn’t think anything”, Khushi said, and added with a chuckle, “He was a lot concerned and a little bit surprised. You should have seen his face when he woke me with the news that my little sister was home drunk and that he’d helped her up the stairs with utmost discreetness. And you did call me first. I was asleep so Arnav got it for me”.
Anita groaned with renewed embarrassment. With her cheeks burning, she raised her head to meet her sister’s eyes questioningly.
“Don’t worry”, Khushi said kindly but with an amused glint in her eyes, “No one else knows. And of course, our lips are sealed. What happens around the Raizadas stays with the Raizadas..
“Stop”, Anita giggled, feeling a lot relieved and then lunged to hug Khushi – her anchor in choppy seas – again.
“Thank you”, she said gruffly and just as fresh tears threatened, Khushi pushed her away from her. “What’s with you and tears, Anu?
“Hey”, Anita said indignantly, “You stole my line. And just so we’re clear, compared to you, I almost never cry”.
“You almost never cried”, Khushi said with a smile mysterious enough to rival her husband’s , “I hope you noted the emphasis on the past tense”.
“I don’t know what you mean”, Anita said looking away, raking her wild hair together into a make shift bun.
“Anu”, Khushi began but Arnav Bhai’s voice from the other side of the door saved her from the interrogation she wasn’t yet prepared for – not even from her own heart.
His voice sound slightly panicked. “Khushi, the oven’s timer was beeping and I turned if off. Do you want me to take whatever’s in there out or leave it in? And there’s something boiling on the stove top. Also, do you want me to make the salad now?
Exchanging a superior womanly smile with Anita, Khushi said, “It’s ok, Arnav. Relax. I’ll be down in a minute. This is precisely the reason why sous chefs should be put in charge of the kitchen more often. And you can come in. Anita is up”.
Even as Anita motioned that she wasn’t prepared to face Arnav yet, the door swung open and the man himself sauntered into the room with what appeared to be forced impassivity, his eyes flickering with amusement.
Anita colored as she met his eyes and groaned loudly. “This is so embarrassing”.
“Don’t worry about it”, Arnav chuckled as he came to a halt behind his wife and crossed his arms, “For a drunk person, you were pretty polite and well behaved”.
Even as her shoulders sagged with relief and she vowed internally to never ever get drunk again – not anywhere within a million miles radius of family anyway – Arnav added, “For most parts, anyway”.
“What do you mean for most parts?, she asked with dread seeping into her voice again.
“I mean”, Arnav said in a tone which made it difficult to decide if he was serious or just messing with her, “You poured your heart out to me…
“Poured my heart out?, she cried, sitting up straighter, “What do you mean? What did I say? Tell me. Wait, don’t tell me”.
“Make up your mind, Anita”, Arnav laughed out loud even as Khushi rose to face him.
“You scorpio you”, she poked at his shirt, “You’re just getting back at her for tricking you into making that trip to Africa, aren’t you?, she said with a smile… “And we’d better go down now and check on that turkey before it gets shrunk into a sparrow”.
“Are you, Arnav bhai?, Anita asked, looking to him for reassurance with puppy eyes and wishing with all her heart that her Di was right and that she hadn’t – horror of horrors – ‘poured her heart out’ to Arnav bhai last night.
“Maybe”, he said with a purely wicked wink even as Khushi dragged him out of the room with her.
“You’re evil”, she said, throwing a small cushion at his receding back, “You don’t deserve my sister”. Which made him – and Khushi – laugh even harder.
Anita had wanted to bake a cheese cake and a pie for thanksgiving dinner but not only there wasn’t enough time, but she found herself singularly lacking in enthusiasm. As she pottered around the kitchen, absently putting together an easy fruit trifle and mixing brownie batter from a box, a couple of unexpected tears sprang into her eyes and plopped into the batter.
Both Astha aunty and her parents showered her with attention, commenting often on how weak she looked, which she later learned owed itself to the fact that to explain her absence at breakfast, Khushi had announced – with totally unnecessary medical detail, in her opinion – that she was down with stomach flu and was up all night with seven episodes of watery diarrhea and six odd episodes of bilious vomiting.
“Go drink some water and rest”, her mother said, taking the whisk from her, “I can do the rest. Also, I’m going to make some khichdi for you. You should give your stomach some rest today”.
Much as she always looked forward to a traditional thanksgiving feast, she couldn’t care less toady. The way she felt, she mused later morosely, stepping onto the patio with a bottle of water in hand, somebody could put her on an all khichdi diet for the rest of her life and she wouldn’t care.
Sinking into a wicker chair and tucking her legs under her, Anita gripped her phone tightly in one hand, her breathing sounding unnaturally loud to her own years. It was late afternoon and she gazed at the tantalizing glimpses of distant sand and surf that tree branches shifted by occasional gusts of wind offered. Sometimes a sliver of silver, sometimes a patch of aquamarine. Somehow the vague memories that had been flitting in and out of her mind all day became a part of them. Their fingers intertwined. His arm pulling her close…and then closer. The torturous feather light caresses of his breath, his face, his lips on her hair, on her ear, on her neck. She remembered wishing she – they -could stay like that forever but telling him to stop instead.
Taking a swig from her water bottle, Anita loosened the grip on her phone and raised it closer.
There was a long text from Aman, charmingly begging her pardon for his long absence, and promising – with deliberate mysteriousness – that he’d make up to her when she returned on Saturday.
Eagerly waiting for you, my sweet Anu.
She was staring at the screen, reading the message again and again, and disturbed by her complex response to it when Arian’s single word text popped up.
“Hey”, she typed back after a moment’s hesitation.
“Have you been put under a lifetime 5:30 curfew?
“No”, she typed with a smile, every fiber of her being seeping with gratitude at his attempt to keep things light, easy and on familiar footing, between them.
“No, I’m fine. Apparently, only Arnav and Khushi were up when I staggered through the door and they were pretty chill about it”.
“We didn’t even have dinner, forget about meaningful conversation”.
“Well, I guess, meaningless conversation and throwing up on empty stomachs has it’s own charm”.
“You should’ve watched yourself yesterday”.
“Arrrgh. Don’t remind me. When are you leaving for Chicago? Tomorrow, right?
“I have a 9:45 flight tonight”.
The world around her seemed to grow absolutely silent and all she could hear was the sound of her own breathing. Her heart squeezed all it’s blood before settling into a loud dull beat.
Anita swallowed and looked up at those swaying branches again, her heart filled with trepidation and conflict, her mind trying to make sense of the chaos her inner universe seemed to have degraded into.
“Do you want to meet up before I leave?, his text came after she typed, erased, retyped several responses but couldn’t bring herself to send them to him.
“I’m running on the beach right now…burning calories to make space for the food tsunami that is to follow. If you start walking toward my house, I should run into you soon”.
To fortify herself for the dessert free khichdi dinner that awaited, Anita snuck out of the house with four still warm brownies in a paper bag.
She hurried across the backyard and rushed down the ramp, squinting her eyes against the shimmer of silver and the glare of a metallic blue sky. She wore white capris and a sleeveless blue and white shirt and after some deliberation, she kicked her flip flops off and stepped onto the warm sand barefooted. As her toes sank into the silken depth, she wiggled them at length. It felt therapeutic.
The breeze was strong as ever, whipping her hair wildly with every gust and as she walked alongside the froth edged waves slowly, the blood rushing through her veins was louder than the ocean.
She saw him in the far distance, approaching her rapidly in rhythmic, graceful strides, a T shirt clinging to his chest, his shorts exposing taut sinewy legs.
Her first instinct was to turn and flee for her dear life. But it was too late because in just a minute, he was facing her, smelling of sun warmed spice and something intrinsically male, his breaths escaping through parted lips.
They walked together to a nearby bench and lowered themselves on it. It reminded Anita of Diwali night and the moment when they’d first come face to face to each other. Was that just two days back? It seemed like it happened an eon ago.
They sat in silence, the palm tree shadows lengthening on the sand, the sun arching closer to the horizon and the surrounding air becoming thicker with tension.
“We’re leaving tomorrow”, Anita said finally, “back to the grind”
She half turned toward him as if expecting him to reply in kind but he didn’t look at her, his eyes, brilliant blue at the skies overhead, focused on the waves ahead.
More minutes ticked away in silence before she tried again, “I hope I do better in LSAT in December”.
Again, there was no response, except he turned to meet her eyes briefly, something in their candid depths reminding her of all she was trying to ignore and avoid.
Flushing, she looked away quickly but it wasn’t long before her innate stubbornness kicked in and she said in a deliberately cheerful voice, “I think I forgot to compliment you on your singing last night…
“Oh for God’s Sake, stop. Just stop, Anita”. His voice erupted with the suddenness of a whiplash and caused her to halt in mid sentence.
“Let’s talk about us”, he said, his eyes glittering with suppressed anger “let’s talk about you and me. I know it’s just as much on your mind as it’s on mine”.
Something snapped inside Anita with all her pent up misery flowing out as words in a shaking voice.
Rising to her feet with her short nails digging into her palms, she said, “There is no us. Tell me, Arian, have I ever led you to believe there was, did if ever led you to believe that I wanted to take our friendship forward – to turn it into something more than friendship. And if unintentionally I did, I’m sorry. I’m really really sorry, Arian, because you are a dear friend, you mean a lot to me but but…that was never my intention”.
After she finishing speaking, she realized she was panting, her chest heaving like she’d been running a mile.
She surveyed Arian’s face to gauge his response but his steady eyes, unblinkingly trained on her, were indecipherable.
And when he suddenly rose to his feet with the agility of a predator, she stepped back instinctively, her heartbeats sounding loud and wild in her ears.
It stopped beating altogether when he snaked an arm around her waist and tugged her close.
Her eyes leapt up to his face and it was like she was looking at a different person – his face a frozen mask, his eyes frozen steel.
“Do you love Aman?, he asked, his jaw taut, a vein leaping up on his right temple.
Thrown by the directness of his question, she tore her eyes away from his and nodded in reply.
The pressure on her waist increased as he tugged her closer still, roughly this time, “Not like this”, he said, his voice rising a little.
“Look into my eyes”, he demanded, “and use words dammit”.
Incensed by his tone, Anita whipped her head around to meet his eyes again. “Yes, I do”, she said angrily, “Yes, I love Aman”.
Their eyes clashed before he released her with a suddenness that made her almost lose her balance.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, he turned to stare at the waves, watching their ebb and flow as a flock of seagulls screeched overhead.
After a while, he turned to her again. With a smile that didn’t quite reach his beautiful eyes, he shrugged and said, “Well, I guess, that’s that then”.
“Arian…”, she began, her heart suddenly an object with jagged edges and sharp corners inside her chest. Her legs felt like jelly, like any moment now she would be brought to her knees on the soft sand underneath.
He raised a hand. “Don’t worry about it”. With his eyes flickering with undefined emotion, he added, “Have a safe trip back home, it was nice knowing you”.
She watched in disbelief as he turned and began to walk away from her. “That’s it. Is it really the end?”, her heart screamed, watching his receding back, dying bit by bit as she watched him go but unable to stop him.
With her throat throbbing with pain, she shouted after him. “Arian!. Hope you have a wonderful life”, she said, realizing how stupid and inadequate her words sounded despite their sincerity.
He paused and turned to look back over his shoulder. His features seemed to soften momentarily as he said, “You too, Jasmine”.
A/N: With this, Part III comes to and end. Would love to have your feedback as it’s the biggest motivator for me 🙂
Will be back with Part IV soon, will keep you posted. I need to gather my thoughts together so I might take a short break before returning to it 🙂
Looking forward to you thoughts.