You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.
—– Oliver Sacks
“I should have taken the metro, I should have” she muttered, irritated with the sheer volume of traffic on the street. Pushing her dark glasses up her nose with impatience, she turned her head slightly, searching to find a parking spot for her small SUV. To her surprise there was a spot on her right. Smiling at her fortunes she quickly parallel parked in just three moves. Yes! She mentally high-fived herself at this no mean feat. NK would have conceded here, she nodded to herself. They both knew that she was better than him when it came to parallel parking. It was their silent battle for supremacy.
She raised her hand to slowly finger the thin gold chain on her neck that held a ring. It was his wedding ring. She caressed it as if it was on his finger, drawing strength from it to live through these moments of memories cascading on her. This is what it means to be left behind, these memories that seem to be a bane and boon at the same time.
With a deep sigh, she switched off the engine and sat with her fingers twisted in her lap. Out of habit, she pulled the visor down to check her reflection. A face adorned by sadness looked back at her. The face of a widow; if loss had a face, it would be this face.
Enough! She closed her eyes to rein in her thoughts and sat up as if to prepare for a battle.
It was a small restaurant, a favorite of Mira’s, she thought with a smile. Medfest was a Mediterranean bistro that Khushi and Mira frequented often these days. It was something that they discovered together one day when they set out for a walk in the business part of their suburb last winter, without him. She recalled that it had been a big step for both of them, to do new things without Naren, her Appa. A series of firsts for both of them. But they prevailed through tears and smiles, returning to the restaurant again and again. The feel of her phone buzzing brought her back to his ring that she now wore on herself. She had set a reminder about the lunch with Arnav.
Khushi had texted the name and address of the restaurant to Arnav late last night but didn’t think of asking if he needed help with directions. He had texted back with a short, See you there at noon. She arrived a few minutes early and was grateful for these extra moments to garner her thoughts.
Looking out of her window, she caught sight of him standing in front of the bistro, talking into his phone. His back was to her, but she recognized him almost immediately today. He was dressed casually in a white polo shirt, tucked into his jeans. He was a tall man she noted, those jeans showcased his lean long legs. Quickly getting out of her car, Khushi walked towards Arnav, pushing her dark glasses up her nose. As if he felt her presence or perhaps he heard her footsteps, he turned and smiled warmly at her.
“I’ll call you later when I reach home, and Maya, I don’t need to be picked up at the airport. Chalo, bye.”
Maya? Wasn’t that his ex-wife?
“Hi, have you been waiting long?” Khushi asked.
“No, not long.”
Noon time saw these sidewalks busy with people bustling in and out of restaurants. Arnav watched as Khushi dodged a couple of pedestrians busy on their cell phones who were on a collision course with her. Motioning him to follow her inside the restaurant, she walked to the hostess who seated them at a table near the window. Khushi turned to Arnav to check if the seating was okay with him and he nodded in agreement. She greeted a middle aged man who looked like he was the owner by name. She looked like she knew her way around this place he thought.
“Nice place” commented Arnav. “Do you come here often?”
“Yes, it is one of Mira’s favorites” replied Khushi, removing her blazer and hanging it over the back of her chair. She looked different today, Arnav thought, noticing her black blouse and tan skirt. Silence fell on both of them after their initial pleasantries. Gazes met briefly to break away momentarily only to return to each other.
“Hi” said Arnav, as if they needed to reacquaint with each other again. Surprised, Khushi responded with a softer “Hi” accompanied by a brief smile that touched her lips.
“How are you Khushi?” There was an urgency and tenderness in his query. It wasn’t a pleasantry any more. His eyes moved over her face as if to corroborate what he was about to hear with her expressions.
“I am fine, good in fact” she reassured, looking at her fingers that she curled into her palm on the table. Awkwardness fell on her like a wet blanket. She pulled her hands down to her lap and willed them to stay still. She nodded slowly, “I am okay” and looked up to meet Arnav’s gaze replete with concern and warmth. “Really,” she assured him with a smile, this time reaching her eyes. He noticed that familiar lopsided pull of her right cheek as she smiled and returned one of his own.
“And you?” Khushi asked, “you said you were here for a conference and reunion?”
“Yes, Cardiovascular conference and I combined it with a reunion of few of my friends from med-school.” Arnav paused to let the waitress offer them menus and waters. And he watched Khushi share a quick exchange with the young waitress with dark hair and complexion. “The usual for you Khushi?” asked Adila.
“Yes please” and looking at Arnav, Khushi said, “I recommend any of those combination platters here.”
“Why don’t you order for me?” countered Arnav. Khushi quickly scanned the menu and ordered another combination platter for Arnav. “Water for me and..” she said and paused for Arnav to make his choice. “Water for me too. Thank you.” He looked at Adila and offered a polite smile.
As the waitress left, they both found themselves with silence again. It felt like a first date with a stranger. They weren’t strangers, far from it in fact, he knew. But there was a decade’s worth of silence between them making them two strangers who shared intimacy. Both knew too much about each other, yet nothing at all. The familiarity felt alien.
“So,” he began, “what do you want to know?” he asked. Shocked at the pertinence of his question, Khushi gaped at Arnav. With a chuckle, he leaned forward in his seat and slowly tucked his forefinger under her chin to gently closed her mouth. “Well, you do realize that we know very little about each other. It’s been a while, hasn’t it Khushi?”
“Ten years”reeled off Khushi, partly in her head.
“Ergo! Actually it is more than ten years.” There was a furrow between his brows, she could tell he was calculating, but seemed to have given up. “What do you want to know? Ask away.” The twinkle in his eyes eased Khushi’s discomfort and enticed a small memory to slip out of the far recesses of her heart. He knew how to get to the point; no prevarications with Arnav Singh Raizada. But that was such a long time ago. Some things were better locked up, such as recalcitrant memories of a buried past.
But he did offer to answer. Ask anything? Really? She had so many questions, like, why are you here? Why now? She couldn’t ask that, could she? How does one begin a conversation like this anyway?
“Well, I do know that you are a physician, a cardiologist in fact. You have a six year old” she paused. “Why don’t you ask first? What do you want to know?” May be agreeing to meet him wasn’t such a good idea after all. She should have said no. What good was going to come out of this?
They sat by the window, a small table for two. It was a bright afternoon but the fluttering awning that framed the window kept the sun away from her face. Her hair was gathered back into a ponytail low on her neck, but there were a few errant locks that she absentmindedly tucked behind her ears. He could read her discomfort in the way she rearranged her spoon and fork, in the way she twisted and untwisted the fingers on the table first and then on her lap, in the way her fingers returned to the ring that she wore on her necklace. But she was here, he thought and he was glad.
“Alright then, here goes. Remember you asked for it,” he warned with a smile. “What and where do you work? Whatever happened to that lab-rat course you were taking when you were at IIT? When did you move here? How often do you visit India? Is this where you intend to stay? Do you still collect beer caps? Is it still Godfather-2?” He was ticking off each question with his fingers. Eight questions.
Emotions cascaded in quick succession on her face – shock, surprise followed by a smile that stretched into a grin, transformed into a chuckle that burst into a full fledged laugh. He grinned in return. He could make her laugh, he did then and he could now, even after all these years he thought.
Taking a deep breath, she began, “Speech pathologist. University clinic. Aced it. Be specific, where? Once in two years. Don’t know. Nope it’s wine corks now. Of course and always, capishe.”
With a brief flick of her fingers pointing at him, she sat back straight, with a flourish, still sporting a grin that crinkled the corner of her eyes. There was a sense of satisfaction in her response. Her heartbeat seemed to echo her breath and her smile refused to compromise. An unselfconscious smirk settled on her as she looked at Arnav across the table. A leap across all those years?
“Capishe” he countered with a laugh. He remembered those endless arguments about the one movie that was their favorite. He thought the first one was a better movie and she always argued for the second. They both agreed that the third was the worst.
“Speech pathologist” he murmured. There was a strange flicker in his eyes she thought, but it was gone before she could confirm. Their lunch platters arrived along with Adila and the next few minutes were spent in brief exchanges about cutleries and drinks.
“So, you did get into the health care after all” he said in between his bites. “Any particular preference within the field?”
“Love working with kids. I work with the local school district most of the time, but my specialty is children with ASD.” She loved her work, he could tell. There was an ease in her demeanor now that was absent when they met this afternoon. And she loved her food too. He watched her as she focused her attention on her platter, the quick dip of her pita bread into hummus followed by moan of appreciation as she chewed it. Did she know that she was making those noises as she ate? Completely unselfconscious about her eating, he remembered.
“ASD is Autism Spectrum Disorder” she explained.
“Yes, I know” he nodded. Again, his eyes seemed to want to continue the thought even when his words refused.
“Isn’t it my turn to ask you now?” Leaning back in her chair she asked him with her lopsided smile.
“Shoot” he said.
There seemed to be many false starts; she opened her mouth about to say something, but stopped herself and finally said, “Can I see a picture of your son?” There was a tentativeness in her request. He blinked at her question. It was surprising but not unexpected.
“Of course.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket, quickly flipped through a few pictures and extended the phone to her.
Taking the phone from him she stopped and looked at the picture of a face that was solemn, framed with thick black hair. Those eyes were Arnav’s she thought, the same caramel colored eyes with honey tones, framed with thick lashes. A little boy filled the screen of the phone she was holding, no older than four or five, in swimming shorts. He was holding a Lego plane in one of his hands and the other seemed to stretch in front of him, as if wanting to hold the person’s hand who was taking the picture.
“We were getting ready for his swimming lesson” said Arnav. “He loves Legos. It’s almost impossible to part that plane from him. He can build those so quickly.” Pride and tenderness shone through his eyes as he shared these details about his son. Khushi’s heart warmed and melted at this open display of affection by a father for his son.
A decade, or even longer was long enough to bring big changes in a person, she thought. There were things that she thought she knew about him – he drank his coffee black with no sugar, yes she remembered that. She knew that he was a diabetic and was very diligent about his diet and exercise. She knew that he wanted to become a physician. But there was so much she didn’t know about him or his life. He was a father now to his six year old son. It was bitter sweet. She found herself caressing the ring on her necklace. NK taught Mira how to swim. The memory rushed to the forefront of her thought and her throat tightened. She quickly bit back that familiar sensation of her eyes burning; she didn’t want to have tears now.
“He is beautiful. He has your eyes” she said softly, slowly bringing her hand down from her necklace to caress the face on the phone. “So solemn here.” She looked up at Arnav to find him watching her closely.
“Khushi?” he asked as if her name translated his question. He placed his hand on hers.
“NK taught Mira how to swim. In fact, NK taught Mira how to read, write, hold a pencil, sing…” she blurted in a rush. Tears that she commandeered earlier gathered at the corner of her eyelids without restraint. She didn’t want to blink, lest they fell on her face. Why was she talking about NK now? And why was she telling him all these things? She felt her hand being gently squeezed. She looked up into Arnav’s face and found his gaze on their hands.
“Sorry, I don’t know why..” she began, slowly removing her hand from under his. “Do you have any more of his pictures?” she asked, stretching her hand with his phone to return it. She tried to wipe her tears as unobtrusively as she could. But he missed nothing.
“Yes. Just swipe through, you should be able to see them” he said, leaning forward to show her more. It looked like there were hundreds of pictures of Mohan, in different settings, and times. And he was the focus of all the pictures. Pictures with Legos abounded more than any other. There was something that stood out to Khushi, in these pictures. She couldn’t place her finger on it at that time. She kept moving through and stopped when she found a photograph of Mohan with two other adults, a man and a woman. Mohan was standing between them and the woman had her hands resting on Mohan’s shoulders. They looked like they were a family, a unit.
“Who is this?” She asked Arnav, pointing to a woman with the biggest smile she had ever seen on a person.
“That is Maya, Mohan’s mom. The man next to her is her husband, Kailash. Maya remarried soon after our divorce” Arnav replied with equanimity. Khushi looked at Arnav now, searching his face for any clues. There was no hint of acrimony in his face or his voice. She was puzzled. It was his ex-wife with her husband standing with their son and Arnav has their picture on his phone? He didn’t seem to have any problem with it.
“We share custody of Mohan, Maya and I” he explained. “Mohan stays with me and Maya takes him for visits whenever she can.” As if he had read her mind, he continued, “Maya and I have remained friends and that helps a lot.”
She continued to look at his face, her eyes trying to unlock the puzzle that Arnav had just thrown at her. Why? But what about you? She wanted to ask him so many questions that were swirling in her. Her eyes traveled along his eyes unsure of … unsure of what?
He looked up and locked his gaze with hers. Seconds, minutes or was it eons that passed by before she tore her gaze away from him. She leaned back creating space between them so she could begin breathing again.
“I am sorry” she said unsure of her own apology. Language felt inadequate at that moment. “That must be difficult – to share custody” she tried to explain.
“Sometimes, yes. But Maya and I are lucky to have our friendship. It helps a lot.” He seemed to be lost in thought.
Silence ensued. This time the silence offered comfort to both of them. A companionable respite from exchanges which weren’t intended to pain. But pain they did.
“Are you okay?” she asked softly, concern for him surfacing amidst all the turmoil she felt.
Arnav nodded, a slow smile reappearing on his face. “And you?”
“Yeah” she began with a nod. But soon found herself shaking her head as tears clogged her throat. Swallowing hard, she cleared her throat and said, “Some days not really, but most of the time, I am trying.” Honesty reared its imperative head and made its presence felt. Really? Imperative head Khushi? What are you now? A damned poet? With a noisy sigh she sat up straight and offered a self-deprecating smile.
As if coming to a decision, Arnav squared his shoulders and asked, “Can you tell me what happened to your husband? Akash mentioned very briefly that it was cardiac arrest. But NK was not quite thirty five years. How? What happened?”
“Is it the cardiologist asking or a friend?”
Looking outside the window she noticed the busy street, purposeful strides of people trying to get to places they needed to be. If they looked at her, would they know how her world changed two years ago? Would they know how long it took her to sleep a few hours at night? Would they know her battles with fear and loneliness?
“They called it sudden cardiac arrest. He had it three times in one night. Once at home and twice in the hospital. There were no symptoms, he didn’t have any other problem. The first two times, they restarted his heart. But the third time, they couldn’t. He didn’t respond, he died.” And left me behind. She was reciting mechanically, continuing to look outside the window. Turning, she fixed her gaze on his eyes, and said, “So, there you go my cardiologist friend, that’s what happened.” Tears leaked down her chin and dripped on to the table cloth. She made no signs of wiping them off.
It broke his heart to stand witness to her tears, her grief. Without a second thought, he reached out with his two hands and held both of hers in his as if her hands represented her being and his, his own. “I am sorry Khushi, so very sorry.” Remorse wrapped itself around him as he spoke. Her hands were cold to his touch. He squeezed them hard as if to wake them up to his warmth.
Awareness of her surroundings permeated through her grief. Khushi closed her eyes to rein in her runaway emotions and took a deep breath. She nodded as if to restrain herself to the present, this moment. I am okay, I will be okay. A mantra that will carry her through these excruciating moments of grief and desolation.
“Yes, you will, and you have,” he reiterated in faith as he watched her garner control over her tears.