Life is a movie. Death is a photograph
She sat with her cell phone in her hands. Unknown to her, her fingers were caressing the screen, unsure of the maelstrom of emotions raging through her. A feeling of lightness permeated through her, a feeling that felt alien, a feeling she had long forgotten, yet strangely familiar as if it were an old friend. She felt giddy, discombobulated with a quickened breath.
Arnav had offered to meet them at the airport. Khushi looked down at the last message he sent her.
Give me your flight details. I can pick up your Buaji from her home and can bring her to the airport to receive you. It will not be a bother, so don’t hesitate.
Her fingers moved restlessly on her phone. Her eyes remained on the screen, reading and re-reading his text message. Should she accept his offer? Prudence demanded that she decline.
Why was there a but following her thought? Why was she making it more than what it was? It was a friendly gesture, something that she and NK did often to their friends and acquaintances as well. They ferried people to and from the airport all the time. Living as an immigrant in a new country made relations out of acquaintances, and community out of common shared experiences. That was all it was.
A glance down at the message on her phone reminded her that that was all it was, just a friendly gesture, nothing more to it. It was just something people did, an offer of help to people who needed it. She was reminded of the time, when people did exactly that for her when NK had died. She was a widow and that was all it was, a gesture of sympathy.
That was all it was, wasn’t it?
She looked up from her cell phone and looked into those laughing eyes and that dimpled smile. Naren… Khushi sighed with a sad smile. Why did he have to leave her? He knew her better than she knew herself. She needed him now. She needed her NK who could help her sort things out, sort these feelings out.
Khushi dropped her phone on the bed and picked up the frame and laughed at the irony of her own thoughts. Her finger unerringly finding his dimples while absently caressing his cheeks on the cold glass. She held her breath and closed her eyes tightly, for she knew what to expect – that searing pain that sliced through her midriff every time she thought of him. That sense of loss followed by grief that ignited in the pit of her stomach and triggered her tears.
But not this time.
She opened her eyes, surprised to find a smile remaining on her face alongside tears. She continued to caress his face, her fingers moving to his eyebrows, arched perfectly and to the crinkles around his eyes that were often ignored because of his dimples.
Slowly Khushi placed the frame back by her bedside. She had to start packing for their trip to India. This would be her first visit to India without NK, her first trip back as his widow. She was not ready to make this trip. Anxiety unfurled with force in her. Could she do this? Can she make this trip by herself? NK was the organizer and she executed his plan. That was how it worked between them. They were a team. Now she had to take charge, do everything. This is what it means to be a single parent. Little things that made a big difference.
Who would check the doors and windows to see if they were locked?
Who would check to see if their passports were with them and their boarding passes were printed?
Who would allow her to lean on them during the long flight?
Who would rub her feet when they get too cold on the flight?
Who would try to sneak kisses on the flight?
She sniffed loudly and sat down hard on her bed. She was not ready to make this trip. She did not want to go through another ‘first without NK’ anymore. She had friends here, a routine. She had managed to live without NK these last two years. She could live her life here without making this trip. Small sniffles turned into sobs she couldn’t control anymore. It felt like a dam had burst and all the tears she held back were out with force. Dropping her face down on her pillow she cried again.
She didn’t know how long she cried. She felt a hand on her head gently caressing and rubbing her back. She felt the mattress shift with the weight. It was Amma.
“What happened Chellam?”
Khushi raised her head from the pillow now marked with her tears. Her eyes and nose turned red, tears spiking her lashes. She looked into Manorama’s concerned eyes. Part of her wanted to lean into her mother-in-law’s arms and collect all that comfort she knew her Amma carried with her. Yet another part of her wanted to crawl back into her pillow and scream her tantrum in solitude. Grief was a confusing struggle, demanding companionship and isolation at the same time. But one look into the concerned eyes of Manorama made Khushi’s decision for her.
“I cannot go back without him. I don’t want to go back without him. I don’t want to do this without him.”
“Mommy?” Mira’s tremulous voice broke through Khushi’s grief. Her head shot around and she looked to find Mira’s crying face, tears running down her cheeks. She stood by the bedroom door her face pinched with fear and grief.
Khushi stood and opened her arms and Mira flew into her mother’s embrace crying.
“Sshh, honey, it’s ok. We will be ok.” Khushi consoled her daughter, dropping kisses on her head while rubbing her hands on her back. “I am ok now and you will be too,” she reassured her distraught daughter.
We are ok, we will be ok soon.
Manorama patted the mattress next to her to ask Khushi to sit next to her. Both, mother and daughter, settled on the bed next to Manorama, Mira cuddled in her mother’s lap.
“What happened to you mommy?” asked Mira in a tentative voice. “Are you missing Appa?” Tears gathered on her lashes behind her glasses as she looked up at Khushi.
Holding her daughter’s gaze, Khushi nodded her head slowly as unrestrained tears flowed, unwilling to hide her grief from her child.
“Me too,” responded Mira, with fresh tears rolling down her cheeks. “I miss him all the time. Even when I am not thinking about him, I miss him. I wish he could… I wish I could…”
Mira’s voice trailed off as she laid her head on her mother’s chest. Her right thumb creeping into her mouth, a habit she quit when she was a toddler. It broke Khushi’s heart to find that her child resorted to this comfort to tide through this grief. Her arms tightened around Mira as she rocked her back and forth, soothing her child and in the process soothing herself as well.
Manorama’s eyes filled as she witnessed this exchange between the younger generations. She knew what she had to do.
“Come here you two,” she said, wrapping her arms around both of them. She slowly ran her hands on Khushi’s back and Mira’s alternating between the two of them, murmuring borrowed reassurances. Slowly raising Mira’s chin, Manorama said quietly, “He is always there around you, when you need him, you have to think of him and he will give you strength.” She nodded slowly and continued, “He is with me whenever I think of him.” She slowly reached out and placed her palm on Mira’s heart and said softly, “He is here.”
“That isn’t enough. I want him to hug me, I want him to touch me, and tickle me like he used to” she said unwaveringly. “I want to touch him. But he is never going to come back. Never ever. But I want him to.” Mira burrowed into her mother’s chest further.
Both Manorama and Khushi exchanged a look of understanding, the three of them tied together by that one man who died an untimely death. All three of them bereft of Naren Krishnan’s presence in their lives, their loss tangible.
With a shuddering breath, Khushi stood up with Mira in her arms and said decisively, “Time to get those suitcases out sweetie! We have presents to pack and a plane to catch.” And miles to go before we sleep. She pushed her own melancholy to the margins of her being and pasted a fake smile on her face for the sake of her daughter. Fake it till you make it.
This quick listing of tasks seemed to have worked with Mira. She raised her head from Khushi’s chest, excitement slowly creeping into her sad eyes. “Did we buy all the gifts mommy? Did we buy for everyone?” She lowered her voice conspiratorially and asked, “Did we buy for your friend, ASR?” Her big brown eyes sparkled behind lashes still spiked with her tears from not too long ago.
Khushi couldn’t stop the warmth that stole up to her neck to her face.
Why does she feel discomfort at the mention of his name, damn it?
She took a deep breath and said, in an equally low tone, “I think gifts are for kids only, adults can gift themselves, but kids cannot, right?”
“But Bua-Paatti is not a kid, and we got her stuff, didn’t we mommy?” The logic behind Mira’s question was unquestionable. But the seemingly innocuous question made Khushi’s heart pace and blood run hot in her face. She was keenly aware that Manorama was watching this exchange between herself and Mira. A feeling of awkwardness descended upon Khushi. But it seemed that Mira’s grief was put in abeyance for now and Khushi was grateful for this uncomfortable line of questioning by her soon to be nine-year-old.
“Buaji is not like ASR. Buaji needs help from us.” Mira nodded her head sagely at her mother, apparently in agreement with her mother’s sentiment.
“Right. Off to get those suitcases.” Khushi wondered what her silent mother-in-law’s inscrutable expression was all about.
The house was in disarray. There seemed to be open suitcases stationed in different rooms placed strategically all over the house, with things stacked next to them as if they each held a boarding pass to go into each suitcase.
Khushi stood in the living room taking stock of the mess and heaved a sigh realizing that she needed to take charge of this impending travel. She walked towards the bookshelves and pulled a small notebook and began her list of things to do. NK made fun of her notebook and her lists. He was a list maker too, but his lists were in his head. And he boasted a memory of an elephant – he never failed to remind her.
Feeling weary and tired she rubbed her forehead. Not many realize how tiring, no, exhausting it was to grieve. She waited for her eyes to fill with tears, but her eyes remained dry. Did she exhaust all her tears?
She was that tired.
Enough! Mentally shaking herself out of this weary stupor, she quickly sat down to create a list. A ping on her phone made her reach for it.
Are you supposed to come over or am I?
Shit! Khushi smacked her forehead. She was supposed to go over to Lavanya’s to hand over a copy of her house and mailbox keys. She had completely forgotten about that in the midst of all the tears all three of them had shed today.
Sorry Lav, I was supposed to but got held up here at home.
She was sure Lavanya was going to pursue this line of questioning when they got together. Nothing escaped notice where Lavanya was concerned. So Khushi decided to come clean.
We all got a little sad packing today, another ‘first without NK’ happened. But we are fine now.
She didn’t want to worry her friend.
Alright, will see you in 30. May have to bring my brood with me as André isn’t here at home.
That’s fine, Lav. Bring the twins, Mira could use a break. And yes, expect the house to be a mess 🙂
I love you Khushi, you know that. Right?
How does one get over the inadequacy of labels and even language sometimes, she wondered. How could she live without her friends? Khushi took a sobbing breath in, gritting her teeth. She was not going to cry anymore.
I love you too Lav.
Khushi shook her head impatiently at herself and stood up purposefully as if to shake her despondency off. She strode towards the music player and ran her finger along the list of music CDs and slid a disc in. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro blared from the speakers, instantly flooding the room with high energy sounds of high-speed violins chasing her from her shadows. With borrowed energy, Khushi began packing with meticulous rhythm, forcing cheer into her disposition. She was deliberate in choice of music, opting to play Mozart rather than Rehman. Although NK was of the firm opinion that Rehman was contemporary Mozart.
Even when she tried to cordon him in her mind, NK managed to sneak right back into the forefront of her thoughts.
Armed with the list in her hand, Khushi set out to distract her grief-stricken mind to the task, preparing for another ‘first’, in a series of firsts without NK. Soon Mira and Manorama joined Khushi, armed with their own lists and together there seemed to be a renewed energy from Mozart’s violins filling the townhouse and its inhabitants. Suitcases were beginning to show signs of getting ready for their trip and the ambient mood in the house seemed to shift with the fast-paced violins. There was lightness in Mira’s face as she looked through her list.
“Should I bring my violin, Mommy?”
Before Khushi could answer Mira’s query, the doorbell rang with muffled voices that couldn’t contain their excitement. Twins and Lavanya, thought Khushi, her face creasing a small smile. With her smile growing, she opened the door to let the boys in and hugged Lavanya, ushering her in as well.
“We come bearing good tidings and cheesecake that the twins helped me bake” Lavanya extended what looked like a cake box to Mira. Mira had a sweet tooth that she inherited from Khushi and cheesecake was her favorite.
“Thank you Masilav” Mira threw her arms around Lavanya’s waist, gave her a quick squeeze and bounded to the kitchen with her cake. “Paatti, the twins are here, and cheesecake…” Khushi and Lavanya exchanged a knowing look. That cake was about to be devoured in minutes.
Lavanya grabbed Khushi by her arm and asked urgently, “Do you have concealer?”
“What? Concealer, why?” Khushi looked blankly at Lavanya.
“Yes, concealer.” Lavanya pushed her hair away from her shoulders to reveal a red mark. Khushi peered closer. It looked like… “Is that a hickey?”
“Sshh, will you keep your voice down? I don’t want the whole neighborhood to know that I have a hickey. I didn’t know, until Neron pointed it out when I was belting him in the car.” Lavanya pulled Khushi towards her bedroom and closed the door. “Concealer? Do you have any? Where do you keep your makeup stuff anyway?”
“Lavanya Mendez! A hickey? Eh?..” Khushi wiggled her eyebrows, teasing her gently as she extended the concealer to Lavanya.
“It’s just a hickey Khush. Not like you haven’t had one in your life.” Lavanya mumbled into her shoulder as she struggled to find the bruise but failing to.
Taking the concealer from Lavanya’s hands, Khushi moved closer to cover her blemish. “Looks bad Lav. It might take a few days for this to go.”
Lavanya sighed, but there was a small smile on her face. “He gets wild sometimes. But I needed that.”
Khushi looked at Lavanya’s face, noting the dreamy smile on her friend’s face, the softening around her eyes. Lavanya looked happier now than she had the last few days.
“What happened? All not well with you two?” Khushi’s voice carried concern.
Lavanya sighed again. She looked away from Khushi as she walked slowly to the bed and sat down. Lines of concern resurfaced around her lips and her brows furrowed.
“I wasn’t going to talk about me today,” Lavanya began with uncharacteristic lack of surety. “I wanted to be here for you today. I know this trip is hard for all of you.” Lavanya’s voice trailed off, but her eyes looked like they dammed turbulence she felt inside.
Khushi squatted down next to her and grabbed her hands. “What’s wrong? What’s going on Lav? What happened? Did you and Andre fight? We can wait on my issues for a bit Lav.” She muttered looking away, “It’s not like they are going away anytime soon, are they?”
Lavanya puffed her cheeks, breathing in deeply and frowned. “I want another baby and Andre wants to wait. We had a fight. We weren’t talking for almost a week. I was miserable, he was miserable and I didn’t know what to do.” Words tumbled out interspersed with quick breaths as if she was slowing herself down.
Khushi gathered her friend into her arms and consoled, “It’s ok. It will be ok. Sshh..” She was aware that things were rough between Lavanya and André lately. As always, Khushi waited for Lavanya to confide, not wanting to intrude.
Moving out of Khushi’s arms, Lavanya threw her arms up and cried, “He doesn’t want another baby at all, Khush. He says he is happy with these two. He says he wants me. He won’t even consider having another one. How is that fair? We always talked about having a lot of kids, you know. I have always wanted more kids and I thought he did too. So, now that the twins are three years old, I want another one before it is too late. I don’t want to wait any longer. He says he wants me, but he has me. I am not going anywhere. What does he mean by wanting me?”
Lavanya paused her tirade to take a breath and looked up at Khushi. “What are you smiling at?” Here she was upset and crying and Khushi found it funny? Furrowing her brows fiercely, she got up from the bed and opened the door to stomp out.
“Hey! Wait. Lav.” Khushi ran behind her friend and dragged her back into the room. “No, I am not laughing at your misery. I am sorry.” Holding her lobes in apology, Khushi pushed Lavanya back to sit on the bed and sat beside her with her arm around her shoulders. She turned slightly to take a long look at her friend, raising her hand to brush a few errant pieces of hair away from her eyes.
Lavanya had obscenely long and thick lashes that caught her bangs when they fell over her eyebrows. She was a stunningly beautiful woman, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones that accentuated her slim long nose that pointed to those perfectly shaped lips, a full lower lip that she was chewing now. Khushi could sense her restlessness from the way she was twirling her wedding ring.
“Is André completely against having another child?” Khushi asked softly infusing calm into the conversation.
Lavanya nodded her head while continuing to chew on her lower lip. She looked at Khushi’s unwavering gaze and slowly shook her head. “I don’t know for sure if he is sure about this. He says that he misses me when we have little ones. Now that Gagan and Neron are slightly older, we aren’t always consumed by what the babies need. We have time for each other and I understand that’s what he wants. But I grew up as an only child Khush. You know that. I don’t want my kids to be lonely like I was. That’s all.” The tears that stopped, began to gather at the corners of her eyes. Khushi stayed silent to let Lavanya sort her thoughts out and waited.
“Didn’t you want another child after Mira?” Lavanya’s question surprised Khushi. “I mean, you and NK were married for almost nine years. Mira was born within the second year of your marriage. Didn’t you want another child after Mira? Didn’t you have this conversation with each other?” It seemed to Khushi that Lavanya was seeking affirmation rather than information.
“Yes. Yes, we did.” Khushi answered quietly.
“Then?” Now Lavanya was interested. There was curiosity in her tone.
“We couldn’t.” Khushi looked away from Lavanya. There was a lump forming in her throat.
She leaned across Lavanya and picked up NK’s photograph from the side table. “I couldn’t conceive. He wanted another baby so badly. He was an only child too. When Mira turned two, we tried for more than two years.”
Her fingers were now tracing those familiar lines on NK’s face, moving from his eyebrows to his nose and down to his lips and finally to rest on his dimples. “In fact, he wanted seven so he could have one for each swar. Mira was ma. There were six more he wanted.”
“Let’s have one for each swar Khush.” His fingers were moving from her neck to her shoulders now.
“Seven?” She couldn’t help but whisper hoarsely. His fingers seemed to have a life and mind of their own. They were certainly making music with her body.
“Think of all the hard work we have to do in order to have them.” His lips replaced his fingers. She didn’t realize then, but she agreed with him many times with a resounding ‘yes.’
Khushi was lost in her thoughts now. Her voice a mere whisper. “But I couldn’t conceive. Just a year before he died, we found out that I had fibroids and that was what was causing my infertility. I got that taken care of and then got on birth control pills to regulate my hormones. I was supposed to be on them for a few months and then we were going to try again. But he died instead.”
If Lavanya wasn’t sitting right next to her, she couldn’t have heard anything that Khushi was saying. Khushi was speaking to herself at this point. And Lavanya could see the pain and sorrow etched in her tightly pinched eyelids and her lips.
“Khush” Lavanya wasn’t sure what she was going to say.
“It’s a hard thing to live with Lav. The what-ifs and if-onlys. They are the curse that those of us who are left behind are left to carry. I can’t go back and change it, I can’t negotiate with it. Death is a bitch Lav. It’s a fucking bitch and I have to live with it.”
Lavanya nodded her head in agreement.
“If you want another baby, then talk to him Lav. Talk to André. I am sure you two can work this out.”
“We will.” Lavanya’s face creased a small smile as she held her fingers up to quote as she said, “And we talked” pointing to her hickey. “That’s what the world needs, a good, hard fuck. That’s what we both needed.”
Now both women were giggling and swatting each other’s shoulders, when Lavanya said firmly, pointing her fingers and waving them at her,
“And I recommend its palliative properties to you, Khushi Gupta Krishnan. A good hard fuck is what you need too.”
“Lavanya!! Keep your voice down, there are kids around. I am not quite ready to have the ‘talk’ with Mira yet.” Khushi reminded her, giggling.
Neither noticed Manorama walking away quietly leaving the two friends to their intimate conversations. It was the first time in a long time that Manorama was reminded that Khushi was a young widow, not quite thirty-five years. But the widowhood that Manorama was familiar with was a long and lonely road. Manorama’s legs felt heavy along with her heart as she slowly ambled back to the kitchen to the children.
But the conversation continued in the bedroom between the two friends. Lightened moods and laughter shared made it possible for an elusive memory to coalesce between them.
“Do you remember your first time, Khush?” Lavanya was not looking at Khushi, so she missed the startled shock that passed on Khushi’s face.
“Your first time, the first time you did it?”
Khushi quickly looked away from Lavanya when she knew that her friend was going to stick her steady gaze, which always left her exposed. She wasn’t sure where this conversation was going and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to travel along.
Evasion wasn’t always the cowards’ way out. It bought some time that Khushi needed to navigate this travel. It looked like she was going to go down that route with Lavanya anyway.
“Hm.. yes, but it isn’t worthy of being a memory.” Lavanya laughed wryly. “What about you?” Now Lavanya fixed Khushi with a gaze that she was afraid of.
Khushi remained silent. Moments went by but not very quietly and Lavanya nudged her shoulder with her own, she turned to her and shook her head slowly.
“What? You don’t remember or you don’t want to talk about it?” Lavanya persisted.
“Don’t ask me to go there Lav. I don’t want to.”
Khushi avoided Lavanya’s gaze, keeping her eyes on the dresser across the room. She took a deep shuddering breath to hold back the tidal wave of memories from crashing in on her. It was a long time ago, and this was not the time to reminisce. She was not ready for this now, she wasn’t sure if she would be ready, ever. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, regulating her breath to calm down.
“This has to do with that Arnav, when he came to visit Akash that summer in Delhi, doesn’t it?” Lavanya waited for Khushi to respond.
When she didn’t, she continued, “You were involved with Arnav before NK, right? In fact, if I remember right, you sidelined yourself from everything and every one after Arnav left. What was that about? I always wondered. But you looked so wounded and sad that I didn’t have the heart to ask then. I always wanted to, you know.”
There was a quiet speculative look on Lavanya’s face. Her mental gears were grinding faster than Khushi’s breath. She knew that Lavanya would not quit her pursuit, once she made up her mind.
“Something happened between you and Arnav Singh Raizada all those years ago, Khush. Something really important and something really significant.” It was a statement with no question in its vicinity.
There was no room for doubt in Lavanya’s statement.
Khushi stiffened and stood up abruptly to mark an end to the conversation and walked into the bathroom to put away the concealer. She wasn’t ready to talk about Arnav or her past. Not at this time. There were battles she had to prepare for – their first trip to India after NK’s passing. Mira’s tears reminded Khushi that her child’s broken heart still bled. They all needed to heal. She stood leaning on her sink, and looked into the mirror and saw Lavanya at the door, her gaze fixed on Khushi.
“Please don’t ask me Lav. I already told you that it was something that happened a long time ago and had no future. It wasn’t meant to be. Both, Arnav and I knew that then. There is nothing there anymore. He is a different person with a life of his own in another continent, on the other side of the globe. And I am a widow on this side of the globe who has lost her love to a cardiac arrest and needs to do yet another first without him.”
Khushi clenched her teeth and shut her eyes tightly as if to rein in her confusion and tears that seemed so close. This day had to end without tears. She felt Lavanya’s arms go around her shoulders and was pulled into a tight hug.
“Alright. I won’t ask any more for now.” Lavanya felt Khushi’s stiff body soften at her reassurance. “Are you going to give me your keys? Is there a list of things I need to take care of when you aren’t here?”
Silently thanking her friend for this reprieve, Khushi nodded her head walking out of the bathroom to find the second set of keys to give to Lavanya. Mundane was what she needed at this moment and the list of tasks was the perfect panacea. This, she thought, she could do. She could do this with Mira and Amma by her side. Lavanya joined her and they both walked out of her bedroom, arm in arm.
Author’s note: Thank you for all your good wishes and condolences. I appreciate your patience. I didn’t intend to stay away this long, but I am happy that I am back and hope to continue with the posting every week like I did before. ❤ I hope you will join me.
As always I am grateful to @arshi67 for being my alpha and beta for this chapter.