Chapter Ten: Betwixt

Often the object of desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself.
——Umberto Eco

 

 

The shift in the roar of the jet engines marked the end of their seventeen-hour journey across oceans, continents and time.  Khushi could sense a collective heave of sigh that seemed to echo through the cabin. There was a sense of urgency among the cabin crew, with their practiced maneuvers around impatient bodies and cramped aisles. 

 

This was the moment that most travelers seemed to wait for, the moment that often began with the idea of going to or returning from a place,… a destination. That moment when the destination seemed to be within hand’s reach when breaths were bated as necks craned to look down the cold fogged windows from the clouds to see the lights of their favored lands.

 

Mira’s cold palms clutched her mother’s and Patti’s as the plane began its descent. She was not a fan of take-offs and landings. She used to climb into NK’s lap and burrow into him, and NK would wrap his arms tightly around her as if to absorb her into himself. It was her favorite sight, two heads of curls huddled together, their curls seemed to twine together. But now she was a few years older and much taller. Even though Khushi offered to hold her in her lap, she insisted on just holding her mother’s and Patti’s hands. Her eyes softened as they ran over Mira’s rumpled curls and her sleep tired eyes behind her glasses. There were no dimples in sight at the moment. Khushi knew that Mira was tired and exhausted, but willing to put up with the discomfort for just a little longer. She removed the hand rest between their seats and pulled her child into her arms.

 

“It’s alright. Just lean on mommy with your seat belt.”

 

Mira snuggled into Khushi’s arms and promptly fell asleep. Manorama saw the exchange with a smile of her own. It was a long journey for both of them she realized, not just in terms of the distance they traveled, but that they traveled without him. Her heart warmed at the sight of the young mother cradling her child in her arms.

 

After what seemed like eons, the plane touched down and slowly taxied to the bay. Within minutes, muted lights brightened in the cabin and the roar of activity replaced the quiet somnolence. Passengers who were patient for hours on end, had little of it left and were lined up in aisles to disembark. Khushi sported a sardonic smile at her fellow travelers opting to rush to the closed doors while she waited. She knew that it was going to be a while before the doors were opened and the entire slew of passengers got to get out of the closed confines of their plane cabin.

 

“Is Nandu coming to the airport, Khushi? It is too late for her. Poor thing. I asked her to send a driver and not show up.” Manorama and Nandini Buaji had come to be more than just relatives, especially after NK’s father died. Both women, although living in different parts of India, became anchors for each other, called each other often, visited each other frequently and even traveled together. It appeared that widowhood helped form a close sisterhood for these two, offering quiet companionship and surprisingly, freedom and autonomy as well.

 

“No Amma. She insisted on coming. So, she is probably here waiting.”

 

“Did you give your friend our flight details like he asked?” Manorama’s brow furrowed briefly and she shook her head, “I don’t remember his name. Have you heard from him? Is he going to be here as well?”

 

Khushi was surprised that Manorama remembered her conversation with Arnav about their travel. But then, she shouldn’t be surprised, she realized. Both NK and Manorama had incredible abilities to recall. Her skin felt suddenly tight on her bones, a discomfort at the uneasy juxtaposition of NK and Arnav, in thought. She could feel a warmth rise from her core to the tips of her ears and forehead. She grit her teeth to maintain her eye contact with Manorama.

 

“Yes, I did send him our flight details and he offered to pick up Buaji and then pick us up. But I asked him to not bother coming to the airport.”

 

She did send him her flight details, after waging an emotional war with her heart and mind.

 

“It’s just a kind and a friendly gesture Khushi, why are you making more out of it than it really is?” Lavanya had challenged her, “Unless it is more than what it is.”

 

Fair enough, she thought. Instead of texting him, she quickly emailed him her itinerary. Surprised to not hear from him, she wondered if she had sent it to the wrong person. 

 

It was when Arnav texted her and asked if her flight details were a state secret that she realized that he was expecting her to text, not email him. 

 

If your flight details are indeed a state secret, then you leave me no choice but to commit all kinds of crimes to acquire it. 🙂

 

Crimes? Although the temptation is quite strong, I would hate to see a friend in hot water. Sadly it isn’t a state secret, and neither are my email messages. I sent you my itinerary, a couple of days ago. Check your email. 🙂

 

Khushi remembered that it was late at night, the night before her travel. She should have been in bed, asleep. But as always sleep was elusive. So, she waited for him to respond, although, she rationalized, waiting was just accidental if one was waiting for sleep. The words on the book she held in her hands blurred themselves, unable to hold her attention. It wasn’t long before her phone vibrated.

 

Ah email, of course! Sorry, didn’t think of it. Looking forward to seeing you again Khushi. Safe travels.

 

Please don’t bother to come to the airport so late in the night. In fact, I am asking Buaji to send our regular driver with the car that we rent. We can make our way home without inconveniencing everyone.

 

There was silence from his end for a while. She was sure he wasn’t going to respond. She tried to go back to the book that she was struggling to read.

 

No way I am waiting another ten years. See you soon.

 

Her heart plunged to her stomach reading that cryptic sentence and then started to race.

 

What did he mean by that?

 

Khushi was brought out of her reverie when Manorama shook her shoulder to point to the now empty aisle for them. She woke Mira gently and gathered their carry-ons along with Mira’s violin. Her little one had decided to bring her violin so she could continue playing while on vacation. She signed internally, like father, like daughter. Their music followed them wherever they went.

 

It was another good two hours before Khushi, Mira and Manorama walked towards the exit doors of the airport. Khushi could see eager eyes and broad smiles on the faces of people waiting to see their loved ones. Khushi’s eyes scanned for Buaji when Mira plaintively asked, “Mommy, can you see Bua-Patti? Is she here? I want to go home, I am really tired Mommy.” 

 

“I am looking honey. Just a few more minutes and then we will be in the car. Can you hold on for just a little longer?”

 

Mira nodded her head and held on to Manorama’s hand. Khushi looked at her mother-in-law, whose gait seemed to shift to a small limp, favoring her right knee. These long flights seemed to take a bigger toll on her every time she traveled, especially with her arthritis.

 

“Amma, do you need a wheelchair?” She quickly scanned the large lobby of the airport and said, “Amma, why don’t you sit down with Mira and stay with the luggage, let me find Buaji and will come back to get you.”

 

Manorama gave Khushi a grateful look for being so sensitive to her needs. Who said blood was thicker than water? She is my daughter, through and through. “It is alright Chellam, if you go out of this lobby, they may not let you back in. I can walk. Let’s find Nandu.” 

 

Now all three of them looked, scanning the crowds to find this elusive Buaji. 

 

But Khushi’s eyes were surreptitiously seeking a tall figure in the midst of the crowd. What was going on with her? He was being polite at the very least and friendly at the most. There was no way he was going to show up at the airport. She quietly reprimanded herself for harboring fancy hopes. That was that. But her eyes seemed to have a will of their own, moving, searching the crowd.

 

“Didi! Didi! Khushi-Didi!” 

 

Two lean arms took over the luggage cart she was pushing. It was a diminutive man, shorter than Khushi, probably in his late twenties. Khushi expected to see their Buaji’s usual driver, Ahmed-Bhai, but this was certainly not Ahmed Bhai, grabbing her cart from her. 

 

“Namaste Khushi-didi” he started, turned towards Manorama and repeated his greeting, “Namaste Auntiji. I am Gangadhar, Raizada-house driver. Arnav Bhai sent me to pick you up from the airport.” He made a quick namaste with his hands and resumed ownership of the cart. “Come this way please. Your Buaji is waiting in the car. I didn’t want her to stand, so I was waiting for you here.”

 

He didn’t come to the airport after all.

 

Khushi’s eyes remained fixed on Gangadhar as she let the knowledge of Arnav’s absence sink keenly into her.  Disappointment sliced through Khushi so fiercely that she found herself closing her eyes tightly. It knocked the wind out of her body.  It took her a few moments to calm herself down. 

 

She was shocked that there was a small part of her that had hoped and wanted to see him at the airport. She was so sure that she had walled herself within reason and prudence that his presence at the airport was not necessary.

 

Lost in her own thought, she felt a tug on her wrist. Mira pointed to Gangadhar walking ahead of them with their cart. 

 

The man simply took over. Khushi and Manorama were left standing, gaping at the speed with which Gangadhar maneuvered them around crowds, navigating their way past haphazardly parked carts, people hugging, and even small potholes. Within minutes he had them walking briskly towards a white SUV parked with Buaji waving her arms with great joy.

 

Moving like automatons, Khushi and Manorama looked at each other as if to check their sense of reality was still intact. But when they saw Buaji rushing towards them, Gangadhar was momentarily forgotten.

 

“Oh my dear Mano!” Buaji grabbed Manorama’s wrists and pulled her slight body into a hug. She exclaimed her name yet again, paying no attention to Manorama’s reciprocal greeting. 

 

In the next breath she cried, “Oh! My dear darling Bacchi!” Buaji’s ample arms pulled Khushi into Buaji’s ample bosom. Being a few inches taller than Buaji, Khushi had to bend down to be in that embrace. The discomfort of the hug was insignificant to Khushi as she found a home in Buaji’s arms. Fat tears rolled down on Buaji’s face, as she gathered her niece into her arms. This was Khushi’s first trip since NK’s passing and although Buaji was in constant touch with Khushi and Mira via Skype, it wasn’t quite the same as having the child in her arms. Buaji was wont to let Khushi go, sniffling loudly into Khushi’s bent neck.

 

Manorama’s eyes moistened in empathy, but she noticed that Mira’s patience with the travel was wearing thin. She saw that Gangadhar was gently coaxing the little girl into the SUV, along with her violin case which she refused to part with.

 

Manorama then moved closer to Khushi and Nandini and said, “I think we should get into the car before we get a parking ticket. Let us get going Nandu.” 

 

Manorama’s coaxing got Nandini to let Khushi out of her arms, but she held on to her wrist as they ambled towards the SUV. 

 

There were too many emotions coursing through Khushi that she found herself letting go, of having to manage the luggage, the child and all that came with being the one holding it all together. This was India and she was certain that her Amma and Buaji were more than capable of taking her and Mira home. She settled in the back seat with Manorama and with Mira in the middle while Gangadhar helped Buaji into the front passenger seat.

 

It was almost dawn when the SUV coasted along the now near-empty Delhi roads towards Buaji’s house in Lakshmi Nagar. The dark skies infused with street-light-orange seemed to give way to light blue in the visible city horizon. The last half hour of her travel felt surreal for Khushi as she leaned back on the plush leather headrest. 

 

He did not show up, but he sent his driver? And Gangadhar picked up Buaji?

 

Khushi realized that there were so many small kindnesses wrapped into these two statements. She was grateful, she felt grateful. But she had specifically asked him not to bother. She informed him that Buaji organized these trips to and from the airport every time they traveled. But Arnav had insisted on her travel itinerary, said something about not wanting to wait another ten years. Then he sent his driver. She shook her head silently, unsure if she knew what was going on with her and with him and with them together.

 

As Buaji and Mira reacquainted themselves with the help of Manorama, Khushi looked out of the window, not really paying any attention to the passing scenery.

 

“Khushi-Didi, here is a packet that Arnav Bhaiya asked me to give to you.” Gangadhar handed a small brown package to her turning partially to reach her in the back seat. “He had to go to the hospital, there was an emergency.”

 

“Is that from your friend, ASR?  Mommy? Is he in the hospital?” Mira asked looking concerned in spite of her exhaustion.

 

Before Khushi could respond, Gangadhar piped in, “Oh no no! Arnav Bhai is a doctor. He had to go to the hospital to take care of someone.” Looking onto his rearview mirror, Gangadhar reassured Mira. With a nod, Mira slid against Khushi and closed her eyes. But in the next second, she opened her eyes and said, “What is in that packet Mommy?” Her eyes moved from the packet to her mother’s face. “Aren’t you going to open it?”

 

Khushi quickly opened the package, aware that there were three sets of curious eyes watching her. 

 

It was a cell phone with a note stuck to it. 

 

Why would Arnav give her a cell phone? She had a phone with her. What is going on here? He sent a car, and now he was giving her a cell phone?

 

Khushi stared at the cell phone with a complete lack of comprehension. Before she could form another thought, Buaji chimed, “Oh what a lovely and thoughtful gift. I wondered why Arnav asked me about your cell phone details while you were in India.”  Buaji shifted in her seat, now facing the rear, said, “You know, Mano, he is such a nice young man. He called me this morning to ask for my address, reassured me that I didn’t have to rent a car for tonight.” Now she turned to Khushi and asked, “Was he your friend when you were in Delhi? I don’t think you mentioned him to me ever.”

 

“Mommy, what is on that note?” Mira reminded everyone of the note that lay inside the box unread.

 

Khushi answered Buaji’s question first. “Remember Akash, Buaji? My friend from IIT? Arnav Singh Raizada is Akash’s cousin.” Buaji nodded slowly, her memory slowly filtering into her face. “He visited us when he came to the US recently.” Now Khushi looked at Manorama as if to seek approval of this memory. Manorama gave her a small smile and nodded her agreement to Nandini.

 

“What does that note say Mommy? The note?” Mira’s curiosity was unrelenting, her tone short of patience. 

 

Khushi made a point of looking and reading the note, even though she didn’t need to. She read it out loud for the entire group.

 

“I am not sure if your phone from the US works here. I am sure you could have gotten one yourself, but here is one for you. Talk to you soon – A”

 

She looked up at everyone and said, “That’s what the note says.”

 

Buaji nodded benignly while Manorama gave Khushi an inscrutable look. Mira lost her interest in the conversation and slid towards Khushi to lean.

 

Khushi switched the phone on without another thought. She decided that she would deal with the phone and the folks around the phone later. As soon as the phone came on, Khushi noticed an unread text message.

 

This phone is not a big deal, Khushi, so I hope you will not make it as one. 🙂 I didn’t want to be too presumptuous, so I didn’t add my number to your contacts. But you have mine now. I will leave it up to you to decide. This phone number is yours and your call-information is also solely yours. The bills are yours as well. 🙂

 

Khushi tried to hide a small smile that hovered over her lips. 

 

He knew her. Even after all these years. 

 

It was an uncomfortable place to be; that he knew her and that she was aware of his knowledge. There was an intimacy to this thought and Khushi wasn’t sure if she was comfortable with that intimacy. 

 

A deep sigh slipped through her as she placed the phone back in the box and leaned back in her seat. Exhaustion crept over her body and mind like darkness after twilight. Her mind was comfortably numb, a pause button pressed to her thoughts and the roiling emotions beneath. A cool breeze blew through the open window, punctuated by an occasional horn sounded by trucks zipping past precariously. 

 

It would be good to be back in Buaji’s house. It was her home for a decade and then some. Locked up memories will not remain remanded, but will demand freedom soon, she knew. But not for a little while longer. Another sigh found its way out of her.

 

OoOoOoOoOoO

 

Arnav walked out of the OR, pulling his surgical cap off and tossing it in the sterilization bin, ready to meet with the anxious family members. Today he had some good news to give the family. His patient will recover, he was sure, if no other complications set in. With a practiced kind smile on his face, he walked up to the family to share the news of their relative’s hopeful prognosis.

 

Leaving behind a happy family to experience their joy and relief at the good news he gave them, he walked into his office to retrieve his watch and his wallet from his desk. But then, he knew that there were occasions when he had lost his patient and had to deliver the saddest news to that patient’s family. 

 

Not all come through as successfully as this patient did. Immediately, he was reminded of Mira’s tear-filled eyes and her need for solace when she leaned into his arms. He was reminded of Khushi’s red rimmed eyes, with her tears coursing down her face in that restaurant. As a physician he realized that he was not privy to the events that unfolded with the family members, after his delivery of bad news. While he was aware of it, he felt it more keenly when he saw it in the eyes of that little girl with hazel eyes. He sighed quietly.

 

Dawn was making its presence felt in the sky with the pink streaks fading into the bright blues and yellows alongside the cacophony of vehicles on the roads making their presence known, or more appropriately, heard. The supposedly silent zone around the hospital was not entirely immune to the loud blaring of horns on the street. Arnav checked his watch again, this time noting that it was almost seven thirty in the morning. He needed to get home and check on Mohan. 

 

They must be sleeping in Buaji’s house. They were in the same country and same city as he was. They were in the same time zone finally damn it!

 

The knowledge thrilled him. He had to acknowledge that thought that had been swirling in his mind for a while now. He was not able to go to the airport as he wished. Perhaps this was better for all of them. It would have been awkward for her. Her mother-in-law was traveling with them. He knew that she would probably be upset with him about the cell phone he sent her. 

 

Will she text?

 

History proved that she would take her own sweet time to text him. His impatience could not be contained any more. 

 

Should he call her? 

 

What would be the reason for his call? He shook his head silently. He turned into a blithering idiot in seconds where she was concerned.  Sporting a sardonic smile, he laughed at himself. She will call, no doubt at all, he knew that. He will wait for her call like he had been doing the last few weeks, he decided.

 

_______________________

A quick note:
I apologize for this long silence my dear friends.
Too many reasons, too much to tell.
Too much travel as well.
I am trying to write when I can
So, bear with me and my silence?
This story will be written
This story will be told
I hope you will read it
And walk with me till the end. ❤

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Chapter Nine: Cucooned

You left me, sweet, two legacies, —
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had He the offer of;  

You left me boundaries of pain
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.
—-Emily Dickinson

 

There was something otherworldly about flying, being suspended at thirty thousand feet in the air.  Cocooned inside a metal bird with the constant roar of the engines provided her a surreal sense of security from the things that haunt while on the ground. Perhaps it was that physical distance that the plane provided from the grounding earth that made it possible for those elusive memories to percolate to the surface of her consciousness. It was dark inside the cabin and their flight was scheduled late at night from the flagship airport in Washington DC.

 

Khushi turned on her seat to look at the two seats next to her and smiled at the sight of her daughter teaching her mother-in-law how to operate the on-board entertainment system. For a soon to be nine-year-old, Mira was a patient teacher, helping her Patti figure out the buttons and touch screen. She was just like NK, a teacher through and through. In fact, she had many of his mannerisms – when she was deep in thought she pulled the curls near her temple as if to straighten them.

 

Khushi had a distinct memory of NK sitting in their living room reading chair with his head buried in a book that he held in his one hand, while the other pulled on his curly hairs by his left temple. She teased him often that he would have partial and preferential baldness, running her fingers through his curly hair.

 

“But you will still love me when I am bald. Won’t you?” asked NK pulling Khushi into his lap, the book now forgotten.

 

Smiling into his eyes, Khushi said, “Hmm… I may have to think about that.” She teased him. There was an answering smile on his face that brought to the fore his dimples that tempted Khushi to feel their depths with her fingers. Tracing his dimples she asked, “I thought you knew that I have a thing for bald men? Bald men are sexy NK.”

 

“Say my name… Naren… not NK, just Naren.” She could feel his stubble on the soft skin of her neck, just below her jaw. 

 

“Naren” she whispered into his neck, placing small kisses on his Adam’s apple. “Let’s see if I can remember some of them… Yes….  Patrick Stewart to start with, most definitely Andre Agassi …” her voice now a mere whisper. All conversation fell aside when NK gently tilted her head upwards towards him before he slowly claimed her lips in a toe-curling kiss.

 

“Samuel Jackson’s name is definitely worth mentioning.”  Khushi murmured against NK’s lips as she tried to continue, but all was forgotten when NK… no, Naren scooped her up in his arms and strode to their bedroom.

 

“Mommy! Are you sleeping already?” Mira’s voice piped up with her hands gently shaking her. Khushi didn’t realize that her eyes were closed. She responded automatically saying she wasn’t, clearing her throat while trying to control the roil of emotions coursing through her. A part of her was content, living in her memories that she felt resentful for being forced back into her seat. 

 

Khushi forced a smile to her face and said, “I was just winding down after all that rush of getting onto the plane sweetheart.” Reaching over to check if Mira had her seat belt on, she continued, “If you want to sleep, we can move these hand rests up and you can stretch out on me and Patti.”

 

Khushi looked over Mira’s head to catch Manorama’s eye. But her mother-in-law was busy with the movie she was watching. But as soon as Mira stretched out, Manorama settled to sleep after switching her entertainment off.  

 

The darkened cabin seemed to demand a quietude on the part of its passengers. All that was left now was the insistent roar of the engines that absolved any other sound that defied the induced somnolence.

 

The tiredness at the end of her day’s activities settled on her. She was grateful for Manorama’s presence, the last couple of days when the travel related frenzy reached its height. Between Mira’s travel vaccinations and packing and between making sure their mail was held and other loose ends tied there was not a moment to rest much less dwell on their ‘first trip back without NK.’ At the same time, every act by itself reminded her of his absence when she had to do them instead of him.

 

Khushi could recall all the platitudes she was offered as part of her widowhood – this too shall pass my dear… take one day at a time, my dear… nothing like a routine to set you back in life my dear… Try not to cry my dear; he wouldn’t want you to, now, would he? Time heals all wounds... Those platitudes were harder to tolerate right after NK had died. She recalled how angry she would get, how her rage would make her dig her nails in her palms, how she would just scream silently in her head that she hoped that her grief would never pass if it meant that she would forget him.

 

She never wanted to forget him. Never ever

 

If she could, she would live in those moments behind her closed eyes, live for those moments when she would find him in her dreams, in her thought, locked in, firmly forever. Death and grief were not wounds that vanished with healing. They were unending holes that remained in her body and soul for as long as there was breath in her. Whoever thought that she could just move on never lived enough, never loved enough, never lost enough. The sharp resentment at the implied expectation that she must move on boiled through her as she tried to even her breath. 

 

A brief jolt of turbulent air, jerking the aircraft, brought her back to her seat, she opened her eyes, checked Mira’s seat belt. Breathing deeply, Khushi closed her eyes to welcome the oblivion that sleep appeared to offer.  

 

Yet sleep proved to be elusive. The turbulence of the plane found an echo in the churn of her grieving mind.  Khushi found herself drifting between wakefulness and sleep, the in-between world where memories reigned free without judgment. She sought their transient pleasure much like an addict to a fix. Unfettered, her mind sought memories of their last trip to India when Mira was six years. At that time, little did she know that her next trip would be without him, her NK.

 

A sliver of a memory slipped to the forefront – both father and daughter poured over the safety card that the airline had provided. NK helped Mira understand how the jet engines worked that Mira completely forgot about her fear of flying.

 

But why do they have engines under the wings Appa?

 

Well, how else will this bird fly? It needs its wings powered. So, we have to put the engine where the power is needed most, under the wings. Do you want to learn how a plane flies?

 

Can I fly a plane when I get as big as you?

 

You can do anything you set your mind to darling.

 

Mira’s eyes grew round with wonder as she looked up into her father’s eyes. Hazel eyes met dark ones, but their expressions couldn’t be more similar. All things science and engineering were wondrous and sacred for NK. And he tried to bequeath his love for that knowledge to his young child.

 

NK had always been an explorer, loved to try new foods, new places. It was more of a desire to know more than anything else. He was a sincere student of life. He was unabashed in his curiosity, to know and to learn… And that curiosity took him all the way through to his doctoral degree and into his academic career as well. In just a few years of his teaching, he earned awards and accolades for his teaching. The hall where his memorial service was held was filled with people he met, colleagues, students, and friends. 

 

There was so much she learnt about NK after his death. All those who assembled for him, at his funeral, sought her out to either to give her something they had written about him or had shared their feelings and sentiments about his teaching and research. She was so sure that she had their entire lifetime to learn about her husband. Now all she was left with were these snippets of memories, cards, and things that she was to hold.

 

He promised her old age, but he left her behind. Like everyone she knew and loved, he too left her.

 

The feel of a tear rolling down her cheek woke Khushi. She slipped her hand into Mira’s to hold her daughter’s in an attempt to reconnect with her NK. That feeling of being forsaken was a familiar devil. It lurked within her, dormant for the most part. NK had managed to allay those insecurities with his constancy, his enduring presence. 

 

But here she was, alone again.

 

Feeling her mother’s palm in hers, Mira snuggled closer to Khushi, sliding and moving into her mother’s lap. Arms tightened around bodies and solace was exchanged without any restraint. Khushi knew that she was a survivor, she was sure that she will find the shore to this ocean of grief. Nuzzling her daughter’s hair, she rested her head back and closed her eyes again.

 

Naren Krishnan… NK to most, even to her, but Naren when it was just the two of them. He was first and foremost her best friend. 

 

She lay curled up in her bed, hurting from the wound she had inflicted upon herself. She said no to him, refused to believe that there was any possibility of a future together with him. She wounded herself and wounded him. She knew that things like these never lasted. Relationships didn’t last, people never stayed. Abandonment was a constant, she was intimately familiar with it. That knowledge was her shadow. But he didn’t understand. He didn’t fight her demons. He didn’t know how and she didn’t know how to teach him. The image of his eyes reddened from her refusal and her rejection and his motorbike vanishing in a cloud of dust, making it impossible for her to breathe. But he didn’t put up a fight for her, for them. Instead, he acquiesced.  She wanted this moment to be her last as she sobbed a breath. 

 

Her bed creaked under the weight of another and she felt two arms pull her out of her comforter, unrelenting in their hold. She was in no position to see, much less talk to another person.

 

It was NK. 

 

She resisted, tried to twist herself out of that hold, but he pulled her insistently towards himself and held her against himself. She would not allow herself these tears, she had no right to them. She brought this on herself, didn’t she? She brought it on him!  She didn’t want NK to see her like this.  She didn’t want anyone else to see her like this.

 

“Let me go” she whispered hoarsely. She couldn’t recognize her own voice. “I want to be alone. Please leave me alone.”

 

But he wouldn’t listen and didn’t leave her side. He stayed with her for God knows how long, putting himself at risk of being expelled from IIT. It was a women’s hostel after all and he stayed with her flouting all of those golden rules. He sat next to her silently, offering his arm first, then shoulder and finally his quiet stolid embrace. There were no strings attached to what he offered, no questions asked, no demands made for any answer. He was there. And no matter how many times she fell apart, he helped put her pieces back together.

 

Naren Krishnan, a friend who refused to let her give up, scaled every wall she put up and broke every restraint she threw his way. Without telling him everything, she told him all, dissuaded him from harboring anything romantic with her.

 

“I have nothing to offer you,” she said, looking down at their entwined fingers.

 

She turned her head away from him, unwilling to break his heart any more than she already had. She tried to pry his fingers from her own, but he tightened his grip. 

 

“I don’t want anything you don’t have Khush” he countered, slowly pulling her into his embrace. She stayed with reluctance, but the warmth in his eyes made it impossible for her to maintain her distance. There was no demand in his arms. But she couldn’t lead him on.

 

“I am not in that frame of mind NK. I may never be.” She warned.

 

He just remained looking at her with his steadfast gaze, unwavering in his stand.

 

“I love youAll of you… This you..” He pointed to her pale unadorned face, slumped shoulders and broken spirit. 

 

He had waited for her to heal while he did everything he could to heal her. Akash and Lavanya joined forces asking no questions, offering silence and support when she asked for nothing, but needed both. All four of them graduated and moved to the US to pursue their postgraduate degree. Lavanya and Khushi ended up in the same university while Akash and NK went to a different one.

 

She couldn’t take a chance, she couldn’t lose him too. If NK left her like the rest, she would lose her will to live.

 

That changed nothing for NK. He wooed her with consistent conviction. She couldn’t close her heart from his love anymore. She tried to broach her past with him, but he wanted none of it.

 

Firmly pulling her back into his arms, he said “Khush! Your present and every nanosecond of your future is what I want. I will never stop you from sharing your past with me. But please don’t feel compelled to tell me things. ”

 

She couldn’t believe that a person could be this selfless in their love. Wasn’t he even a little bit curious? She tried to tell him again.

 

“I was involved very briefly…”

 

He cut her off, tightening his arms around her. Her back was flush against his chest, his chin now resting on her head. “I know that Khush. I was there, remember.”

 

She turned towards him, looking up into his beautiful eyes, to seek his beautiful heart. Is he for real? 

 

“Don’t you want to know what happened?”

 

He shook his head. “I don’t need to know what happened and with whom. You can tell me, only if you want to. Don’t tell me because you think you owe me. You don’t.”

 

She couldn’t stand it anymore. He deserved to receive all the love he was offering her at the very least, if not more. A streak of self-loathing sliced through her. She was taking advantage of him and he deserved to hear the truth from her. “I am not sure if I love you as you love me NK. I am not sure if I know how to love at all.” She rose from where she sat and walked away from him, creating distance once again.

 

She didn’t know how to, she was unsure of its permanence. She did know how to cope with life’s battles… Alone. That was her life’s lesson. 

 

He sat right where he was, without moving. Perhaps he knew intuitively that she needed some space to hear what he had to say. He called out to her loudly and said, “You are here, with me. I love you. You know that. I will teach you to love me. I have enough love for the both of us Khush.”

 

And he opened his arms to her like he always did when he saw her. 

 

How could she not respond? How could she not gravitate towards his endless love, his light, his dimpled smile, his generous heart?

 

A year later they were married. She became a part of his world, his family. She transferred to his university so they could live together as man and wife. Lavanya moved with her and all four friends reunited. That small dinky graduate apartment became their home filled with books, laughter, music, and passion. Yes, passion, a lot of it. NK… no…

 

Naren…. 

 

Naren taught her how to love again…

 

What started with a tease and laughter quickly changed into something more. Khushi could see NK’s eyes darken, his dimpled smile dissolve. Unsure of this change, Khushi continued to smile tentatively and took a step back. With a quick tug of her wrist, NK pulled her back hard that she slammed into his chest. His hard body was a surprise to her.

 

But why now?

 

She thought she was familiar with him, his smell, his touch and the feel of that thin gold chain he always wore around his neck. This was her NK. Before she could find her answers, she felt his fingers curl around her neck pulling her with gentle insistence, drawing her face closer to his. She felt his fingers moving from her neck into her hair, threading them slowly over her hair and then her scalp as if he was cupping her head. 

 

She felt her skin frizzle with something new, goosebumps bursting on her arms. Her eyelids growing heavier by the minute she raised her arms to his nape to caress his curls. With his thumb under her jaw, she found her face lifted and his breath on her brows and eyes. A soft warmth began to unfurl in her stomach, rising upwards and finally into her blood. He was going to kiss her, a sigh escaped her parted lips as she waited for his mouth to descend on hers.

 

“Open your eyes” he insisted gently rubbing his lips over hers. Her eyelids felt too heavy, she shook her head. “Look at me” he whispered. Pulling back when she desisted, “Look at me Khush, I want you to look at me.” The urgency in his voice lightened her lids. “I want to see you see me.” She slowly raised her lashes to meet his gaze. There was no remnant of mirth in his eyes. His eyes darker than the moonless sky and they were searching and seeking secrets in her own. 

 

With their gazes locked, he met her mouth with his own and they kissed. Everything about that kiss felt new. Nothing was familiar. There was an insistent intensity to his lips, moving on hers, his tongue finding and mating with hers that seemed to demand her presence. She couldn’t stay on the sidelines anymore. She met him as an equal and kissed him back.

 

Hands and lips moved to discover and rediscover familiar bodies and known spaces. Yet every movement felt different. A new language was spoken between the two. Touch muted their thoughts and overrode doubt. Khushi felt the blanket on her bare back and her nails dragging mercilessly down on his.

 

When did they shed their clothes? Neither knew nor cared. Senses awakened to a symphony of an unrestrained show of faith in each other’s touch. Her body was an instrument for him to be fine-tuned. With desire laced with devotion, he brought her alive.

 

“Don’t close your eyes Khush, look at me.” He was her anchor in this tempest and she opened her reluctant eyes. “I love you” she whispered.

 

“Say my name.”

 

“I love you NK”

 

“No, my name” he insisted.

 

“Naren” she whispered. A bout of shyness spread warmth to her face as she found him devouring her with his eyes. “I love you Naren” she repeated as if it was a vow. She watched him catch his breath in his throat as he tried to swallow. “I love you Khush” he echoed. “I have always loved you… only you” he declared. Blinking against his blurred face, she freed the tears that had pooled at the corners of her eyes. Emotions swelled as passion ruled their breath and pulse while time stood still as a witness.

 

“Naren” His name became her guiding light as if it was a chant that gave her courage to traverse these unchartered waters. She whispered his name as they journeyed together. He matched her whispers with his own “Khush” as urgencies took precedence. Screens that held them back were torn down as hands, legs, and bodies danced to their desired melodies. It was as if there was no more doubt, no more distance between these two bodies and souls. Rising and falling to the cadence of their passions the two lovers finally found each other. Soon thereafter sleep claimed spent bodies and minds.

 

Back in their apartment, unpacking their picnic basket and blankets, Khushi and NK moved around, throwing furtive glances at each other when they thought the other was not looking at them. All at once, Khushi felt like a new bride, unsure of herself and her husband. She saw NK pick up the heavy basket in one heave and her eyes were drawn to the clean lines of his biceps, partly exposed under his short-sleeved T-shirt. The memory of her lips moving along those firm muscles quickened her breath.

 

This is NK, my best friend, for god’s sake she reminded herself, trying to walk past him.

 

“Hey,” NK said softly, snaking an arm around her waist pulling her to himself.

 

“Hi.” Blood rushed to her face, making her curse in her head. Shit, am I blushing?

 

“Aren’t you going to look at me Khush?” She heard a smile in that voice. She felt his fingers hook under her chin, trying to raise her face. She couldn’t look at him, she just couldn’t. Resisting his fingers, she shook her head.

 

“You are never going to look at me again Khush?” Now he was definitely teasing her. 

 

With a determined breath, she looked up into his face to counter his dare. But there was no teasing in his eyes, just love, inviting her with his dimpled smile. Feeling at ease at once, she leaned into his arms and raised her fingers to trace his dimples. Not satisfied with her fingers, she quickly raised herself on her toes and dipped her tongue into his dimple, testing and tasting its depth.

 

Surprise registered on his face, soon followed by desire. NK quickly turned his face to catch her tongue with his own and soon they were in each other’s arms. Neither paid heed to the manner in which they divested each other’s clothes. Neither knew how they found themselves in their bed. Nothing mattered anymore except for their need for each other. “Naren” she whispered into his ears, biting his lobe as if his name carried a secret code to breaking her restrain. She punctuated every caress, every bite, every touch, with a “Naren” as if saying his name gave her the freedom to love him like he wanted her to love him like she wanted to.

 

Later, much later, Khushi woke to find herself tucked in the space between his chin and shoulder. She slowly rolled herself a little away from him so she could see his face while he slept. She marveled at how he slept with an abandon. Her eyes trailed alongside his eyes, his lashes and his lips.

 

He was her friend, he had always been her friend, but she saw him with new eyes today. He was her husband, yes, she knew that. Today he was her lover. A shiver ran through her. Her eyes lingered on the long column of his neck, rough with stubble, but bruised where her teeth met his skin. It seemed as if something changed between them in the last twelve hours. Easy comfort seemed to be replaced with something electric.

 

She made love to him today with no restraint, something she never did before. She cringed a little with shyness. He demanded her full presence with his lovemaking. She felt a reciprocal demand of her own, she desired him unequivocally. The thought brought a smile to her face.

 

And all that passion brought Mira into their world, barely a year after their marriage. He gave her everything she had, her Mira and her Amma. He had given her a family that she always sought without conscious thought. He had given her hope and courage, taught her to dare to love again. She had to live if only to hold to his legacy and his piece of soul – their daughter.

 

Khushi was grateful for these quiet moments, trysting with her Naren with no interruption.

 

But she was regrettably right after all. Naren Krishnan loved her like no other. But he left her, although not of his own choice. It was the inevitability of loss in her life, like a faithful shadow that never left her… it was always people that she loved that left…..

 

She opened her eyes and sought her mother-in-law two seats away. Manorama had Mira’s feet clasped in her hands. Both Mira and Manorama were fast asleep. A deep sigh rose through Khushi’s being. She will be okay. She was sure she will be. She has to be. With that thought she finally allowed herself to fall asleep. It was a long flight to New Delhi.

 

oOoOo

 

 

 

Chapter Eight: Bounded Boundaries

Life is a movie. Death is a photograph

—Susan Santog

 

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.

 

But….

 

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.

 

OoOoOoOoOoOo

 

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.

 

“What?”

 

“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.

 

“Do you?”

 

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.

 

oOoOo

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.

 

Chapter Seven: Reprise

It is that time again.

Time, that seems to bind everything, a tensile cord.

Not unlike the umbilical that detaches at birth.

Except in this case time stands still when life ceases .

Notions of past, present and future,

those neat convenient  categories of time we create

To  live and relive our memories

Sometimes in happiness, sometimes with nostalgia,

for things that are impossible to reclaim..

Tyranny the time.

“It was in another lifetime” she said. Then why does it feel like I am living it now?

 

“It was a long time ago” he began. But why does it feel like it happened just yesterday?

 

“It probably meant nothing” he said with his eyes downcast. It is a lie and I know it.

 

“It wasn’t meant to be” she continued, muttering forever under her breath. “I had plans and he had plans. And our plans had no room for the other.” Some things aren’t meant to be, or so I’ve come to believe. “There isn’t anything to it anymore. This is a futile conversation.” She faked a smile that spoke the truth. Then why do I fight to keep him out of my mind?

 

“I don’t remember much of it” he sighed. That’s because I tried so hard to forget.

 

“I’ve forgotten all about it until he showed up at my house.” Never realized how quickly memories come back alive when I thought I buried them deep down.

 

oOoOo

 

Lavanya’s eyes stayed on Khushi’s face, watching emotions run across her face. She averted her gaze from Lavanya but there was much to hide behind her set jaw. And she was finally talking about it, albeit after Lavanya’s repeated nagging.

 

Lavanya’s gaze didn’t miss the flush on Khushi’s face. There was an animation in her eyes, a life that refused to lay low in her. There was more to this story with Arnav Singh Raizada than what Khushi was letting on. She never talked about Arnav.

 

Never ever.

 

Well, there was that one day back then, in Delhi

 

It was rather an evening when Lavanya remembered Khushi huddled on her bed in their dorm room that they shared. All Lavanya could see was Khushi’s partially covered shoulders, facing the wall and sobbing silent tears. She had tried asking, but there was no response from Khushi. It was a strange radio silence from a friend who never ceased talking or sharing everything. It was as if there was a line and Lavanya couldn’t cross it. So she never pushed Khushi to talk about it either.

 

Until now.  

 

Lavanya sighed a contented sigh, continuing to watch Khushi with an insistent gaze. The late evening summer sun brought orange shadows. Both sat on the sidewalk licking their ice cream cones.

 

“So, there isn’t anything to it then?” Lavanya asked, in an innocuous tone in encouragement.

 

“Nope, nothing to it.” Paying singular attention to her waffle cone, Khushi replied.

 

“Did you text him back?”

 

Khushi whipped her head to look at Lavanya in surprise. “That was a while ago Lav” she said.

 

“I know. So, did you reply?” Lavanya persisted.

 

Looking down at her whittled down ice cream cone, Khushi shook her head.

 

“Why not?” Lavanya doggedly pursued.

 

Continuing to lick her waffle, Khushi shrugged. She had written and deleted her texts to Arnav so many times that even a ‘hello’ seemed way too complicated for Khushi. She didn’t want to delve into it any more.

 

Lavanya poked her hand into Khushi’s open handbag, quickly fished out her cellphone and extended it to her. “Here, text him” she said. “I’ll even help you write it” she offered with a wicked smile. “Hmm, let me see” she began scrolling through Khushi’s cell phone for the messaging tool. “Where is his message? Ah here..”

 

“No!” Khushi grabbed her phone from Lavanya’s hands with surprising strength and dropped it into her handbag.

 

“But if there is nothing to it, like you say, then what’s the harm in texting him Khush?”

 

Khushi got up from the sidewalk to throw the last few pieces of the cone, garnering a few minutes for herself before she faced Lavanya’s resolute questions. Yes, if there was nothing to it, why does she feel paralyzed to respond?

 

Returning to sit next to Lavanya again, Khushi took her cell phone out and gazed at the blank screen. In low tones she said, “Because…,” stopped and sighed. She looked everywhere except her phone or Lavanya, letting the movement of her eyes garner a few moments of thought to herself. Biting the inside of her cheek absently, she continued, “Because, it’s too hard.” Raising her gaze to meet Lavanya’s, she whispered raggedly, “It’s too complicated.” She continued to look at Lavanya as if seeking answers, seeking strength. Silence reigned that moment between these two friends.

 

“I wanted to… I tried so many times… but…” she paused, searching for words, feeling exposed. But the twilight and the public sidewalk provided a sense of security to say things to her best friend, things she couldn’t tell herself.

 

She looked down at her cell phone, her fingers caressing the screen, wishing, willing the cold instrument to come to life. She felt an arm go around her shoulders, Lavanya’s strength seeping into her war-weary muscles. A hug from Lavanya was a panacea for her. Resting her head on her friend’s shoulder, Khushi raised her fingers to her neck, holding the ring without conscious thought as she ran her fingers over the ring repeatedly. There were so many what-ifs and but-what-abouts swirling with half-formulated opinions and sentiments that yielded a paralysis. She drew in a ragged breath and began reciting the alphabet backward.

 

z, y, x, w, v, u, t,…

 

A few quiet moments later, Khushi drew a resolute breath and straightened. “I am going to text him back” she said to no one in particular. Perhaps it was more to herself than for anyone else. “Yes, I am.” She turned to look at Lavanya, searching and seeking for any signs of disinclination or doubt, but finding nothing except warmth and love.

 

“Because I want to, Lav.” There! Fear surfaced again that everything was now in the open. Khushi asked “Can I? Is it okay? Lav?”

 

“Yes it is.” Unequivocally Lavanya urged.

 

A few more silent seconds passed when Khushi’s fingers sprang to life on her cell phone as she wrote her text message. At the same time, Lavanya noticed that her friend’s face was suffused with color and a lopsided smile began to unfurl. A reciprocal smile drew Lavanya’s dimples to the fore and she heaved a sigh of relief. Khushi will be fine, one day, soon, Lavanya knew for sure now.

 

oOoOoOoOoOoOo

 

Balmy cool breeze blew through Arnav’s car window. It was late in the night and Maya refused to leave until he promised to talk about the Khushi. Driving through the now silent streets of Delhi, one would be hard pressed to believe that the same roads clogged like those veins he worked on as a cardiologist. Delhi roads and clogged veins…funny, thought Arnav. A smile sprang forth on his face. Looking sideways to Maya’s profile, he saw that she was busy with her phone, a frown between her brows.

 

“All okay?” he asked. His eyes slid to his own phone which now lay silent on the dashboard.

 

Still no message. Perhaps there will never be one.

 

“Hm.. yes. It’s from my lab.” Maya mumbled, still busy typing on her phone. “And no, I don’t want to go home now, let’s get a cup of chai before you drop me home?”

 

“I haven’t forgotten.” Giving a quick glance at Maya, Arnav shook his head. She does not forget easily. He wondered why he put up with her.

 

“But I don’t remember much of it” he warned, knowing full well that it was a useless caveat.

 

A little while later they sat in silence in the darkness of his car, holding their hot tea cups with steam curling. Maya turned in her seat and tilted her head to one side and gave Arnav a steady look.

 

“You haven’t forgotten. I don’t think you’ve forgotten at all” she countered.

 

A quick frown sat on his brow and a muscle clenched in his jaw. He wanted to refute. He did try to forget and he did.

 

“There isn’t much to say Maya. It was a very long time ago and that is that.” He looked out of the window.

 

Why do people drink hot tea in the middle of summer? Looking down into his tea cup, he sniffed the strong combination of cardamom and ginger. He was almost done with his, he drank the last of his tea in a gulp and set his cup on the dashboard.

 

“Why didn’t you tell me about…” He paused with a frown, surprised to hear the question that simmered within him.

 

“Tell you what?” Maya asked, puzzled.

 

“About the… you know… the time when I had that gunshot?”

 

“You mean, about the time when you kept saying her name?” Maya’s eyes bore into Arnav’s without any hint of hesitation or doubt.

 

He couldn’t hold her direct gaze anymore. He had to look away and he did. He wasn’t hurt or upset, he was sure of it. He wondered why he was pursuing this line of questions if he wasn’t upset?

 

He sighed noisily and nodded, making a brief eye contact. “I just want to know why that never came up.” Before she could answer, he shook his head and said, “You know what, just ignore it.” He looked out of his window and shook his head again, “It wasn’t important.” Not even a second later, he repeated, more to himself, “It isn’t important.” It really wasn’t and Arnav Singh Raizada was not one to rake his past over hot coals. It was an unnecessary and futile exercise that reaped benefits to no one. All it did was leave ashes and splinters, left everyone with a bruised heart.

 

Coward his conscience poked him. Perhaps there was an element of truth in there, but the feeling of being trapped left him no choice but to decry his question. He muttered under his breath, “It really isn’t important.”

 

Maya pulled his shoulder towards herself with her palm so he was facing her across the gear shift. “Because you never said anything before or after that event. It was like it never happened. You know?” Maya’s widened eyes, guileless as ever. But she quickly raised a pointed eyebrow, “So, did it mean something? Then?”  

 

Arnav didn’t have an answer for Maya at that moment. He remained still in his silence, wondering how he found himself in that moment, caught in the twilight of reviving  his past into his present, with a woman who was not only his friend, but his ex-wife as well. Maya’s nudge brought him back from his internal dialog and he gave her a small smile. “It really isn’t important Maya.” He brought her palm into his own and squeezed her fingers.

 

“I didn’t mean to make you angry.” Maya said quietly. “I want you to be happy. I want you to seek happiness.”

 

Seek happiness? Seek Khushi?

 

Arnav looked up quickly to see if Maya was joking. All he saw in her eyes was earnestness.

 

They continued to look at each other until both burst out laughing at her unintended pun.

 

“See” Maya pointed her finger at Arnav and shook it under his nose, “It is meant to be, Arnav.”

 

“You are a silly goofball” Arnav chuckled quietly, shaking his head. He went back to his teacup on the dash, but found his cup empty. He sighed deeply as he placed his cup back  where it was. This walk down memory lane was turning out to be more than he bargained for.

 

“What happened Arnav?”

 

Arnav leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

 

Did he want to do this now?

 

He was so used to pushing his errant thoughts away, not deliberately bring them to fore. He was used to quelling his memories of her, not questing them.

 

How long had it been, his heart willed the question. Thirteen years since his mind supplied.  Time had certainly marched on for both of them.  She chose to travel a different route and so did he. They both made their lives with different people.

 

But that one week when their paths crossed and the time they spent with each other was indelibly etched in him.

 

“I was visiting Akash during one of our summer breaks. He couldn’t take time off and so he invited me to stay with him in his hostel. Nani was away from home at that time, I don’t really remember why. But she didn’t want me to spend my vacation alone in Shantivan. And Akash insisted that I visit him.” His eyes seemed focused on the ceiling of the car. “I met her when she was an undergrad at IIT Delhi.” His staccato tone belied the enormity of his admission.

 

“They were a gang. All three of them – Akash, Lavanya and Khushi. Where one went, the rest followed.” He turned to look at Maya and said, “That’s how I met her.”

 

“Then?” Maya gently urged.

 

“Then.. nothing really. She and I… er .. Well, we spent time together, knowing full well that nothing could come out of it. Then she went her way and I mine. I left Delhi.”

 

Four days and four nights, they had with each other. Stolen moments they were. An unexpected tryst it was.

 

“Where? What do you mean you spent time together? With all three of them?”

 

A flash crossed his face. Maya would have missed it, if she wasn’t looking closely at him. But she didn’t miss it. This was difficult for Arnav. She could see it in the way his jaw clenched and unclenched as he spoke. She could see it in the way his Adam’s apple bobbed when he swallowed as he spoke and his whitened knuckles on his steering wheel.

 

He slowly shook his head. “No, just her. And me. Together.” He was unwilling to say more. Maya could tell. But he said more in those few phrases than he had in the entire evening.  

 

He looked like he was in pain. She couldn’t see him like this, her gentle giant. She reached her hand across the gear shift to hold his free hand tightly.

 

Surprised at her tight grip, Arnav looked at their entwined hands and then at Maya. “It was a long time ago. It’s okay.”

 

Maya pulled their hands so that she could hug him. He wasn’t sure if he was consoling her or was being consoled.

 

“I am sorry Arnav.” Maya whispered into his shoulder. “I am.”

 

Arnav stilled in her arms and pulled back with his arms loosely around her. “What are you sorry for Pix? There is nothing to be sorry for, I told you that it was a very long time ago.”

 

He used to call her Pix when they were together. It was his allusion to her size and it was a running joke among their group of friends that while her physical stature was diminutive, nothing else about her was. He had quit calling her that when he got to know of her feelings for Kailash.

 

“You know what I mean, I am just sorry that it makes you…” she said, waving her arms to point to him. “Like this, sad.”  She sat back in her seat. “It cannot be that long ago if it affects you like how I see it do. Time has nothing to do with it Arnav. You of all people should know that.”

 

This was the second time in an evening that she surprised him. First when she spoke of Khushi at the time of his shooting and now this. “It doesn’t affect me Pix. I was just feeling sad that she lost her husband so young. They were married and have a child. That’s all.”

 

Yes, that was all. But why doesn’t it feel like that inside? What else could there be, after all these years?

 

“So, you said that you met her this time when you were there in the US. What happened?”

 

Memories of an eight year old with her dimpled smile brought an answering smile to Arnav’s face.

 

“I asked Akash for her address. I showed up at her house.” The smile deepened on his face. “She was shocked to find me at her doorstep.” A slow chuckle escaped his lips. “She didn’t recognize me at all.”

 

“Have you changed all that much?” A furrow appeared on Maya’s brow. She shook her head and said, “I don’t think you’ve changed much at all.”

 

“I don’t think it has to do with me changing physically, Maya. I think it has to do with the fact that she didn’t expect me, me of all people to show up at her doorstep. That must have been a shock.”

 

“And?” Maya’s insistence was notorious.

 

Arnav was reminded of Mohan’s little “um-s” during their nightly story telling sessions. His little prompts kept the story going longer than Arnav wanted.

“And? I am not telling you a story.” He quickly retorted.

 

“Ah, but this is such a nice story. I would love to know more. And if you won’t continue, I’ll just have to … ” Suddenly remembering something that Arnav mentioned a few minutes ago, Maya continued her questions.

 

“So, you said she had a child? How old, girl or a boy?”

 

The mother in her was curious. She guessed all mothers had the same kind of curiosity, curiosity about children.

 

“You are incorrigible and shameless. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”

 

Maya grinned in response and raised her eyebrows to Arnav as if asking him to continue with his story.

 

“Alright. Khushi has a daughter, Mira. She is eight years old and is a …” he paused trying to find ways of describing that little girl who seemed to have gotten under his skin.

 

“She has dimples on her face that could beat the depths of Grand Canyon and a bright smile that makes her eyes sparkle” he continued with a smile.

 

“It was so sad to hear her talk about her Appa’s death.” He now looked at Maya, all traces of laughter and smile vanished from his face. With a somber look, he said “Appa, that’s how she addresses her papa.”

 

Maya nodded in response. Both adults looked out of their windows in the car.

 

“And… NK’s mother was visiting Khushi and Mira. I met her too. Three generations of loss and grief in that household, Maya.”  Arnav took a shaky breath in, his own emotions rattled, evident in his succinct statement.

 

A sudden whirr of his phone brought both of them back to the moment. The phone was face down and it whirred again, its vibration moving the phone on the dashboard.

 

Frozen, Arnav stared at the phone, debating if he should pick it up.

 

What if it wasn’t what he was looking for?

 

He didn’t want to feel disappointed every time the phone beeped with a message.

 

“Aren’t you going to check?” Maya asked, looking at the phone.

 

“It’s probably Nani, asking if I am back.”

 

“Arnav, Nani never texts. She calls. Don’t you want to see who is trying to reach you?” Maya looked at her watch, noting the lateness of the hour. “At this hour?”

 

Arnav was reminded of his own watch on his wrist. “It is after midnight! Let me drop you home. Don’t you have an early shift tomorrow?” Arnav made quick motions to start the car.

 

“Will you just check that damned phone already?” Maya demanded loudly.

 

“Tsk tsk, remember curiosity killed the cat?”

 

“And cats have nine lives.”

 

“Nope, the correct response is, and satisfaction brought it back” laughed Arnav. He started his car and began driving to Maya’s apartment. He knew that she was peeved with his refusal to check his phone. And he wouldn’t put it past her to pick that phone up and check it for herself.

 

“Arnav Singh Raizada” Maya protested loudly, with her hand reaching to his phone. “If you don’t check it, then I will.”

 

With his one hand on the steering, he grabbed his phone with his other. “Maya Vallabh Singh!” Now he was openly laughing at her. “How old are you?” He teased.

 

“I hate you.” Maya grunted and looked out of the window, muttering softly under her breath.

 

“No, you don’t. And hate is such a strong word.” This was an oft repeated conversation between the two. Both fell silent with their easy camaraderie.

 

Another whirr of Arnav’s phone bespoke of another message. Before he could put his phone in his pocket, another beep marked the arrival of yet another text.

 

“It must be from that Khushi Gupta. That’s why you don’t want to check the phone with me in the car.” Maya declared with a knowing smile.

 

“Maya, nothing you say is going to make me tell you who that message is from. So stop it.” Arnav’s voice brooked no room for argument.

 

Maya turned and leaned against her door and said in a sing-song voice, “Arnav and Khush…shee.. Sitting on a tree….” She paused for effect and then said laughingly, “K.I.S.S.I.N.G.”

 

That immediately brought a shout of laughter from Arnav. He shook his head and replied, “Really? What are you? In second grade?”

 

He pulled his car into Visitors’ lot and waited for Maya to unbuckle herself. “Good night Pix.”

 

“So, you aren’t going to tell me who that message is from?” Still tenacious, Maya asked Arnav again.

 

“I don’t think it’s from Khushi. If she was going to text me, she would have done so a while ago. But she didn’t.” He looked out of his window to rearrange his expression to not reveal anything more to Maya.

 

“There really isn’t anything there Maya. It was such a long time ago. So… now, get out of my car so I can go home and go to bed.” A small smile resumed its presence on his face.

 

Maya leaned across the gear shift and grabbed his neck for a tight hug. She whispered into his shoulder, “I just want you to be happy… like I am.. I wish..”

 

“I am happy Maya.” Arnav reassured her with a squeeze. “Now get back into the house before that husband of yours comes looking for you.”

 

Maya got out of the car and began walking towards the building. But she turned immediately and ran towards Arnav’s car and tapped on his window. “I hope that message is from Khushi.”  Saying that, she turned and quickly walked into the building.

 

oOoOoOoOoOoOoOo

 

It was a long day for Arnav, it certainly felt longer than it was. He checked on Mohan on his way up the stairs to his room, making sure his baby monitor was still functional. Mohan slept in a smaller bedroom right next to Arnav’s. The baby monitor helped Arnav more than Mohan.

 

The whirr of the small fan in the corner to create white noise mingled softly with the hum of the air conditioner. And there he was, on his back, arms and legs spread eagled like a starfish. In his hand was the Lego plane he probably had been clutching as he fell asleep. Except now Mohan’s fingers were loose with the plane resting precariously, half on his pillow and half on the sheet that covered him.

 

How could a little body occupy the entire bed, wondered Arnav. A small smile hovered on the corners of his lips, he smoothed his hand over Mohan’s curls, making sure his touch was almost imperceptible. Arnav pulled the sheet over his little body and tucked the edges in and smoothed out folds and wrinkles, remembering the ‘sheet not proply, Papa’ of his son’s demand. His son’s lisp just made the demand all that more important.

 

‘Sheet properly now my darling. Sleep well my baby” Arnav whispered into the night and closed the door softly.

 

Finally ensconced in his bed, he pushed his arms behind his head and got ready to sleep. Then as if he remembered something, he reached for his cell phone to finally check for the messages he refused to check earlier. Funny woman, his ex-wife, he thought. She always brought a smile on his face. An unabashed romantic she was too; had too much faith in people.

 

Arnav’s fingers quickly scrolled through his phone and he stilled at the sight of a name. His heart picked up pace and he found himself sitting up on his bed.

 

Hello Arnav, sorry for taking so long to write to you. Thank you for remembering that I asked you to text me when you reached home. I should have responded sooner… I am sorry. Hope all is well with you.

 

He read the message again and again. She sent this just a little while ago. It was her message that came through in the car then. His mind was on an overdrive trying to figure out all possible meanings of her text. He read the text again. He noted that she addressed him by his name, not by his initials, like she did when she first met him in Delhi.

 

What did she mean, she should have responded sooner? Why didn’t she?

 

All at once, Arnav realized that he was acting like a teenager. She was being polite, that’s all. Why was his heart pounding?

 

He scrolled to find two more messages from her… the last one was just a few minutes ago.

 

All of us are preparing for our trip to India, read that as shopping. So, Mira has asked me to check with you if there is any toy in particular that Mohan does NOT like.

 

So…will you text me back?

 

He remembered that they were making a trip here. If his heart beat any faster, it was going to seize. Excitement coursed through his body, while his mind cautioned his errant heart.

 

Oh, we will be there in Delhi in a week. So, we are in a kind of a rush shopping for things and packing.

 

That was the last message. He couldn’t stop his face from smiling.

 

Hello Khushi. Nice to hear from you. Finally! I wondered about your silence. And no, there is nothing that Mohan does not like. He is particularly fond of Legos. But please don’t stand on formality and get gifts.

 

Should he say more? Should he offer to pick her up from the airport? He hit send.

 

It was late and he really should get some sleep. Though he was not scheduled for surgery, he needed to have all his wits and marbles with him during his clinic rounds.

 

Placing the phone back on his nightstand, he settled back on his pillows, his left arm tucked under his head. He closed his eyes and realized that he was still smiling. He really should keep a check on his wayward emotions and not allow himself to spin out of control. But evoking his sidelined memories had brought all those feelings to fore that he had reined in.

 

A ping on his phone refused to let him sleep. It must be Khushi again, he thought. Who would text in the middle of the night here in India?

 

Was it Khushi? If you lie, you will rot – M.

 

Yes it was. Now, go to sleep – A.

 

He counted to seven, and there was another ping.

 

Woo hoo. Arnav and Khush…sheee… Sitting on a tree… Am very happy for you. Good night – M.

 

Shaking his head at the phone, he dropped it on the bed and closed his eyes. Sleep was a long ways off for Arnav.

 

A soft whirr woke him up.

 

It isn’t formality when the gift is meant for a child. Would it be formality if the gift was for you?

 

He shook his head at the phone. Was she flirting with him? How was he supposed to respond to that? Before he could type anything, there was another message from Khushi.

 

It is probably very late for you. Sorry for intruding on your sleep. Good night.

 

To hell with his sleep. His fingers flew over the phone, typing his message.

 

If the gift came from the right place, there is no place for formality. It depends on the giver of the gift. 🙂

 

However, there is that one meal you promised me. That has to happen, irrespective of the rules of formalities.

 

Ah ha.. he felt better with his response. Another thought made him reach for his cell phone again.

 

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.

 

There, the ball was in her court now. He raised himself to lean on the headboard and wondered if she would respond. It was late, he noted, very late. He really should sleep.

 

With a smile on his lips, Arnav Singh Raizada fell into a deep sleep after many years.

 

Life was beginning to feel better.

 

oOoOo

 

Chapter Six: Saudade, A Longing

Longing is like the Seed
That wrestles in the Ground
Believing if it intercede
It shall at length be found
—Emily Dickinson

 

It was a long day and turning out to be longer than it should for Arnav Singh Raizada. Navigating through New Delhi’s traffic at seven in the evening was a true test of his nerves and patience. He wanted to be home, in his shower, scrubbing off the disinfectant odor that he carried with him post surgery. But he knew that it would take him another forty five minutes to reach home. Containing his sigh he reached for his cell phone without much thought and checked his messages.

 

No new message.

 

Disappointment sliced through catching him by surprise. He frowned at the phone and tossed it on to the passenger seat next to him. He wasn’t expecting a message from anyone, was he? Why was he impelled to check?

 

It was more than a week since he returned to India.

 

It was more than a week since he texted her that he had reached home.

 

But she had not texted him back.

 

Shifting gear quickly, he inched forward while his mind raced back to the last time he saw her. It was a bittersweet meeting after a decade. It was awkward for her, he could tell. It was awkward for him too. He hoped he was successful at hiding it from her. They parted with a tentative promise to meet again. He remembered her text promising him to a lunch or a dinner date during her vacation in Delhi. A reluctant smile tugged at his lips. But Khushi had not responded to him since then.

 

There was no text from her.

 

A frown that had temporarily taken leave from his brow returned with ferocity. Should he call her or text her again? He had written so many messages only to delete them at the very last moment. He considered calling Akash to check on Khushi, but stopped himself again. How could he explain himself to his cousin? What reason could he give Akash, when he had never, ever, mentioned Khushi to him? Lifting his free hand to his brow, he rubbed his forehead absently. For the first time, in a long time in his life, Arnav Singh Raizada found himself unable to do much about the situation he found himself in. Shaking his head in frustration, he willed the traffic in front of him to part and move so he could go home, go back to his sanctuary.

 

Another forty minutes and some very skillful driving later, he pulled into the driveway of Shantivan. It was actually his Nani’s home that he called his own these days. After his divorce from Maya, he needed a proper place that was a home for a baby and it made sense to move back to Shantivan. His Nani had insisted that she was too lonely, living in the mansion all by herself, and invited Arnav and Mohan to live with her. She argued that it made sense that Arnav move in with her so all three of them could stay together. Sumitra Singh Raizada was relieved when Arnav accepted her invitation. The silent mansion will experience some sound and merriment yet again she said. Shantivan witnessed all the young Raizadas grow up and move out to their homes.

 

Forcing himself out of his reverie, he got out of his car and checked his phone for messages.

 

No message.

 

Cursing softly under his breath, he pocketed his phone and strode towards his house.

 

“Papa! Papa!! It’s Tuesday but Mama is here. It’s not Saturday, it is Tuesday today but Mama is here.” Two chubby hands grabbed Arnav’s legs and a smile broke on Arnav’s face. Dropping his bag to the floor he lifted his son into his arms and buried his face in his curly hair. He could sense his son’s resistance, pulling away. Kissing his head softly, Arnav asked, “Mama is here today? Is it a surprise then?”

 

“Surprise?” Mohan’s eyes widened at the idea, his gaze never shifting from the Lego plane he carried in his hand. Surprise was so much better than unexpected or unpredicted for this six year old.

 

Gently squeezing his son, Arnav smiled and repeated, “Yes. Surprise it is.” Setting him down, he asked, “Should we go inside and say hello to Mama?” Mohan nodded with his head bent.

 

Striding quickly into the house, Arnav found his Nani and Maya deep in conversation in their living room. Sumitra Raizada was a regal woman who carried herself with poise and dignity. While age marked her with grace, life did not tread lightly on her. Her heart bore her scars secretly but her eyes revealed her wounds, albeit reluctantly. With her silver hair wound in a bun and with pearls around her neck and on her ears, Sumitra Raizada was a beautiful woman.

 

Arnav’s footsteps interrupted the two women as they turned to look at him, one with a wide smile and another with a gentle speculative look. Maya walked quickly to Arnav and gave him a quick hug, her face exuding warmth as she looked up at her ex-husband. He was a gentle giant to her five-foot-frame towering over her easily by a foot and then some. She used to joke that they made a Manhattan skyline profile when they stood next to each other.

 

Arnav and Maya were friends first, two medical students struggling through their years of education. The love that she thought burned initially morphed into a stronger friendship between the two of them after their amicable divorce. This friendship surprised everyone, including Naniji. Kailash, her husband, was more accepting of this friendship, though he claimed to not fully understand it.

 

Maya was a neurosurgeon at the same hospital that Arnav practiced, opting to specialize in clinical research more than patient care, although her research was often in addition to patient care. What this meant was that Maya was often overworked and exhausted with little or no time for anything else. So, when it was time to decide on Mohan’s care after their divorce it was a foregone conclusion that Arnav would be the primary caregiver for their son. While Maya knew that it was the most pragmatic decision she had taken, it was not an easy one on her heart. Guilt and recriminations took residence in her as she lived her decision. Was she a poor mother? Did she place her career above her own child? There were nights when these demons rose to prominence; but then there were evenings like this one when her insecurities were allayed by the camaraderie she shared with Arnav as a parent. He never, not once, made her feel inadequate as a mother to Mohan nor did he pass judgment on her choices. For that and for so much more that this gentle giant brought to her life, Maya was grateful.

 

Unwinding her arms from his middle, Maya looked up at Arnav’s face. His eyes spoke of his exhaustion and something else, something that seemed to bother him. But there was a small smile on his face and she knew that it was for her. Mohan was hovering behind his legs, trying to get Arnav to carry him again.

 

“What brings you here on a Tuesday? And where is Kailash?” Arnav asked as he lifted Mohan into his arms. Raising her hand to ruffle her son’s hair, Maya replied, “Kailash is on call tonight and is at home. I was hoping to catch you at the hospital today, but you were so busy. I thought I’ll stop by and catch up with you. And you can drop me home later?” Arnav nodded his head tiredly.

 

Twinkling her eyes at her son, she asked, “Let’s get Papa to change out of his work clothes, yes? Want to play Legos with Mama?” She knew that her bait would work when Mohan nodded his head excitedly. Exchanging a knowing-parent look with Arnav, she led her son towards Mohan’s Legos. From the corner of her eye she found Arnav checking his phone and shaking his head. She was going to talk him soon she promised herself.

 

OoOoOoOoOo

 

Feeling almost human after a hot shower, Arnav walked quickly across the first floor towards the stairs. Midway through his strides he noticed that he had left his cell phone in his room. He should go back to retrieve it, he was sure he should. What if there was a message? He shook his head at the urgency that ran through him, a visceral experience of expectation soon followed by disappointment when there was no message. He stopped, closed his eyes and took a deep breath as if coming to a decision, and walked purposefully away from his bedroom and his cell phone. He was not going to wait for any message any more.

 

The dining room was cackling with laughter and sounds of cutlery as if there was a rowdy party in progress. Arnav walked slowly towards the noise and stopped short of the sight in front of him. Maya had two spoons stuck on each end of her mouth and was grunting and laughing intermittently to a solemn six year old who refused to acknowledge his mother’s crazy antics. At the head of the table was his Nani, with a look of tolerant bemusement that was particularly reserved for Maya. He could tell that Maya was trying to get Mohan to join her. But his six year old maintained his solemnity through his dinner.

 

With his eyes still focused on his plate, Mohan reported, “Mama is trying to be a walrus. But she is not a walrus. She is a human.” Unfazed by her son’s apparent lack of interest in her antics, Maya continued to grunt at Arnav, waving her head from side to side with glee.

 

“You really need to stop trying to get him to do these things, Maya. He isn’t going to join you, you know that.” Arnav chuckled as he sat next to Mohan. “But if it makes you feel any better, you are the best walrus that I know of. Isn’t she, Mohan?” Arnav now addressed Mohan who continued to eat his meal with a single-mindedness unusual for a six-year-old. His parathas were sliced into perfect squares, eight in total. There was a fork in one hand, a spoon laid out on the side next to the cup of yoghurt. Not in the cup, but next to it.

 

“Uh huh. She is not a walrus, she is a human. Mama is a human. Humans are not walrus.” murmured Mohan, darting his glance from Arnav to Maya.  He was a solemn child, quite unlike Maya, who seemed to have a personality that was electric with energy and glee. Maya gave a sheepish smile to Arnav, shrugged and said, “There is a child in this house and if it has to be me, then so be it.”

 

The rest of the dinner continued with conversations between Maya and Arnav about their day in surgery and their cases while Sumitra looked on contentedly around her table. Her eyes rested on Maya, a diminutive five-foot figure with a personality that extended beyond her physical frame. Her curly hair pulled into a firm ponytail and her eye glasses sliding down her small nose, she looked like an overgrown child herself. Sumitra had grown fond of Maya in the years she had gotten to know her and was shocked when Arnav and Maya announced their divorce. What confounded Sumitra even more was that this couple had gotten closer to each other even after their divorce. She didn’t understand their friendship, and certainly didn’t understand how Arnav and Kailash could be civil with each other. Whatever happened to bitterness and acrimony that often accompanied a divorce?

 

It was Nani’s turn to read a story to Mohan, a nightly ritual that the little one insisted on maintaining under all circumstances. As the youngest member of the family dragged the oldest to his room, Maya and Arnav settled in their usual chairs in the balcony overlooking the small rose garden that Sumitra tended with great care. Maya fished her phone to check for messages, her fingers flying as she typed her messages. Arnav’s mind raced back to his own phone that sat by his bedside table. Will there be a message from her? Should he check?

 

It was that look again in his eyes that caught Maya’s attention, a look that seemed to settle somewhere between lost and a restless yearning. She caught him at an unguarded moment, when his defenses were down. In any other moment, Arnav Singh Raizada was a master at masking his vulnerabilities.

 

“A busy day?” Maya began. She knew better than to get straight to the point with Arnav. While he faithfully followed the rule of no prevarications with others, the same didn’t work when it came to him.

 

“Yes! Two angioplasties scheduled. The first went well, but the second got complicated. We had to deal with cardiac arrest in the middle of the procedure. The patient is okay now, but for a while, it looked bad.” That explained his exhaustion, thought Maya. She nodded in sympathy.

 

“Yours?” echoed Arnav.

 

“Not as eventful as yours. My trials are going to begin soon. We were given the ok yesterday. We are already three weeks behind in our cycle.” Maya’s specialty lay in Alzheimer’s disease, and it was a subject that was close to her heart. But the research trials also meant that she was going to be on call when she wasn’t in the hospital. Arnav knew and understood the pressure that Maya lived with constantly, pressure to show positive results to her funding agencies.

 

“But I don’t want to talk about work. Let’s talk about your trip, Arnav” Maya steered the conversation with a smile.

 

Raising a quizzical brow, “It was quite good, very fruitful” he replied. In more ways than one. He looked away from Maya’s persistent gaze. It was a beautiful night, the skies replete with New Delhi’s city lights and a few twinkling stars that managed to peek through.

 

“Oh, are you playing coy Raizada? I want all the details, tell me everything that happened and all the people you met. Come on!” Swatting at his arm for emphasis, Maya pulled her chair closer to Arnav’s and opened her eyes wide.

 

“There really isn’t much to tell” he began, but Maya’s determined look meant that she will doggedly pursue this interrogation. Heaving a sigh in resignation, Arnav continued, “Well, the first two days of the conference were really interesting and quite good actually. There were really good research findings, which I think will interest you.” Maya nodded as if to ask him to continue. “I was invited to their regional conference in Denver, sometime next year?” He wasn’t sure if it would be worth his time, but there were reasons to go back to the US that weren’t there when he was invited. His heart quickened at the thought, but he squelched it quickly. “They wanted me to lead a panel discussion on new grafting techniques.” With a shrug, he paused and looked at Maya to see if she was satisfied with the degree of detail he was providing her.

 

“Well, on the third day, I skipped the conference dinner banquet and spent the evening with Akash and Pallavi. Did you know that Pallavi is pregnant with their first baby?  She is in her third trimester now.”

 

Maya shook her head and asked, “How is she?”

 

“Good. Happy. They both seem really happy with each other. Her parents live right by them and help out a lot. And Akash has good friends there. They seem happy with each other.” Arnav paused for a moment, seemingly lost in thought. His face softened and a small smile touched his lips.

 

“And?” Maya laid her hand on his arm forcing him to face her. Something must have happened to Arnav when he was in the US, thought Maya. He was not a daydreamer by any means. But his occasional jaunts into his thoughts were quite telling indeed.

 

“What? Nothing, absolutely nothing.” Arnav shook his head to add emphasis to his denial. When Maya drew her skeptical gaze at him, Arnav turned wistful and said, “I wish there was something to tell Maya.” He shook his head, “There really isn’t anything to tell.”

 

“Oh, yes, there was a reunion party sort of thing with my cardiology buddies. Remember Stokes and Gabriella?” When Maya gave a questioning look, “Gabriella? The one who dumped that ice bucket on Stokes when he asked her out on a date in front of the whole class?” Maya now nodded her head in remembrance. “Well,” he continued, “Stokes and Gabriella got married and have four children now! Two sets of twins.” He finished with a flourish. Arnav and Maya looked at each other with a grin. Yes, that ice bucket didn’t quite work the way Gabriella wanted it to.

 

“You didn’t meet Akash’s friends then? Doesn’t Lavanya live there now?” Maya asked.

 

“No, I stayed with Akash, but didn’t meet Lavanya. But I did get to meet one of his other friends.  Actually the wife of one of his friends.” Arnav leaned forward and clasped his palms together. He sighed and said, “NK.” He met Maya’s glance briefly but looked away as he continued. “Naren Krishnan was one of Akash’s best friends from Delhi.   He passed away a couple of years ago, very suddenly. It was sudden cardiac arrest. He was only thirty five. Anyway, I met his wife and daughter.” He turned to look at Maya and continued, “I don’t think you know her. Khushi and her daughter Meera.” He leaned back in his chair with a sad look in his eyes.

 

There was a stillness to Maya as soon as he finished. “Khushi? Khushi… er… Wait, is it Khushi Gupta?” Maya asked.

 

Arnav turned, surprise etched on his face. “Yes. That is her name. How do you know her?”

 

The Khushi?” Maya was relentless in her questioning. Her face had a comical look of surprise and comprehension at the same time, as if she couldn’t believe what she knew.

 

“What do you mean, the Khushi? I didn’t know that you knew her. How do you know her?” Arnav’s brow furrowed deeply as he continued to look steadily at Maya.

 

“I don’t know her, Arnav. I need you to confirm if she is the Khushi.” Maya countered. “You were the one who spoke of her, a very long time ago. Do you remember the time you got shot?”

 

When they were students in Boston, a few of their friends, Maya and Arnav walked from their dorms to the nearby convenience store. It was late at night, almost midnight. They were taking a break from their studying. After getting what they needed, everyone, except Arnav, left the store and waited outside. Just then a couple of high school kids ran into the store and pulled a gun at the store clerk to rob the cash. The hold-out went completely wrong very quickly and Arnav was caught in the crossfire between the store clerk and the two kids. A bullet hit Arnav’s shoulder just as the cops entered into the store.

 

“Yes” Arnav said rubbing his shoulder absently. “I do remember that. But what does that have to do with Khushi?” he asked perplexed.

 

“You were bleeding profusely and were down. You were passing out. Every time you came to, you would say that name, over and over. Khushi! Khushi Gupta!. No one knew who that was.” Maya looked at him squarely and said, “You kept saying that name the whole time you were in and out of consciousness, even in the hospital. But never anything else. Just that name. You obviously don’t remember? Do you?”

 

Arnav didn’t answer her immediately. His eyes stayed locked with Maya’s as if in a battle to recall something that he couldn’t believe happened. “I kept calling her name out?” he asked in disbelief. He took a deep breath and looked away. Seconds passed as silence stayed between both of them. He whipped his head back and asked Maya softly, “Why did you never tell me this before?”

 

It was Maya’s turn to look away quietly. She shrugged, but her actions belied her intent.  It looked like she was opening doors to a past that dimmed the light in her eyes. It wasn’t a moment that she wanted to relive. He was so close to dying that evening.

 

Gathering her strength said, “I asked you many times, Arnav, many times. I didn’t know who this Khushi Gupta was. You never mentioned her before, ever. Not to anyone, and certainly not to me.  And I thought we were best friends.” Raising her eyes, she looked steadily at Arnav. He could see a muscle move in her jaw, strain apparent on face. Albeit, she continued, “We didn’t know if she was someone significant,… a family? I wasn’t sure if you wanted us to inform that person. I asked you many times Arnav. I did. You never said anything except that name” She nodded emphatically.

 

“And then Akash came to the hospital and said that he would call your family. He took over. I stayed with you in the hospital. But Arnav, you were so out of it then, that I don’t think you even heard us. So, we chalked it up to delirium.” She shrugged and gave him a small crooked smile. “I don’t like to think about those days, you almost died.” She looked away from him, taking a long measured breath as if to relieve her of the pain that those memories still brought.

 

Leaning back in her chair, having regained her composure, Maya gave him a brilliant smile that noted her intent to doggedly pursue her line of inquiry. “So, tell me now, it is the Khushi that you met now, right?”

 

Arnav felt numb with shock. The sound of his own voice becoming soft in his head. He couldn’t sit anymore and he found himself leaning against the low parapet wall. What did that mean? He called out to Khushi when he was shot? He didn’t remember any of it. That was such a long time ago, wasn’t it? He felt Maya’s gaze on his face and her palm on his shoulder. He turned to look at his friend who had kept this piece of information to herself in all this time. What did that mean?

 

“Why didn’t you ask me about Khushi before today, Maya? Why did you never bring her up after that shooting?” It didn’t make any sense to Arnav, especially because right after that shooting his relationship with Maya transformed, changed from friendship to love. They married each other, not too long after that accident. That she would bring this up now, almost in passing, was bewildering for Arnav. They were married at one time, exchanged secrets between them, but had none between them he thought. He blinked quickly, wondering if he knew his wife, no, his ex-wife at all.

 

“It didn’t matter then, Arnav. You never mentioned that name before the shooting and you never said, not one thing, after you came out of your accident. So, I didn’t think much of it. Why is that important now?” She gave him another pointed look and said, “You still haven’t told me if this Khushi is that Khushi.”

 

Long moments passed in silence between Arnav and Maya. One waiting for the other to respond, while the other waiting for something that he didn’t quite know what yet. It was a long time ago and he felt like he carried the weight of more than one lifetime. Maybe it wasn’t all that important after all? Maybe it was time to reveal those secrets that he too had kept from Maya.

 

Turning his head to look at Maya, he said softly, yet firmly. “Yes it is. It is that Khushi I met now.” There, he said it.

 

“Come on, its late, let me drop you home before I get too tired to drive.” He rose from his chair and offered his hand to Maya to help her out of the chair.

 

“Wait! What did you say? Did you just say that you met that Khushi and that Khushi is the one from your past?” Maya yanked his hand back towards herself forcing Arnav to sit back in his chair with a thud.

 

“Arnav Singh Raizada! You and I are not moving from this chair until you spill all your beans.” Maya continued to mutter to herself.

 

It was uncanny, at that moment, she looked exactly like their son, Arnav thought. Or was it the other way around? He wasn’t sure. That frown and that pout. His heart tugged with intense affection for this pixie-woman with a brain to contend with. She was full of contradictions, and she was his good friend. But at this moment, she was fixated on his explanation. And from the look on her face, she wasn’t going to let this conversation go.

 

“Alright, what do you want to know?” He crossed his arms across his chest preparing himself for a battle.

 

Meeting his challenge with her own, Maya said, “Everything.”

 

Was he ready unlock his past? What would come out of it? Shouldn’t the past remain in the shadows of his memory?

 

oOoOo