May you never forget what is worth remembering, nor ever remember what is best forgotten – Old Irish saying
Lunch turned out to be a friendly affair with conversation flowing easily thanks to Mira’s and Manorama’s banter.
“Khushi mentioned that you leave tomorrow? Where is home?” asked Manorama.
“Delhi” Arnav responded with a small smile. “Yes, I leave tomorrow, late night.”
“ASR,” started Mira shyly, “Are you an engineer like my Appa?”
“No, I am a cardiologist. Do you know what a cardiologist does?” Her cheerful smile dissolving from her face, Mira nodded slowly. “Yes, my Appa died of cardiac arrest, so I know what a cardiologist does” she said softly.
Arnav knew that NK had died due to complications of heart problems but didn’t know specifics about his death. Akash had told him very little. As a cardiac surgeon he was all too familiar with his role of informing his patient’s family of their death. Truth and compassion, he was taught, were the cornerstones of those conversations. No prevarications – come straight to the point and inform with kindness. But those very words of death coming from Mira’s mouth squeezed his heart. He reached out and placed his palm over her small hand to offer sympathy and support and was stunned when Mira slowly leaned into his arms. Gently grasping her small frame, he let her nestle into his embrace while he softly ran his hand over her back offering comfort. “I am sorry” he whispered to her softly. She’s not that much different from Mohan in age, especially in her slight frame, he thought as she snuggled deeper into his arms.
The sight of her little girl in his arms, seeking and accepting solace was too much for Khushi to take. Quickly swallowing a lump in her throat that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, Khushi reached across to Mira, “It’s okay honey. We are okay now, aren’t we?” Tears ran down Manorama’s eyes and she quickly looked down at her plate.
Mira straightened slowly, nodding and pushing herself away from Arnav. He let her go, watching as her shoulders slumped down with the weight of sorrow that seemed too heavy for one so little. She looked at her mother, drawing strength from her smile, slowly smiled back and repeated, “Yes, we are okay now mommy.”
It was obvious to Arnav that this family had gone through hell and was a tight-knit unit. Perhaps it was that hell that bound them together. He could see Manorama’s gentleness extend to both her girls. All three of them seemed to have borne their losses together.
It also seemed that every conversation Arnav had was a step on a mine, albeit unintentional. His presence was not only awkward, it was painful for this family. He bit back a sigh that was trying to work its way out of his chest.
Conversation slowly picked up at the dining table once again with Manorama’s next query directed at Arnav. “So, what about you Arnav? Your family?” Leaving her question unfinished, waiting for his response.
“Yes, they live in Delhi with me.”
“Oh you are married then? Children?”
Khushi’s hands stilled over her plate but she did not give in to the urge to look up at Arnav. She was sure that she did not wait for his answer.
“Yes, and no.” Shifting his eyes between Khushi and Manorama, Arnav said, “I was married, but I am divorced now. Maya, my ex-wife, and I have a six year old boy, Mohan. He lives with me in Delhi with my Naani.”
Divorced, an eight letter word with great import, a label that closed doors on a relationship that was meant to be forever. Not unlike widowed, a seven letter word with the same import she thought.
Khushi started breathing again not realizing that she had stopped while waiting for his answer. Quickly rising from her seat she walked into the kitchen to compose herself. Why should his answer make any difference to her? It doesn’t, she reassured herself.
“I am sorry to hear that Arnav. That must have been difficult with a small child.” Manorama offered kindly.
Arnav shook his head quickly. “No, it’s not bad.” He looked across the table and saw something akin to sympathy in Manorama’s eyes. It felt easier to tell her everything, but at the same time, he felt compelled to make it easy for her. She was suffering so much already.
“Mohan is an easy child and Naani is great with him. Maya lives in Delhi as well. So, I am not a single struggling parent.”
Arnav stood up to help Khushi with clearing the table. All four worked easily as if they had done this many times. Moving between the dining table and kitchen, Arnav looked comfortable helping around. All this feels very domestic, the thought flashed through Arnav.
Manorama looked at the quiet giant in her daughter-in-law’s kitchen moving and helping. She recognized that her usually mild Khushi wasn’t unmoved by his presence. She looked rattled and it showed on her face; a pink glow seemed to rest on her high cheekbones. She looked alive after so long, thought Manorama. After her Naren’s passing, it seemed that Khushi lost the sparkle that defined her eyes. In fact, Manorama knew that Khushi didn’t allow herself to experience anything close to happiness or joy with the exception of Mira. It seemed to her that Arnav was able to get past a few of the walls that Khushi had built around herself and for some inexplicable reason, Manorama didn’t want Arnav to leave just yet.
“Do you know we leave for Delhi in a couple of weeks, all three of us? Khushi and Mira are coming with me to spend some time in India. It is Mira’s summer break, isn’t it my dear?” Mira’s bright curls bobbed in agreement.
“ASR, you live in Delhi, can I say hi to you when we are in Delhi?” asked Mira with total lack of guile.
“Of course! I would love that” said Arnav smiling softly at Mira. “In fact you should stay with us while you are in Delhi. Give me your flight details, I will meet you at the airport.”
“Oh no, that won’t be necessary. We normally stay with Buaji” Khushi interjected quickly. Things were moving too fast for her comfort. “Thank you for offering to pick us up, but we’ll be fine on our own.”
She knew that she dismissed him. She thought she saw something flash in Arnav’s eyes but it was gone now. His face gave nothing away. She didn’t want to hurt him, that wasn’t her intention. But her dismissal was apparent for all in the room. Mira’s eyes switched between the three adults in the room. Trying to made amends she offered, “Can I email you my phone number in Delhi? We can stop by sometime?”
Arnav nodded, “Sure.” He then pulled his cell phone out to exchange numbers and addresses. It was obvious to him that there was reticence in her demeanor. He felt dismissed and for some strange reason it hurt, just a little bit. He didn’t want to overstay his welcome. Arnav took a quick glance at this watch and said, “I think I should leave now. Thank you for lunch.” Looking at Khushi, “Again, I am sorry for barging in unannounced like this. Do let me know when you are in Delhi.”
Khushi nodded and walked towards the foyer and Arnav followed her. Feeling a tug at his wrist, Arnav looked to find Mira at his side, motioning him to come down to her height. When he did, she threw herself at him, winding her thin arms around his neck in a tight hug. Almost instinctively Arnav enfolded her into himself, resting his cheek on her head and whispered into her curls, “Bye for now, Mira.”
“Bye for now ASR” echoed Mira as if the word now held new hope for her young heart. Reluctantly she unwound her arms from his neck and gave him a smile and said, “But I will miss you.”
Strange! Khushi exclaimed quietly in her head. How can she miss him when she just barely knew him? She just met him. Khushi knew that Mira was an extrovert, like NK, always ready to meet a new face and make a new friendship. But she had never seen her daughter open her heart and arms this quickly.
Khushi walked towards Mira and pressing against her shoulders said reassuringly, “You’ll see him when we get to Delhi, perhaps?” She knew exactly the thing that would distract her young daughter. “And you have a playdate with Sydney tomorrow afternoon. Why don’t you call Sydney and tell her you’ll be there?” She gestured towards the phone with her head.
Looking at Arnav over Mira’s head, Khushi said brightly, “Ok, then, it’s a date. Once we are in Delhi, we will call you and figure out how we can meet?”
Obviously happy with this arrangement, Mira gave another quick squeeze to Arnav’s hand and said, “A play date tomorrow and a play date with you in Delhi.” Bobbing her curls with much happiness she bounded inside the house.
“Nice to have met you Arnav.” Manorama smiled and followed Mira inside, leaving Arnav and Khushi alone at last.
It seemed that the whole afternoon had passed without the two of them exchange a word with each other. They looked at each other taking stock of each other’s presence.
“Thank you for …”
Both began at the same time.
“Can you meet me for lunch tomorrow?” Arnav asked, his voice insistent. “Please?”
“Er.. Mira has a playdate tomorrow at that time. We can’t make it at that time and I don’t know if Amma is free to join us.”
Shaking his head, “Just you,” said Arnav, not moving his eyes away from hers.
Khushi couldn’t look away. Why, that one question, one word, whirling in her mind since he walked into her house this morning. Why show up at her doorstep now? Why after all these years? Why now?
“Yes, Khushi, just you. Just lunch, in a restaurant.” A small smirk appeared at the corner of his smile, as if the emphasis held all the answers for her. “Since I don’t know of any good ones here, why don’t you pick one and I will meet you there?”
“Don’t you want to catch up with an old friend?”
She caught the teasing twinkle in his eyes and found a reciprocal smile tugging at the corner of her lips. Something old and familiar stirred in her, like a hint of a perfume long forgotten.
“For the sake of an old friend, I guess I must then!” She gave a sigh of resignation, gently teasing him back.
A smile bloomed into a grin. He was happy to see her smile. A whiff of a memory reawakened in him. Her smile always began as a lopsided one – the pull of her right cheek and lip. It was only when she grinned that the other end of her lips pulled back. Shaking his head in acknowledgement, he heard her say softly, “Bye.”
“Text me then. Bye for now Khushi” he reiterated and stepped out of her house.
Her heart and her steps felt lighter but she was loathe to seek their reasons. Her face kept the remnant of the smile as she walked back into her house.
Later that evening Khushi walked into her room balancing her laundry basket on her hip. It was the end of her weekend and she knew that she needed to get her chores completed before the start of her work week. She was one of three speech pathologists that managed a clinic associated with the University of Virginia’s Speech Pathology department. When NK was offered a faculty position with the engineering college, she too found a position as a speech therapist in the clinic. It worked well for them especially when Mira was younger. They both managed to work with each other’s flexible schedules in order to stay home with Mira before she began school. Even after NK’s passing, working with the clinic suited Khushi’s needs, she thought; she had the freedom to schedule her hours and travel to other nearby clinics and schools to work with the local community and students. It also helped with working with Mira’s schedule during the school year, especially in the last two years when she suddenly became a single parent.
Tears pooled in the corner of her eyes as she sought him in her room. Their room became her room now. Slow tears soon turned into quiet sobs that slipped out of her gritted teeth as she clutched the picture of her dead husband. She missed her NK, her Naren, her friend, her shadow. She missed him like she missed breathing. Two years had gone by since his death, yet the pain seemed to stay. Taking a deep breath she looked at him, her eyes traveling to his dimples. The depth of those dimples was indicative of the degree of his mirth, she recollected. Sighing deeply she slowly brought his face to her lips and murmured softly, “You promised me old age with you, but you left me behind.”
A short whirr of her cell phone told her of the arrival of a new text message. She didn’t realize how long she held his picture against her face. The glass was a messy smudge of tears, tears against his dimpled smile. Like an automaton she picked up her phone to see Lavanya’s name. Are you home? I am coming over. Twins with me. Ok? Lavanya’s messages were just like her, succinct and to the point. Khushi responded, Yes, ok, and definitely ok.
Sitting with cups of tea in their hands, the two friends watched while their children played on the carpet. Lavanya’s three year old twins were trying to balance two Lego towers they were building with Mira’s supervision.
“Anything you want to tell me?” Khushi asked Lavanya. That furrowed brow on Lavanya’s face was an indicator that something was on her mind.
“Did Akash call you?” asked Lavanya in return.
“Akash? No, why? He normally calls me during the week. What’s up Lav?”
Lavanya stood and slowly walked towards the kitchen and Khushi followed. “Where’s Aunty?” Looking around the kitchen Lavanya’s question piqued Khushi’s curiosity further.
“She’s out walking.”
Raising her eyebrows Khushi said, “Out with it Lavi, what’s going on? You are making me nervous.”
“ASR is in town” Lavanya said without ceremony. Not taking her eyes off of Khushi’s, she continued, “He asked Akash for your address; I am not sure but he might show up here.”
Looking away Khushi replied, “Yes, I know. He was here this morning.” Taking another breath, “He left after lunch.”
Surprise, followed by concern deepened Lavanya’s furrow. Holding Khushi’s arm to still her, Lavanya asked worriedly, “Are you okay?”
“Yes, I am fine. Why shouldn’t I be?”
“What did he want? What did he say?”
“He came to offer condolences for NK’s….” Khushi left the sentence unfinished. The dishwasher needed to be unloaded she thought and mechanically began putting the cups away.
“Khush, stop! Look at me.” Quick strides brought Lavanya to Khushi. “Just stop and look at me” she repeated, holding Khushi’s arms.
Schooling her face to remain calm, Khushi demanded, “What?” Softening her tone a little more, “I am fine Lav, it was fine. He was very polite and nice to Mira” she smiled.
“Mira met him?”
“Yes, so did Amma as well.”
Leaning her head on to Lavanya’s shoulder a little, Khushi whispered, “It was a long time ago, Lavi, a very long time ago.” Another lifetime ago, she added in her head. The two friends stayed in their hug and in their thoughts for what seemed like forever.
“So, that’s it? He’s gone now?” Pulling back a little, Lavanya looked pointedly at Khushi.
“He wants to meet for lunch tomorrow, just me.”
“And” Lavanya prodded Khushi gently to continue. “Do you want to go?”
Khushi looked away, shaking her head, “No…” Looking back at Lavanya, she said, “I don’t know Lav. Should I?”
Is there a guidebook for these sorts of things? Why doesn’t life come with a manual?
NK loved reading manuals she remembered.
All roads lead to NK.
“Which restaurant?” Lavanya’s insistent voice brought Khushi back.
“Why does that matter? Will it help me decide if I should go?” she retorted. When Lavanya refrained from breaking the silence that ensued, Khushi sighed and said, “He asked me to choose and text him.”
“So, now what?” Tenacious, another name for Lavanya, thought Khushi with a resigned shake of her head. Lavanya would not let things go, let things slide. But Khushi was grateful for Lavanya’s tenacity and strength. She had to dip into that spring many a times after NK’s death.
With a determined set of her shoulders, Khushi looked at Lavanya and said, “I will meet him. I have to meet him. I have to know. I have to know why he showed up after all these years.”