Chapter Five: Appetence

When I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.

–Emily Dickinson

 

Humans seem to have a strange relationship with time, almost adversarial. It seemed like it was a tyranny of the moment; when in joy, time flies and when in sorrow, time lingers. So what of people like me, thought Khushi, who seemed to be caught in a past that seems to be more alive than the present?

Holding NK’s picture frame in her hands, she realized that time was marching on, but he seemed frozen in the frame that bound him in more ways than one. In a few months it would be two years since he died and left her behind, she thought. Her penchant for remembering the exact number of days insisted it was one year, seven months and ten days since he died. The clock ticked in her head, an incessant tick-tock and her feeble walls of restrain did the arithmetic.  Perhaps this is what survivors did, count the days and minutes of their own survival. Khushi wasn’t entirely sure when she began, perhaps when her parents died? She remembered those seconds turning into minutes, which slowly turned into hours which morphed into days leaving her in a fugue that was at once familiar and strange. It still felt like all it took was just one second for everything to change. All it took was also a few seconds at different intervals for her to lose her friend, her lover…. She shook herself vigorously out of that memory, forcing herself to close her eyes and breathe, counting every breath.

 

While the inevitable clock ticked, he would stay frozen in his thirty two-year-old dimpled smile. She had taken that picture of him when he was walking towards her, forcing her to walk backwards. He wanted her to stop taking his pictures, complaining that they didn’t have enough of hers. He was going to grab the camera from her. Her shot captured his eyes, intent with his wicked smile, throwing his dimples for the entire world to see as he reached for her camera. Her lean fingers traced her Naren’s cheeks, his dimples and slowly moved to his lips.

 

She missed his kisses, those toe-curling, knee-buckling kisses that used to stop time for both of them. She missed his fingers in her hair, holding her head while he kissed her, slowly, as if he had all the time in the world. She missed how his body would catch hers when she leaned into him as her knees gave way. She closed her eyes, willing her mind to recall the sensations as she brought her lips to the cold glass that trapped his image, beyond her reach. There was no warmth there as her lips felt the lifeless glass. The shock of cold glass forced her eyes open only to realize the harsh reality of his absence.  This gut wrenching frustration is what death leaves behind, she had come to realize. There was no negotiation with death, no warranty or no guarantee and no return policy; when he was gone, he was gone. That was that.

 

The ring of her cell phone brought her back to the present. Yet she was loathe to leave her past, these few elusive moments when she could travel back in her mind to be with him. The insistence of the rings compelled her to return to her present. It was Lavanya calling her.

 

“Hey! Are you guys coming soon? I need my troops to rally for me and the twins are asking for Mira!” It took Khushi a few seconds to gather herself. Lavanya was quick to pick up on it. “You okay babe?” concern in her voice. For some reason that concern irked her at that moment. It was the weight of it, the untold pressure that she felt to allay Lavanya’s worry, while scrambling to hold her own pieces of broken self together for Mira and Amma.

 

“Khushi?” Lavanya’s voice rang through insistently.

 

“Yes. We are leaving in a few minutes” reassured Khushi, placing the photo back on her bedside table gently before walking out of her room towards the living room.

 

“Er.. Khushi,.. are you still there? Thought I should let you know, Akash and Pallavi will be there too. Okay?”

 

“Of course.” Why was Lavanya worried about Pallavi and Akash being there? That seemed strange to Khushi as the three of them, Akash, Lavanya and Khushi met every sunday, almost every week. When NK was alive, all four of them met often, but this once a week get together became a ritual for the three of them after NK died. Khushi knew that Lavanya and Akash missed NK as much as she did or perhaps more. They had been buddies and friends since their undergrad days in Delhi. The three of them welcomed Khushi into their fold in Delhi then, and now the two of them became Khushi’s axis for strength and support.

 

This lunch was going to be at Lavanya’s place. André Mendez, Lavanya’s husband had known Khushi and Akash for as long as he had known Lavanya. In fact, André and NK were grad-school buddies and it was NK who was instrumental in Lavanya and André getting together. This every-sunday- lunch, which often turned into dinner, was a highlight not only for Khushi, but for Mira as well as she got to play big sister to Lavanya’s and André’s twins.

 

“Are we leaving soon Mommy?” Mira’s curls bounced as she pushed her glasses up her slim nose.

 

“Yes. We are waiting for Paatti. Can you go check on her darling?” asked Khushi.

 

Soon they were driving down the interstate with Mira in the back seat on her booster and Manorama, belted in the front seat. It took some convincing, but Manorama finally gave in to Khushi’s arguments about wearing salwar-kameez rather than her usual saris. Khushi could predict with ease that Manorama’s crisply starched and ironed cotton sari would meet its crumpled end within the first few minutes of her visit with the twins. The ensuing image of Manorama with Lavanya’s twins brought a smile to her lips as she drove the near empty roads on Sunday morning.

 

Her mother-in-law was a woman of confirmed customs.  And wearing anything other than a sari while going visiting was something close to sacrilege for her. Since her husband’s demise, Manorama abided by this self imposed strict code of widowhood upon herself. She gave up her usual adornments, including her diamond nose ring, denied herself all color in her attire. It took NK and Khushi months to convince her otherwise. She did slowly acquiesce to wearing her nose pin and eased color into her wardrobe, but she still refused to wear a bindi on her forehead. However none of these codes were applicable to Khushi, Manorama declared vehemently. She was from another generation and all the codes held relevance to her and her generation alone. Most definitely not for Khushi.

 

It wasn’t about adherence to these cultural codes for Khushi. It was that she didn’t desire adornment. It held no appeal, it was as if bereavement and sorrow left no room for anything else. The emptiness she felt echoed in every aspect of her life. It filled her entire being and soul.

 

Widowhood was not about the denial of material things, it was about the absence of desire for such adornment.

 

It was as if there was no room for any more joy or happiness in life. For Khushi, the only exception was Mira, her only source of happiness and joy. Her hand slowly reached for NK’s wedding ring that she wore on her neck as a pendant. Her eyes caught her thin wedding band that she continued to wear on her own left hand.

 

“Mommy, are we bringing my swimsuit?” Mira’s question forced her out of her thoughts. Nodding her head to indicate that they indeed were, Khushi slowly pulled into Lavanya’s driveway.

 

As she predicted, it was a rambunctious meeting between Manorama and the twins. Lavanya’s identical twins, Gagan and Neron, pounced on her as if in a race to see who would slobber her with their kisses first. Khushi could see that Gagan was now sitting on her lap with Neron hanging on to her back, as they took turns showing her their new toys and finding reasons to climb into her lap. It was her mother-in-law’s ability to morph herself to suit the children and play with them accordingly. It always brought a smile and warmth to Khushi’s heart to witness this grown up play like the children she was with. She saw this in NK first, and realized that he was like his mother through and through.

 

The boys’ names were the equivalent of Akash’s and Naren’s names, one in Hindi that Lavanya chose and the other in Spanish that André picked. It was a testament of Lavanya’s and even André’s love for both Akash and NK. It pinched Khushi’s heart that Lavanya’s boys will never know NK as they were just about a year old when he passed away.

 

Khushi sighed at the sight in Lavanya’s backyard. Lavanya had turned the sprinklers on so that the children could cool off in the summer’s heat. All three kids were now running through the sprinklers, squealing with delight and laughter. Akash, André and Pallavi were sitting under the big umbrella, with Manorama watching over the children as they ran around the manicured lawn. Pallavi had her legs stretched on to Akash’s lap, her last trimester fatigue clearly visible on her face. She had four weeks before her due date.

 

Pallavi was the latest addition to their circle of friendship. Pallavi and Akash Myer were going to be parents for the first time. Their marriage was one that was arranged by their parents. It worked for both of them very well. Khushi and Lavanya knew that it wasn’t easy for Pallavi to enter this tight knit friendship circle. But Khushi was grateful for Pallavi’s generosity when it came to Akash’s friends. She stood by him when Akash dealt with NK’s death, not only emotionally, but also in terms of organizing his death ceremonies, hospital bills and other logistics of NK’s passing. Even though Pallavi was the newest member of this coterie, she was no less significant than the rest. Khushi could see Akash’s tenderness towards his wife as he massaged her swollen feet.

 

Back in the kitchen, Lavanya was preparing lemonades for all, specially spiked ones with beer and vodka for adults and with crushed ice for the kids, Pallavi and Manorama.

 

“All well with you babe?” Lavanya asked as she reached for the glasses behind Khushi.

 

“Huh Uh” murmured Khushi, stealing a piece of sliced watermelon from the bowl that Lavanya had arranged.

 

“How was lunch?”

 

“Lunch?” Khushi knew what Lavanya was referring to, but wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. She leaned over to pick another sliced piece of watermelon. Lavanya was quick to move the bowl from Khushi’s reach and looked at her pointedly without saying another word. If Lavanya’s eyebrows rose any further, they would be lost in her hair.

 

“Lunch with Arn…er… ASR?” asked Khushi.

 

“Unless you had a rocking date with someone else hot that I don’t know of.” Pat came response from Lavanya.

 

With a sheepish look, Khushi conceded with a smile. “It was nice Lav” she shrugged, turning to look out of her big kitchen window. André was carrying Mira piggyback with his twin boys clutching his legs, one kid on each of his legs. He looked like he was being attacked by the three kids with loud squeals.

 

“Nice? That’s it?” Brevity was Lavanya’s tactic to get Khushi to talk.

 

Khushi turned away from the window to face Lavanya. “What do you want me to say Lav?” she asked. “It was … awkward, very awkward initially, strange and surreal after that. Weird for the rest of the time until we started talking about his son, Mohan.” She had a small smile on her face at that thought. Shaking her head, she said, “It was nice.”

 

“What did he want?”

 

“Huh? Nothing, he didn’t want anything.” Khushi was puzzled by Lavanya’s question. “He wanted to talk…He wanted to know what I do, work wise I mean.” Khushi could feel her face warm up. “He wanted to know what happened to NK.” She stopped. “He is a cardiologist, I guess he was curious.”

 

She looked out of the window again. Some one needed to rescue André from these three kids, she thought. All three had climbed on to him now, and André was lying on the blanket being tickled and pummeled. It looked like he was having way more fun than the children.

 

“And?” Tenacity, thy name is Lavanya thought Khushi.

 

“That’s it. I told him. I cried. He held my hands. He left.” Khushi extended her palms out to herself and looked at them anew, as if they held all the answers to Lavanya’s questions. She could see the thin ring on her finger, but that was all. She shrugged her shoulders in silence. Lavanya was puttering something.

 

Khushi looked outside the window without paying any attention anymore. Her mind went back to that moment of sheer distress she felt when she had explained how NK had died within a matter of hours. How her life had rocked and splintered to pieces in those very hours. She kept going back to that moment when Arnav held her hands within his and when words were dispensed with and solace was exchanged with compassion and fellowship. She looked quickly at Lavanya and looked away unsure of all that happened at that lunch.

 

“And?” Lavanya’s dogged questioning continued.

 

Before Khushi could form any answer, Akash walked into the kitchen. “I have been sent to fetch reinforcements of the cold kind and return ASAP” he announced with great drama. But within a moment, his drama took a back seat when he exchanged pointed looks with Lavanya. “Hey Khush” he said with a smile, dropping a kiss on her head and enveloping Khushi into a big hug. “So, how did the lunch go with ASR?”

 

“It was fine” replied Khushi looking away from Lavanya and Akash.

 

“Oh, so it has moved up a notch from nice to fine?” asked Lavanya with a raised perfectly arched eyebrow.

 

“I am sorry Khushi, I didn’t know that he was going to knock on your door.” There was contrition in Akash’s tone.

 

“Geez guys, will you two just chill?” Exasperation poured out of Khushi. “It was a lunch in a restaurant, and it was fine. It was awkward for a while, but he was just..” she paused trying to find words that felt appropriate.

 

“Kind and sympathetic. That’s all. Nothing else happened. He wanted to convey his condolences to me. He wanted to know what happened.. And.. Nothing else.” Khushi’s eyes flashed at both of them and her cheeks were pink with exertion. Was this an attempt at convincing herself Khushi wondered. Her protest seemed just a tad louder than warranted.

 

“Okay then.” Akash raised his eyebrows and his hands as if to say that he was backing off. “Kind and sympathetic is good.” He reiterated. “No, Lav?” He turned to Lavanya and Lavanya nodded her head emphatically in agreement. Both of them high-fived each other with identical smirks on their faces.

 

“Arggggg!” Khushi rolled her eyes at Lavanya and Akash and was about to stalk out of the kitchen when Akash caught her wrist and pulled her back into an apology-hug. Soon Lavanya joined the group hug and all three of them stayed together. This was what helped Khushi many a times, to stay afloat when all semblance of sanity fled and her entire world crashed. And her world did crash periodically and frequently after NK died. This silent and very tangible connection with Lavanya and Akash was her stronghold. It may have helped all three of them.

 

An exaggerated clearing of throat soon followed by, “Err.. I can come back later, if this orgy is still in session” André announced with a grin. This was a sight André had come to expect whenever Khushi and Akash were at home with Lavanya. It was also a testament to the tight friendship that was also a kinship that formed amongst all their friends after NK’s passing. André had seen what NK’s death had done to his wife. Her despair often evident only to him, when she sobbed quietly into her pillow first and then in his arms.

 

“The drinks are on the counter, and don’t forget to take the watermelon as well.” André picked up the tray with the drinks and the fruit and bent down to kiss Khushi on top of her head and walked out calling, “Whoever is the last to get the drinks is a jackfruit!” Shrieks and giggles erupted in the backyard with pandemonium being the theme of the moment.

 

While the backyard was rowdy with both kids and adults alike, the kitchen turned silent with the three friends in their hug. Akash was the first to speak, as he moved to make space to face Khushi. “KK, I am glad it was fine and nice as you put it. If you are okay with it, we both are happy.” KK was Akash’s term of endearment for Khushi, a shortened version of Khushi Kumari Gupta. It was also a name that yielded the most ribbing and teasing, especially the kumari part, and especially after her wedding.

 

Akash and Lavanya were two sides of a coin, thought Khushi. While Akash was the softer, kinder one, Lavanya was often the one with strength that complemented Akash’s gentleness. Slowly moving out of the group hug, she nodded to no one in particular. She needed to breathe and sort her chaotic thoughts. She walked out to the backyard to join the tired but boisterous crowd. Akash and Lavanya exchanged looks and followed her. They needed to organize lunch.

 

OoOoOoOoOo

 

Post lunch somnolence saw the twins fast asleep in their room and Manorama taking a reluctant nap in the guest bedroom. Akash and Pallavi opted to sleep on the chaise lounge. Pallavi refused Lavanya’s offer of her bed, claiming symptoms of heartburn. She preferred to sleep upright, she said. André found himself on the picnic blanket, giving in to his need for a nap.

 

Adrian Mendez, André’s twin brother, showed up at lunch time and was now playing angry birds with Mira and losing by a mile if Mira’s periodic grunts and cries of victories were any indication. Another engineer and single, Adrian was a frequent visitor at André’s, and particularly on those days when Khushi made her visits. He was a kind and a gentle soul, less boisterous than his twin, but adored Mira and the twins. Lavanya and André were aware of Adrian’s interest in Khushi. It was impossible to ignore Adrian’s insistent eyes following Khushi from afar. Initially Khushi was completely unaware of Adrian’s attention, but lately there was a determination to his interest that Khushi had begun to notice. And having noticed that Khushi was finally aware his intentions, Adrian’s pursuit assumed a persistence that put Khushi on alert.

 

As soon as André fell asleep, Khushi pulled Lavanya to her feet and demanded, “Let’s go inside. It’s getting too hot here for me.”

 

“Does the hotness have anything to do with a certain twin’s unrelenting and may I add, unfulfilling regard for a certain happiness?” Lavanya giggled at her own clever verbosity, flicking a glance at Adrian who had his gaze locked on Khushi.

 

“Will you please stop?” Khushi pleaded softly “And get us going from here?” She continued “Please?”

 

Keenly aware of Adrian’s stare burning her back, Khushi walked swiftly into the house with Lavanya. She should have worn her jeans and kurti she thought. Instead here she was in shorts and a tank top, dressed for a hot afternoon in the sun.

 

“Is this what you were referring to, when you said, Akash and Pallavi were going to be here? Is that code for Adrian now?” Khushi demanded as they walked into Lavanya’s bedroom.

 

“Err.. sort of, huh.. maybe.” Lavanya said with nonchalance. “But what’s wrong with him Khushi? He is a nice guy, a good looking guy, if I may say so myself, given that he is my husband’s identical twin.” Lavanya smirked. The only difference between Adrian and André was the color of their eyes. While Adrian had light brown eyes, André had grey eyes. Both men were tall and had statuesque features.

 

“This is not for me. I don’t think I will be ready for this. Ever. Lav.” Khushi said softly, fingering NK’s ring that was held in the chain she wore around her neck.

 

All laughter fled from Lavanya’s face. Sadness settled like a shroud around the two friends. Lavanya slowly brought her own fingers to NK’s ring and caressed it. “I miss him so much, it hurts my stomach. There is pain in my jaw, in my neck and right here in my heart” she said softly, continuing to gently stroke his ring. “That bastard! He was supposed to be here, flaunting those damned dimples. I miss him.” Tears rolled down Lavanya’s cheeks and found fellowship with ones flowing down Khushi’s.

 

Arms circled each other and Khushi laid her head on Lavanya’s shoulder, breathing in her perfume. Two hearts bereaved for what they both lost. But hearts mended and sought life again. Lavanya knew that. She pulled back slowly to look into Khushi’s face. It was more a study, a contemplative look that she had.

 

“Do you think you’d want NK to live like how you are living if the roles were reversed, Khush?” Lavanya had a knack of stating harsh truths with such economy of words, thought Khushi.

 

Lavanya’s king size bed was covered with a quilt which had an intricate repeating geometric pattern. Khushi traced the squares absentmindedly, pointedly avoiding Lavanya’s question. How could she answer that question? How could anyone? Lifting her gaze to meet Lavanya’s she said, “I don’t know how to answer that question.” Honesty was the best policy.

 

“Alright, how about this one then? Do you think NK would like you to live like this, without making any attempts at seeking happiness for the rest of your life?” Another one from Lavanya’s quiver with an aim to die for.

 

“I don’t know Lav. I don’t know.” Khushi shook her head emphatically. This question was not the one she wanted to hear, nor contemplate or consider. There was too much risk involved in even acknowledging the question.

 

“Well, I know.” Lavanya was soft, but within her softness was a firmness that Khushi couldn’t overlook. “If I died first, I would want André to find love. I would never want him to be alone, never feel lonely, ever.” Lavanya was unequivocal in her words and in her opinions. Khushi knew of another person who did not mince words. No prevarications with Arnav Singh Raizada.

 

“Promise me that you will think about it, please?” Lavanya asked. Khushi nodded, more to conclude this line of thought, this conversation, than to concede. There was too much at stake here.

 

“So, now spill your beans about your lunch with ASR. I am neither happy nor am I satisfied with nice and fine.” Lavanya sat straighter, pulling Khushi towards herself. Both friends leaned against the tall upholstered headboard and stretched out their legs.

 

“What do you want to know?” A question reminiscent of her conversation with ASR.

 

“What did he say? What did he ask? What did he want? What does he do? Is he married? What do you know about him? What did you eat? What did he eat? Everything.”

 

“Woah.. hold on.. hold on..” Khushi smiled.

 

“Well, he didn’t want anything Lav. He didn’t know that I was a speech pathologist. He is a cardiologist, so I guess he was curious about NK’s cardiac arrest. He wanted to know the details of what happened.” Khushi traced the squares on the quilt with a precise rhythm that it was almost hypnotic. She shook her head and looked at Lavanya.

 

“He is divorced but is on good terms with his ex-wife, Maya. And she remarried right after their divorce.” Khushi waited for Lavanya’s reaction. Lavanya stayed silent, urging her to continue. Khushi took a deep breath and said, “He has a six year old son, Mohan Singh Raizada.” A smile crept on Khushi’s face. “He is beautiful, he has Arnav’s eyes” she said softly. “I got a distinct impression that that little boy rules Arnav’s life completely.” Her smile widened to extend to her eyes now. “Oh and Mohan stays with Arnav, not with his mom.” She finished with a flourish. “There is something about him.”

 

“Arnav Singh?” Lavanya interrupted.

 

Khushi shook her head, “No. Mohan. I mean, Mohan. There is something about that boy, I am not able to put my finger on.” She furrowed her brow recalling that anxious face in her mind’s eye as he reached for his father in the poolside photograph. “Anyway, he is cute.” Khushi looked at Lavanya and said, “Mohan, not Arnav, ok?”

 

“Hmmm” Lavanya murmured having noticed that it was Arnav, not ASR now. She looked at Khushi waiting for her to continue.

 

“That’s it Lav. Oh, we went to Medfest and I ordered combination platters for both of us. We both had water to drink.” Khushi straightened in her seat to mark the end of her presentation.

 

“Is he still in town?” Lavanya persisted.

 

“No, he left that night. He texted me from the airport. I think Akash dropped him. He stayed with Akash during his trip here.”

 

Akash called Khushi every Wednesday afternoon to check on her. It was their new routine. ASR was Akash’s first cousin and both men claimed a close relationship, as close as siblings. But that’s all she knew about their relationship. Khushi knew that both Akash and Lavanya were aware that she had a past with ASR, that something happened between the two of them. But they were not privy to the details of what happened.

 

“He, Arnav, that is,.. sent me a text after he reached Delhi.” Khushi felt compelled to offer this piece of information.

 

Had a good flight and am home now safe and sound. As promised here is my text – A.

 

Her phone had pinged in the middle of her session with a client and her heart soared silently. She had not responded to that text, unsure if she was expected to, while a part of her wanted to.

 

“So? Did you text him back?” Lavanya asked gently.

 

Khushi shook her head and looked down.

 

“What happened Khush? Why don’t you text him back?”

 

“What about NK?” Khushi asked. Tears pooled in her throat and she didn’t want Lavanya to see more of them today. They cried enough already.

 

“What about NK?” Lavanya repeated as if the question had no bearing on this conversation.

 

Khushi shook her head. There was so much she didn’t want to know, didn’t want to ask or even acknowledge. There was too much at risk here. “What if I ..” Khushi stopped for a breath. “What about NK?” Memories were fickle. She, of all, should know that. Her fear slipped out into the open and now it sat between the two women.

 

“Oh Khush!” Lavanya enveloped Khushi into a tight hug and rocked her back and forth as she would her twins. “Is that even possible Khush? Is it possible for you to not have NK in your heart? Your soul?” Lavanya shook Khushi gently. “ Isn’t Mira a part of you and NK? And more importantly, if you forget something, we will find it together Khush.” Lavanya’s reassurance was the last straw. Tears turned into sobs. I am okay, I will be okay. The mantra and deep breaths helped Khushi regain her calm.

 

“This is exactly why I didn’t want to talk about lunch.” Khushi exclaimed.

 

“This is exactly why I wanted you to talk about lunch.” Lavanya retorted with a smile and a gentle squeeze. “Text him back Khush. It’s the polite thing to do after all.” Lavanya teased. She waited for Khushi to regain her breath.

 

“What happened between you two Khush? All those years ago? You didn’t tell me anything then. And I didn’t want to push. Will you tell me what happened between you and Arnav Singh Raizada?”

 

Of all things, Khushi did not expect Lavanya to ask her this question directly. She looked at her friend with eyes that held a torment that she had pushed into the dark recesses of her mind and soul. Was she ready to unleash them now?

 

Chapter Two: A Sojourn

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 …”

 

“Khushi…”

 

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?

 

“Just me?”

 

“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?”

 

“But why?”

 

“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.

 

oOoOoOoOo

 

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.

 

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.

 

OoOoOoOoOoOo

 

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.”

 

“Again?”

 

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.”