She stood there in front of where his motorcycle was parked along with Aman’s. Her eyes were glued to the machine and his were glued to her, as always. She looked positively kissable with one set of nails nestled between her perfectly set teeth and the other hand placed firmly on her hip. He watched as she chewed on her fingers gently, reminding him of the way her teeth had caught his lips and nibbled. He took a deep breath and forced his body to behave even as he walked over to Aman’s bike to extract the extra helmet for her.
It was bad enough that he had kissed when she had been in as much pain as he had once felt in his arm; bad enough that he had gathered her close and hoped that he was driving away the excruciating sting he remembered so clearly. Now that he had, all he could think of was how it felt when he had held her against him; how it felt when she had kissed him right back, with all her heart, with feeling that was mirrored in every curl of her fingers against his skin. All hell had broken loose.
In the last twenty minutes that it had taken them to make their way across the river on the raft that Mohan had helped him steer, he had employed every possible measure to ensure there was enough physical distance between them – just so that he wouldn’t be tempted to pull her back into that kiss. But all he had done was avoid the unavoidable for a few minutes more than he might have otherwise. He had clearly forgotten that when he had her sit with him on the bike, it would be in a way that was so temptingly carved in the glint of her eyes – her large midnight doe eyes framed with lashes that curved tantalizingly against the glass of her lenses.
“It’s just a two wheeler with a powerful engine, not a dragon” He said softly even as her fingers slipped out of the space between her teeth and her hand fell away from her face. And just as he prepared himself for the force of her gaze, her eyes caught his and held them prisoner.
“I haven’t ever…I mean I have an Activa at home but I am the only one who gets to ride it…Tripti, Ma…they have to ride pillion with me…”
He watched as her eyes scanned the bike again before gently skimming his face, never meeting his gaze again. In that driving-him-crazy way that she always did. He stepped closer to her as she continued to ramble about being scared of road accidents. His heart was soaring as he realized he would forever remain in her memory as the first time she ever sat on a bike. She seemed like the sort of person who would remember something like that as a special event. Just like she would remember that kiss. If he were to hazard a guess, it was the first time she had been kissed too. It thrilled him – this feeling of being special to her – enough to make him forget that he might be accused of gloating. “I ride carefully, I promise. I’ve never had an accident ever.” He said softly, hoping to reassure her as he extended his own helmet to her.
Her eyes flew up to his, alarmed. “So that just increases the probability of you having an accident with me sitting behind you.”
It was gravity of her concern that made him burst out laughing, much to rise of warmth up her long, slender neck and into her cheeks. He wished he didn’t know just how soft the skin there was. He wished he didn’t wonder what it would be like to kiss the column of her throat, perhaps even mark her as…
“We will be fine.” He promised again even as he tried to stop chuckling. “Here,” He extended the helmet again hoping that it would give her the reassurance she seemed to need. If only someone reassured him similarly. Fine? That was the total opposite of what he was going to be at the end of this trip. Dead. That is what was more likely. He was halfway there already.
She took the helmet gingerly, holding it as if it were a bomb. “What about you?”
He held up Aman’s. “I have J’s.”
Damn, he winced silently. Did he have to call out specifically which helmet was whose? She was going to ask him why he hadn’t given her Aman’s instead. “We should go now,” He said quickly, putting his helmet on. He then swung his legs over the bike and kicked it to life. Thankfully, the engine came to life in one kick, the dull thrum of the engine filling the growing restless between them. He waited patiently, his visor lifted up and eyes unblinking in their perusal of her movements.
He watched as she studied the bike and took a couple of steps towards the pillion seat. He saw her nervousness in the side-view mirrors and bit back a smile as her fingers found their way back to mouth.
“How am I supposed to sit – Aunty style….I mean…the way…older…women usually do?”
He chuckled to himself even as he turned around and hoped that she could hear him from behind the helm. “Sit the way you are comfortable sitting. It’s not rocket science, I promise.”
He saw her mutter something to herself which he was sure sounded like “easy for you to say,” before she placed her hand on the seat. Damn, he cursed. She was going to hold him and it was going to kill him when she did. Damn.
“I am going to be very clumsy. I’m sorry if we both land up on the ground.”
He smiled again and looked down before he turned his neck. “I’ll keep my feet firmly on the ground. We won’t fall.” This had to be the longest anyone had ever taken to sit with him on his Electra. And every second of it was pure torture. Of course, it was nothing that was going to happen in the next forty five minutes or so that it was going to take them to get to Rishikesh.
He watched in the mirror as she put her helmet on in quick jerky moments and visibility breathed in deeply before swinging her legs over the bike without touching him or even allowing her body to be in less than a couple of inches of distance between them. He held on as the machine wobbled for a few seconds as she found her balance. He heard her sigh of relief before he heard her muffled words. “I’m good….we can go,” She whispered. He could now see only portions of her head covered by his helmet…his helmet. Her hands were possibly lying uselessly by her side. There was nothing at the back to hold unlike Activas she had mentioned. Bikes like these were made for couples who could legally plaster themselves against each other in public. Or those who didn’t find physical proximity as killing as he was going to.
“You can hold me,” He offered softly, thankful for the helmet that would serve as a convenient excuse for the thickness in his voice. He wanted her to end the torment and just put her hands on him so he wouldn’t have to spend the next thirty odd kilometers wanting to pull her hands around his waist.
He was not surprised, however, when she urgently assured him she was fine and reminded him that they should leave if they wanted to find the doctor.
He took a deep breath and slowly released the clutch and kicked the Bullet into gear as he gently made his way through the short narrow path up the small hillock before turning left and merging into the well laid, winding highway around the mountains.
They rode in silence and distance as the steep cliff to their left dipped and rose as the mountains went by. The river flowed by in the distance, not always visible but ever present. He could even hear the water gurgle in his head despite the beat of his motorcycle. He resisted the temptation to look into the mirrors on either side, more often than he needed to. And tried to ignore the heat the lay nestled between his body and hers. He knew she was tense and uncomfortable and yet, anything he might do to make her life easy, would only end up alarming her more. The one time that he had had to brake suddenly – she had clasped his left shoulder and almost made him groan as her surprisingly sharp nails had dug into his skin. That she had apologized profusely enough for him to turn to her and ask her stop, had warned him against forcibly pulling her hands around his waist.
He hadn’t really expected conversation – not today, not yesterday when she had refused to ride with him. For one, it would be largely inconvenient with two helmets and mountain air playing ping pong with their words. And two, there was little to be said that could be without meeting each other’s eyes. In fact, in an ideal world, he wouldn’t have kissed her at all without clearing the air between them – not yesterday and definitely not today.
And yet, seeing her at the camp unexpectedly this morning, face twisted with pain and looking deliciously disheveled as she never had really seemed before, had gotten under his skin. Being near her had always kept him strangely aware of every inch of distance there was between them – even four years ago. It was the only reason he could cite, for kissing her with such abandon despite knowing that there was an Arjun-named chasm between them.
They reached Rishikesh within the hour even as the sun streamed over their heads and forced sweat to break out on their skin. The ride within the small town remained largely uneventful even as he looked at the now familiar surroundings through her eyes – one of a guest – absorbing, amazed.
The doctor they preferred to consult with at the River was a distant relative of Aman’s and hence practically family. He knew he was welcome without notice just as Aditi and Aman were. Radha Bua, as he referred to her thanks to Aman and thereby Aditi’s relationship, was a recent widow in her early fifties and lived alone in the holy town in the home she had made with her husband almost a decade ago when they had left the hustle-bustle of the city and decided to spend their remaining years serving people in the truest sense. As doctors, their presence was highly valued in the local community and at any point in time, their clinic which Radha Bua ran alone now, was always brimming with those who couldn’t afford doctors and medicines. They had had no children and hence were even more partial to Aman, Aditi and Arnav – especially Arnav who Radha Bua had taken a shine to after Aman and Aditi’s wedding. So it was no surprise that when Arnav and Khushi arrived at her clinic, she ushered them in to her private chambers and was with them in less time than it took for him to check with Khushi if she was doing okay.
Thankfully, Radha Bua had not called out the superfluousness of their visit. She had fussed over her wound enough to reassure him and Khushi both that her wound did need professional tending to. And that anti-tetanus shot. He watched as discreetly as possible as Radha Bua had a helper-lady clean and bandage the wound so that it wouldn’t get infected and would allow her to wear her clothes normally. Khushi remained as stoic and calm as she always seemed through the procedure except for a momentary clenching of her eyes when the anti-tetanus shot was administered.
He thanked his distant aunt profusely – adding to Khushi’s already ardent gratitude and ignored the small twinkle in her eye as she waved goodbye to the two of them for several minutes as they settled down on the bike and sped away from the small street.
He weaved through the streets again as gently as possible before he reached the intersection that led to the highway back to Shivpuri where he stopped the Bullet and took his helmet off.
“It’s almost two,” He said softly even as he saw her extract her helmet off her head and lean in. “You must be hungry. Do you want to get some lunch and then head back to the River or…” He hesitated as he struggled to get the rest of the words out – an option he really didn’t want her to take. “The team must have just banked on the ghat. We can catch up with them and join them back on the trip to the River?”
His breath remained clichéd-ly bated as he saw her toss up the options in her head. The thought of losing these unexpected moments of solitary togetherness to the entangled web they had waiting for them at the end of the day, was nerve wracking. A part of him wanted to make the decision for them and pick the former option. But he had done enough decision making in the past. He now wanted it to be her call to decide whether and how she wanted to take this further. If she decided to be with him because that is what she wanted, it would make it so much easier when everything was out in the open between them. Else…
“Asha Chachi said she would be cooking for me anyway. We could go back to the River and wait for the rest of them to…”
He smiled to himself and nodded, happy and amazed that she had both given him what he wanted and yet made it what she wanted. He waited as she put her helmet on. Then, triggered by the confidence that her choice had just empowered him with, he reached out by the side and pulled her left hand and placed it on his shoulder. He turned his head a little as her fingers curved as if to be pried away from his body and shook his head, and her hand stilled.
For the entire ride around the curved highway through the mountains, he remained aware of the pleasant weight of her ever-so tentative touch on his shoulders.
With the return to the camp, returned the whoosh of misgivings and fear. He saw that in the way her movements became fidgety and nervous, almost as it she was sure he was going to jump her. And so he put distance between them, as much as possible. As he parked the Bullet and then walked down the little mountain to the valley, he stayed a little behind her and focused on the path. The occasional comments were limited to apologies for a delayed lunch and inquiries about her hurt back.
On her part, she thanked him almost as much as she had thanked the doctor and yet kept her eyes away from his. It made him crave to get to that plate of food and the moments of stationery togetherness that would enable him and hopefully her to say something that would get them past the awkwardness that stemmed from a haphazard mesh of physical intimacy and unresolved feelings. All he knew now that though they were both, finally, in the same physical and mental place, their paths leading up to it were very different. And entangled in all the wrong places – most of them not even completely visible to her. A part of him just wanted to come out and tell her all that he had known and done. And yet, how could he?
It was only when they were both seated with plates of freshly prepared, fluffy phulkas, sabji and dal, that he allowed himself to look at her unchecked and refused to lower his gaze despite the heat glowing in her skin.
They both spoke at the same time, their hands poised over their plates as they sat opposite each other with the sun shimmering in softly on one hand and the tent canvas flapping on the other.
He stopped immediately, and nodded for her to continue, relieved that she had decided to voice the churn that had been dancing on her face the last few hours. He stiffened however as the two opening words she had chosen settled in his mind. He had declared rather bravely that he would not let her forget about the kiss or go back to Arjun. But if that is what she did choose, what could he do? He was no Bollywood hero, he wasn’t going to hold her hostage to the physical explosion they contained between them. He would have to watch her walk away. And he would hold himself together for the rest of his life. He knew how to do that. Especially when he was the one to blame.
He waited as she played with her food, spoon noiselessly sifting through a serving of dal and sabji. A few seconds later, she looked him in the eyes again, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. He bit back a smile as her lashes hit the glass like they so often did when she adjusted her glasses.
“Before…ermmm….anything…I mean….” She looked away and breathed in visibly. “I need to speak with Arjun before we can…before I mean…” She put her spoon down and folded her hands in her lap, leaning away from the table. A part of him, really, really wanted to put her out of her misery. Even if she wanted, she couldn’t hide the fact that the kiss earlier and this…madness that seemed to envelope them, was her first encounter with all things related to romance and relationships. But the sadist-cum-masochist in him stayed mum as he waited for her to put a name to what they shared.
He knew she wouldn’t. And she didn’t.
“I just need to let Arjun know that I don’t feel the same way about him.” She looked at him with such sadness in her eyes that it twisted his heart to partly be the reason to put her in this position – at least for that one moment that held her gaze. “And once I have told him – I don’t know how I can…how we can…” She looked around and clenched her fingers. “I mean we are all here.He is too. And if he gets to know about us…He asked me….about you and I said no…and now…” She looked back at him and shrugged. “I know it’s not your problem but…”
He swallowed and shook his head. The words were on the tip of his tongue. And yet when spoke, they morphed. “I understand. And there is no…” This was harder than he thought. “There is no hurry. These two days are not all we have…” He wanted to believe it, he wanted to tell her there were decisions already made in his head.
“But how can there be more?” She asked, her eyes full of questions as they scanned his face. “You are here…and I don’t know where I will be…and…”
If he had ever any doubts about how she felt, they were all gone with the question that seemed to more powerful than a declaration of love. For the first time in years, he felt the stirring of hope, the distant promise of a future he had never really considered willingly.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Ennai Konjum Maatri
Album: Kaakha Kaakha
Singers: Shalini, Timmy, Tippu
Music: Harris Jayraj
The second stanza goes something like this (please forgive me for killing the essence!)
You brought me here
Made me say all these things
Made me smile (like I have rarely before)
What else (have you in store for me)
You sit beside me and mark me with you unwavering gaze
What does it mean, I wonder
My gaze is new
As are these words that come of my mouth
It is you who has brought upon, this (change) in me
That your eyes should look for me, and me alone
And other such thoughts drive me insane
A rather poor translation can be found here
- A dear friend and River-ian penned a beautiful piece about Arnav’s thoughts and feelings which i selfishly asked her to hold on too till I posted this chapter. Appu / Aparna / Sohni – please share you magic with everyone here. Beautiful writing can only be contained so long. Thank you for indulging my request.
- To all those who don’t understand regional languages like Marathi/Tamil – thank you for your patience. Hope you have been able to expand the joy that music brings in any language
- Next update: Monday, Sep 26, 2016
- Please excuse typos!