Detroit, late February 2016
She let the large suitcase she was carrying rest just by the door even as she dragged her feet into the hotel room and threw her laptop bag on the king sized-bed in front of her. The soft, fluffy mattress looked like it could engulf her and she really didn’t want anything else. The journey of what was now almost thirty hours was beginning to show in the way her bones ached as she moved – even as gently as she now did. Perhaps jet lag also manifested as extreme exhaustion. What would she give to be able to just plonk herself on the bed and fall into deep sleep?
But years of training from her mother was the albatross she carried rather willingly around her neck. As a rule, the Guptas were not allowed to take journey clothes anywhere except the laundry basket. Journey skin and hair were to be scrubbed clean of all possible contamination before they could touch anything living or non-living. And so Khushi knew that even though it was close to midnight and freezing outside, she would be dousing herself with steamy water before she did anything else.
Anything else of course, meant sending an email or a phone text to Arnav that she had reached safely and perhaps even a small explanation on why she was almost eight hours delayed in sending this message.
“You have some very urgent messages here, Ma’am” The girl with ebony skin and glowing eyes, fresh like few others could be at this hour, had said in a half amused and half concerned tone even as she had gone about scanning Khushi’s passport and making entries in the silence of the night. There was absolutely no one else in the little room that served as the reception of the Inn. And yet, this woman, her name still unknown to Khushi though she had said it out loud first thing, was a downright relief for Khushi to see.
As quiet and uneventful as Khushi’s journey from Bangalore to Dubai and eventually to New York had been, the halt at JFK and the journey thereafter to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County aiport had been unnerving and unsettling. It started with the transit from International Arrivals to the Domestic Departures at JFK which was positively the most confusing transit she was ever going to make in her lifetime. Nothing was labelled or called out. What was this inexplicable dependence on asking for directions, Khushi had asked herself in annoyance even as she had finally found her way to the bus that took her Terminal 2 at JFK?
After that had come the flight to Detroit. First it was more than four hours delayed due to snow in Detroit and the departure gate was a mess with angry passengers on the one side and completely unconcerned travelers on the other. And yet the worst part was that this was the first time Khushi had realized that she was truly a foreigner in this country. Almost all those at the gate waiting to head to Detroit had color of skin entirely different from hers. All of them seemed at ease, even in anger, like they knew what to do, where to go, who to meet. Perhaps, this is how she looked in Bangalore airport.
Shiv-ji, she had missed home then and she wasn’t even properly out of it at the time.
Eventually, they were taken to the aircraft – a seventy seater ATR with wings, for crying out loud. And full of people who seemed to all know each other and were very aware of her as the outsider.
The sight of a snowed runway and gravelly grounds around was only momentary relief given the time of night that it was when the plane touched down at Detroit. Her luggage which unsurprisingly arrived last – gave her enough time to panic and think of all the options she would have if the airline had infact misplaced her bags that were meant to keep her warm, clothed and even fed for the next few weeks.
And finally there was the fact that she was the only one who walked out of the airport and to the taxi stand, aware of every human eye that fell on her as she walked, awkward and unsure yes but fearful and confused more. She was definitely not in her crowded not-so-little country where even at close to midnight, airports remained crowded like they were bus stations plying broken, foul-smelling rattling vehicles to the countryside. She had finally said yes to a taxi service that screamed expensive but looked too polished to be scary. But then, this was America and nothing was really going to look as battered as she was used to. How the hell did people figure out what to trust, she had wondered even as the large man wearing a well groomed chauffeur’s uniform had driven – on the other side of the road – at insane speeds and in less than forty minutes deposited her with a small smile outside the Inn where the lovely receptionist had been waiting with a warm smile and a ready room.
And news that she had urgent messages waiting to be responded to.
Taking a deep breath, Khushi decided that she would call her parents as soon as she took a bath and felt herself seep back into this wide-eyed first time phoren-traveller who was staring back at her in the mirror in the bathroom. She peeled off her clothes, letting them lay strewn on the floor, aware that she would have to wash and iron them on her own here in this strange land of no dhobis and self-service Laundromats. She remained standing under the hot shower till her skin pruned and till steam leaked out of the bathroom into her fairly generous bedroom-cum-living room that was thankfully even equipped with a little kitchenette.
Her hair was hanging loose around her face in wet wisps, her face shining pink like it had never before – thanks to all the scrubbing she had subjected it to; when the phone in the room rang out shrilly. It was then, as the sound pierced the silence of the night, that she truly realized how late in the day – rather night – it was. It had to be her parents calling her, she was sure. After all, her no-panic instructions had run out almost eight hours ago. She padded across the room and picked up the phone, her voice almost a whisper as she allowed for the possibility of it being someone from this new land who didn’t really deserve her bored drawling.
“Are you okay?”
She bristled at the edge in the voice she knew she was actually expecting to hear even before she answered the call. How? Why? There were too many questions and her teeth were already grinding against each other – loudly enough for her head to throb in pain. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You are eight hours late.” Arnav said in an undeniably angry voice.
“I wasn’t partying,” She bit out instinctively and then regretted the slip. She didn’t talk to anyone like that. Even Tripti and Arjun got the best side of her despite the stress she was feeling internally at her low moments. So she breathed in sharply and quickly intervened before he could take offense. “I mean, the flight from New York was delayed and I had no way to let anyone know. I placed an international roaming activation request before I left but clearly it hasn’t worked. I need to fix it.” Her voice was breathy from speaking too fast. She needed to sip some water and calm her heartbeat to normal levels. Over the last few weeks she had gotten used to the butterflies in her stomach enough to not notice consciously and to not let it affect her reactions. This call was rattling her nerves because it was sudden even if expected sub-consciously; and it wasn’t a good sign. She couldn’t behave like this when her career and her life both depended on her ability to keep things sane.
“Have you called your parents?”
“I just reached. I was about to call them when you did.” She stated more calmly this time.
He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. I just….Anyway, I’d recommend sleeping now even if you don’t feel like sleeping. The sooner you get your body accustomed to the revised timing, the faster you will get over jet lag. The good thing is tomorrow is still Sunday and you have enough time to be rested before we start on Monday.”
Khushi swallowed and felt silly and stupid for snapping right back. “Yes,” She replied even as she sat on the bed, suddenly tired like she hadn’t been all this time. “That was the plan – to reach on Saturday so I wouldn’t be jetlagged.” All she wanted to do now was hang up, curl into a ball and sleep.
“If you want to make a trip to Walmart – there is one close by, I can take you tomorrow.”
“No,” She said hurriedly. “I don’t need anything this week.”
“Ok. I’m in 1425 – it’s on the first floor on the other end of the parking lot. Call me if you need anything.”
Before she could reply, the line had been disconnected. Letting out the breath she had been holding, she let the phone settle back into its nook even as she threw herself back on the bed and closed her eyes. This was going to be tough unless she snapped out it. And she needed to snap out of it.
As if on cue, the phone rang again, shrill and loud. This time, she was friendlier in her greeting. But clearly Shiv-ji was also kinder in his ministrations of the universe, she realized, as she heard her mother’s voice on the other side.
By the time she reached the buffet breakfast next morning, the place had already cleared out except for a couple of folks who seemed to be lingering over their coffee. A quick, discreet look at her fellow boarders at the Inn, told her that this was no high end, upscale hotel despite the hotel chain it claimed allegiance to. The same chain in India was all gleaming glass and polished marble. This on the other hand was worn out tables and weathered occupants. Nevertheless, the people she met, called out greetings – something she had been given to expect in a travel briefing she’d attended on the last day of office at Bangalore. Even so, it unnerved her to have strangers greet her with wide smiles and offhand comments about the weather – which was downright unbearable.It hadn’t snowed in the night but the Inn-roads and pavements were full of slush on the sides. It was nothing compared to the mess that was Bangalore or worse Benaras after even just one spell of rain. Yet, amidst everything that was as manicured and deliberate as the US had been to her at first sight, the sludge stood out and added to a sense of unbelonging disorder. Back at home, even chaos seemed to have an unspoken order, like things just fit like pieces of a worn out cardboard jigsaw.
She picked up a plate and headed to help herself to some scrambled eggs when she heard his voice behind her.
“I’m not sure that is a good idea.”
Thankfully, she knew by now to not be surprised at his sudden appearance. After all, Arnav Varun was going to be around her for ten-twelve hours a day now. Still, when she looked at her, something squishy and red in her chest rumbled and turned on its head. He looked splendid in deep purple turtle neck t-shirt, indigo jeans and a navy trench coat. A navy and purple striped woolen scarf was hanging loose around his neck, like he had just unwrapped it from his neck.
Shiv-ji, she cried silently. Why couldn’t he have been one of those men who lost hair or grew in the middle as they prospered?
“That, is not real.”
She frowned and looked at the half-empty heap of scrambled eggs in front of her. It did look at lot more yellow than she might have expected it to but…
“Synthetic egg scramble.” Arnav explained. “Not the best option healthwise.”
Khushi turned to look at him, confused. “Synthetic?”
“Bottom-line friendly,” Arnav nodded. “You might want to stick to the breads, cereal, porridge, fruit, etc. Unfortunately, we start really early on weekdays so it will have to be this for majority of your stay. Unless you are the kind who scrambles to get ready for work at the last minute.”
Khushi smiled at that and shook her head. “That would be Arjun.” And then bit her tongue. Dammit.
Arnav however, didn’t seem to notice and it infuriated Khushi. How did he manage to do this? How did he look like there was nothing to be awkward about? Especially when she brought Arjun to the mix without thought?
She looked away and moved on to serve herself breakfast of the non-controversial variety and headed to a table, aware that Arnav would join her. What would it have taken to get just another day of not having to deal with him? Perhaps if her stomach hadn’t been growling like it did and she had stayed in her room.
“Coffee?” A young, dark-skinned girl with shining carmine lips smiled down at her. Nodding she allowed the girl to pour her a mug of black coffee even as Arnav headed to her table and placed his plate – loaded with fruit and a couple of slices of wheat toast.
“Good morning, Kayla.”
“Good morning, AV.” The other girl replied as she filled his mug with coffee as well. “Glad to see you without that laptop today. Big plans for Sunday?” She asked, glancing in her direction quickly.
“Nothing more exciting than every Sunday, I’m afraid.”
“You have fun. Let me know if you need something.”
As Kayla walked away, Arnav shrugged his coat-off, placed a folded newspaper on the empty chair next to him and slid into the chair opposite hers. “How was your journey?” He asked, popping a melon into his mouth as looked at her. So effortless. So unruffled. It was unfair. “Other than being delayed, that is. I hear this is a good airline – the one you took from Bangalore to JFK.”
“It was fine.” She replied in short but not unpleasant bursts. “The airline was really good. Their collection of entertainment is spectacular. I believe one of the best in the business.”
Nodding, he went on to eat more of his breakfast in silence even as she nibbled on hers. Just a few minutes ago, she was sure she could wolf down the entire buffet spread and now…
“Do you drive?”
“In India?” She asked even as she struggled to chew the piece of bread in her mouth hurriedly. “I can. I drive my parents’ car when I am home but…”
“We’ll go drive around a little bit today when you are up to it. You should learn how to drive with me a few times so that you can get around by yourself. Unfortunately, like all car makers, our client is in deep financial shit so we don’t have the luxury of renting a car per employee even though most of our projects work like that. So we’ll have to share the car.”
She shook her head, her hands suddenly icier than they had been when she had walked from her room to the breakfast area. “I don’t think I can…” Had he not seen the monstrosities that the roads in Detroit were? And how was she ever going to understand routes. It’s not like she could use Google maps. “I don’t have an international driving permit.”
“That’s okay,” Arnav replied as he moved on to his coffee, a brisk efficiency about his movements that was beginning to make her nervous. This was so different from the resort version of him she had met five years ago, the version who had seemed so at home in the mountains, so fluid and yet relaxed in his ways. “Michigan recognizes Indian licenses. You just need to get used to driving on the other side of the road and believe me driving here is a piece of cake compared to what we are used to back home. The car I rented has a GPS too so routes are not a problem.”
“It’s going to be very difficult without being mobile in this area, Khushi. You can’t walk out to any where close by. Even to get to the nearest Walmart, you need a car. And we are talking about eight weeks here.”
Once again, her flesh rose in goosebumps, half angry and half annoyed. “Maybe next weekend.” She responded non-commitally. What he said did make sense but…
“What do you plan to do for lunch?”
“I hadn’t actually thought about it. I don’t know…”
“These guys don’t have a restaurant. You can order in – the reception has many flyers – but since this is the first weekend, I’d rather we head out. I don’t know how long we will be able to keep work from spilling over into the weekends.”
This was a professional setup, she assured herself. Lunch didn’t mean anything. Neither did dinner or breakfast or any of the remaining two hundred and fifty plus meals she was supposed to share with this man in front of her. If this was any other colleague – Shyam for instance, she would have been happy to have company. Perhaps,…She looked up at him. “What about Ken and Madhusudan? Are they here already?” She asked about the remaining members of their team who would show up at Wyatt Motors World Headquarters tomorrow.
“Ken is local. Maddy is staying at the Carlton across road this week. He will be traveling back home to Chicago every Thursday.”
Dammit. She really was alone with Arnav. So much for sanity and professionalism. And Madhusudan was Maddy? Why wasn’t she surprised? Sighing, she went back to her food which now might as well be cardboard for how is felt in her mouth. He really was going to punish her in his own way, wasn’t he? What the hell was this driving thing now? Would he have done the same if it was Arjun who had traveled on this project instead of her? She blinked and realized she didn’t really didn’t want an answer to that question.
“I need to get supplies for the week. You are sure you don’t need a Walmart trip?”
She looked up from her plate to see him pushing his empty plate and empty coffee mug away from himself. She shook her head. If she was going to get an option to not be around him, she was not going to be an idiot and ignore it.
“I’ll see you at around one outside in the parking lot. We have a black Wyatt Escape for the next four weeks and its parked right outside my block – so all the way over…”
“…the other side,” She finished for him as he nodded, his mouth curving slightly.
“Bye.” He said as put his coat back and buttoned it up, tying his scarf expertly around his neck as he walked around her.
It was the whiff of citrus, fresh and familiar that twisted her heart even as she allowed her fork to fall into the plate with a soft clink. It was going to be a long eight weeks.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Jab Saamne Tum Aa Jaate Ho
Album: Dil Kahin Hosh Kahin
Singers: Asha Bhonsle, Lata Mangeshkar, Jagjit Singh
Music: Aadesh Shrivastava
Lyrics: Nida Fazli
Dekh ke tumko, hosh mein aana bhool gaye
Yaad rahe tum, aur zamaana, bhool gaye
Jab saamne tum, aa jaate ho
Kya jaaniye kya ho jaata hai
Kuch mil jaata hai, kuch kho jaata hai
Kya jaaniye kya ho jaata hai
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