Thank you all for being with this story for as long as you have!
It was like an invisible meat-cleaver sliced through the weekend that came to an uneventful, lonely close on Sunday night and the week began on Monday. By the time she had walked into the breakfast area at the Inn, Arnav was already seated, dressed to the nines in a charcoal suit, complete with a jacket but without a tie. He was typing furiously on his phone, presumably answering email – which he had done even late last night. It had been disconcerting to imagine that he was working so close to midnight on a Sunday when all she could do was soak up the last minutes of relaxation before another work heavy week began. She walked up to him and wished him good morning, which he returned with a small smile and went right back to his business, leaving her to finish her breakfast in silence. When they were ready to leave, he told her that they needed to drop-off his rental first and that they would go from there to the Wyatt offices. She had almost been about to point out that there was no need for him to have left the SUV for her and that she hadn’t really needed to step out at all but something about his manner suggested that he didn’t quite want to linger on the subject – he seemed almost embarrassed if she were to take a wild, mostly inaccurate guess.
So they drove to the rental drop-off in separate cars and then together with her behind the wheel all the way to Wyatt.
Ten meals and many multiples of working coffee breaks later, with an average of sixteen hour days behind them, Friday evening tumbled in again and yet the distance that seemed to have separated this weekend from the last, was insurmountable in Khushi’s head. That she had completely forgotten about Nishant-Sir’s invitation was something she excused herself for till she received a text from him on Friday afternoon confirming her attendance and stay for the weekend. She fretted about the message till she saw Arnav staring at her chewing her nails – a habit that had come back to her with a vengeance since she had joined A&M. The look of disapproval in his eyes, thought completely unwelcome, was enough to make her snap out of it.
She had promised herself she would go to meet Nishant-Sir. And she would go. This might be the only weekend she would get to be free anyway if the volume of work that was getting added to their plate was any indication. All she needed to do now was to tell Arnav she would be joining him on his trip to Nishant-Sir’s place.
It would be infinitely easier to ask Nishant-Sir for his address and just figure out a taxi or something. It would also be infinitely petty and childish to ignore Arnav’s presence and his role in this entire arrangement. So on their way back to the Inn just after their weekly Friday night fancy team-dinner, their twelfth meal together for the week, Khushi braced herself and spoke.
“Nishant-Sir texted me asking if I was coming with you to his place tomorrow.” She said, the words rushing out of her mouth in an ungainly fashion, too brisk in the silence of the cold, winter night.
He looked at her for a second and turned his attention back to the road before he spoke. “I usually leave after breakfast. And I don’t eat at the Inn on weekends.”
Err…okay…What was she supposed to do with…? Oh, she realized a second of confusion later. He had offered to take her to breakfast last week. And she had refused.
She sneaked a look at him in the darkness now bemused at his apparent crossness. She hadn’t even thought about her response and now she couldn’t help but wonder if she had offended him? She had done him a favor, after all, hadn’t she? Wasn’t he getting tired of babysitting her? It wasn’t as if their time together was even relaxed, forget anything else positive.
And, she frowned to herself, wait a minute! – she was the one who had told him she loved him and he was the one who never called again. If anything, she needed to be the one offended for the foreseeable future. No, scratch that. She needed to be angry – the fire spitting out of her mouth kind of angry, the kind Tripti and her mother were so good at. How she wished she knew how to flash orange with her eyes if not with words.
She took a deep breath as if to gather her invisible wrath and looked out of the window. She had no idea what she needed to say now. It was hardly as if she could invite herself. This was a bad idea. Perhaps she just needed to beg out of this madness and plan that New York trip for next week.
“We should leave at nine. We can eat on the way and reach his place by noon. The recording dress-rehearsal of sorts, starts at two but I’d like to be there early. Set-up takes time.”
Instead of feeling superior in the moment of unspoken, sulken victory, she frowned and looked at him mutely as he swerved into the driveway of the Inn. “Huh?”
He mirrored her expression uncannily with a frown of his own even as he drove the vehicle around the parking and into its usual slot. It was dead silent at this time of night and with no wind blowing, there was a sense of stillness that was so unlike the utter chaos back home no matter what time of day or night it was.
“NK didn’t tell you? We are shooting our second video on Sunday.”
“Video?” She was beginning to sound stupid. But then again, how could she argue she was otherwise in the first place?
He looked at her as he turned the engine off. Even without the benefit of light, she knew his eyebrow was lifted in a skeptical hook. “The one you were seeing the other night, the next one in that series. I presume it was Arjun who sent the link?”
So he had seen her check out that video briefly. And he knew there was no way she could have gone without having watched it fully later. It was times like these that she really wanted to use the F word out aloud. Her body was suddenly hot, her cheeks burning fire her eyes had refused to spit at him. And yet, she couldn’t just be that River-side little lost girl who had declared unconditional love to a practical stranger over a long distance phone call in an attempt to end a relationship. “He didn’t mention it. We didn’t actually speak about why he was inviting me. I assumed it is just catching up. But if…I don’t think I should be coming this weekend. I wouldn’t want to be in the way.”
“It will be boring like most shootings are – if you’ve seen any. And we are still amateurs so it will be worse. So amidst all the other chaos, no you won’t be in the way.” He supplied softly, his hands still lingering on the wheel. There was no precise movement to aide his exit from the vehicle. No precise clicks of switching off engines, no turning off the headlights. The snap of the seatbelt being unfastened had been soft too. But then she couldn’t blame him. She hadn’t even unfastened her safety belt yet. During the week, the rush to get out of his orbit was always too overpowering for her to linger. Now there seemed to be an equal and opposite motion paying its Newtonian tribute to them as it curled in her chest.
Silence sneaked between them even as distant lights from occupied rooms and suites around them flickered softly. “Nishant-Sir asked me to stay over for the weekend. But…” She had no idea why she was telling him this. Hadn’t she decided, she would take a cab and head home in the evening irrespective of Nishant-Sir’s offer?
He looked at her with that unreadable expression that made her nervous. And tingly all over. “I’d like to come back tomorrow night after the session.”
He nodded imperceptibly. “Whatever makes you more comfortable is fine. NK’s invitation is just an extension of what is usually my plan. He always host me over the weekends when I am in the city. And it just makes sense given the distance.”
She understood but it just seemed so…rash…To head up to meet someone she hadn’t seen in a decade and stay over for the night…especially knowing that the same place would also be inhabited by this infuriatingly bewitching man to her left. She had no idea what kind of place Nishant-Sir had. She had no idea if this was even safe…though…to consider otherwise was almost foolish. She knew these people…
“There is a whole host of people – of both genders – who stay over during shoot weekends and practice sessions. A lot of others from Aarohan times who are in the US currently. It will be safe, if that’s what you are…”
She shook her head vehemently. “No, I am not worried about…being…” She let her words trail. She wasn’t sure what she was feeling anyway.
He took a deep breath. “If you want to come back, you can drive the Escape back – I won’t be able to since shoot will most likely stretch to Sunday.”
Khushi had no idea what she was going to do. But the decision about tomorrow night was still a few hours away. She would at least go meet these people and see the amazing stuff that Arnav and all these old-time Aarohan-ers were up to. Perhaps, she would just carry a change of clothes to be safe. Perhaps, this was the kind of fun that even Tripti would be proud of knowing she had participated in.
She opened her door and stepped out into the cold as Arnav did the same on the other side.
Once out, she walked over to the other side where Arnav was standing, hands shoved into his pockets and gaze trained on her. “I’ll see you here at nine?”
He nodded. “Yes.” He was looking at her, his eyes glittering behind the glasses and his hair ruffled messy into waves across his forehead. In that moment, he almost looked like like the AV-Sir of ten years ago, the one who had kissed her in her dreams and the one she had then spent the next many days avoiding in one-sided embarrassment.
She smiled at him tentatively, a rush of warmth flooding her as she realized she actually wanted to step forward and kiss him now – even if just to see how he would react. The thought was so counter-intuitive to everything she had been preparing herself all this while for that it forced her to literally step away from him instead.
And once again, with goodnights uttered almost in dismay, they walked their ways up to their respective sanctuaries at the Inn.
She infinitely preferred shining car exteriors over mirrors she decided next morning as she twirled slightly to see the way the deep carmine sweater tunic fell around her body. Of course, it also helped that she had a black trench coat wrapped around the tunic and black woollen leggings underneath. Winter was her favorite time of the year, she concluded. Thick, heavy clothes helped create the illusion of softer silhouettes and hid the bulges away. The only portion of skin that was visible was her face and thanks to the biting wind, her cheeks seemed to be glowing with winter blush despite the heaps of moisturiser that she had lathered on to her face – finally learning after many mornings of tetchy, dry skin. Now if only she had had the courage – and a sense of vanity that outweighed long-term practicality – she would have bought those boots she had seen in the store on her sole Raagini-aided shopping expedition before the journey. And with those boots, she might perhaps even have managed to feel stylish. Now, in her black sneakers, she looked – well like someone who dressed practically. Which was pretty much who she was. She took a deep breath and looked away from the gleaming waxed metal body and up to the block which was Arnav’s. It was not nine yet and hence she had a few minutes to kill. Placing her weekender on the roof of the vehicle, she pulled her earplugs out of front pocket and plugged them into her phone.
Five minutes later, a popular song from the early eighties was streaming in her ear, the visuals of mountain roads, tall pines, a bus and a hero promising his hard-hearted lover to never let his ardor dip in intensity was the only reason, she had all but forgotten the worry that had chewed her lower lip raw.
Jitna tadpayegi mujhko, she crooned under her breath, her lips curved in a wide smile. She loved this song. “Utna hi tadpegi tu bhi”
Jo aaj hai aarzoo meri, woh kal teri aarzoo hogi
Yeh jhoot nahi, sach hai sanam
Sanam teri kasam.
There was little else that could either lift moods or push them to the depths as music. And this one was an instant cheer-up song. There was something about songs from the late seventies and early to mid-eighties. They tended to be more fun and peppy. The nineties Bollywood was largely romantic and out of reach at the moment – given how much else she associated with it. And the preceding decade and a half, was turning out to be more fun than she remembered.
Kitne bhi tu kar le sitam, she grinned as she accompanied the male voice in her ears.
Hans hans ke sahenge hum
Yeh pyaar naaaaa…
She turned around and walked right into someone, her mouth still open in an incomplete lyric.
She closed her eyes, the song in her ears forgotten as she surmised who the someone could be. Opening her eyes to fine black wool, she pulled her earphones out of her ears and looked up. She willed her cheeks to resist their chameleon turn as she looked into the sunrise irises. Too close, she realised as the fresh citrus scent of Arnav Varun hit her lungs and twisted her ribs into a screeching near-break. That there was a small smile in his eyes and curved up on his lips, was not helping.
“Sorry I am late.”
He could try and look sorry if he really did mean to convince her. No, Sir. He looked like he could barely contain his amusement. Why, Shiv-ji? Why did she have to be singing to herself? Always around him? And this time with music in her ears – didn’t she know how people sounded when they did that?
“It’s okay,” She mumbled and walked over to the Escape. Her bag, flung carelessly on the roof, was missing. She hurried to the passenger side to check if it had fallen when Arnav spoke again, this time, the laugh was a lot more evident in his voice.
“It’s in the trunk.”
How long had she been singing to herself anyway? And what the hell was he doing letting her walk in the freezing winter? And himself when it came to that? And why..Shiv-ji save her, why did he have to look this good. All black? Really? What was this – Matrix homage day?
“Thank you” She said testily and then opened the passenger side door with a jerk and pushed herself into the seat, wrapping the seat belt around her even as she saw Arnav slide into the driver’s seat, his eyes and face dropped to his chest as if still hiding the evidence of his mirth. Ha ha. Very funny. I find Kaveri Khushi Gupta singing the most outrageous songs to herself always. Ha ha. I am Arnav Varun and I would never be caught dead like this.
Nahi nahi. Thodi der aur rukte hain? Chai-wai peeke chalte hain?
Ignoring the Raj Malhotra in her head, she nodded and looked right out of the window as he pulled the car out of the Inn.
“Thank God.” He said once they were on the freeway.
She turned to look at him finally, prepping herself.
He sported a small smile as he looked at her in that unfazed, half-teasing manner for a half a heart-stopping second. “I really was worried you didn’t care for Kishore Kumar.”
Seated for breakfast at the crowded little diner, a place that claimed to house the best pancakes and eggs in the city, Khushi understood just how different every other meal that she had shared with Arnav had been so far. To have nothing and no one distract his attention from her or hers from him, was unnerving. In a clash of unwilling but helpless gazes (hers) and unblinking and unapologetic stares (his), the first few minutes of a crowded Saturday morning rolled on with painstaking precision.
The drive from the Inn to the diner had been mostly silent. The car stereo stayed mute as neither reached out to tug at the saviour of silences. Silence se darr nahi lagta, Saahab, song se lagta hai, she told herself wryly, holding back an involuntary chuckle. A couple of times though, Khushi had been rather tempted to just say the dialogue out aloud so there would be something else to focus on. But it was almost as if the universe, and Arnav Varun, had sworn a blood oath to make her confront this awkwardness between them. By the time they were seated and their orders had been taken, Khushi was downright desperate to say anything that would break this little shimmering bubble of glass around them. Arnav Varun, however, might have been meditating for all she knew. How could he sit there and just be so…
She cleared her throat and took a deep breath only to have him raise an eyebrow. If she was a violent person, she might have punched him in the face. How dare he look at her like that? How dare he remind her how much power he still had over her?
“Will you sing with us?” He interjected smoothly instead, taking the wind out of her sails even as she had been straightening her shoulders and prepping herself for a show of strength and indifference. “Once before the project is over – some time over the next few weeks?”
Her ears were roaring with blood, the sound of seas in large conch-shells. And yet, a small splinter of urgency made its presence felt in his words. A small, miniscule tremble. It couldn’t be…He couldn’t possibly be as nervous as she…
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.” She replied, her voice strong but soft. The answer was as easy as it was instantaneous.
He chuckled almost immediately, his laugh pained and guttural. “Of course. It never is.”
She wanted to rush forth and justify her refusal. She wanted to tell him that she was saying no for their collective sanity, for the fact that much had changed in the years and that they were now governed by professional rules and not just the flaw of their twisted feelings. Singing with him was never just that for her. Couldn’t he see that?
She pulled her hand on to her lap and twisted fingers between crevices of her palm as the waitress placed their food in front of them
“Who all will be there?” She asked once they were in the car again and back on the road. If the silence before had been awkward, the silence after was eviscerating. “You mentioned there are many people who come stay with Nishant-Sir.”
Arnav didn’t take his eyes off the empty freeway. The car was speeding carelessly along perfectly cast, mostly empty roads. “About five or six folks who were part of Aarohan back in the years. I am not sure how many people you know.” His voice was tight, his shoulders squared in tension.
Fine. If he wanted to be petty when he was the one…
“Raghuvesh, Sharan, Jeet…” He rattled off a few names even as she felt color rise in her cheeks. She really didn’t know any of these people. “They are mostly people from my batch and NK’s. They know you, of course.”
“Everyone from three batches before and after mine, knows me,” She said biting her tongue as her eyes rolled.
This time, his chuckle was full of genuine mirth. It was like peeking through a keyhole to glance at a rogue ray of summer. “It still bothers you.”
“The memory of it does. It was uncomfortable.” She replied with a small wry smile of her own.
“The spotlight?” he confirmed as she nodded in response. “Good thing it doesn’t show at work.”
“I can act well when I need to.” She said without watching her words and immediately regretted the slip.
She chose to ignore the fact that he sounded like he said something to the effect of “Don’t I know it.” Of course, he hadn’t actually said anything out aloud or under his breath. And unlike him, she wasn’t about to claim to be able to read minds.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Maana Ke Hum Yaar Nahi
Album: Meri Pyaari Bindu
Singer: Parineeti Chopra
Lyrics: Kausar Munir
Raaste mein jo milo toh
Haath milaane ruk jaana
Ho saath mein koi, ho tumhare
Duur se hi tum muskaana
Lekin muskaan ho aisi
Ki jisme ikraar nahin
Nazron se na karna tum bayaan
Woh jise inkaar nahi
Maana ke hum yaar nahi
Lo tay hai ke pyaar nahi
Next Update: Monday, May 15, 2017