The idea that she was going to be able to do anything about this entire arranged marriage nonsense with Rajat or anyone else her parents might conjure, now rang hollow more than ever.
She walked up and down the different floors of a popular departmental store for almost thirty minutes, urging her wayward heart to stop cartwheeling in her chest. She could have easily used this afternoon to shop for Tripti and her parents. She might even have picked up a few things for herself in this land where odd sizes weren’t unheard of, where she might even qualify as worthy of variety and not just in exclusive stores that chomped down on her savings with relish.
However, all she could do now was to stall the inevitable for moments that didn’t fool either of them waiting on either sides of this repreive. And even that leeway was fast running out. She glanced at her phone and realized that it wouldn’t surprise her if Arnav called now. She neither wanted nor was waiting for him to.
He, however, had declared he would wait for her. And she knew he didn’t mean just this afternoon.
That brought her to the most important question – what did he mean by all he’d said and all he’d promised without saying anything at all? What did he want from her that she was capable of giving anymore? What answer did he have ready for her consideration?
The trickle of a seemingly impossible supposition teased her senses. But it was too difficult to imagine, let alone believe. Even if she did allow herself to imagine that he somehow now reciprocated what she felt five years ago, what did she feel now?
The thought wrung her heart and squeezed blood into her pulse, sending it hammering in every nerve ending.
She had not fallen out of love. No. How did that even happen to those who claimed it did? And perhaps that was precisely what was was scaring her now. If feelings did change for others, like Arjun’s did for her, like Saira’s did for Arnav and vice-versa, what was to say that how he felt now wouldn’t change? Especially since it seemed to have changed overnight? Afterall what was true for her, was true for him too, wasn’t it? What if she had never really crossed paths with him ever again? Would he have gone on for the rest of his life without trying to look for someone to spend it with? Those three dates he mentioned – she didn’t disbelieve what he said but to imagine that he was vetting every one else as an alternative to her and not vice versa…
She cleared her mind of its million questions and dialed Arnav’s number before her clammy hands could freeze her indecisiveness into permanency. He answered almost immediately.
The silence on either end – just a moment long, was enough to make her ramble in haste and a conversation – brief but most unnecessary followed. “Are you still around?”
“Waiting in the parking lot.”
She clenched her free hand into a fist. “I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”
By the time she walked down to the lot, he had seated himself in the vehicle. She quickly walked over to the other side and placed herself inside, her coat still wrapped around her though it was considerably warmer in the vehicle than it was outside.
His chivalry was clearly limited to driving her to her destination. They didn’t speak till the vehicle was speeding down the freeway and even then, thankfully for her, it was she who spoke. After all, she couldn’t have handled him asking her about her “date”. “Were you in the mall the whole time?”
The answer was just as trite as the question itself. But at times like these – closed enclosures with nowhere to run, trite was manna from the Mahadev*. But it did make her wonder – for the millionth time – what was going on in that gorgeous head of his.
“What did you end up doing?” Did you have lunch? Don’t say you waited. Don’t say you waited. Say you did…Fuck. She was losing her mind.
“Picked up groceries for dinner.”
Relief and disappointment twisted around each other in thick coils and diffused into her body. She focused on relief. Groceries. Okay. “You are going to cook for yourself?” She asked. How could anyone go through that much effort just for themselves? What the hell was she doing with this conversation? Stalling, yes. She needed to focus on it.
He smiled softly, raising her hackles in delicious suspicion, “I am going to cook for us. We are going to celebrate my birthday.”
She turned to look at him, her mouth slack and eyes wide behind her glasses. “Your birthday is not until Thursday.”
He glanced at her for a second but it was enough to see how dark his irises were. The sun-rays that distracted her every time she looked at him, seemed to have melted back into the center. His face twitched and his mouth curved. She couldn’t tell the nature of that smile – Victorious? Angry? Nervous? “We have to make up for every one that we’ve missed in the last five years. Starting with the one you pretended to forget.”
“I did not pretend.” She fibbed foolishly. He was baiting her and she was biting large chunks like a starved, unintelligent amphibian. She bristled and folded her arms around her chest.
“You forgot every one of my birthdays for five years but you remember it is this Thursday this year?”
She remained silent in response. What could one say when caught so anyway? Silence, she decided quickly, was the only way to get through this ride. Of course, there was no way they were having dinner. There was no way they were picking up the thread of conversation from earlier in the day. Four weeks. She needed to stay collected for twenty eight days. And thereafter ensure there was no way she ever worked with him again. It was madness to have agreed to, heck even been excited and grateful for this project. For all his superhero skills at work, it wasn’t worth the effort to have her heart trampled on again – the third time in a decade. She was strong but she wasn’t invincible – it was time to stop fooling herself.
A second later, Arnav flipped the car stereo on and fiddled with his phone for a second before music filled the air; Music she had not allowed herself to hear except in hours where even her own conscience wasn’t truly awake. This was a song that once had seemed just right for the mixed tape he once gave her and yet hadn’t been on it – A tape she had been tempted to leave behind at the River but had ended up saving for more years than was prudent; A tape that had been tucked away into the far recesses of her cupboard back home in Benaras but not until it had been cloned into a playlist on her phone. The playlist had never been played since its creation. She had rarely even glanced at it on her phone thereafter.
She blinked as familiar music wrapped its long-forgotten tentacles around her heart. This song was one that had always tugged at her heartstrings – a secret pleasure she had assumed she had shared with no one – not even Arjun knew of this song.
Tum hi hamari, ho manzil, my love
Yeh awaaz deta hai dil, my love
She cracked a smile though her mind rumbled with exasperation at this blatant manipulation of her feelings. That he had no way of knowing that this particular song never failed to elicit this mixed response from her, was irrelevant.
“Of course. You know this song.”
She might have rolled her eyes in any other situation and any alternate company. At the moment, she simply chose to ignore him and the question that was bubbling on her tongue. Why this song?
“And you are smiling.”
“Laughing.” She replied dryly, half angry that he didn’t fail to draw her into the conversation even if unwillingly.
“The video or Udit Narayan’s English?”
“I love Udit Narayan’s voice. His English is the least of my concerns.” Her words were sharp and in her mind they might as well have been sparring soldiers, bloodied and battered and yet clueless about why they were pitted against each other.
He smiled and swerved the car off the freeway, seemingly unaware of just how much she burned. How she wished she was the kind of person who could scream and claw at someone. “The video is fairly atrocious.”
“Understatement.” She said, visibly annoyed now. She hated when people interrupted songs she liked. And this was a song she loved. Now that he had chosen to play this for some reason, why couldn’t he…
“Shhh…” He placed his forefinger on his lips as if to silence her, straightfaced and incredulously serious even as she stared back at him. “I like this stanza. Pay attention.”
Aisa na jaano, humko achaanak
Tumpe yeh pyaar aa gaya
Beeti ruton ka, yeh rang hai jo
Banke bahaar chha gaya
Tumko dekha, pyaar aa gaya.
He turned off the song and for the first time she didn’t mumble her irritation like she usually did at the person who dared to switch her favorite song off mid-stream. After all she came from the family that preferred driving in circles around their destination just so the song of their choice would end before they needed to disembark.
Of course, it also helped that they were already in the Inn’s parking lot. She took a deep breath and pushed the door open, a chilly blast of air sneaking up her arm and face. The sun had disappeared in orange skies and darkness seemed to be peeking out of purple corners. It was barely even five and yet, night it would be soon.
Had he just said what she thought he had? Who was this person? Which Arnav Varun was this? And just how was she supposed to deal with him?
She took a deep breath again and waited, forcing herself to stay turned away from him. Don’t call me Khushi. When it become okay again to do that? She didn’t want to look at him. She wanted to run.
“Have dinner with me.”
Ha! He wasn’t really asking, was he? She held the door tighter, continuing to face the other way. “I don’t think so.”
There was silence for a moment before she heard him breathe in deeply, as if gathering courage. Good, she thought to herself. He deserved to be nervous. “If you don’t show up in an hour, Khushi, I will bring everything to your room. We are doing this today.”
She turned around slowly, wide eyed again given how far removed her estimate was from reality. Nervous? This man here who was issuing warnings after having broken her heart more times than she’d fallen in love was hardly ever going to be nervous. She gritted her teeth and gripped the door handle harder. “I am not hungry. I am going to skip dinner.”
“Then come and give me company while I cook and eat.”
“…think it’s a good idea? Yes, you’ve said that before. And that’s irrelevant. Let’s try something that is a terrible idea for once.”
“Arnav,” She began, the syllables of his name like precious stones against her tongue – hard, uneven and still precious enough to hold on to.
His eyes darkened and his face closed into a mask. Suddenly there was nothing she could see. Just moments ago, there had been determination, amusement, even a glimmer of something that felt a lot like…
“Saying my name aloud like that, is going to make matters worse, Khushi.” He avowed. “Go now. And come by at six. I’ll be waiting.”
She gawked at him, anger and disbelief crowding her senses as she felt his eyes scan her face and settle on her mouth. Desire shot up her chest and flooded her brain. If she stayed in that lock for one more moment, she was going to end up… She looked away, pushed the door open forcefully and jumped out of the car. She didn’t look back at him as she ran up to the pavement and then disappeared into her room.
There was no way she could sit still and wait for the numbers to roll by on the digital clock by her bedside. She needed to do something just so she wouldn’t throw up. So she decided to shower till her skin pruned and there was nothing but steam in the bathroom. Her mind whirled with scents and sentences. In all the weeks that she had worked with Arnav – almost two months and more now, there had been a professional air that she had sought shelter in. Of course, there were momentary lapses which she easily attributed to shared history and human error – hers, yes but also his – a thought as unlikely as it might have seemed to an awestruck eighteen year old in love with the college hero if she could hear them now.
What had changed? Was it her meeting with Rajat? If yes, why? And what might have happened if there had been no Rajat in the mix?
Like most of her best and worst thoughts, it was then that the question sneaked up her spine in a curl of steam and seeped into her wet skin; one that should have struck weeks ago.
Was she here – in Detroit, on this project, because this is what Arnav had planned for somehow?
A deep shudder passed through her veins as she rolled the question around in her head. Was it supposed to be some sort of grand romantic gesture? And if it was, why did she feel violated and cheated just by the thought of it? A part of her didn’t want to believe that he would resort to scheming – when a much more innocent one was the reason they hadn’t been able to make it five years ago? Or did he assume that she was still where she had told him she was five years ago. Even if she was, it made her angry that there was a chance he believed it to be true without asking.
She turned the shower off and stepped out of the bathtub, wrapping herself dry as she mulled over the thoughts. A cauldron full of emotions roiled in her stomach. When she had stepped into the sanctuary of her room, she had decided not to knock on his door this evening or any other and to not answer his when he came as promised. Now, there was no choice but to go find the answers she didn’t even want questions to in the first place.
She dressed herself disinterestedly, quelling any sadness that poked out of closeted corners as she chose her clothes for the evening. It was ironic and sad in equal measure that she had made the effort to dress for a date she wanted not at all and for the one that she had secretly wished for a decade ago and had written off in the last five, there was nothing to tempt her out of her inertia.
She picked out black leggings and a black sweater tunic and ignored just how the color idiomatically suited her mood. She glanced at herself in the mirror as she dried her hair lightly – more out of habit from the last few weeks than any real need to arrange them evenly. She allowed her curls to fly about her head, thankful that she couldn’t see her own face without her glasses. She considered going without her kajal and then decided it was ridiculous to alter something as basic, because of him. Once she was done, she pushed her glasses back up her nose and dismissed the idea of lip gloss.
One final look at the mirror told her that she looked much better than she wanted herself to – a thought that had rarely occurred in her head before she had joined A&M. Something about the firm and the work she had been able to do here, the praise – lightly smattered in her conversations with seniors, seemed to have made a difference to how she felt. She had always been a good student, a good employee and yet had rarely let any of that translate into physical confidence. Perhaps this is what growing up felt like, she decided as she nodded at her reflection. This and the fact that she was voluntarily heading into a bloody battle with the man loved as much as she hated in this moment.
Minutes later, she was standing in front of Arnav’s door, her breath in wheezes and not just because of the flight of stairs she’d had to climb to get here.
The number had been irrelevant when he had given it to her that first night in Detroit. She had brushed it aside as clutter she didn’t want in her brain. And here she was.
She raised her hand to knock a couple of sharp sounds against the wood and waited patiently in silence as the wind picked up around her. The sound of feet against the carpet came a second before the door opened to reveal a rather ruffled Arnav, his hair glittering with droplets of water that were soaking his ice blue T-shirt at the shoulders.
Because the idea of him in the shower was what she wanted before the conversation she intended to have. She pulled herself up straight.
“Hey,” He said as he scanned her face bemusedly.
“Sorry, I’m early.” She said, looking at the phone in her hand. And then she frowned at herself before she looked into his eyes. “I am not here to have dinner.”
He opened the door wider and took a step back. “But you are here now. So maybe you could come in.” He stepped back some more, allowing her enough space to walk past without even brushing the air around him – air that seemed to simmer with the scent of woody spice. “I’d appreciate it if you decided to step in before I catch a cold.”
She blinked and realized that he really was underdressed and the evening was rapidly descending from pleasantly chilly to severely cold. So she stepped in tentatively and walked right in after a deep breath.
Which is when she concluded that there was a reason he didn’t mind living out of a suitcase for the better part of her year. Who would mind when the “suitcase” was a double storied monstrosity with plush furnishings and enough space to house the entire family on her father’s side? And that was no mean feat.
“I am Platinum Elite on their loyalty program.”
She looked at him as he came up to stand beside her, hands on his hips and surveying his own “room” as if he hadn’t ever really paid attention to it before.
“The front desk is nice to me since I am here so often. I get this room more often than not. It’s nice.”
“Yeah. Nice.” She said sarcastically.
He chuckled and walked up out in front of her. She took more time to look around and completely dismissed as fantasy the electric-grate fireplace and the high-backed chair and ottoman that was placed comfortably close to it. If she paid anymore attention to it, she would be dreaming of white winter nights of reading till she fell asleep in the warmth of a fire.
And perhaps to the sound of a beating heart against her ears.
She crossed her arms against her chest as soon as the last thought sneaked in uninvited. She couldn’t waste her time here on ridiculous notions. She had a question to ask and she would have a heart to save irrespective of the answer.
“Would you like something to drink?”
“Why am I on this project?”
They spoke together, the tones of their individual voices so varied in their timbres – one the gentle tumble of a lazy river and the other an ocean current hiding a whirlpool within.
She waited as his eyes lost the easy relaxation they wore and his face straightened. The small smile she wanted to kiss away, dissolved without her assistance. Her heartbeat quickened and then plummeted down the bend of a scary roller coaster that she was strapped in to in her head. Please don’t say you did this. Please don’t say you did this.
“Will you believe any answers I have to give? To any of your questions?”
She stayed silent for a moment and then put her chin up. “I can’t promise that till I hear you speak.”
He smiled at that. He might have even laughed, if her demeanor was any less defensive perhaps. He wasn’t worried about her question. He hadn’t set this up.
“You are here because yours was one of the two profiles made the most sense for the project.”
She waited for him to say more even as her heart expanded in a diastolic of relief. She did believe him. If there was one thing she still knew, it was that he was not a liar. Even when it might have been easy for him to lie. Of course, avoidance of the truth was a whole other matter…
“And because when Shyam asked me to choose between Arjun and you, I picked you.”
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Ek Din Teri Raahon Mein
Singers: Javed Ali
Tu, jaane na tu
Chaahat meri kitni betaab hai
Oho, jo, barson meri
Palkon mein tha, tu wohi khwaab hai
Har ghadi teri baaton mein
Vaadon mein, iraadon mein aaunga, kho jaaunga
Ek din tera ho jaaunga
Yeh dil toh na keh saka yeh baatein
Dil toh na keh saka
Next Update: Monday, July 17, 2017, late night IST
*- Thank you, Kabir!