She sat with her hands folded in her lap as Arnav recounted the journey from the first time he had seen Tripti on the IM-A campus. By the end of his narration, she didn’t know what to do or what to say. She had come here to make sure that this bit of professional upswing that she had been fortunate to experience had not been another grand plan to…
She didn’t want to venture in the direction that put words to the most important question there was. One he had already answered if she really wanted to believe it. But how could she? How could she trust what was so evident. She had trusted before. Twice. And look…
“And if you hadn’t seen Tripti on the IM-A campus that day?” She asked instead, ensuring that she grasped at anything that allowed her to doubt the sincerity of his admissions. As long as she was prepared for possible fault lines, there was no earthquake that could swallow her dreams.
“We’d have still been here. You would have still been hired by A&M. We would have still met if not in Calcutta, then directly in Bangalore.” He spoke softly, his eyes never leaving hers even though it was becoming more difficult to hold his gaze given how it tore through her skin. Stop looking at me like that, she urged angrily in her head. She had kissed him once of her own volition, trusting her read of the look in his eyes – the same look he now wore with no hesitation.
“We would have still ended up here in this room.” He promised and Khushi finally allowed herself to look away. A second later, she stood up, gathering her bearings so she could bolt out of the door before any of this started to make sense. Before she started to hope again.
“Please…” She began and chided herself for being so weak. She didn’t need him to do her any favours. She was strong enough to handle what he was throwing her way. She was strong enough to not give in to temptation and be a fool again. She looked up at him and collected her courage in one single breath. “I told you how I felt five years ago and you disappeared. It’s okay. You didn’t feel the same way at the time – I get it. But I spent the last five years getting over you…”
“And are you?” He asked, his voice soft and low. “Over me?”
Lying had always been the easier option to any uncomfortable question posed. Telling the truth had always bred harsh consequences, she had argued with her mother just last Diwali. Perhaps if Gayatri Gupta had been more patient when she had broken a bone china cup during an afternoon of pretend play. Perhaps if Shiv Gupta had been any less fearsome in his rare but terrifying avatars of rage when she had spilled ink on a bunch of currency notes one evening…No – lying was easy. And yet now that she needed to lie and lie convincingly, words seemed to cling to her tongue, refusing to tumble out of her mouth. “I will be. As soon as this project ends and…”
He continued to stare at her unblinkingly – enough to make her own eyes water. Or perhaps the sting behind her eyelids was explained by something very different?
“You are going to be working with Jeff starting tomorrow. I had already planned to have you work on the business case. You will need Jeff’s inputs. It makes sense. We’ll have a formal performance evaluation tomorrow and this…” He indicated the space between them, “professional arrangement can end.”
This time, it was she who stared at him incredulously. It was almost as if he had thought of everything…”You will still remain the Project Manager.”
“Yes. But as long as I don’t manage your evaluation, it’s…”
She shook her head, her eyes welling up in a moment of weakness she detested more than she hated the fact that she couldn’t seem to resist this man and his…”Don’t do this. Please…” She took a step back. She felt the curl of anger fight through the despair. “I cannot do this a third time,” She bit out, her eyes burning. “I won’t be able to…” Her voice wavered and slipped out of her head before she could rein her anguish back in. “Don’t do this…”
She waited as he stared at her, all traces of humor, relaxation, determination, victory, urgency, slipping away from his eyes as they flickered and darkened. He took one step forward and stopped. His hands fell to his sides and clenched into fists. Her heart twisted and turned as her ribs closed in and pushed air out of her lungs.
Before she could open her mouth or decide what to do, he was already in front of her. His eyes boring into hers. “Khushi…” He scanned her face. He lifted his hand and cupped the side of her face, his skin warm against hers. Her skin broke into invisible gooseflesh and an involuntary shiver crinkled through her nerves. His thumb caressed her cheek as he let his eyes study every part of her face. So warm. “I love you.”
She stiffened for a moment as her breathing stilled and her heart screeched to a halt before leaping out of her chest. “Don’t say that,” Her voice was barely above her whisper but it was a prayer she was screaming out in her head. Please don’t say that.
“I love you,” He repeated as his face came closer and his lips brushed the corner of her mouth.
Her eyes blinked rapidly to keep the tears at bay.
“I’m sorry I took ten years to say it out aloud, five years to gather the courage. But I love you.” He said against the nape of her neck as his other hand curved around her waist and pulled her closer.
Her body strained against the cage she was holding it in. The memory of River-side kisses and promises that had never truly been thrown away seeped into the air between them and kindled need nestled deep, deep within her heart. Her skin tightened at the nodes and stretched in lengths. Her stomach cramped in as her eyelids swept across her eyes, half closing, half poised to seek the truth in his gaze.
“Five years,” She whispered in defense, clutching at any straw she might have access to. “Don’t…Not after…”
“I love you, Khushi.” He kissed the other side of her mouth and allowed his fingers to thread through her hair, still damp from the shower.
“Arnav,” She implored, though at the moment the nature of her entreaty was unclear even to her…
His grip on her hair tightened for a mild second as his fingers tugged gently at her scalp. His lips hovered over hers, his breath mingling with hers, his lashes sweeping against her cheeks. “Hmmm….?” He asked, the sound barely a rasp as his lips grazed hers and sent a jolt through her skin.
“Please, don’t do this…Please…” She clawed the word out of her desire hazed senses, “stop.” She didn’t want him to stop, of all things. She wanted him to kiss her like he had kissed her once. Like he had never kissed her before. She wanted him to tell her that this yearning she felt in her skin, the need to find him and hold him close and never let go, the need to allow his scent to seep into her skin like his memories seemed to have seeped into her life, was real – as real as the warmth of his breath mingled with hers.
He stopped. His lips hovered above hers once again as his lashes pressed kisses against her cheek. His fingers relaxed against the strands of her hair. “We haven’t started, love.” He said as he placed a small kiss on her neck and pressed her closer to himself. “And I am not sure we are going to be able to stop this time. Or anymore hereafter” He said, his lips curving against the pulse at the base of her throat. “Not that either of us really wants to.”
“I do…” She began only to be interrupted by him.
“Shhh…” He whispered once again, this time pressing his lips to her cheeks. His fingers sneaked up the curve of her back and joined the other set in her hair. His touch tingled against the back of her ear, making her aware of scraps of skin she didn’t even know existed. “If you don’t want to admit how you feel, stay silent. But we are done lying to each other.” He urged her to look into his eyes. Rimmed with rings of fire that held her image in its glitter, his gaze drugged hers into honesty. “There are other ways to make me pay for my mistakes, Khushi. Don’t use the one that hurts the most.” He allowed his hands to fall away and stepped back. “Please.”
The tears she was blinking away, leaked from the corner of her eyes and trailed down her cheek. She looked away, embarrassed at her inability to conceal how she felt. But…his words…he really did have a way with them…”I don’t want you to pay for any mistakes. I don’t want to pay for any of mine either. I just…” She blinked and brushed the droplets away from the side of her jaws. I’m scared.
“Say it out aloud, Khushi. I want to hear what I can see in your eyes. I want to be able to say what I want to, too.”
She shook her head stubbornly. She may not be able to push him away but she was an ace at holding herself back. “You said silence is okay.”
He smiled, almost wistfully at that before he could nod. “It is. But I am hoping you will find the words soon. It’s going to be a long silence if you keep this up for the rest of our lives.” He said. And then as if something flashed through his form, he stepped forward, curved his hand around her waist, pulled her closer and kissed her. On the mouth. Soundly.
The pressure of his lips against hers was unbearable. That had to be the only reason her lips parted. Of course, it was also possible that she wanted to touch him as intimately as he was touching her now, tongue sweeping against hers, tasting – the soft grainy texture clashing with bone and lip. She kissed him back with unrestrained fervour as memory exploded in her chest and knocked her breath in a punch to her plexus. When he pulled away from her this time, she groaned almost angrily, her nails clawing his skin through the thin T-shirt he was wearing. It was when he chuckled half in pain that she realised what she had done and stepped away from him in a flush of blood bursting through the veins in her neck. Gone was the cold that had brushed its icy fingers against her cheeks. In the moment, with his blazing sun-ray eyes on her, she was fire itself, brilliant and raging.
He raised his right eyebrow with a half smile curving his lips leftwards up, his hair mussed from where her fingers had weaved through. He looked as well kissed as she felt and it made her cheeks singe as she realised how extremely physical her response to him was, perhaps always had been.
“Say something?” He asked, his voice still hoarse even though he tried to clear his throat sincerely.
She shook her head and looked around her in an attempt to find something else she could focus on.
“Are you planning to run away?” He asked as his hands curled into fists by his side again. His body looked like it was coiled with tension. Like it would snap if she so much as lay a finger on him…and yet his face…
She shook her head. “No.”
“Good” He said softly as air whooshed out of his mouth audibly. She watched as he thrust fingers into his hair and took a deep breath, muttering something under his breath – too quietly for her to hear, too privately for her to intrude by asking about it. “Food,” He said next and then walked up to her. “Are you really planning to skip dinner?” He asked thoughtfully, his entire manner lightening like he had made a real effort to flip some saintly switch inside him. What would it be like to have him lose this level of control she wondered. What would it be like to see him at the mercy of something stronger…
“Khushi,” He called out again and his voice brushing against her skin intimately. She looked up to see a look of intense….pain? cross his face. “You know, sometimes, it’s almost like there is a thought cloud above your head which I can read. And right now…” He said as he stepped closer once again but stopped a couple of feet away.
She blushed again but steeled herself to focus on something more innocuous. “Are you really planning to cook?”
His smile told her that he hadn’t missed her attempt to change the topic. Thankfully, he played along. “I am. I am not the fussiest of eaters but there is only so many days one can go without dal-chaawal.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s the birthday dinner? Dal-chaawal?” She wasn’t sure why she had expected something fancier. Of course it was going to be dal-chaawal. Her stomach almost groaned in approval. Shiv-ji, she moaned silently, this man was going to be the death of her.
“I thought you said you can’t cook to save your life?” He asked wryly.
She smiled slowly and shrugged. “I can still judge.” When he stared at her without uttering a word, she blinked and looked away in vain. Finally she narrowed her eyes in his direction. “What?”
“I’ve waited a long time to have you talk to me like you talk to everyone around you. Normally – with that lazy drawl and a scab of sarcasm.”
Her heart twisted in its cage and knocked against it loudly. He was not everyone. He had never been. That he would want to be was…unnerving. That pedestal she had once put him on, then seen shaken and then rebuilt again, had never really been lowered, she realised. Was it possible that he didn’t want to be on that pedestal in the first place?
He smiled and said. “You can sit and watch TV. Dal-chaawal is not much work. I can…”
Drive me crazy? No, Sir. “I can chop onions and tomatoes. I am not going to sit idle.” She declared and let him lead the way to the small kitchenette. Cooking turned out to indeed be a rather easy exercise. He was fairly confident in the way he went about preparing and cooking both rice and dal. She did her bit and kept mostly away from him, watching in half-awe and half hunger – of more than one kind. Their hands touched little and mostly unintentionally but still left her reeling every time it happened. If he was experiencing anything similar, he didn’t let it on.
They didn’t speak much, both evidently still testing waters that swirled around them sometimes cautiously, sometimes anything but. Her mind kept swinging back and forth as the minutes passed, between what was happening and what had just occurred to lead to these moments they were sharing. His narration of the last twenty four odd months, his revelation of his feelings, his ability to let her take her time and his resolution to not let her run away because he refused to believe that she wanted to be away from him…put together teased her out of her wits. A part of her wanted to jump for joy. The other, more cynical part of her wanted to scoff and call him on his presumption – even if it was completely true. Four more weeks. And a lifetime thereafter. He was offering her that. And she had the opportunity to be vengeful for the years that he stayed silent after she had declared her feelings. Or she had the opportunity to embrace what the universe was offering her a third time – this time seemingly with no hidden plots and no restraint.
As the evening progressed, she found herself settling down into this new-old dynamic that had been rekindled – if it had ever truly ever been extinguished that is. Silences stayed but became less intense as the contents of their impending meal was transferred into serving bowls and a makeshift table was laid out. Though he didn’t have to say it out aloud and she didn’t know what to expect, it was evident that dinner was not going to be two friends pigging out in front of the television – which is all she knew from her experience in the past and mostly with Arjun.
This was a date.
So they were seated at the opposite ends of a four-seater dining table that his duplex suite was blessed with. Thankfully, the thought of candles or anything as sappy didn’t seem to have crossed Arnav’s mind and she wasn’t going to make it as embarrassing as that. This…him staring at nothing but her, was bad enough.
The food, however, beyond any ambiguity of her feelings, was spectacular. Even in its absolute simplicity and the evidently different appearance of parsley compared to its desi counterpart and a dal cooked without a pressure cooker, it was everything she remembered of a hot riverside meal from five years ago.
“The simplest of meals tasted so divine in the mountains.” Arnav agreed, making her realise that she had spoken out aloud. “And thank you. That is the biggest compliment I could have hoped for. Especially given I disappointed you with the menu.” He teased.
She smiled and continued eating, for the first time aware of every bite in her mouth and every breath she was taking. It was always silent here at the Inn and everywhere else she had been in the country. But tonight…
“Do you still sing?”
She frowned at the question but proceeded to answer nevertheless. “I couldn’t stop singing even if I wanted to.” She nodded vehemently even before the import of that question hit her. And then she frowned. “Why are you asking?” She asked dumbly, realizing that the clarification should have preceded the answer.
“The refusal to sing with me when I asked, was purely out of anger directed at me?” He asked softly, his eyes half serious and half lazy.
Dismissing the question as a rhetoric, she supplied her own extension of the answer instead. “I sing mostly for myself. Antaksharis have become rare and singing as part of talent nights – at b-school and then at A&M…that feels…” She shrugged.
“I guess I cannot escape the fact that some of your disillusionment comes from what happened with Aarohan?”
She smiled but shook her head this time. “I was never very keen on singing for Aarohan either.”
He smiled back at her and they both resumed eating in silence for the next few minutes before Arnav spoke again. “What happened to that tape? Is it lying in a trash can somewhere?”
She bit back the instinctive question about the identity of the tape in question and chewed slowly in deliberation.
“No.” She answered eventually. Lying he had declared, hadn’t he, was not on the menu tonight. “It’s at home. Though…” She smiled to herself sadly, “my walkman gave up on me a couple of years ago and I don’t really listen to it anymore.”
He smiled at that and then went on to eat his food in a wave of undulating pensiveness that was this evening between the two of them. A second later, he put his spoon down and put his hands on either side of the plate on the table.
“Why didn’t you ever ask me about that tape?”
She looked at him in confusion.
“The mixed tape I gave you that night after Aarohan…You accepted it. You kept it that night after Aarohan. You had it at the River. You kept it after that too. But you never wondered why I gave it to you in the first place?”
A sudden chill of dread spread down her spine and into the tips of her digits. “Arjun?” She asked softly.
His mouth tightened for a brief second before he shook his head. “No. Never Arjun. Just me.”
The dread in her blood dispersed into wonderment. Why? Why indeed, had she never asked him about the tape? She’d had the chance five years ago. That night when the big Aarohan plan had been revealed, it hadn’t even occurred to her to think about the tape. She looked up at him, her eyelashes comically striking against the glass of her lenses. “You.”
“Hmm.” He nodded at her. “Me.”
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Jaana Suno Hum Tumpe Marte Hain
Singers: Udit Narayan, Chorus
Music: Jatin Lalit
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Aao kuch aise mile hum tumse
Ke aaj khuda bhi hans pade hum pe
Mile hum, tumse, ke khuda, bhi hans de
To phir aao pyaar mein jalaayein dil
Jalke bujh na paaye dil
Hai apni manzil yahin pe aa ab kahin na jaa
Tum kahin bhi jaao yahin pe hai aana
Ke dil ka dil hai thikaana
Note: Next Update: Saturday, Jul 29, late night IST (The one after that will be on Monday, Aug 7, :P)
Please excuse typos!