For my dearest Mommy! Posting an update on her birthday is a tradition of sorts and this is one I love!
The recollection lasted through the meal and the post-meal clean up. Arnav spoke in unaffected, plain words. What Khushi could feel in her bones, however, was nothing like. For a man who had spent five years in silence since her disastrous declaration of love, he was clearly making up for lost time. It should have thrilled her. And perhaps when the reality of it seeped in, it still might. But for the moment, it was as if every memory revealed in its pure, unadulterated spirit had sunk its fangs into her skin. She felt exhaustion creep into every pore of her skin and stretch her nerves till they threatened to snap. What was it about men and their inability to shock her out of her wits unless there was the threat of external disruption? Perhaps generalization was uncalled for but with Arjun’s confession by the River five years ago and with Arnav’s now, what else was she supposed to think?
She looked up as Arnav leaned forward in his chair. The silence since he had finished his story had been pulsing with anxiety, coming off him in waves.
“I’ve laid out a lot for you to digest.” He acknowledged seriously. “I would have said all this irrespective of when I did. But the thought of you…” He took a deep breath. “I guess I owe Arjun one more apology.”
He smiled as she looked at him questioningly. “I might have suggested that his confession five years ago was motivated more by my presence more than…I was an idiot.” He looked away and shook his head. “He did love you…”
“But he doesn’t anymore. Not in the same way.” She said almost defensively and then realized that she was finally defending Arjun in his ability to move on than she was exonerating herself from the discomfort. She smiled to herself at the thought.
“Yeah. I know.” Arnav said with a half smile that made her wonder if he had guessed Arjun’s current romantic entanglement too. Perhaps he even knew who….No, she shook her head. Arjun wouldn’t tell anyone if he hadn’t confided in her yet. When she was back in Bangalore she would badger him till he gave up all his secret. The thought froze into a tapered icicle in her head as laughter and nervousness bubbled up her throat. Whether it was the memory of Arjun’s parting words about bringing back news in exchange for news, the prospect of facing her mother with the revised parameters of her views on the future or the fact that there was an impending physical separation from Arnav, she wasn’t sure but there was a sudden drop in her body temperature that broke out on her skin as gooseflesh. In that moment, the need to say something was greater than the need for self preservation. “I didn’t want to meet Rajat.” She said a moment later. “My mother…She’s been driving me insane with this…And I said yes before I joined A&M.”
He nodded unsmilingly at her. “I understand. If anything I am glad you didn’t meet anyone last year…or the year before that…or the year before that…” He looked away. “I should have said something in the last five years. It’s too long a time for any excuses. So I will give you the truth. I don’t expect you to accept all of it. But I hope you will be able to believe at least the intention.”
“You don’t need…”
“I do.” He said firmly and waited for her to accept that they needed full disclosure.
They did. So she nodded and waited him to continue.
“I was scared. Of how strongly you felt. Of how clear you were about what you wanted. It was so familiar that I didn’t want to repeat what I had once been guilty of,”
Khushi swallowed painfully. “Saira.”
He nodded. “I would have gone on with the wedding as it was planned because I couldn’t just get up and change my mind one day because something inexplicable was happening to me. What kind of person would that have made me? So I took the coward’s way out after that Aarohan. I pretended it was all good but bought time so I could make it real, so I didn’t have to act anymore. It wasn’t meant to be impossible. After all I did love her even if it wasn’t in the way she deserved to be loved. And God knows I tried.”
Arnav’s voice was laced with reproach, his eyes fixed on some unseen point on the ground. And unlike five years ago, the anger was now defined without the tinge of self-pity. Perhaps this is what acceptance truly sounded like. She felt strangely proud of him and just as envious.
“I didn’t rock the boat,” He was saying, “But by then we were already sinking. She saw through it eventually. Or perhaps she knew something was off the day I asked for the wedding to be postponed till I finished business school. Perhaps I would have asked for more time till I settled down with my first job after that. And ironically, in the end, she turned out to be the smart one. She was the one who walked away” He paused and looked at her. “I don’t think I ever loved her the way…the way I love you now. And she knew it.,”
“Please,” She shook her head. “Don’t compare. It isn’t fair.”
He smiled wistfully. “I know. And I will always hate myself for being the person who betrayed someone who meant so much, for not being true to someone he fought with his family for.” He shook his head. “But none of this changes the fact that I love you. And I mean that completely selfishly. I love you enough to want you to love me back. I love you in a way that I can see a future in which we are together, in which we are happy.” He paused and shifted as if to take her hand into his. “I don’t want you to get over me because I don’t think I ever got over you. And I don’t want to. You once said that you will always remember what it was like to be alone in the way you feel. You were never alone. You were a lot clearer about what and how you felt but I was right there – all these years. And I am ready to spend a lifetime convincing you if that’s what it takes.”
It should have been enough for her to pull him to herself and kiss him senseless. But something, perhaps the years that kept them away and sneaked in between them like a long coiled reptile of awkwardness, stopped her and forced her to temper her burgeoning joy with silence.
“In the last two years or so,” He continued when she stayed silent, “I knew I wanted you to have the chance to see for yourself that what we had was real. I hoped that you still felt something for me and I wanted you to see that I am right with you in feeling the same way. But I had no clue how it would happen. That you were in business school was a blessing in disguise. It gave me time when I no clue what to do. The A&M connection….” He shook his head. “It was a lucky break. All I had to do was wait for you to join. And then…this project…this chance for us to work together…it was always just a matter of time. Although…” He looked back at her with a smile, “In hindsight…this was not the best idea. Now I am your manager and this is just…inconvenient, to put it lightly.”
She was unable to tear her gaze from his as he paused once again. And this time the pause stayed, expectant in his gaze as it flitted over her face.
“I don’t know what to say,” She whispered quietly.
She rose and watched as he rose from his seat too. “It’s been a long day. I am…” She pushed her glasses up, fighting off the urge to take them off and simply sink back into the couch and go to sleep. If he knew how utterly unromantic her thoughts were at this time, would he still…”I am tired,” She confessed to him. “And it’s Monday tomorrow.” She couldn’t keep the little tinge of a Sunday evening whine away from her voice. He really had no clue what he was ready to sign up for, did he? She looked at him and waited to see a flash of disappointment in his eyes. It didn’t come.
“Of course,” He said as he stepped closer and once again made as if to reach out and touch her. She almost leaned in when he decided otherwise. “I’ll walk you back.”
“You don’t need to…” She began as she stepped away from the couch and bent to pick up her phone.
“But I want to.” He replied as he pocketed his own phone and gestured for her to walk ahead while he walked over to grab his trenchcoat.
They stepped out together into the cold night outside. She was aware of Arnav by her side more than she had been in the last few weeks and that was saying something. She sneaked a glance at him only to meet his gaze as it flicked to her face. And though neither of them slowed their already leisurely pace, something seemed to tug between them, as if knocking on their senses and driving them insane with longing mirrored in both sets of eyes. The evening was about to come to an end. And it was exactly what she wanted and nothing like. A part of her was disappointed that he was such a gentleman about things. Why couldn’t he just…No, she shook her head mentally. She had no right expecting things from him while taking the easier path, one which she could use to her advantage any moment this…this thing between them threatened to go south.
They crossed the parking lot in silence. That the physical distance between them had reduced consistently along their walk till their arms were occasionally brushing against each other, was clearly not lost on either of them. Why else, would their gazes meet and clash in tangles that flickered like glow worms in the darkn? The question was still buzzing in her ears as they reached her room and he waited for her to retrieve her key card and swipe the door open. She walked over her threshold and turned to look at him, still standing exactly where he had been as she had walked on.
She nodded, her throat suddenly full of denial to be able to say anything that wouldn’t out her. Liar! Tired? Ha! You are scared, Kaveri Gupta. Of what comes next. Of what happens when the walls are smashed down?
She blinked and tried to focus on his face, his eyes stormy like a long ago evening of her dreams.
“Good night,” She forced herself to say and stepped back mirroring his own retreat. And then, drawing every ounce of resolve she could scourge for, she pushed her door close.
Anxiety, deep and completely uncalled for filled her lungs and made her skip a couple of breaths. And before she could think, she pulled her door open again only to find that he wasn’t where she had left him just seconds ago. She stepped out and allowed her eyes to search for him and then turned with a small yelp as she found him leaning against the wall on the side she hadn’t yet paid attention to, his eyes as surprised as she was. “Fuck!” She whispered as her heart skipped a beat.
“Wrong choice of cuss-words,” He said as he reached out and grasped her wrist, tugging her closer. She saved herself from tumbling into him but couldn’t avoid brushing against his body, her own reacting by shooting a hundred needles through her nerve endings that pulsed with awareness. “Khushi…”
“Do you still smoke?” She interrupted in a small voice she couldn’t recognize as her own.
“No,” He whispered as he pulled her closer and leaned to capture her mouth in an kiss that spread like fire in her body, flames licking every scrap of skin exposed and otherwise. Her lips parted without his coaxing. He kissed her, deep and hard, the kiss everything at once, soft and harsh, urgent and seeking. “I haven’t smoked in almost five years. I made one bad decision – that was enough.” And she kissed him back, like she knew she wanted to, like she was capable of with her limited experience of kissing him and him alone. How could she ever term the other pecks of exploration as anything as intoxicating as a kiss was?
A small brush of cold wind caused her to gasp as his mouth left hers and trailed down her neck, his teeth nipping at her skin as her eyes stayed closed, drugged heavy and unwilling to let any thing interrupt them at the moment. She wanted more. Fuck, she wanted so much more.
His hand crept up the nape of her neck and weaved into her hair. He kissed the skin below her ear as his other hand curved around her waist and pulled her against him. “Look at me,” He urged hoarsely and her eyes opened slowly, lifting to look into his. A small flicker blinked in his gaze. “Thank you.”
“For what,” She replied, biting back the urge to clear her throat so her voice wouldn’t sound as needy as it did. She did need and in the wake of all he had revealed, how fair would it be to mask something as basic?
“For walking back out and giving me something to hold on to,” He said as he tugged at her waist and placed another swift kiss on her lips, stunning her to silence. “Literally and otherwise.”
She smiled and quelled the gentle rise of panic in her throat. This sense of power over him that he was making her aware of, was too much even if not too soon. Every instinct screamed distrust and yet, she knew there nothing but honesty in the eyes that were reading her face like they were trying to solve an impossible puzzle.
“I’m trying my best to not rush you, I promise.” He whispered as he leaned his forehead against hers. “One day at a time.”
“Not sorry, please” He laughed against her mouth and kissed her again. Something about his manner was so gentle and at odds with what was still thrumming in her body that she felt her lips curve against his.
“I was about to say I’m cold.” She lied as she pulled away and looked up into his eyes again. When his brows rose and eyes flared, she found herself blushing. “I mean it is cold out here.”
“Hmm,” He nodded and pushed her hair behind her ear, letting his fingers trace the outline of her ear, flicking her two small silver earrings as he slid down to the nape of her neck. An involuntary shudder mirrored the journey his fingers and shot down her ribcage. He was going to drive her insane with want till she was doing something stupid enough like asking him to…
“Is that an invitation?” Her eyes widened as he jolted her out of her mindless ardor. “I’m cold?” He began, mimicking her as it dawned on her that he was teasing.
She pulled herself away from him and stepped back, folding her arms across her chest even as a smile bloomed in her eyes.
“Good night,” She said as she stepped back to her the door leading up to her room and pushed it open.
“Good night,” He replied with smile as he pushed himself away from the wall and came to stand in front of her. They waited for several long moments, staring at each other as myriad emotions flitted in and out their interlocked gazes and teased the air between them. She allowed the door to swivel at the same time as he stepped away, still holding her gaze.
“And Khushi,” He called out as the door opening reduced to a little more than a sliver. “This time, don’t come back out again.” With that he turned and walked away, his head bowed down. She could see his smile even without having to see his face. After all, it was probably mirrored on her face as she gently slid the door close and let out a deep sigh of relieved yearning.
She took twice as much time to get dressed for work the next morning. She stood in front of the mirror, stripped down to her skin as steam curled into wisps around her. There was something different about her face. Her eyes looked brighter than before, her cheeks shone like she had scrubbed them for hours after playing holi for two days. Her hair fell in dark curls around her face and was longer than it had ever been – it was a conscious decision to let it grow, of course and the Detroit water quality clearly agreed with her. Her neck remained as sleek as always and that is where her body image positivity ended. She had never spent time looking at herself in the mirror because she knew what she would see. Years of battling buttons and zippers had given her enough images to make up for the lack of an active inspection. And while a Monday morning was the absolute wrong time to change that, she couldn’t help herself. She looked at the exposed skin below her neck, the folds and bulges at once as ugly as she knew them to be and perhaps not as bad as she had always imagined.
She placed her hands on her hips and allowed them to curl up her stomach. Thankfully, age was not something she needed to worry about yet. Her skin was still fairly firm despite the curves that never seemed to exist on anyone else. Of course, she wasn’t vain enough to believe that every girl owned a body like the movie stars and models that popular culture was so liberally peppered with. But…
She took a deep breath and turned away from the mirror and stepped into the shower, welcomingly hot as it was against her skin.
The memory of last night’s kisses flushed through her body and burst out in blushes that had little to do with the temperature of the shower. It wasn’t always going to be just kisses. At some point in time, he was going to want more. Heck, she already wanted more. How was that ever going to happen? Baring her soul was easy. How was she ever going to bare her body? And what would she do if he…. She took a deep breath as her eyes closed and she forced herself to say the words. What would she do if he was repulsed by how she looked? And how could he not be when she herself was…
She closed her eyes and soaped herself quickly. Perhaps she was thinking too much. She laughed at herself as desperation clawed at her gut. Of course she was thinking too much. She was Kaveri Gupta, after all. What the hell did Arnav see in her? And for how long would it last?
No, she shook her head as she turned the shower off and wrapped her hair and body in large white towels. She wouldn’t think about the latter at least. He may not have claimed to be in love with her for a decade but what he had confessed to was just as intense, if not more. Most people would scoff at the idea of somebody pining for another for ten years. But she knew it was possible. She may not have actively pined the way films portrayed pining but there had never been anyone else for her either. So how could she doubt him? Especially after everything he’d said.
Yes, she needed to focus on the positive and keep going from there. One day at a time, he’d said, hadn’t he? It was a beautiful, hopeful phrase – good enough to be the title of a romance novel. It was good enough to be her mantra here on. One day at a time, she whispered to herself and took a deep breath before she retrieved her attire for the day. Just because she had been kissed so thoroughly last night didn’t mean she didn’t have a long work-week ahead. She smiled to herself as she dressed, her kajal darker this morning and lip gloss more generous.
All she needed to do was to remember that she was a professional first when she saw him next. And to forget the look in his eyes which had all but melted her into a puddle of want.
Shiv-ji, she mumbled as she hung her head. Why did he have to bring her on the project and then go ahead be so…irresistable. This was going to be so…what was the word he used…yes, inconvenient.
This was going to be so fucking inconvenient, choice of cuss words be damned.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Gerua
Singers: Antara Mitra, Arijit Singh
Lyrics: Amitabh Bhattacharya
Tumse shuru, tumpe fanaa
Hai sufiyaana, yeh dastaan
Main carwaan, manzil ho tum
Jaata jahaan hai, yeh raasta
Tumse se juda jo, dil zara sambhal ke
Dard ka woh saara, kohra chhan gaya
Next update: Monday, Sep 4, 2017, late night IST
Oh and all you non-believers – some chapters need SRK-Kajol songs. Bas, bol diya :P