For the one of all my morning afters and night befores – Happy Birthday!
It was twenty minutes past their usual meeting time on weekdays that she began to worry about the no-show from Arnav. Looking at her phone as the clock seemed to stay longer on every minute, was beginning to push acid in her gut. She had gulped down her bowl of oatmeal and an apple long before Arnav’s scheduled time of arrival. And had since then downed one serving of black coffee and was well on her way through the second. Her mouth was stiff from smiling at the Inn staff. Her heart of course, was pounding with every wheezy opening of the door.
At thirty minutes past eight, she finally decided to walk up to 1425 to see for herself what had kept an otherwise inhumanly punctual Arnav. As she walked across the parking lot towards his residence, she dismissed the idea of him having second thoughts about what he had revealed to her. She also discarded the option that he might have left for the office without her. Now the only two options weighing heavy on her mind were non-Wyatt work – there was the proposal he was working with Arjun on; and illness.
The thought that he might be sick and invalid, was an unpleasant one – more than she cared to admit. She sent up a quick hoping-otherwise prayer to Shiv-ji and knocked on his door, tentatively at first and then in an increasing pitch of thumps till the door finally flew open with a jerk, revealing a tousled, red-eyed Arnav Varun, still in his crumpled night T and shorts. His eyes, still puffy and full of sleep, were also brimming with disblief and what could only be termed as panic.
“I overslept.” He explained unnecessarily, his face set grimly.
If he hadn’t looked just so shocked by his own, very human frailty, Khushi might have laughed in his face and kissed him soundly on his cheeks.
“I…” He shoved his hands through his hair and looked at her. “Let me….” Without completing his statement, he hurried back into his room, leaving her standing at the door in absolute stunned silence. He returned just a few seconds later with the keys to the Escape. “You should head to the office. Tell Mike I’ll meet him when I come in. Tell him I had a call…” Then he shook his head. “No, don’t say that. Just tell him I’ll catch up with him when I am in the office. You…Jeff will be in by eleven – till then if you can get the task list for the week organized…”
She nodded. “Sure. It’s….fine…I’m sure…” She bit down the impulse to reassure him that the world wasn’t going to end because he had slept in. “It’s supposed to be a slow morning. I’ll manage.”
He nodded. “Thank you.”
“I’ll see you in the office.” She said as she stepped back and then told herself she was being ridiculous when he nodded back at her and waited for her to turn away before closing the door softly.
Whatever it was that she had expected this morning to be, this was not it.
He walked in an hour after she did, his face now set in a complete blank, his eyes almost intentionally not meeting hers. Even when she sought him out. She had drawn up the task list for the week to the best of her understanding. When she handed it over, he glanced at it, nodded and thanked her and almost immediately excused himself for his meeting with Mike. An hour after that, he pinged and called her to a meeting room for formally handing her over to Jeff Stevens as he had mentioned over the weekend.
She liked Jeff. He was a rare combination of a fatherly but sharp, decisive Partner. When he spoke, which he rarely did, it was most often the most value adding part of the discussion, the angle the rest of the team hadn’t thought about. The opportunity to work directly with him was a great one. But in the moment that she was introduced to Jeff and then left alone with the Partner to discuss the work she would be part of for the next four weeks, she felt a deep sense of loss. She pushed the feeling to the back of her mind for the day as work assumed the importance it was used to and strung her along. She ended up eating lunch with Jeff that day. Coffee breaks were forced times of solitude that surprised her with how unwelcome me-time suddenly seemed.
It was almost six in the evening, an hour after the employees of Wyatt had left for the day and just as the A&M team was getting settled with work for the rest of the evening, that Arnav finally walked up to her.
For the first time in forever, she looked around, unsurprised by his presence behind her. She had in fact been looking for him in every direction of possible appearance from the moment she had stepped out of her room this morning. And now…she wasn’t sure what she had expected but something seemed to be on the verge of snapping in her chest. Anger, unexplained, or perhaps too justified, rolled on her tongue as she swiveled fully to face him.
“I’m…” He hesitated for a second and seemed to change his mind. “I am travelling tonight.” He said softly.
“Oh?” The disappointment in her voice was as unmistakable as her response was instinctive; the silence between them just as thick. She swallowed and waited as he continued to look right into her eyes.
“I’m taking the red-eye to LA. We’ve been invited to the orals at Ivy Networks.” He explained.
“You work with telecom clients too?” She asked, surprised and as always a little impressed with the breadth of his reach in the organization.
“They are Tier 1 to the carmakers now with Telematics becoming central to the vehicle. This is the proposal that Arjun was helping me with.”
Khushi nodded as the redundancy of the question hit her. Of course she knew which proposal Arjun and Arnav were working on together. This stupid change of dynamics between Arnav and her was screwing up with more than just her hormones. She shrugged the thought away mentally and joined her hands in an attempt to gather some normalcy of breathing rhythm.
He was going away.
Just last night they were kissing like…The sense of loss that had been prickling under her skin all day split into a wide chasm of regret. “Red-eye?” She asked, clutching at the only thing that was available easily to keep this thread of conversation going.
“A late night flight which pretty much screws up your sleep for the day that follows.” He explained again as his shoulders relaxed and his eyes shifted to graze her face.
“When are you leaving?” She asked as she stood up. Her legs were shaking – threatening to throw her off balance and most likely right into his arms. Except they were in the office – with the rest of the team within earshot. And he…he was her senior and project manager – in his own words.
“Now. I’m driving to the airport directly. I packed a bag this morning.” He said indicating the small suitcase he was holding in his hand.
Shiv-ji, she pleaded. How much worse is this going to get now?
She nodded. “You need my help….with something?”
His lips twitched, almost as if he would crack a smile.
“I mean, here…review meetings, any other project management things.”
The smile didn’t come. Instead, she had him shaking his head. “The review for this week has been cancelled. Mike and I will catch up over a call sometime later in the week.”
Later in the week. The implication of that sunk in as she saw his eyes searching her face. “You won’t be here…this week…” He wouldn’t be here for his birthday, the one that they had celebrated yesterday but the one she had actually been looking forward on the actual day. The renewed guilt of having knowingly refrained from wishing him once was strong even if it had been self-justified in the wake of his disappearance after that last call five years ago.
He shook his head.
She swallowed. The question was at the tip of her tongue and yet she couldn’t find the words to shape it out aloud. “Who are we up against? In the orals I mean?”
“A couple of boutique strategy firms and Murphy’s.” He answered, shifting on his feet, his restless as they continued to sweep her face.
“All the best. I hope…we…I hope you win the work.” She wished him earnestly. A second of silent warring with herself later, she held out her hand.
He looked down at her extended palm and put his own palm in hers. The moment, a simple handshake – such a routine occurrence between colleagues, in that moment might as well have been a kiss as intense as the ones they had shared mere hours ago. His fingers were warm around hers as they held on much longer than any professional etiquette mandated. His thumb caressed the skin between her thumb and forefinger lightly before he withdrew his hand.
“Bye.” He whispered.
“Bye.” She replied just as softly as she curled her fingers, as if to subconsciously trap the warmth of his hands under her skin. “See you.”
He nodded and then waited for a long moment at the end of which he spoke in a thick voice. “I’ll call you.”
She felt her mouth curving up in a small smile as she nodded soundlessly.
He smiled back at her and turned to walk away.
She watched as the others on the team wished him luck and he walked out of the cubicles and disappeared along the path that would take him to the elevators. She bit her nails in thought as her fingers continued to tingle before she decided she was being completely stupid. She hurried after him, grateful for having decided to wear her comfortable flats today. By the time she could spot him down the long corridor out, there was quite some distance between them. Without thinking, she called out aloud. “When will you be back?”
He continued to walk without slowing down. She frowned as she kept following him. In the silence of an almost empty office, it was unlikely that he hadn’t heard her. Why…? She turned left and walked into the large square reception just as she saw him slow down. Of course he had heard her. And yet…
“Arnav,” She called out again, her voice faltering as the name she used so easily in her thoughts wobbled on her tongue.
This time he stopped and turned around, his mouth curved up in a small, knowing…The cheek of him, she thought as her face burned.
“Yes, Kaveri?” He asked with a raised eyebrow as the elevator opened behind him. She walked another couple of steps in his direction and then stopped, maintaining many metres of mindfulness as she let his deliberate use of her first name slide.
“When are you back?”
He smiled without restraint now as he walked backward into the elevator, dragging his overnighter with him as he placed the other hand on the elevator doors to keep it open. “Why?”
She fought back a smile as her breathing evened, and shrugged.
“Tell me…” He said slowly, “why you want to know and I’ll answer.” He said again he pushed back the doors that threatened his splayed fingers.
She shook her head. “Never mind then,” she said with a raised eyebrow of her own. Someday, she looked forward to showing him just how expertly she could wiggle her eyebrows alternately. Some tricks weren’t meant for Mr. Varun alone.
He shook his head and then took his hands off the doors. “Friday evening.” He said out aloud as the doors closed and Khushi’s face tumbled into warm chuckles.
“I’ll miss you.” She said to herself as she turned to walk back to her seat. She had barely pulled her chair in when her phone beeped. She picked up her phone and looked at the message from the unsaved number on the screen.
I’ll miss you, too.
She smiled to herself as her heart thumped a couple of times in her chest before it resumed its life’s purpose – literally. She quickly hit reply and struggled for words before she found the right ones.
Don’t oversleep tomorrow. Or day after. Don’t want us to lose to Murphy’s because the Senior Manager cannot stay awake.
The reply came even as she absently drew the familiar insignia on the phone screen.
Is this your way of voluntering to be my morning alarm?
She bit her lips in a never-dimming smile and typed up the reply easily. Alarm is the right word for your expression this morning. As soon as the message left her outbox with a whoosh, she typed up a follow on. And for the rest of the day.
I missed a call this morning! It’s never happened before.
This time she burst out laughing. Suddenly everything he had done this morning, his reticence and aloofness made sense. If this had happened to her, how differently might she have behaved? Did you get into trouble? She hoped he hadn’t.
Arjun covered for me.
Khushi smiled and breathed in deeply at the absolutely unlikeliness of this strange relationship the two men she loved shared with each other. That’s a first.
There is a first time for everything.
Though there was nothing to suggest it, Khushi’s cheeks colored in the implication that her brain could come up with in response to that statement. She hoped to hell that itwasnt what was going on his Arnav’s mind. Except she hoped to heavens, it was. Are you driving? She typed as she realized that his responses were too quick for her liking when she realized he might be behind the wheel and…Panic, real and thick filled her lungs. Without waiting for his response, she typed another message quickly. Please don’t text while driving. Bye.
The phone rang almost immediately.
“If texting is bad, talking while driving is worse.” She accused.
“I want to apologize for this morning. I panicked. I’ve never missed a call because of my own carelessness. It threw me off. I’m sorry if I acted like a jerk.”
“I understand.” She said softly. “I’d have panicked too.”
“You wouldn’t have. But thank you.”
She smiled as her heart expanded in relief. “Bye.”
“Bye.” He said, his voice smiling. “I’ll call tomorrow night.
She smiled as she disconnected the call and put her phone away. Friday evening couldn’t come soon enough.
“What did they say?”
Khushi sighed and leaned back on the pillows, adjusting the laptop so she could see her sister’s face on the screen through the internet video calling app.
“What do you think?” Khushi replied. “We don’t understand what you want. He sounds like a perfectly good guy. If there is someone else, then just tell us. Even if it is Arjun…” Khushi mimicked their mother. “This is after I’ve told her clearly – multiple times now – that Arjun and I are just…I think they really want Arjun to be their son-in-law more than getting me married.”
“He wishes,” Tripti scowled into the screen.
“Actually now he doesn’t,” Khushi replied with a grin, surprised at how easily she could mock herself and Arjun now.
Tripti stared at her for a long second, almost pensively before shaking her head. “Annoying Agarwal ko chhodo. You answer the most important question. Ban gayin tum AV ki biwi*? Ki abhi aur bhi kisi ko bhejna baaki hai CV?”
Khushi rolled her eyes at the laptop screen but fought the blush that threatened to spill her secrets. “What nonsense.”
“What nonsense, nahi. Kya bakwaas hai kahiye. Hindi bolte samay hum angrezi ke shabdo ka prayog uchit nahi samajhte, Saheb.” Tripti said with a laugh as she popped a couple of chips in her mouth.
“Achcha, achcha Pyaare Mohan Illahabaadi.” Khushi responded with a roll of her eyes. “How are you?”
“Don’t change the topic. You tell me how you are.” Tripti said in between mouthfuls. “You are the one in the fancy Amreeka while I am battling inane things like campus placements. I swear Di, I am convinced I made a mistake saying yes to the Pre-Placement Offer.”
“Classic is grass is greener moment, Trip. How many of those who are dying of nerves around you would kill to be in your place?”
Tripti snorted and waved her hands. “Forget my sad, boring life…answer my question. Ban gayin tum…”
“Have you spoken to Arjun recently? I haven’t heard from him in a week and he isn’t answering my calls.” Khushi interrupted.
To her surprise, Tripti’s face scrunched up. “Arre yaar, both of you just need me to talk about the other I think. What the hell…I am not answering questons about Arjun. If you don’t want to tell me what is happening with your AV-Sir, just say that. I am a grown up, you know, Di. I can handle you telling me you need time to disclose what’s happening. I understand it. Heck, I…”
“Krishna,” Khushi interrupted again, this time with a deep frown between her brows. “What…”
“Nothing. I have to go. I am hungry and these chips aren’t doing anything for me.” Tripti replied and looked away. “Arjun is travelling.”
“I’m sorry, baba! What is with the terrible mood?” Khushi quizzed, holding on to the call in the hope that her sister would cool down long enough to stay on as well. She pushed the news of Arjun’s travel to the back of her mind to retrieve later. “Is it Raghav?”
“We broke up almost a year ago, Di. It’s not Raghav.”
“I ask because you mentioned he keeps calling every once in a while. I hope he isn’t troubling you anymore.” Khushi asked worriedly. There had never been anything alarming about the sweet natured person that Raghav Mantri – Tripti’s classmate-turned-boyfriend-turned-ex-boyfriend from IE-V. If anything, Khushi had been surprised at the sudden breakup that came shortly after Tripti’s Singapore the summer before she had joined IM-A. Still, the fact that Raghav had been blatantly heart-broken and had tried many times to reconcile with Tripti – by her own admission, made Khushi relapse into cyclical bouts of apprehension. “Then? What’s the matter? You can talk to me, you know that.”
“And you?” Tripti volleyed. “Who do you talk to when you need to?”
“You.” Khushi replied easily. “And Arjun.”
“Come on, Di.” Tripti said with a frown. “You tell us both days after things are done and dusted. You inform. You don’t consult. Why do you expect me to do that?”
She needed to keep her peace when her sister was in this belligerent mood. They knew this routine, they alternated between roles in such situations. “Because I am the older sibling. I didn’t have anyone to consult with. You do.” She said with a goofy grin, hoping to cool her sister. “Plus guess what I do for a living.”
This time Tripti cracked a smile. “Fine. I am being a boor.”
“And I’ll be a pain.” Khushi said with a smirk. “Tell me your dreams.”
“There’s…” Tripti began with a sigh. “Look don’t ask me details okay. I will tell you when we…when I am ready.”
Khushi grinned, folded her hands and leaned forward, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Okay okay, enough disclaimer-ing, start talking. How long has this been going on?”
“Feels like forever.” Tripti said with a grimace.
“Wait,” Khushi said confused, “You are talking about a boy right? Relationships? Love, perhaps?” She asked. “Why the grimace then?”
Tripti stared unblinkingly at her sister through the screen. “He used to be in love with someone…I know….someone close.”
Khushi’s back straightened as the smile on her face dimmed. A flicker of something she didn’t actively consider anymore teased her senses. “Who?”
Tripti kept staring at her, enough for Khushi’s heart to almost blow up into smithereens. And just when she thought she would die, her sister spoke again. “A friend.”
A friend. It was as vague as Tripti usually never was. She wanted to ask who exactly again, just to dispel the doubt that was refusing to leave her side. But something about Tripti’s expression stopped her. “What,” She cleared her throat, “Is the problem then?”
“This doesn’t sound like a problem to you?” Tripti quizzed seriously.
“You said used to. That sounds like past tense to me.” Khushi replied carefully. Something was eggshell thin here. It slipped in and out of her grasp like a little dust mote in the sun and she allowed it to.
“People don’t stop loving someone.” Tripti echoed softly. “Look at you,”
Khushi smiled tentatively and fought down the temptation to declare she wasn’t in love. She may not be ready to tell Tripti about Arnav – at least not before she had told Arnav himself, but she didn’t need to deny anything that wasn’t dangerous as it once felt like. “I am, fortunately for the world, not a universal prototype.” She joked. “Look at Arjun,” She offered tentatively.
“No.” Tripti replied. “I don’t want to.”
The vehemence of that answer should have been her clue. But whether it was the euphoria of her own little romance or the fear of unleashing something uncomfortable despite all her promises to herself for dealing with things head on, she let it go. She focused instead on more generic advice. As always. “Trust is going to come from within, Tripti. You need to see if you trust this person to have gotten over his feelings for the one he used to love – if he ever truly did, in the first place.’
Tripti snorted. “Classic.” The she blinked rapidly and looked away. “This is precisely why I wasn’t keen on asking for help.” She looked back into the screen. “But no, I have a pain in the ass for a sister.”
Khushi grinned this time. “Kismat se tum, humko mile ho, kaise chhodenge**?”
Tripti groaned. “Well going by how much they fight, I guess my birth is more kismet than anything more biological.”
“Ewwww no, Trip. Don’t make me think about that. Please.” Khushi made a face.
“Ban hi jaogi AV ki biwi jaldi I think, going by that mood.” Tripti remarked with the beginning of a chuckle.
“Whatever,” Khushi replied and the two sisters collapsed into laughter.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Kismat Se Tum Humko Mile Ho
Singers: Anuradha Paudwal, Sonu Nigam
Music: A. R. Rahman
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Yun sharmaai, yun ghabraai
Aise simti, simtaai
O mere baalam, yun hi nahi main
Jaate jaate laut aayi
Preet meri pehchaani tune
Meri qadar toh jaani tune
Ab dil jaaga
Hosh mein chahat ab aayi
- Next Update may be delayed. Please visit the Index to check closer to Monday next week
- * – To “One Day At A Time ” and it’s wonderful author – taking the liberty here :)
- ** – Nivi – I promise you I’d written this before you said it to me a couple of updates ago :):)