She drove in absolute silence, the car stereo uncharacteristically muted despite the fact that at this time of morning (or night depending on the kind of person one was) there would be only songs and no ads or annoying RJs on any of Bangalore’s radio channels. But then, it had also been an uncharacteristic move when Khushi had asked Raagini if she would lend her car for the weekend. To Raagini, it hadn’t been a question that needed any thought especially since she had been completely forbidden to drive on Bangalore’s non-existent roads after in her condition.
So here she was, at close to four in the morning, driving at the fastest speeds that Bangalore would ever deign to allow, heading towards the airport to meet – and surprise – Arnav Varun who was at this very moment on his way back from Los Angeles via Dubai. Of course, Arnav had no idea she was going to be at the Arrivals hall to meet him. She herself had no idea she’d be either brave or resourceful enough to arrange this little indulgence for herself as much as for him. It was during one traffic cribbing session in the office that the idea had come to her and refused to leave her side. One moment Raagini was claiming joyfully the happy side-effect of her bad back given it was keeping her away from losing her mind to traffic insanity. The very next moment brought with it the realization that Raagini’s eight month old hatchback was presently unused and uncontested for. It had taken twenty four hours for Khushi to fight and overcome inertia as old as she was – thankfully, her effort was lost on her friend.
The quiet in the car and the absolute stillness of the darkness outside, disturbed only sporadically by fellow airport-goers – presumably mostly those headed to meet clients, family or friends alighting from international flights, was a welcome respite from the mad rush of euphoria that had been her blood stream for the past forty eight hours. It had indeed a lot to do with the eagerness in Arnav’s own voice which Khushi had to admit had been its own brand of potent intoxication as she struggled to keep her mind focused on work. Khushi had finally been forced to wonder rather grumpily, why life couldn’t pause and let one enjoy the subtle seduction of a new romance. Now, with the weekend only just rolling in and bringing it with the man – once of her dreams, now of her reality; of her past once, her present now and of a possible future perhaps sooner than she’d imagined…
The thought brought the serenity in her head to a screeching halt as questions and doubts that she’d battled in many winning and losing wars came rushing back, ticking in her head like the blinking green turn signal on her dashboard. She had to actively push herself to ignore the negativity at a moment that deserved nothing but the love she carried in her heart and still refused to declare to he had been waiting for almost three and a half months now.
Thankfully, by the time she parked the car at the airport parking and made her way through the well-lit lot, now teeming with a host of inhabitants of the airport ecosystem – taxi drivers, airport shop owners, airport officials, security personnel and of course, receivers and travelers, nerves in her fingertips had been replaced with butterflies in her stomach.
She still managed to jump when her phone started buzzing in her hands even as her eyes were trained on the continuous exodus of people through the doors. She was standing well behind the first line of defence that was the taxi drivers waiting with printed name boards and bored expressions, which meant that she found herself rising on her toes rather often to scan the exiting crowds. It was during one such tip up her toes that the phone started buzzing. An unfamiliar number flashed on the screen but she didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out it was Arnav.
Shiv-ji, she whispered as she watched her phone and stepped away from the noise. She didn’t even have his India number stored on her phone. How had so much changed in such little time?
“Hi,” She spoke into the phone as she answered the call and waited to hear his voice.
“I might have been sleeping, you know.” She quipped as she turned around to face the glass doors and craned her neck again to get a better look.
“That’s precisely why I am being pithy. Give me your address and I’ll let you get another hour of sleep.”
“I am surprised you didn’t ask Arjun for it.” She said even as her heartbeat quickened in anticipation. “Where are you?”
“Immigration.” He replied. “And I forgot. Rather Arjun Agarwal decided he had to take the first available flight out to God knows where without spending as much as half a second to even say mundane things like thank you.”
“He’s flying to Mumbai. I think…” She cleared her head. “Tripti is participating in some business pitch contest in one of the local b-schools before she can join work later this month.” The fact that Arjun was flying directly to meet Tripti first, the fact that Tripti still refused to talk to her about Arjun, the fact that…
“Damn!” Arnav’s swearing ended her little trip down Trip lane. “The line I am in has to be the slowest in the history of queues. The man is chatting with everyone like he knows them all on a first name basis.”
“Actually,” She chuckled at his atypical petulance. “He does know them on a first, middle and last name basis. I mean he could given…”
“Khushi,” He warned. “I am not in the mood, right now. Just give me your address and then go sleep. I will see you in an hour.”
“More like ninety minutes even if your luggage shows up quickly.” She countered, enjoying the fact that she was able to tease him so. “And don’t…you must be tired. Go home, freshen up and get some sleep. We can meet for lunch…”
“A public place meeting after two months. Not a chance.”
Uh-oh, she thought to herself with a small coy smile. Someone was going to be very disappointed. “Okay. I will text you my address as soon as I hang up.”
“Hmm. Looks like I might be able to get my passport stamped in this lifetime after all.” Arnav said softly. “See you soon. And…if you cannot go back to sleep, let me know. Fifty-two kilometers is a long distance to cover in anticipation. Talking might help.”
Khushi smiled. “Bye…” And then on an impulse she didn’t identify with herself, she spoke again. “Arnav, today’s song…”
“If it is not Mera piya ghar aaya, I’ll be very disappointed?”
She laughed out aloud, not even bothering to be surprised that he’d guessed correctly. “Bye.”
She saw him immediately, of course, completely undermining her worry of missing him in the ever increasing milieu around her. Even after an almost twenty hour journey, he looked as collected as anyone could. When she’d made the same trip, walking out of the airport had her dropping things, pushing away errant hair from her face, worrying about having left her phone on the airplane…in short she’d been a mess. And he…
She pulled out her phone and dialed his number. He answered immediately as he turned to walk towards the taxi hailing zone and she walked behind him, a good hundred metres and several people of varied shapes and sizes, separating them.
“I cannot tell you how glad I am that you aren’t able to go back to sleep.” He said, his voice a lot more relaxed than it had been twenty minutes ago.
“You woke me up. And you didn’t even apologize.” She pointed out as she continued to trail him.
“Nearly two months since we last saw each other, Khushi and sleep is what you crave? I am…”
“Ha!” She snorted. “Look who’s talking about sleep. I am neither the one who falls asleep after promising to meet by riversides nor the one who panics because he overslept and…”
“Ouch…that’s a sharp tongue you have, my love. I’ve missed it.”
She blushed and looked down as she quickened her pace. She couldn’t wait for him to turn around and look at her. Gosh, her heart was about to give out in the next five minutes if…
“Fuck! There’s a kilometer long queue for cabs.” He groaned. It amused her to no end that he was edgy as he seemed to be. “I hate this city. How did I ever think I missed it?”
“You are cursing. That must be one long queue.” Khushi stepped slightly to her left and realized he was right. The line of people was snaking all the way out of her line of sight into the distance where cabs were still nowhere to be seen. She smiled to herself. “I should have come to pick you up.”
“Hmmm…As nice as it would have been, it’s too ungodly an hour for anyone to make an airport pickup trip. Plus, you don’t have a car, do you?”
“I could have borrowed Raagini’s.”
“Hmm…No it’s good you didn’t. It’s…It’s just an hour extra.” His voice almost sounded disappointed. Like it was a thought that had never crossed his mind but one that now troubled him because it hadn’t been either evaluated or executed. “Plus, as I said, I am not ready to meet you in a place teeming with people. Not before I’ve had enough kisses to make me forget about every opportunity we’ve missed in the last two months.”
Khushi’s face flooded with warmth as her fingers tingled and her feet stumbled. He was…”Tch, tch.” She whispered hoarsely – what was the point of clearing her throat – he was going to make her blush again anyway. “I could have helped you carry that duty-free bag. It looks heavy.”
“A couple of bottles of…” He began and then stopped in his tracks. She knew then that her words had found their mark. She kept walking as she watched him turn around even as he continued to hold on to the trolley.
His eyes found her almost immediately. She saw his eyes widen as his hands left the trolley and he watched her in what had to be growing realization. A second later, he was walking towards her, his gait purposeful as much as hers had become tentative. In less than a few seconds, he was standing in front of her, his eyes scanning her face urgently, an unfamiliar flash of insanity glinting intermittently in his eyes as he stepped closer and put an arm around her waist, pulling her closer. “I thought you weren’t good with sur…” He didn’t allow himself the luxury of finishing that statement as his lips hovered over hers, brushing against them ever so slightly. It sent a shiver of longing down her spine and warmed her blood stream under her skin.
“I have to keep up, nah?” She whispered against his mouth as his right hand curved against her cheek and his thumb traced the bone of her jaw. She shivered and only partially because of the nip in the open airport air.
“This is torture, Khushi.” He replied as his lips moved to the corner of her mouth.
“Jo haal dil ka, idhar ho raha hai…” She answered with a smile and then breathed in deeply to step away from him.
He was smiling at her, one hand still curved around her waist as the other dropped and slide down her arm. “You just upped the ante, you know. Now this surprise thing is a thing. It’s going to get tricky.”
Khushi chuckled. “I think I’ve exhausted my lifetime supply of creativity. So I might as well concede defeat right away.”
With that they collected themselves and stepped away from each other, both wearing inexplicable smiles in her eyes as they rerouted their paths and walked towards Raagini’s car that was waiting in the parking lot.
The ride back was as peaceful as the ride to the airport was not. Silence in the car had been replaced with music that served as the right punctuation to a conversation that meant nothing and everything at once. Arnav insisted on Khushi taking the wheel as a result of which, it turned out to be Arnav asking questions and Khushi answering even as she battled the wave of awareness that seemed to crash against her as often as she found his eyes fixed on her. By the time they were walking into Khushi’s apartment an hour later, the symphony of distance had built up into a crescendo that eventually led to a battle of lips and tongues. eventually will power that won over desire. Again.
The streaming sun in her eyes seemed to want to remind her of something important. It couldn’t be the pinch of her tortoise shell frame against her nose – that had happened too often in the past. So, she smiled and closed her eyes again, it had to be the warmth of a beating heart next to hers. She turned her head to her left and opened her eyes again when the soft rush of his exhalation brushed against her cheeks. It wasn’t the first time they’d slept like this, in each other’s arms and still burning with unfulfilled desire. But there was something about the fact that this was her home, her room that was now permanently imprinted with his presence.
She rose slightly and bent her head to place a small kiss on his lips, softer than the brush of hair against skin. As she did, her wrists jangled with the feather-light clink of the delicate watch he’d bought her. Her first romantically intended gift – one she’d been thrilled and utterly devastated to receive. Clearly he was used to gifting delicate things to the women in his life. But her…she was big-boned and broad shouldered. Small silver dials suspended by minuscule links were not meant for women like her. No, she corrected herself, she couldn’t generalize. They weren’t meant for her specifically. The watch made her aware of how wearing it made no dent in her appearance except to persistently hammer at the smile that she plastered on her face when she opened the box.
She was a good actor though. She must have been given the sigh of pure joy that had escaped his mouth when he’d watched her put it on. It was in that moment, she remembered, that she had promised to come clean with him. Yes, she told herself again, she needed to speak to him and she needed to tell him that she was finally willing to do what she knew he deserved. That she had already started her journey and that as hard as it was, she would make it through. She’d battled her weight related insecurities all her life – she’d blamed every bit of unhappiness she’d felt over the years – real or imaginary – on the weighing scale. She’d gorged on food, precisely because she knew she shouldn’t. She’d used it as a crutch, as a wall, as her spear and mace, her tears and her smiles. She’d even let it make her believe that she didn’t deserve him – this man who didn’t seem to give a damn about it – well except…
She shook her head as if to clear it and gently made to step out of her hastily pulled up duvet when she felt a tug against on her shirt. That she fell clumsily, half on top of him with her hair falling all around their faces like a curtain of privacy they didn’t need at the moment, was no surprise. Of course he was awake. Of course he’d felt the kiss on his lips.
“Abhi na jaao chhod kar,” He whispered against her lips.
She smiled to herself. “Such a cliché.” She tsked, her blood buzzing with energy that was at complete odds with her verbal response.
He stared at her silently for a long second, his eyes still like they hadn’t been in the few hours they’d spent before sleep staked its claim on their sense. It was a moment of thick, unexpected discomfort – one again that was all her fault if she were honest to herself. Why did she do this? Surely there was a point when it stopped being coy and just plain hurt.
“Tell me you love me.” He said as his hands let her nightshirt go and curved around her waist.
Not for the first time, she curled her fingers into his T-shirt and prayed for the first moment for him to not be put off by the bulges that were curving into his fingers. She let the moment pass and breathed in deeply. “Five…”
“Tell me you love me.” He repeated, his voice gruffer and more insistent against her lips. “Or I am going to kiss the damned words out of you.”
“Tempting,” She teased, biting on anxiety that was spilling into her fingers. And then, more to stop herself from thinking and ruining everything, she dipped her head and kissed him, hard. She forced her way into his muffled groans, nipping at his lips with more force than she knew she was capable of. Just about the moment when her own strength began to worry her, she found herself pushed back against her pillow, his lips holding on to her mouth even as she was preparing to let go. He was kissing her like he meant every word of his warning. He kissed her like she’d never imagined herself being kissed at all. It filled her with joy and dread in equal measure. She was going to disappoint him. It was going to happen. Now. Today.
“I love you,” He reminded her as his mouth hovered over hers. “Tell me you love me…”
It was one time too many. And she heard the thread around her heart snap as it expanded in a rush before squeezing back into its shell painfully. “I do.” She whispered and then looked right into his eyes. “You know I do. I always have. I love you. I hate that as much as I love it. But I love you.” Her eyes prickled and her heart struggled against her teeth. “I love you.” She whispered again and closed her eyes.
“Khushi,” He called out a long moment later. There was no pleasure or joy in his voice – how could there be when there was none in hers? When she opened her eyes, his eyes were brimming with regret and bewilderment. And it was her fault. “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to rush you…” He said softly.
“Didn’t you?” She asked, the words slipping out of her head sooner than she could rein them back in.
Damn! She had ruined it. Just as she’d known she would. She had ruined their bloody story.
She watched as hurt flashed in his eyes behind still glinting remorse. She waited as he let her go and pulled himself away from her, sitting up and allowing her to jump off the bed.
She had no idea what she was supposed to do or say now.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Cheeni Kum / Mandram Vantha
Album: Cheeni Kum / Mouna Raagam
Singers: Sherya Ghoshal / S.P. Balasubramaniam
Lyrics: Sameer and Manoj Tapadia / Vaali
Khwaab rangeen hain, iss jahaan ke
Dekhle, dekhle, tu sajaake
Apne saaye se, tu nikalke
Dekhle, dekhle, tu badalke
Rangon ke hain mele, khushiyon ke hain rele
Dhadkan pe pehra kyun hai, kyun?
- The two songs here, musically similar and lyrically quite different, came to me in a moment of pure inspiration. The Cheeni Kum version seems to suit the moment for Khushi but I’d like to think Arnav Varun would understand the Mandram Vantha just as much at this time (if he could understand Tamil, i.e.) Hope you like both!
- Next Update: Monday, Nov 20, 2017, late night IST