Note: Flashbacks are in maroon italics.
“So… what happened?” He peeled the yellowed periwinkle gloves from his hands, tossing them onto his desk as he turned to face Natasha. She leaned against the dark lab bench, her arms crossed over her chest.
He knew she had been waiting all day to ask him the question, throwing unsubtle glances at him every couple of minutes. He had pretended not to notice, continuing to prepare his samples for sequencing.
“What happened to what?” She scoffed, narrowing her eyes at him. He regarded her for a moment before sighing, and he almost laughed when she could barely keep the smile of self satisfaction off her face.
“We dated during our undergrad. It didn’t work out.” He stated, grabbing his lunch out of his backpack as he swung around to face his laptop. He could feel Natasha’s stare on his back as he clicked to the sequencing data from his samples. He pointedly ignored it, along with the punch in his heart that sprung up when he thought of her.
“It must have been one hell of a breakup.” Natasha muttered, still staring at his back. He stiffened, his fingers slowing on the keyboard. He took a deep breath, and if she hadn’t been looking, she wouldn’t have seen the imperceptible nod of his head.
There was a drawn out silence as Natasha continued to watch him scroll through the sequencing. They both knew he wasn’t actually analyzing it, merely using it as a pretend job to keep her from questioning him further. She cleared her throat.
“You know, there’s always a chance for closure.” She said. He stopped scrolling. He swiveled around to face her. “What makes you think there hasn’t already been closure?” He kept his voice carefully neutral as he spoke. Natasha regarded him quietly.
“It took you an hour and forty five minutes to set up that purification. That takes an hour, maximum.” He held her gaze for a long moment before breaking it with a sigh. He shrugged, smiling ruefully. “You caught me. I guess you’re not as oblivious as everyone thinks you are.”
She grinned, settling herself down across from him. “No, Anand mentioned that it had been difficult. I just knew which buttons to press to get you to admit it.” He rolled his eyes. Natasha smiled impishly at him before turning around. He heard the faint click of her mouse, realizing she wasn’t planning on pressing him further. He reciprocated, slowly turning to face his computer.
He stared at the screen, unable to focus on the rainbow colored letters that blinked at him.
He had been shocked to see her there, completely unprepared for the sight of Ananya Iyer in a pale yellow Anarkali suit that fell to her ankles, her hair pulled into a neat fishtail braid, running her finger over the rim of a beer bottle. A flood of memories had pushed past their confines, paralyzing him for a moment.
He had been completely unprepared for the skip in his heartbeat that would come as well.
His subconscious reminded him. He quickly pushed the thought away, discomfited by the fact that she still affected him.
He had followed her career. He knew that she had written a book, and it sat in the drawer underneath his desk. He had stared at it for a long time in the bookstore, fingering the cover as he ran his fingers lightly over the embossed name. He had read it when it came out, a strange sense of pride filling him when he realized that she had finally followed her dreams.
It had been the subject of so many late night conversations between them.
He had resisted the urge to call her and congratulate her, to ask her how it had happened. He had stared at that phone so many times after it had came out, scrolling to her name and wondering if he should call her.
But he hadn’t.
His heart tightened as he recalled the painful conversation that had occurred a week before her graduation that had been responsible for their breakup. It still hurt, their shrill, angry voices ringing in his ears.
He slowly opened the drawer, light peeking in and catching the golden band that lay next to her book. He stared at it for a long moment before closing it quickly, the knots in his stomach still taut.
He slid his finger across the screen of his phone, scrolling down to her name when the Contacts list popped up. He looked at her name for a long time, unconsciously reading out the number he had memorized a long time ago.
He didn’t know if she had the same number anymore. His finger hovered over the little outline of a phone. He was oddly conscious of his own breathing as he looked at it, wondering if he should.
The numbers blurred in his eyes, and he blinked. He tossed his phone aside with a sigh, her name still on the screen. He heard the dull roll of Natasha’s chair against the linoleum as she turned to face him.
“I’m going to grab food.” She looked at him for a moment before nodding, turning back to her computer.
He shoved the phone in his pocket, the screen going black with the click of the lock. He swung his backpack over his shoulder as he walked out of the lab.
Ananya sat on her couch with her laptop. A blanket was thrown over her lap and the cursor blinked on the blank document which was supposed to be the next chapter.
The sky was a dull pinkish blue, despite it being almost 9 o’clock at night. Her stomach growled and she looked down at it, willing it to stay quiet.
She leaned back from her laptop with a sigh, rubbing her temple. She opened up Google Chrome, Facebook popping up on her screen. She bent forward, her fingers flying across the keyboard as she typed in the search bar.
Her cursor remained suspended over his name for a moment, before she clicked on it. She clicked on his profile picture, regarding it for a long moment. It was him sitting on a pier just off of Memorial Union at dusk, holding a beer and leaning back in the circular orange chair. Her mind was drawn back into memories at the sight of him.
Ananya pushed through the crowd, raising her cup of ice cream above her head. She could hear the pounding rhythm of the band that was playing on the second, screaming into the microphone. Most of the people weren’t paying attention, engrossed in their own conversations.
She sank down on one of the picnic tables by the water, sitting in front of the friend she had made in the two days she had been at college. Pooja raised an eyebrow, her thick hair tossed carelessly over a shoulder, large sunglasses perched on her head.
“You look like you’ve ran a marathon.” Ananya shot her a half hearted glare, her cheeks flushed from the heat. She took a bite of the ice cream, the cold sweetness a welcome relief. “You would too if you had to push through them.” Pooja glanced over at the crowd, shaking her head. “This place is so crowded this time of day.” She narrowed her gaze, a small smirk playing at her lips. “Can’t say I’m complaining though…” She said, nodding at the people walking towards them. They were clearly looking for a table, unable to find one up there.
Ananya glanced up, silently admiring the way their t-shirts clung to their bodies, their hair still wet from what looked to be a swim. She went back to her ice cream. They weren’t really her type.
“They look like fuckboys.” Pooja grinned, taking a spoon of her ice cream. “They’re still hot.” Ananya shrugged. There was a pause..”We have a spot here if you want…?” Ananya’s head shot up, but Pooja wasn’t looking at her, instead smiling brightly at the boys. Ananya raised an eyebrow as they looked at each other before shrugging and sitting down, flashing Pooja a thank you.
“I’m Pooja, that’s Ananya.” They nodded, taking a swig of their beer. “Greg and David. It’s packed here. Thanks for letting us sit down.” Pooja giggled. Ananya watched with mild amusement as she flirted easily. She touched Pooja’s arm, leaning in to whisper.
“I’ll be back, I’m going to take a walk. I have a headache.” Pooja nodded absently and Ananya shoved her phone into her pocket, taking off down the sidewalk.
It grew less crowded as she moved away from the terrace, walking towards the dense gathering of trees. The sidewalk changed into a dirt path. The dull murmur of the conversations of people around her was punctuated by the fading thud of the concert back on the terrace.
She knew exactly where she was headed, down to the Porter Boathouse. There was a pier that not many people went to, since there were signs explicitly detailing that it was for authorized persons only. But that hadn’t stopped a few people from making their way onto it to sunbathe or simply kick back.
She slowed as she approached it, her nose crinkling at the strong smell of the lake. She ducked under the chains, stepping onto the pier. There were people passing by, but no one stopped to take a second look. She was surprised by the fact that there was one person standing out at the very end, holding a phone to his ear.
She took quiet steps, trying not to disturb him as she sank down onto the pier. She crossed her legs, taking bites of her ice cream and feeling distinctly awkward as she heard his end of the conversation.
“… no, Andrea, I just… I mean, we’re at different colleges, you know?” He paused. “I just think that maybe we should explore other relationships. You know as well as I do that it hasn’t been the same in the last year. We’re growing apart.” He paused, sighing. “I did love you. But… I don’t know if this relationship is the best for us. And if we were meant to be, we will eventually get back together.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”
He placed the phone down with a sigh, running his hands through his hair. Ananya stared down at her ice cream, uncomfortable by the fact that she had heard the tail end of a private conversation. She heard him turning, but his steps stopped when he saw her. She looked up, shielding her gaze from the setting sun.
“Sorry, I happened to hear the tail end of your conversation.”
He shrugged. He was tall, with a sharp nose and hair cut short. She could see the faint stubble on his cheeks, his dark eyes looking back at her.
“It’s fine. If I wanted it to be private, I shouldn’t have had the conversation in a public place.” He stood next to her, casting his shadow on her. “Sit down.” Ananya said. He looked at her, an eyebrow raised. She rolled her eyes. “I don’t like it when people tower over me.”
They sat in an awkward silence, one neither of them quite knew how to break. He finally took a breath, leaning back on his arms. “I was trying to break up with her.” He said. Ananya placed her empty cup down, wiping at her sticky hands with a napkin.
“I figured.” She said. He nodded, closing his eyes. There was silence again.
“You should just do it.” She broke the silence, turning to look at him. He gave her a look. “Thank you, I’ll take that brilliant advice.”
She raised her hands. “Hey, it’s true. Sometimes you have to just do it.” He snorted. “What are you, the Nike spokesperson?”
She couldn’t help but laugh. “You got me. I am.” She said in mock horror. He grinned. “I knew it.” He said. They smiled for a moment but then he sobered, turning back to look out at the lake.
“We’ve been dating for two years. It’s hard, you know, when you have no…’real reason’ to breakup. Nothing wrong with the relationship.”
“Other than the fact that you don’t really have that spark anymore and you’re growing apart?”
He shrugged. “Maybe it’ll come back.” She snorted. “Or maybe it won’t. Does she go to UW?”
He shook his head, sighing. “No, she goes to UIUC. We may have worked out if I had gone there too, but I didn’t fancy being among the corn fields.” She nodded while slapping at a mosquito in irritation. University of Illinois- Urbana Champagne was situated in an exceptionally boring location, surrounded by miles of fields and farmland.
“She was one of my closest friends. It’s hard to let that go, but I just don’t… feel it anymore.” He shook his head, smiling wryly. “You don’t care. I don’t really know why I’m telling you this.”
“Because I’m here, and you just need to vent.” They fell back into silence again. Her phone vibrated against her skin and she looked down, finding a text from Pooja. She pushed herself off of the pier, dusting her feet off.
“My friend just texted me, so I’m heading back. Plus these mosquitos are eating me alive. Nice meeting you.” She smiled at him and he smiled back. “Thanks for listening. Sometimes you just need someone to do that.” He said. She nodded, and turned to walk away. She paused, before turning back, reaching out her hand.
“Ananya Iyer.” He stared at her hand for a moment before taking it in a firm grasp.
“Did your mom watch DDLJ before having you?” She quipped. He laughed, shaking his head. “No, my full name is actually Rajshekhar. Ma’s a TamBram, Dad’s a Punjabi.”
She grinned. “Pity. It would have made a nice story if she had named you after SRK. I hope I’ll see you around, Rajshekhar.”
She felt the involuntary smile on her face at the memory. She shook her head, trying to clear her mind as she looked back at her screen. She scrolled down his timeline, reading through the posts on his page. There wasn’t much, only the occasional tag in a photo from a friend, a handful of happy birthday wishes and the inevitable spambot. She went year by year, clicking through a stream pictures and skimming the posts.
And then she stopped.
Her throat suddenly felt tight as the image looked back at her. His arm was around her waist, her body pulled close to his. Her head was thrown back in laughter, her eyes squeezed shut. He was looking down at her, his mouth soft with a smile.
There was no mistaking the emotion in his eyes.
She remembered the moment. It had taken place just two months before they had broken up, his birthday celebration. She had given him tickets to see Wicked at the Overture, a musical they both had wanted to see forever.
She didn’t remember what she had been laughing at. She wondered if the camera had captured the kiss that had come next, one that had left her breathless and wishing they had been alone.
She stared at it for a long moment, her heart squeezing more tightly with every passing second.
She missed him.
She shook her head, the screen going black as she shut it. It had been three years. She had no right to miss him. Besides, people changed.
She had changed.
She had switched recently to a job with Promega, having moved back to Madison after Appa’s heart attack. She missed the hustle of New York City, where she had moved to attend Columbia School of Medicine. She still traveled there often, going back for meetings with her publishers and occasional conferences for Promega.
He had stayed here.
Would they still have worked?
She drew a long breath.
She wondered what he had thought when he saw her book appear on shelves. She wondered if he had remembered his promise to make her sign his chest when she did a book signing, winking at her. He had promised he would call her to congratulate her. She had wanted to tell him that she had finally, finally followed her dreams, just as they had always talked about. He had promised, she thought, betrayal swiping at her.
She wondered if he had even read her book.
Would he recognize the story she had drawn out late at night with him to listen to her? She had snuck in entire paragraphs from their conversations, wondering if he would recognize them when he read them.
If he read them.
She reminded herself.
She hadn’t called him. She hadn’t texted him. She had walked out and yet… she had expected his call. She knew she didn’t deserve it and yet, she couldn’t stop herself from hoping. It had bubbled in her chest whenever she had gotten a phone call those first few months, growing smaller and smaller with every text that wasn’t him, every call that didn’t show his name flashing across her screen.
He didn’t owe her anything.
She sighed, running tired fingers through her hair. She couldn’t shake the emptiness that her breakup with Raj had left behind, her throat tight with emotion.
She jumped when she heard the turn of the key in her lock. The door peeked open and she saw Pooja looking in, the plastic bag in her hands rustling slightly. “May I come in?” Ananya nodded, and she pushed open the door a little further, stepping into the apartment. Ananya could smell the strong flavors of Thai food, reminding her stomach of how hungry it was.
“You brought Thai!” Pooja grinned, but her eyes appraised her friend. She could see the strain in Ananya even as she took the food from her hands, eagerly opening it and sighing as she saw the red curry. She wasted no time in digging in, nestling into the couch.
“You are a lifesaver. I was starving.” Pooja hummed, grabbing the stir-fried noodles that she had ordered. There was silence as they ate, completely focused on their food. Ananya finally looked up, leaning back against the couch with a satisfied smile.
“Shouldn’t you be with Aman?” She asked, raising an eyebrow. Pooja shook her head, reaching for Ananya’s rice. “No, he has something running in the thermocycler and wants to get it done as soon as possible so… he’s working late.” She paused, setting down her fork. “Besides, I hadn’t heard from you all day.”
Ananya spooned more curry onto her rice, averting her gaze. “I was writing.” Pooja regarded her for a long moment.
“So seeing Raj had nothing to do with your silence?” Ananya remained quiet, spooning food into her mouth. Pooja leaned forward, taking the food out of Ananya’s hands. Ananya opened her mouth to protest, good natured annoyance flashing in her eyes.
“Seriously, how old are you? I have to take food out of your hands to get you to pay attention?”
“Look, it was just weird seeing him. I knew he was in Madison, but I didn’t expect to… see him, you know?” Ananya crossed her fingers, hoping Pooja wouldn’t question further. Pooja rolled her eyes, giving her a look.
“Bull. You can’t pull that shit on me, Anu.” Ananya could feel the anger in her voice, her eyes flashing. “You didn’t say anything after you broke up. You gave me some half assed explanation for why you had broken up, something like ‘oh, we just realized we didn’t work anymore’. All of a sudden, this guy who had been a part of your life for years was just… gone. What was I supposed to think?” She forced herself to pause, taking a deep breath. Her voice softened. “What did you mean by ‘he didn’t hurt me’?” Ananya stared at her, realizing Pooja wasn’t letting go. She pressed her lips together.
“I was the one who broke it off.” She offered reluctantly. Pooja waited. Ananya sighed. “He was going to propose to me, and… I wasn’t ready. I was 22, it was just too much commitment for me. It sucked. But it would have been a mistake to marry him without being sure of it.” She shrugged, giving Pooja a sardonic smile. Pooja looked at her, mild disbelief in her expression.
“You broke off a four year relationship because you weren’t ready for… commitment?” She questioned. Ananya shifted in her spot, unsettled by Pooja’s gaze. “I just wasn’t ready.”
“He couldn’t have popped it out of the blue. As much as the movies want us to believe that proposals are entirely unexpected, there’s usually at least some discussion beforehand. Besides, he had asked me about-” Pooja stopped abruptly as Ananya’s gaze shot to her.
“He asked you?” Ananya asked. Pooja nodded. Ananya closed her eyes, and Pooja heard her swallow. She shook her head, pasting a smile on her face.
“We did talk about it. But things change.” She shrugged again, forcing her voice to be steady. She hoped her voice conveyed the nonchalance she didn’t feel, that it held none of the regret she hid away. She could feel Pooja’s gaze on her and smiled up at her, ignoring the tightness in her cheeks. Pooja regarded her for a long moment.
“That’s bullshit and you know it.” Ananya met her gaze, shaking her head. “It brings up too many memories, Pooja.” Pooja sighed heavily, nodding at her.
A long silence followed, and they went back to eating. Ananya didn’t feel hungry anymore, picking at her food.
“He’s a good guy, Pooja.” She said quietly. Pooja stilled, listening. Ananya exhaled, swallowing tightly. “He… he’s amazing.” She smiled wistfully.
“I hurt him. And I… I wish I could change that.” She finished softly, regret playing in her eyes. Pooja looked at her friend, the plastic cracklings as she reached over the emptied boxes. Ananya buried her face in Pooja’s shoulder, unable to lock away the memories.
They pulled back from the hug. Pooja gave her a warm smile, squeezing her hand.
“Netflix?” Ananya’s face brightened, and she nodded. She got up from the couch to clean up, as Pooja watched her. She shook her head with a sigh, knowing Ananya hadn’t told her the whole story.
She only hoped they would at least gain some closure.
Song: The Way We Were
Artist: Barbara Streisand
Film: The Way We Were (1974)
Note: Your comments and response made my day so lovely — thank you for giving me such amazing support. It means a lot.
As for this chapter, it is dedicated to ASB — happy (slightly early) birthday, mere lovely yaara. I hope you have a wonderful day befitting someone as wonderful as yourself. Dher saara pyaar, mithai, and a smolder from Raj 😉 ❤
The follow buttons are on the right hand side, and I have added a portion to the playlist dedicated to songs suggested by the readers. I’d love to hear your thoughts!