Note: Flashbacks are in maroon italics.
“I saw Alka at Bombay Bazaar,” Radha stated. Ananya hummed, her fingers continuing to fly across the keyboard.
“Alka Mehra?” She asked distractedly. Radha nodded. “She mentioned she had seen you two weeks ago at Mihir and Archana’s wedding.” Hearing no response, Radha continued, her gaze pinned on her daughter. Radha’s voice softened, her concern evident as she spoke. “She said she had seen you speaking to Raj.” There was an emphatic silence as Ananya stiffened, finally looking up from her laptop. She held her mother’s gaze, her face neutral.
“Yes, I saw her at Mihir and Archana’s wedding. Raj was there too.” She fell silent for a moment. “He looks happy. We didn’t speak for very long.” She went back to her laptop. Radha stared at her, wondering if she should ask more.
Ananya sighed, looking back up at her mother. She paused, shaking her head. “I saw him briefly, we said hi. We don’t even know each other anymore. It’s been three years.” She shrugged, swallowing tightly.
Radha hesitated, and then began gently.
“Did I tell you that Rajeev Kulkarni’s son is getting married?” Ananya looked up at her mother, knowing what was coming next. She mentally rolled her eyes.
“Ma, just because someone else is getting married, it doesn’t mean I have to. Aren’t you the one that always tells me that if everyone jumps in a well, I don’t have to jump into the well?” She took a breath, “and besides, you didn’t like Raj anyway.” She muttered, looking away.
Radha stilled, staring at her daughter. “What does this have to do with Raj?” She asked, taken aback by the resentment in Ananya’s voice. Ananya stiffened and shook her head, exhaling. “Nothing, Amma.” Bitterness simmered beneath the surface of her words. Radha took a deep breath to ease the hurt at Ananya’s belligerence, gentling her voice.
“Ananya, I worried Raj would break your heart. It was the first time you had… fallen in love. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him. I just… as your mother, I worry about those things. And he was so insistent upon you writing and…” She tried to make her understand the fear she had felt. She saw Ananya stiffen at the last phrase and winced, biting her tongue. She didn’t want this to turn into an argument, as it so often did when it came to her breakup with Raj and her writing.
Ananya didn’t turn, staring at an arbitrary point on the wall. Her jaw was tight with tension, her heart squeezing painfully as memories of that conversation resurfaced. Radha walked up to her, running a hand over her head. “I was just worried that he would leave you after being so serious and… well…”
“He did not leave me. I left him, because I went to New York to go to Columbia Med School and he decided to stay here.” Ananya snapped back, hearing the unsaid words as her mother trailed off.
She stared at the now dark screen, speaking to herself. “And maybe we would have worked out if I hadn’t left.“
Sadness enveloped Radha, the accusation in Ananya’s voice a painful reminder of what her daughter had been like just after she had broken up with Raj. She had done it with good intentions, hoping that Ananya would understand Raj had been wrong about writing being her ‘true’ dream.
But she hadn’t seen Ananya happy since then.
She missed the glow that had lit Ananya’s face when Raj was around. He had made her daughter happy, and she could not deny that fact.
She looked at her daughter sadly, watching the guilt play out on her face. She took a deep breath. “You don’t have to protect him, Anan-“
“I am not protecting him! Why is it so hard for everyone to believe that Raj is the good guy?” She burst out. Radha could hear the guilt in her voice, and reached out to run a hand over her head. Ananya’s face remained troubled, and she shrank away from her mother’s touch.
Radha sighed heavily. She wished Ananya would understand that she hadn’t done it to hurt her. She gave Ananya a long look, shaking her head as she turned back to the gas. There was only the sound of Ananya’s fingers against the keys and the hiss of the oil as she slid the onions in. She glanced at her daughter out of the corner of her eyes, watching as Ananya wrote a sentence and then deleted it, scrolling back up to the beginning before writing one more sentence only to delete it again.
Radha cleared her throat. “When is your deadline?” Ananya didn’t stop working, muttering, “Two weeks.” Radha nodded, turning to watch her daughter. Ananya’s forehead was creased with tension, and she kept shaking her head, her mouth twisting in dissatisfaction.
“Are you… writing?” Ananya nodded, selecting a portion of a paragraph and deleting it. Radha looked on, a twinge of worry in her heart. Ananya worked for Promega, but she was working on her book instead.
Had she finished her projects for Promega? Shouldn’t she be doing that first? Radha hesitated, wondering if she should voice her thoughts.
“Anu, don’t you… don’t you think you should finish your work for your job first?” Ananya stiffened. “This is my job, Amma.” She responded, her voice inflecting with fragile patience. Her mother gave her a long look, clearly not satisfied by her answer.
Ananya inhaled slowly, reminding herself that Amma was just worried about her. She and Radha rarely spoke about her writing. It was an unsaid agreement between them. Radha was still warming to the idea of writing being something beyond a hobby for Ananya. While they had made peace, Ananya still felt as if she was walking on eggshells around her when it came to this.
“I have to submit the first three chapters in two weeks, and I only have Chapter One done.” Radha turned back towards her, and Ananya offered her a tentative smile. Radha smiled back, her heart easing with Ananya’s attempt at closing the distance between them.
“What is this book about?” Radha ventured. A proud smile spread over Ananya’s face as she adjusted herself on the couch to face her mother. “It’s the second in the series. I wanted a romance that didn’t immediately see results in the first book, so I drew out the idea of a three book series where their relationship slowly grows and develops. My goal was to make their romance as realistic as possible, instead of catering to the traditional ideas of what a romance should be.”
Radha could hear the excitement in Ananya’s voice, a smile finding its way onto her own face as her daughter continued explaining the premise of her book. She loved seeing Ananya so excited, something she hadn’t seen when Ananya was studying for medicine.
Maybe this was good for her…
She studied her daughter. Despite the happiness on her face, Radha could clearly see the signs of strain in the dark circles underneath her eyes. She knew Ananya was exhausted, after working during the day at Promega and then having to come home and spend her time writing.
She sighed internally, a wistful smile on her face. She couldn’t help but wish that her daughter had wanted medicine. Her life would be easier that way, and people respected doctors so much more. She wouldn’t be working her job and writing to make sure she was afloat.
She shook her head, turning her attention back to Ananya.
This made her happy, she reminded herself.
Wasn’t that what she wanted the most?
Ananya’s voice was animated as she spoke, alternately gesturing and typing as ideas came to mind while she spoke. A fond smile broke out over Radha’s face, and she reached out, running a hand over Ananya’s head. Ananya stilled for a moment, a smile crinkling her eyes.
“Love you, Ma.” Ananya said simply. Radha smiled, wrapping one arm around her. “I love you too, Anu.”
“May I have your name for the reservation, please?” Ananya blinked, trying to recall who Pooja had said the reservation had been made under.
“Nair?” The man drew his finger down the page, stopping at a point before looking up at her and smiling. “You’re the first person here. Would you like to sit at your table or wait for the rest of your group?”
“I can just wait.” She offered him a small smile, leaning against the doorframe as people squeezed past her. She closed her eyes for a brief moment, the wood of the door frame digging into the side of her head. She shook herself, sliding her phone out of her pocket. Pooja had texted her earlier, telling Ananya that she and Aman would be late.
The restaurant was boisterous, filled with students who were here to enjoy their Friday night. Everyone was clearly looking to have a good time. Loud laughter filled the room, interrupted by the clink of glass. The atmosphere was heavy with energy, a raw optimism and excitement that was unique to college campus bars.
Ananya played absentmindedly with her phone, finally clicking on a game. She pulled back the slingshot, watching as the green pig flew from the rubberband… and barely reached the foot of the structure.
She glared at the phone in irritation. That game had never been her strong suit. She drew up a Google Docs, glancing around herself before opening up the document that she had been working on earlier. She smiled, her mood instantly improving as she began to type.
“I believe the reservation is under Nair.” A warm voice made her snap out of her writing. She lifted her gaze surreptitiously from her phone, her heart nervously thudding in anticipation.
He was wearing a fitted charcoal grey dress shirt with a textured black sports jacket over worn faded dark jeans. She wasn’t surprised that Raj looked very, very good. He had always put a little extra effort into his clothes, putting his money into that and travel, something she enjoyed as well.
They had made a travel jar together, saving up money for when they could…
She shook her head, clearing the thought from her mind. She stared at the screen, unable to focus on the words. With a sigh, she switched back to the game, tugging at the virtual rubberband while sneaking glances at him.
He slid his hand into his pocket, briefly checking his phone before he turned around, meeting her gaze directly.
She froze, embarrassed at being caught staring. But she didn’t look away, giving him a small smile instead. He held it for a second too long before breaking it, collecting himself and smiling briefly back. He slid his titanium shades into his front pocket, before walking over to stand next to her. She moved over slightly to give him room, even as she kept her gaze pointedly on her phone.
They stood in heavy silence for a while. She was acutely aware of his presence, the achingly familiar scent of his cologne sweeping into her nose. She swallowed, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath to steady herself.
“Angry Birds? Really?” She shot him a glare before going back to the game at hand. “I’m good at it.” She muttered. She cursed roundly in her head when the pig just bounced off of the rock. She heard him chuckling and looked up, and he simply grinned. “I can hear you cursing in your head, Anya.” He said with a smirk.
He heard her draw a sharp breath, the playful glower on her face fading. He stiffened, his heart tightening. The familiar nickname had fallen off of his lips so easily. He sighed mentally, briefly closing his eyes as she turned back to her phone, scrolling aimlessly through the levels. The tension between them was suffocating, neither of them able to hide from the reminders of what they had once shared.
She cleared her throat, putting a smile onto her face as she kept her voice light.
“Fine, I suck at it, okay? But there’s nothing better to play.”
“You always sucked at it. Remember when-” he broke off abruptly. She stilled, looking up at his profile. She could see him thinking, frustration writ across his face at slipping again. She took a deep breath, knowing exactly what he was talking about.
“When you tried to teach me Angry Birds while I was waiting for a blood test to distract me?” She asked. He turned to look at her, regarding her with veiled nostalgia. A faint smile played on his lips.
He opened his mouth and then hesitated a moment. “Yeah.” He said, his voice almost a whisper. They stared at each other for a long time, drawn into old memories.
He averted his gaze back to the other people in the restaurant. She glanced at him. A slight smile pulled at her lips as she recalled the moment, remembering how he had convinced her to play the game as she sat tensely, nervous about the blood test. He had goaded her into it, teasing her until she had snatched the phone from him to shut him up. She had been terrible at it, but it had made her laugh.
She debated telling him and then shook her head. He clearly didn’t want to speak to her, especially not about that time. She sighed, swallowing the heaviness. She had hurt him too deeply to make amends, and she had to accept that.
He watched her out of the corner of his eye. They couldn’t even have a normal conversation. He turned to continue the conversation but he was interrupted by a wave from Natasha, her hand entwined through Anand’s arm.
“Hi! Sorry we’re late, Anand had to record.” Natasha fixed him with a mildly disapproving look, rolling her eyes. “Can you believe it? He’s working on his birthday.”
Anand only shook his head. “The entire world doesn’t stop just because it’s my birthday, Natasha,” he turned to Raj and Ananya, giving them a warm smile, “and thank you for coming. Is our table ready?”
Their waitress showed them to the booth. The restaurant was on the darker side, but a warm glow lit their area from the hanging light above. Ananya found herself sitting across from Raj, who had sat down next to Natasha and Anand on the other side. “Where are Aman and Pooja?” Ananya pulled out her phone to check whether there were any new messages and then looked up. “Pooja mentioned that she and Aman would be a little late.”
They looked over the appetizers, giving the waitress their orders just as Pooja and Aman walked in. “Happy Birthday Anand!” Pooja yelled over the noise. She gave Anand a chaste kiss on the cheek, before leaning over, giving Ananya a half hug before sliding in beside her. She nodded at Raj, giving him a quick smile.
“We just ordered some appetizers for the table.” Ananya informed her. Pooja glanced over at Raj, “Anand texted us that he and Natasha would be late. Were you and Raj left alone?” She asked, turning to Ananya worriedly.
Ananya gave her a reassuring smile, shaking her head imperceptibly. “Don’t worry about it. We were alone for about fifteen minutes and it wasn’t too awkward.” She paused. “We can be civil.” She added dryly.
Pooja raised an eyebrow. “You may be able to be civil but everyone in your vicinity can feel that tension.” Ananya just shook her head, turning back to the menu.
“… we were working on getting our tissues ready to culture today… but I didn’t see the growth I wanted, so I ended up having to postpone it.” Ananya looked up at Raj, who was talking to Aman. “Did you attend Daniel’s defense the other day? He did some really interesting work with those.”
“So are we all chemical engineers here, except for Anand?” Natasha interrupted with a smile, realizing that people had been left on the fringe.
Pooja shook her head, “no, I’m actually a polisci major but I’m working with the Women’s Health Initiative right now. And Ananya here is technically a chemical engineer, but she’s really a writer.”
“Yeah, Anand had mentioned that when we met you the other day. What kind of books do you write?” Ananya heard Raj quickly cover his snort with a cough.
Natasha’s eyes widened, and then she broke out into a smile. “Seriously? That’s so cool! God, I would have loved to see the look on all the Auntyji’s faces once you told them that.”
“I’m convinced they all read it,” Raj interjected, “they know far too much about it to not have.”
“How were your parents okay with it?” The table stilled at Natasha’s innocent question. Natasha froze, opening her mouth to apologize. “Oh, I am so sorry, I didn’t mean-“
Ananya gently cut her off with a reassuring smile. “No, it’s fine, it’s usually the first question I get asked. I’m an ABCD, how am I not a doctor or an engineer?!” She said sarcastically, rolling her eyes. Natasha relaxed, laughing.
But Ananya sobered, her voice carefully steady. Even after all this time, the question still left her a little lost for words. “But in all honesty, they’re still getting used to it, especially since I dropped out of med school to do it.” Ananya said, trying to inject lightness into her voice, giving Natasha a smile.
Natasha looked impressed. “Damn, I never could have done that. That takes guts.” She said honestly. Ananya shrugged, nodding to Anand. “He joined me in being the class of disappointment children.” She said jokingly.
Even as they laughed, she could feel Raj’s gaze on her, and looked up.
She was surprised by the encouragement in his eyes, silently supporting her. She held his gaze for a long moment and he gave her a small smile. She smiled gratefully, unable to truly convey how much that had meant to her. She felt Pooja’s hand gently squeeze her own and looked over, smiling more fully.
“So how did you both meet?” Pooja asked, gesturing between Natasha and Anand. They glanced at each other, unable to hold back the smiles as they looked at each other.
“Through Raj, actually. It’s the one good thing he’s ever done.” Raj looked up at Anand’s words. “And I’ve regretted it ever since.” He said dryly, earning a laugh from Natasha.
“Anand came into lab to grab Raj for dinner.”
“And Raj wasn’t there when I came, and a beautiful girl was sitting in his place.” Natasha gave him a look, before continuing. “He used some really lame pick up line on me. I believe it was ‘I wish I was adenine so I could be paired with U’.”
“She thought it was sexy.” Natasha rolled her eyes. “I thought it was lame, but Raj convinced me that he was a good guy and… we’ve been dating ever since.” She said, squeezing his hand as she looked up at him. He smiled down at her, placing a light kiss on her lips.
“Awwh, that’s adorable!” Pooja squealed. Natasha blushed, before gesturing to Aman and Pooja. “And you two?”
“Our parents are family friends.” She glanced at Aman, who was simply looking at her. She gave him a brilliant smile, her eyes softening as she squeezed his hand. “I never thought I would agree to an arranged marriage, but… my parents talked me into meeting Aman and it just clicked.” He smiled at her, warmth brimming over.
“I think I talk enough for the both of us,” Pooja said, laughing.
They turned expectantly to Raj and Ananya. Raj shrugged, “I’m not dating anyone right now. No cute stories.”
“What happened to Nicole?” Anand asked. Ananya glanced at Raj curiously, but he seemed unaffected. She felt a pang and quickly pushed it away.
Of course he had dated people. So had she. It had been three years, hadn’t it?
But she hadn’t managed to find anyone like him.
Her conscience reminded her, making her think of all the times she had tried and failed to sustain other relationships. She briefly wondered whether it had been the same for him too, and then pushed the thought away.
There was no way he still…
“We broke up like five months ago, Anand. Really?” Raj asked. Anand grinned sheepishly. “She was nice?” Raj nodded, smiling. “She was. She’s actually getting married in a couple of months, to this guy she met at work.”
Ananya’s heart let out a sigh of relief. She picked at her appetizer, only to realize that everyone was waiting on her now. “Oh, uh… yeah, no boyfriend. I haven’t had the time.” She paused. “Although I dated casually for a while, haven’t really found anything that… sticks.” She said, keeping her gaze carefully away from Raj.
Natasha nodded sympathetically. “Trust me, it’s hard to find something that lasts. It’s rare. And when you find it… you shouldn’t ever give it up.” She said, smiling up at Anand.
But you did. You gave it up.
Regret sliced through Ananya, sharp and unforgiving. She closed her eyes for a brief moment before opening them again, the deep breath she took failing to ease the knot in her heart. She could see Raj twirling his fork out of the corner of her eye, as he looked away from her, his face stoic.
“So why don’t you tell us how you two met instead?” Aman said, after a moment of silence.
Ananya stared at him, uncomprehending. “Who?” She asked, her brow furrowed. Aman gestured between her and Raj.
“Yeah, why don’t you tell us how you two met instead?” Natasha said brightly, her sharp gaze moving between Ananya and Raj. Ananya caught Raj giving Natasha a brutal glare, to which she only responded with a saccharine smile.
Raj glanced at Ananya, fumbling for words. “It’s uh… really not that exciting…”
Ananya joined in hastily. “Yeah, you know, we just… met… on the dock behind Porter Boathouse. Nothing super exciting.” She looked over at Raj, who nodded. Natasha looked between them again, clearly not satisfied.
“Wait, what? When did you guys meet at the Boathouse? I thought you met on my date with Michael.” Pooja’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Remember? I met him on Tinder and made you come with me since he was bringing a friend, and you wanted to make sure he wouldn’t kidnap me or anything.”
“Pooja, you owe me big time for this. I have a midterm in two weeks, and instead I’m coming with you on this idiotic mission.” Pooja barely looked up from the dresser as she responded, shuffling through it. “Two weeks, Ananya. Most people don’t start studying until two hours before the exam.”
“It’s Chem 109! What if I fail? I don’t know how hard these are, all I know is that they are hard and that I-” she broke off when Pooja turned and fixed her with a glare. “One night, Anu.” Ananya rolled her eyes. “I said I’m coming, didn’t I? Besides, you don’t even know the guy.”
“I do know him!” Pooja insisted. Ananya raised an eyebrow. “Through Tinder, but-,” she acquiesced, “but we really made a connection. He’s a nice guy, relatively cute and likes photography like I do.”
“Wow, sounds like the basis for a really strong relationship.” Ananya muttered. Pooja only gave her a glare, handing her a dress. “Wear this.” Ananya stared at her blankly. “Wait what? I was under the assumption that all I had to do was be lonely at a table nearby to make sure that he’s not an axe murderer.”
“He isn’t an axe murderer, and he said he’s bringing a friend.” Ananya shook her head slowly, backing away. “No, no, Pooja, I don’t want to go on a date with some random guy I don’t even know!”
“Come on, Anu, you promised!” Pooja pleaded. Ananya stared at her for a long moment before sighing heavily, taking the dress. “Fine. I’ll come.” Pooja grinned, giving her a hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! I love you!”
An hour later, they waited at Tutto’s Pasta for a table. The restaurant was packed, loud and noisy since it was a Friday night. The waiters squeezed past, flashing them apologetic smiles every time they accidentally bumped them.
“Pooja?” They turned to see a well-built man with dark hair, wearing khakis and a baby blue button down that matched his eyes. Behind him, stood a tall man wearing a fitted light grey tshirt over dark jeans, playing on his phone. Ananya’s eyes widened as Pooja stepped forward to give Michael a hug.
“You…” He looked up, and she found herself looking into dark eyes that lit up in recognition.
“This is Ananya.” Ananya gave Michael a smile as she shook his hand, before turning to Raj. His face was impassive, showing no obvious signs that he knew her. “Pleasure to meet you, Ananya.” He put a slight emphasis on her name, giving her a slightly crooked smile. Pooja glanced between them, but the waitress interrupted, taking them to a table.
Pooja immersed herself in a conversation about photography with Michael. Ananya was surprised by the ease of their conversation, something she would never have expected with two people who met on some ridiculous dating app. She listened quietly, not wanting to intercede on a conversation she didn’t know much about.
“So what do you believe about feminism?” Ananya turned towards Raj when she heard his question. His eyes were fixed on her. She looked at him in confusion, and he added, “we’re here, I figure we might as well make conversation.”
Ananya regarded him for a moment, wondering whether he was genuinely interested or not. “I believe women are significantly disenfranchised in many parts of the world, and that feminism is necessary.”
“So you wouldn’t agree with the term ‘feme-nazi’, or the idea that feminists are far too radical?” He pressed, a glint in his eyes. She knew he was goading her. “No, I wouldn’t agree with the term.” She kept her voice carefully steady, devoid of any inflamed passion that would get her into an unnecessary argument with someone just playing Devil’s Advocate. He looked at her for a long moment, a smirk playing at his lips.
“You’re just dying to lace into me, aren’t you?” She narrowed her eyes. “You asked for my opinion, and I gave it.” She said curtly. There was a tense silence before she looked up, pinning him under a challenging gaze. “What do you think about feminism, Rajshekhar?” She asked, mimicking the way he had said her name earlier. She saw a glint of amusement appear in his eyes at her use of his full name. He held her gaze, considering her.
“I think that no movement is successful without a more radical side, especially one that is going up against thousands of years of status quo.” He said, surprising her. She hadn’t expected him to be honest about his thoughts. He shrugged. “Look, women aren’t on an equal playing field in many areas, even in a country like the United States. It’s way worse in other parts of the world, but it is shameful that women don’t even get paid the same as men for the same work. In a country that prides itself on progressive values, we aren’t really progressive.”
“Is that your political philosophy as well?” He smiled wryly, shaking his head. “I don’t vote on social ideas. You cannot realistically make a social change by electing such and such politician. Society has to change, and no politician can do that. I vote economically.”
“I don’t agree with your theory on social change not coming from politics but I’ll set that aside for now. But let me guess. You’re a purist when it comes to capitalism and don’t believe in any outside forces regulating the markets, and therefore, regardless of how dire the situation is, you believe the market will right itself.” Raj laughed, raising his hands. “You’re right. I am. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I support complete deregulation. In terms of the environment for example, regulation is necessary.”
“But where do you draw the line?” She pointed out, “there’s no way you can say that this type of regulation is ‘okay’ while this isn’t without eventually ending up with too much.” He tilted his head, opening his mouth to rebut her comment. They went back and forth, discussing the nature of politics and arguing over social and economic theories. She barely realized the time, hardly paying attention to her food or their other dinner companions.
“Ananya!” Pooja interrupted, nudging her. Ananya turned halfway through a sentence, slightly annoyed. Pooja raised an eyebrow. “We paid for the checks like ten minutes ago.” Ananya’s mouth parted, and she glanced back at Raj who looked equally taken aback. Shaking herself, she stood up from the table, adjusting her dress as they walked out together.
Pooja was leaning into Michael, and they walked a couple of steps ahead of Raj and Ananya. They walked in silence, not really feeling the need to say anything as the cool night air washed over them. When they finally arrived at their dorm, Ananya lingered back, allowing Pooja and Michael to have a moment together.
She felt his presence in front of her and looked up, forced to tilt her head to accommodate his height. His mouth curved up into a smile, and he stuck out his hand for her to shake.
“It was a pleasure conversing with you. I hope I’ll see you around… Ananya Iyer.” He said, letting her name roll off of his tongue. She placed her hand in his, giving it a firm shake.
“I’ll see you around, Rajshekhar.” She let go of his hand just as Michael came up to them, and walked over to Pooja. She stopped at the door, turning around and calling out. “Did you ‘just do it’ yet?”
He stared at her blankly for a moment before realizing what she was referring to. He rolled his eyes, breaking out into a laugh at her wording and nodding. “I did.” She smiled, and gave him a wave before slipping inside. He watched after her with a smile pulling at his lips, before turning around and walking away.
Ananya struggled to draw her gaze away from Raj’s. His mouth held a ghost of a smile. He tore his gaze away and turned to the table, “I stand by my principles. Free-market capitalism is the most successful.”
Ananya rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “I still disagree. Free-market capitalism never works. But it’s cute that you still think it does.” She smiled sweetly, ignoring his scoff. He opened his mouth to argue back but was interrupted by the waitress, cutting off his retort.
“Seriously, on a blind date, the two of you got into an argument about capitalism and economic theory?” Anand asked. Ananya was about to respond but Pooja interceded, “It’s Ananya and Raj. What else do you expect?” She said dryly. They stilled at her words even as the conversation continued around them. She snuck a glance at Raj, only to find him looking back at her.
His expression didn’t change, his eyes guarded as he looked away. She swallowed, turning away from him as she immersed herself in the conversation, pushing away the wistfulness.
She stood at the bus stop just outside the restaurant, wrapping her arms around herself. She could still hear the noise from inside the building, the music and the laughter coming through the thin windows. She cursed her decision to wear a strapless dress and forget her cardigan, the night air sending goosebumps up her skin. She shivered, rubbing her arms.
They all had agreed to meet up again at Summerfest, to see Anand perform. Pooja went home with Aman and Natasha with Anand, while Raj had gone home alone. They had offered her a ride, but she hadn’t wanted to third wheel with either one of them, and she usually took the bus anyway.
A beat up car rolled up to her, making a U-turn as it pulled into the street. Raj got out of it, his face stoic. She looked at him in confusion.
“Get in the car.” He said curtly. She looked at him, shaking her head. “I’m fine, you can leave.” She said politely, turning away. She heard him sigh behind her, his footsteps approaching her. “You live near the Capitol, right? Let me give you a ride. I live near there, it’s on my way.”
She shook her head again, not wanting to impose on him. She knew he was just offering to be nice, even if he was still furious with her. “Really, Raj, I’m fine. I’ll just take the bus-”
“Would you just get in the car?” He snapped. She stared at him in shock and he ran a hand through his hair. “Look, I don’t want to leave you alone this late at night. Either I wait with you until the bus comes, or I just give you a ride home, and it’s much faster to just give you a ride.” She hesitated before sighing heavily, acquiescing.
“Thank you.” He said, a hint of relief in his voice. He swung open the door for her and she stared at him, and he jerked his hand towards the car. She quickly sat down, sitting stiffly in the seat as he turned on the car and drove away.
They were silent, with only the whirr of the car interrupting it. Cool air whipped her in the face, a strange sense of calm settling over her as they drove down the empty road. She heard a click and turned, seeing Raj fiddling with the stereo. The smooth voice of the late night jazz announcer on NPR filled the air, the smooth baritones of a saxophone filling the air around them.
She raised an eyebrow and he shrugged. “Still like jazz?” She asked quietly.
He nodded. “Always.” She smiled, relieved by the familiarity of the knowledge. She leaned back, settling in more comfortably and closing her eyes, letting the music wash over her.
Raj glanced over at Ananya, a pang of longing shooting through him. Her lashes rested against her cheeks, a contented half smile on her lips. They had spent many nights like this, just driving around Madison when there was no one on the roads, enjoying the freedom and space the night brought. There was no need for words. There never had been, between them.
That was one of the things he had liked the most about her. They could sit in silence, without feeling the need to fill the space.
He shook off the thoughts. He disliked the acute nostalgia that took hold of him whenever she was around, making him wish for what had been. He hated that he couldn’t just get over her, and God knew that he had tried over the last three years.
Despite dating around occasionally, no one else had ever quite made him feel the way she did. And now that she was back, the longing was even more acute.
He restrained a growl of frustration, hitting his palm against the steering wheel.
Why couldn’t he just forget her?
He slowed as he came to her area, unsure of which apartment building was hers. He turned to look at her, only to find that she had fallen asleep. He watched her for a moment as she slept, her head lolling to the side as an amused smile played at his lips.
Of course she had fallen asleep. It was a habit of hers. She would fall asleep whenever she was in the car, her eyes drooping as her body slid down the seat, her head leaning against the window.
He gently shook her and she blinked up at him groggily. He found himself paralyzed by her dark eyes, drawing him in.
He looked away, clearing his throat. “Which one of these is yours?” She straightened, shaking herself as she squinted. She pointed at one and he pulled up, stopping the car. They sat for a moment, before she grabbed her purse, getting out of the car.
“Thanks for the ride.” She paused. “Do you want to come up?” She offered hesitantly. He shook his head, and she felt the confusing mixture of relief coupled with disappointment. “I have to get to lab early tomorrow.” They stood around for another moment, before she smiled warmly.
“Have a nice night, Raj.” He nodded, and she turned and disappeared into the building. With a heavy sigh, he pulled away, frustrated with himself for not being able to hold himself away from her. He slowed to a stop a couple of blocks away, leaning back in his seat.
The light from inside the building cast a glow over his car as the saxophone crooned around him, leaving him with a deep ache that had been his companion for three years.
He should have just gotten over her.
But it was never that easy.
Song: The Nearness of You
Artists: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
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