Note: Flashbacks are in maroon italics.
“So what’s this I hear about Ananya Iyer being back in town?”
“Hi Di, it’s nice to talk to you too.” Raj said dryly, ignoring his sister’s first question. He could almost see Anjali making a face on the other side, her laughter floating through the phone. “Hi Raj. How are you?” She asked with false politeness. He grinned, “Fine, and you?”
“Your nephew is driving me up the wall. Can you say hi to Raj Mama, Nicholas?” Raj heard his nephew’s high pitched giggle, followed by a few indistinguishable gurgles. “Di, do you have to call him Nicholas? It’s such a big name for a baby. Call him Nick.” His sister made a sound of disapproval. He could hear a toy rustling in the background, a squeal coming from his nephew.
“Sorry, he kept trying to grab the phone. I like Nicholas, that’s why I named him that. If I wanted to name him Nick, I would have named him Nick.”
“You named him Nicholas because Javi is Hispanic, and no one uses ‘Nick’ in Spanish speaking countries.”
“Exactly. What’s the point of naming him Nicholas if I just call him Nick anyway?” Raj rolled his eyes. “Whatever Di, I still think Nicholas is too large a name for a baby so tiny.”
“He isn’t so tiny anymore. He has me chasing him all over the house on those little legs.” He could hear the pride in his sister’s voice as she spoke of her son, and he couldn’t help but smile as well.
He and Anjali were close, but he hadn’t spoken to her in a while. They were five years apart. Anjali had gotten married to Javier Zavala during Raj’s final year of undergrad, who she had met during medical school. Their son, Nicholas, was now a year old.
“How are you handling Ananya being back?” His sister asked gently. He remained quiet, and she waited with characteristic patience. He took a deep breath, forcing a smile onto his face. “It’s fine. Appa had a heart attack, so she came back to stay with them. I believe she’s working at Promega. We actually went out to dinner the other day with a few other people.” His sister stayed quiet for a moment, and he could almost feel her gaze on him. “That’s good. But I asked how you were handling it.”
He should have known that Anjali wouldn’t let him escape the question. He sighed, rubbing his fingers across his temple. “I don’t know, Di. It’s weird seeing her again. I had heard through the grapevine that she was back… but to see her again was just…” He took an unsteady breath, leaning back against the couch.
“You… never told me what went wrong.” She said. He stilled, surprised that she had said that.
“We were all… stunned when you broke up.” Anjali continue hesitantly. He didn’t say anything. Anjali had never spoken about it, respecting his silence. “I was sure you were going to propose. Amma had even told me you had spoken about it, and I remember you vaguely broaching the topic with me too. You were so nervous. I was almost ready to give you shit for getting married before me.” She laughed, and he couldn’t help but smile with her. She fell silent. “And then… you just said she had moved to New York and that it wasn’t working out between you two and that was that.”
Raj listened quietly as Anjali reflected on what had happened. He knew his sister had wanted to know, but she had given him space, not pushing him for more information. He hadn’t told anyone the truth about what had happened between him and Ananya. Some things were meant to stay private between Ananya and him.
This was about them — only them.
He knew his family would resent her if they knew…
So why hadn’t he told them?
Why did he care what they thought of her?
“Raj?” Anjali interrupted his thoughts softly. He shook his head, clearing the thoughts from his mind. “It’s fine Di. It wasn’t meant to work out. If it was, we would have found our way back to each other. I just wasn’t expecting to come face to face with her then.”
Anjali hummed, but she didn’t sound entirely satisfied. She started to respond, but was interrupted by a loud wail from Nicholas. He could hear Anjali cooing to him, speaking softly to his nephew as the wail quieted.
“It seems as if Nicholas here is hungry. Let me go get him a bottle.” Anjali paused, her voice softening. “You should call more often. And make sure to call Amma, she said she’s only spoken to you for five minutes at a time every day.”
“Amma worries too much.” Raj said, fondness tinging his voice. “But I will call her.” Anjali laughed. Nicholas had stopped crying, apparently content with the bottle in his mouth. “Did Amma tell you? She’s started a South Indian catering business.” Raj snorted, vaguely amused. “Is she trying to compete with all the Gujju aunties?”
“You know it’s true. What did Papa say?” Raj asked. “He threw up his hands and gave up. Amma’s gotten it into her head, and you know, when she has something in mind…”
“Does she have him making fliers or something?” He heard Anjali choke on her laughter, and grinned. It was so typical of their parents.
“She made Papa sit and cut those rip off number fliers and stick them wherever he could. But he doesn’t mind being her taste tester.”
“Of course he doesn’t. He gets his vada sambar doesn’t he?” Anjali sighed, and he could hear the frustration. “I keep telling him to take better care of his health. He says he wants to live a good life, even if it’s short. I just don’t know what to say to him.”
“How were his last reports?” Raj asked.
“They were fine, so he thinks that he doesn’t need to reduce all this ghee and sugar he eats. I swear, the man would eat an entire box of sugar if you put it in front of him.”
“I wonder where else I’ve seen that.” Raj said wryly. Anjali made a noise of protest.
“At least I eat in moderation! Papa insists on eating as much as he possibly can. It’s not like I’m telling him to cut it out completely, I know that’s a useless goal.”
“At least he isn’t eating his ideal diet: dal makhani with parathas and lots of butter and ghee. Amma never quite mastered the Punjabi cuisine.”
“Oh god, there was that one time she tried to put mustard seeds in the chole. Amma should stick to her South Indian khana. Thank god that’s all she’s catering.”
“Has she been sending care packages up for Javi too? With his favorite avial?”
Anjali nodded, laughing. “You would think I’m the one that’s Mexican with how much he loves Indian food.”
They fell silent, simply enjoying the company on the other side of the phone.
“I miss you, Di.” He said, swallowing the lump in his throat. He heard Anjali’s smile in her voice, “I miss you too, Raju.”
“God, do you have to call me that?” Anjali grinned, taking pleasure in her brother’s annoyance. “I’m your big sister. It’s my job to annoy you.” Raj couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face. Nicholas interrupted their conversation with a sharp cry, and he could hear Anjali murmuring to him on the other side, trying to calm him.
“Sorry Raj, Nicholas is being fussy. I’ll have to go.” She said regretfully.
“Bye, Di. Go feed Nick.” He could feel his sister rolling her eyes as she laughed, putting down the phone with a click.
His phone rang almost immediately after he put it down, and he picked it up without glancing at the screen. “Yeah Di?”
The line was silent on the other side, before he heard her voice come through hesitantly. “Hi Raj. It’s Ananya.” He froze, stunned at hearing her voice. “Raj?” Her voice crackled as it came through. “Yeah, I’m here.” He said gruffly, clearing his throat.
“I’m sorry to bother you so early on a Saturday morning.”
“It’s fine, I was awake anyway. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine.” She hesitated. “I was calling to see if you would be able to give me a ride to Summerfest. Pooja was supposed to, but Kamala Aunty dragged Aman and her down to Chicago yesterday for wedding shopping and they’re going straight to Milwaukee.” She took a breath, sighing. “Anand and Natasha are already there, and I didn’t know anyone else who was going to see Death Cab by Cutie, and I don’t have a car… so I figured I’d try your number.”
The silence on his end seemed to last forever. She felt like she was holding her breath for his response.
Should she have even asked?
She berated her decision mentally, wondering why she had asked. They were barely on speaking terms, and she didn’t even know him anymore. But it had almost been an unconscious decision on her part, her fingers dialing the number before she even had a chance to think about it.
“Yeah, sure.” He said, before she could think about it any further. She let out the breath she had been holding, a relieved smile spreading across her face. She heard him exhale, before his voice came through again. “I can pick you up around 10, is that okay?” Her relief came through the phone, gratitude in her voice.
“Yes, that’s fine. I’ll wait outside my apartment. Thank you so much, Raj.”
“No problem. I’ll see you at ten.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you then.” She said softly. He heard the click of the phone as she hung up, her voice still a faint echo.
He let out a long breath, apprehensive at the idea of spending almost three hours in a car with her.
Ananya saw his car pull up to the apartment building, sputtering a little as it came to a stop. His eyes were covered by his shades, his expression completely neutral as he leaned over and pushed open the door for her. She slid in, giving him a smile.
“Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it.” She said sincerely, clicking in the seat belt. He nodded briefly, revving up the car and pulling away.
They sat in silence for a while, unsure of what to say to each other. He had NPR as background noise, the voices of the broadcasters inaudible with the low volume. She looked out of the window, drawing her own sunglasses over her eyes.
“You still have this car?” He nodded, running his hand over the steering wheel. “Yup. My 1999 Mercedes E320 4-Matic.” A proud smile tugged at his lips, shining through his words. Ananya smiled, shaking her head. “This thing needs to be replaced. It is so old.”
“Shh! She can hear you.” Raj said dramatically, fondly touching the dashboard as he pulled onto the freeway. Ananya raised an eyebrow, amused. “How old are you, five?” Raj shot her a mock glare, glancing over at her. “When it comes to her, I am.” He said seriously, easing into a comfortable speed. “You haven’t changed a bit when it comes to your car, have you?” She asked, leaning back into the chair and closing her eyes.
“I guess not.” He said quietly, staring straight ahead. They fell silent. “I can drive, if you want. You can drive on the way back.” Ananya offered, breaking the silence. Raj scoffed. “You? Driving this baby?” Ananya protested indignantly. “Hey, I am a good driver, okay?”
He glanced at her, a smirk playing at his lips. “Really? Can you even see over the dashboard?” He heard her huff, and she rolled her eyes. “Wow. Very original, Raj. I’ve never heard that one before.” He grinned boyishly, looking over at her.
Her gaze narrowed. “And for the record, I drove this car damn well the last time I drove it.” He raised an eyebrow. “Well? You parked over two spots.” Her voice grew higher as she spluttered feebly. “That didn’t happen when I drove, that happened after.” He laughed. “Now who’s the five year old?”
She shrugged. “Still you.” His mouth fell open at her audacity, and he turned to find an impish gleam in her eyes. “Eyes on the road, Malhotra.” She chided mockingly, and he glowered at her before turning his gaze back, even as a grin twitched at the edge of his lips.
He found himself glancing over at her occasionally as they settled into a comfortable silence, studying her profile briefly. A contented smile rested on her lips as she brushed her hair behind her ear, leaning her head against the seat.
It felt good to let go of the tension between them, even if it was only for the moment. He hesitated, wondering if he should continue the conversation further. He chuckled sardonically in his head, musing over how much things had changed. He was debating whether he should even have a conversation with her.
Three years ago, he wouldn’t have even imagined that their relationship would someday look like this.
He swallowed, glad that his sunglasses covered his eyes. She had always been able to read him, and he somehow knew that she would still be able to. They had known each other far too well. He fiddled absentmindedly with the radio, turning it until he hit the station he knew she liked. She looked over at him, surprised.
He cleared his throat. “I take it that your terrible taste in music hasn’t changed?” He asked. She shook her head, smiling faintly. “I still like the pop music and Bollywood.” She paused, thinking through her list of music. He nodded, turning up the volume slightly.
“Oh, I also listen to jazz,” she added, before she could think the better of it. She felt him still beside her, the tension rising. “Jazz… because…” She trailed off, wondering if she should backtrack.
“Late night jazz on NPR?” He asked, looking over at her. She smiled. “Guilty.” She hesitated. “You always used to play it when we were driving home from dinner or out late at night.” She said, nostalgia tinging her voice. She shrugged. “I guess I just kept listening to it even after we…” She paused again, drawing a deep breath. “After we parted ways.” She said, the words spilling from her lips.
Raj’s stomach tightened at her words. He sensed that she was trying to be careful, tiptoeing around what couldn’t be avoided. He heard her breathe in, her lips pressed together as she fell silent.
There was a long moment of silence as He exhaled slowly, making a decision. “You grew on me too. I find myself listening to the crap you listen to.” He said casually, even as his heart squeezed nervously in his chest. She turned sharply, taken aback by his open acknowledgment of their past.
She didn’t respond for a long moment, simply staring at him. He turned to look at her, giving her a slight smile. “I can’t avoid it forever, Anya. Not when you’re around.” He said quietly, shrugging. She didn’t say anything, letting the thought sink in. “I… it happened. We’re in the same city again, we just can’t avoid it anymore.”
“I wasn’t the one who wanted to avoid it.” She said, slightly defensively. She saw his jaw tighten and moved to fix her error. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have… this was the problem. It takes two to tango, doesn’t it?” He relaxed imperceptibly, nodding as the words sank in.
It did take two to tango.
But he had only blamed her.
He looked out of the window, thinking of the one time she had shown up at his doorstep, three months after their breakup.
Her voice rang in his head, hurt permeating from her words.
She stood outside of his apartment, staring at the door that she had once opened without hesitation. Her heart pounded against her chest, nervousness rushing through her.
She determinedly raised her hand to press the doorbell before she lost her nerve. She heard his voice call out from inside, his footsteps ringing against the floor as he approached.
He froze when he saw her, the floor dropping out from underneath him. She stood in front of him, playing with her fingers the way she always did when she was nervous. Her eyes were lined with dark circles, and she looked thinner than usual. Her eyes had lost their usual luster, her smile wan.
He could see the guilt and regret in her eyes. He resisted the flood of emotion that urged him to take her into his arms and put it behind them. Her brutal words rang in his ears, reminding him of what she had said.
He couldn’t forgive her.
She looked up at him, brushing a lock of hair out of her face.
“Raj?” His name came out as a question, her voice trembling slightly from her nerves. He shook himself out of his reverie.
“Ananya.” He said stonily, opening the door a crack further to let her in. She shuffled in, taken aback by the use of her full name. She ached to hear the familiar nickname rolling off of his tongue, but she knew she wouldn’t hear it.
They stood in tense silence for what seemed like hours, even as only a minute ticked by. She regarded him subtly, drinking him in. He was dressed in grey sweatpants and a deep red sweatshirt, his hair mussed. His laptop was tossed over the couch, and she could see the papers he had been shuffling through.
She had missed him, missed the comforting scent that was so distinctly him that lingered with her. She swallowed, forcing the feelings that threatened to overwhelm her away.
He sighed, his jaw tight as he spoke.
“What do you want?”
She was stunned by the harshness in his voice, a stark contrast to the fondness she was used to. She had heard his voice so many times in the last month, squeezing her heart painfully as she struggled to forget him for just those few months.
You did this for the best, she reminded herself. This will all be over soon, and you can go back to…
The words sounded hollow to her own ears, her heart calling out the truth. She shook her head when he looked at her impatiently.
“I wanted to apologize.” She said softly. He stilled, his face growing hard.
“You want to what?” She flinched at the sharpness in his voice, his eyes flashing dangerously. She swallowed, shoving her indignation at his tone out of the way.
“I wanted to apologize. I needed space, but… I should have dealt with it better. But I was frustrated and fed up of playing tug of war. I know that doesn’t excuse the way I acted, but I-“
“That’s nice, Ananya. I’m glad you realized that.” He interrupted, sarcasm lacing his tone. She ignored him, pushing forward even as an uneasy feeling settled in her stomach. She took a deep breath, willing him to realize how much she meant the words even as she knew they weren’t nearly enough.
“I’m sorry.” She said, blinking back tears. “I am so, so sorry Raj. I have been miserable. I-“
“I don’t want to hear it.” He snapped. She recoiled, her eyes widening in shock. He stepped forward, seething with hurt and anger.
“I don’t want to hear your excuses. I don’t want to hear your apologies. I don’t want any of it. You said we were done, and I have accepted that.”
She stood stunned, tears rapidly pooling in her eyes. She shook her head frantically, and a seed of doubt crept up in his mind.
Had he misinterpreted her?
He couldn’t have. He couldn’t have, not after all that she had said. He roughly pushed the doubt away, even as she spoke desperately.
“No Raj, I didn’t mean forever, I just meant that I needed some time off from this to see what I really wanted. I know what I want now.”
She smiled, blinking back her tears.
He stared at her. Her eyes pleaded with him to understand, but he couldn’t muster up the will to. He hated her for what she had done, for throwing away four years as if it had been nothing. For tossing aside all of their plans on a whim, for forgetting that they were in this together. A slow, sardonic smile spread across his lips, his words unforgiving.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
She looked as if she had been punched in the stomach, the wind knocked out of her at his words. Her eyes were shattered, the glimmer in them extinguished. Part of him desperately clung to the beacon of hope that she was telling the truth about just wanting some time to think.
But then she would have asked for that, wouldn’t she?
“I never wanted this breakup to be forever, Raj. I thought… I thought it was just temporary. I just needed some time to think. I needed some time away. But I guess…” Her voice broke, her eyes wet and rimmed with red. He looked resolutely away, hating the sight of her tears.
“You can’t just decide whenever you want to do whatever you want. Either you’re in, or you’re out, and you made it clear that you were out.” He thrust the words at her harshly, even as his heart protested.
She stared at him for a long moment, then straightened, wiping her eyes.
“I’m sorry I disturbed you. I’ll leave.” She said, her voice aching. He didn’t turn around. “I’ll see you around, Raj.” She said quietly. The soft click of the door rang loudly in the empty room, and he finally turned around, staring after her disappeared shadow.
He walked slowly to the door, cracking it open. He could feel the bubble of hope that she would be standing there, waiting for him. It would be okay, she would be there and he could-
The doorway was empty.
She wasn’t there.
His heart fell to his feet, disappointment searing through him. He closed his eyes.
Had she really just wanted some time to think?
Had he jumped too fast to concluding that it was final?
He swallowed the guilt, shaking his head. He couldn’t have been wrong. She had said she wanted to breakup.
He closed the door, but not before turning one last time, staring at the receding light.
He had been heartbroken at the time, still devastated by their breakup. It hadn’t sunk in yet, despite all of his efforts to remove her from his life. He had been blindsided by their split, her angry words etched deep into his heart.
And he had let that blind him to the fact that she had tried to make amends.
He hadn’t wanted to see her, hear the brokenness that matched his in her words. He didn’t want to accept that maybe, just maybe she was as broken as he was about this. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to do this, maybe he had been too quick to react.
He didn’t want to face that.
Because blaming her made it so much easier.
He drew an unsteady breath, letting it out slowly. He had eventually just pushed all of his resentment down, never bothering to consider any explanation. She hadn’t tried calling after that, and he had taken that as a cue. She would have tried harder if she had wanted to.
“You never called.” He said, hating the hurt that still stung his voice. “You… you never did after that day, you never came back after that day you… you stopped by.” He struggled to get the words out, the pain surprisingly raw. He hadn’t expected it to be an open wound. He had thought that time had healed it, even if he hadn’t bothered to deal with it.
But he was wrong. It hurt, just as badly as it had then. All of the resentment he felt came flooding out, and he struggled to keep that from his voice. She stared at him, emotions flitting across her face. She seemed to think over her words for a long moment. She spoke simply, her words causing him to turn sharply to her.
“You didn’t either.”
Song: Lamhe Guzar Gaye
Artist: Anupam Roy
Movie: Piku (2015)
Note: Thank you so much for all the good wishes! The exam was hard, so we’ll see how it turns out, but it was so lovely to read all of your comments (especially about the page of photos 😉 )
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