You didn’t either.
Her words hung in the air, heavy with lost promises. “Even… even when my book was published.” She added as an afterthought, whispering it to herself. He stilled, stunned by the hurt in her voice. She clearly hadn’t intended him to hear the last part, as she leaned her head against the cool window, her breath fogging it up.
“I didn’t think you wanted me to call.” He replied, his voice gruffer than he had intended. A slight grin tugged at her lips.
“Haven’t I told you that women never say what they actually mean?” He could hear the slight hitch in her voice behind the mirth, and knew that she was trying to hide the hurt that she had revealed. He stared out at the straight road, his voice soft when he spoke next.
“Perhaps you should say what you mean then.” She turned to look at him with an unreadable look.
“Perhaps I should.” She said quietly.
They didn’t speak for a long time after that. He looked over at her occasionally as she stared out of the window, her eyes following the rows of corn.
He leaned his head against the seat, his foot driving into the accelerator a little more. Her words echoed in his head, forcing him to confront what he had ran from for three years.
He hadn’t thought she cared. He had never been able to give her the silent treatment when they were dating because she had never let him. She would pester him until he finally gave in out of sheer annoyance. She would attempt to hide the smile tugging at her lips, the happiness that he had finally spoken to her evident on her face.
She had never been able to hold herself to giving him the silent treatment either.
He had expected her to call after she had left that night, at least once. He had expected her to try one more time, push him into letting go of his anger the way she always did.
But she had never called.
He hadn’t focused on it explicitly but it was always there, the emptiness sitting at the back of his mind. And now that she was back it had all come rushing back, every emotion that he had suppressed.
He hadn’t called her either.
“I’m sorry.” He said quietly, keeping his eyes pointedly on the road. She stilled, her heart stopping.
“I… I was hurting. I know it doesn’t… change how I reacted. But… I should have heard you out.” He took a breath, running a hand through his hair. Her gaze was pinned on him but he didn’t meet it, preferring to focus on the open road ahead. He swallowed audibly, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
She shook her head. “No, Raj. I shouldn’t have done what I did. We both made mistakes.” She paused. “It’s in the past. There isn’t any point talking about what we can’t change, other than to recognize that we both made mistakes.” He looked over at her, giving her a surprisingly warm smile. She smiled back at him before turning her gaze back to the window.
“So are you writing another book?” She nodded, excitement lighting up her eyes. “I am. Remember how I talked about writing a real romance? That’s what I’m doing. It’ll be a series of three books, where I steadily build on their relationship.”
“Yeah, I recognized some of the things we talked about in Isabelle and Andrew’s friendship, where you removed the cliches and replaced them with reality.” He said, not noticing how her eyes had widened in surprise. When she didn’t respond, he turned to look at her questioningly.
“You read my book.” She said, in almost disbelief.
He looked at her for a long moment, surprised that she didn’t think he had. “Of course I did. Did you think I wouldn’t?” He asked.
She hesitated, before nodding slowly. “I didn’t think that after what happened… you would want to.”
He remained quiet for a moment. “I did read. I promised you I would, didn’t I?” She met his gaze, recognizing the familiar support he had always given her. Her heart warmed.
“Thank you.” She said sincerely He looked over at her, and she smiled, trying to convey her gratitude. “It means a lot to me.” She didn’t tell him that the memory of his support was sometimes all that had pushed her through writing the book.
He flashed her a smile, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Although… I think you owe me something for it.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Owe you something? Please, tell me what I owe you.”
He considered it for a moment. “As yet, my book is still unsigned…” He said seriously.
She broke into laughter, shaking her head. “You want my signature? Really Raj?”
He shrugged. “Hey, if you get famous, I sell the book and get rich.”
“Who said I’m not already famous?” She said impishly. He simply shook his head, unable to hold back the chuckle. His heart felt lighter as allowed himself to let down the guard he held up around her, dipping his toes into the friendship they had once shared. Their laughter died down slowly, lingering in the air.
“What have you been doing over the last couple of years?” She asked, curiosity getting the better of her.
He shrugged. “Nothing much, really. I’m halfway through my PhD.”
“Are you still doing blood-brain-barrier research?”
“Yes, actually… I partnered with a pharmaceutical company to work on modeling drugs after nicotine, since it’s one of the few substances that can make its way through the blood brain barrier. You’re also working with Promega, right?”
“Yup. My mom was correct about writing being a difficult career path… so I’m doing research at Promega.”
“I take it that mollified Amma a little?” He asked dryly. She rolled her eyes. “Yes, since I have a real job now.” He only shook his head, amused by the familiarity in Radha Iyer. She hadn’t changed one bit in the last three years, from what he garnered.
“Eh. A halfway real job, anyway. Going into medicine… now that would have been a real job.” He said, tossing her a wink. Ananya laughed, throwing her head back. He couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his own face, joining her. Her shoulders shook, her face growing flushed as her laughter became silent.
His heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t a particularly funny moment, maybe not even funny at all, but all that mattered was that she found it funny and was laughing. He couldn’t help the soft warmth that spread through him at the realization that he had made her laugh.
All these years later, and she could still make him feel…
Her laughter slowly faded away, her cheeks darkening when she felt his gaze. She cleared her throat, offering him a slight smile.
“You should smile more often.” He said, the words out before he could think to hesitate. He drew in a sharp breath, realizing how easily they had slipped out. The air around them grew thick, as if both of them were holding their breaths.
He hastened to lighten the atmosphere, discomfited by the way his heart pounded in his chest.
“Agar mere paas dil hota na, toh tere smile pe pakka aa jata.”*
She laughed lightly, shaking her head in amusement.
“Quoting cheesy Bollywood movies now, Malhotra?” She teased nervously, trying to ease the tension.
“Naam toh aisa hi hai. I should just quit grad school and go into acting. I’m practically fated for it.” He joked.
“I told you right when I met you. You’re meant for Bollywood. All you need is a runaway train and a girl who’s about to miss it, and you’re all set.”
“I have you, don’t I? You’re already captive for the next half an hour.” He winked. She rolled her eyes, ignoring the little skip in her heartbeat at his glib statement.
“No thanks. I’ve already got enough scandal as a romance novelist. Becoming an actress would probably lead my mother to bypass Kirron Kher as the most dramatic mother of all time. Right now they’re just tied for the position.” She said dryly, earning a laugh from him.
The remaining half an hour passed by relatively quickly, with conversation flowing easily. She barely realized when they had pulled up to the Summerfest grounds, his car grinding to a stop. They sat still in the car for a moment, surprising themselves with how easily they had slipped back into their familiarity.
She glanced over at Raj. He gave her a quick grin, one that didn’t quite reach his eyes. She could see that he was unsettled, the lines tight around his mouth.
“That wasn’t half as bad as I expected it to be.” The right side of his mouth quirked up as he took off his shades, cleaning them. He shrugged, a slight twinkle in his eyes.
“I guess I’m just delightfully pleasant company.” She smiled, this time genuinely.
“Yeah, I guess you are.”
They stared at each other for a long moment, oblivious to the crowds around them. She was surprised by the intensity of the tug she felt towards him, her blood rushing through her ears. She found that she was unable to look away, her skin tingling pleasantly.
The mike squeaked loudly, breaking the haze. Her eyes widened and she hastily tore her gaze away, nervously brushing her hair behind her ear. She pulled at her t-shirt, the hot air seeming even muggier as it sweltered up from the ground.
“Shall we go?”
He nodded, gesturing for her to step before him. He watched her walk ahead for a little bit, her hair falling out of her braid and sticking to her neck in the heat. He swallowed, closing his eyes and letting out a breath.
So much for distance and time fading feelings.
He couldn’t believe that she still affected him this much.
He opened his eyes to realize she was waiting for him, squinting into the sun. He exhaled sharply, shaking himself a little before sliding his shades back on and following her to the stage. They pushed their way through the crowd towards the front where Anand had kept space for them. Even though Anand was just beginning to find his footing, the crowd was large, since Summerfest was the biggest music festival in the world.
“Anu!” Pooja bounded towards them as they came up to the stage, grasping Ananya’s hand and tugging her forward.
Raj stumbled into Ananya as they came to a stop, muttering an apology. She shook him off, clearly excited as she looked up at the mike check.
Natasha turned away from her conversation with Aman to give them a wave. Ananya smiled back, her eyes lit up. He couldn’t help but smile at her childish excitement as she stood next to Pooja, staring at the stage in wonder. He knew she rarely attended concerts, and the whole atmosphere was completely new to her.
“We’re going to go get some snacks and drinks before the concert starts.” Pooja informed them, taking some bills out of her wallet. “Does anyone want anything?”
“I’ll have a diet Coke.” Natasha handed her a bill, and Raj shook his head. Pooja waved to them, followed closely by Ananya and Aman as they disappeared into the crowd.
Raj turned, feeling Natasha’s gaze on him. Natasha simply raised an eyebrow when he met her gaze, curiosity bubbling out of her. Raj pointedly ignored her, staring at the stage.
“So you and Ananya made up?” She asked directly. He glowered, but she wasn’t fazed, pinning him with her gaze.
“We agreed that the past is the past.” He said curtly. Natasha regarded him for a moment.
He glanced at her. “Weren’t you the one lecturing me to put my resentment aside and get closure and all of that?”
“Yes. But three years of resentment solved in a one and a half hour car ride?”
He shrugged. “I apologized, she apologized, it’s done. We both made mistakes.”
“Really? That’s… surprisingly mature of you.”
“I’m always mature, Natasha Kaur.” Natasha shot him an incredulous glare, rolling her eyes. She didn’t let him off the hook, however, and he groaned when she continued to stare at him pointedly.
“Look, it takes a lot of work to hate someone you’re forced to spend one and a half hours within a contained space. It was just easier.”
“You didn’t seem to have a problem with that before.”
“I also wasn’t sitting in a car in our previous meetings.”
“Why did you agree to give her a ride anyway?” Natasha asked. Raj didn’t answer, hating the way she had pinpointed exactly the question he didn’t want to answer. She remained undeterred by his silence, carrying on as she kept her eyes on him. “It’s not like you had to. There was the bus. She could have asked to borrow her parents car-“
“Her dad needed it.”
“That still leaves the bus.” Natasha pointed out.
Raj sighed heavily. “Maybe I just agreed because I’m a nice guy. Force of habit. We’re going to the same damn place anyway, we might as well carpool.”
“Or maybe you like her more than you let on.”
He flinched, remembering the way her laugh had made his heart lurch the same way it had three years earlier. She still had that effect on him, no matter how much he tried to push it away.
“Are you sure that you’re not the romance novelist here, Natasha?”
She wasn’t amused by his deflection, choosing to ignore it. “Look, Raj. The tension in the room when you two are around skyrockets. You both clearly still have unresolved feelings for each other. Maybe you should talk it out.”
“We’re barely friends, Natasha. We’re friends by circumstance, because we had to sit in the same car together for an extended period of time with no one else for company.”
“You’re not denying it.”
“I’m not confirming it either.”
He remained frustratingly stubborn, refusing to admit to what he knew was true. Natasha sighed, shaking her head.
“Ananya Iyer is my ex-girlfriend who dumped me when I was going to propose to her, Natasha. I’m hardly inclined to be best friends with her, nor am I inclined to get into that boat again. I’ve had enough. We made conversation because were forced to, and that is it. There’s nothing more to it.” He said, taking a deep breath at the end of his rant.
But Natasha wasn’t looking at him, her concerned gaze focused on someone behind him.
He didn’t have to look back to know who it was.
“Here’s your diet Coke, Natasha.” Ananya said, her voice subdued as she handed it to her. Natasha took it silently, looking between the two of them. Raj could feel Pooja’s fierce glare on his back, her disgust for him barely concealed.
He turned slowly to see Ananya’s guarded expression, the light from her eyes gone. He wanted to kick himself for being insensitive, opening his mouth to explain what had happened. But before he could say anything she moved away, resuming her animated conversation with Pooja.
He closed his eyes, his heart surprisingly heavy as she avoided talking to him. He heard the strum of a guitar and reluctantly turned to the stage just as Anand walked on, catching him winking at Natasha.
As the concert began, Natasha turned to him, her perceptive gaze on him.
“Still just a matter of convenience?” She asked quietly.
He didn’t respond, choosing to ignore the statement and the dullness in his heart, focusing on the stage instead. But they wouldn’t be ignore, pressing at the back of his mind for him to pay attention.
“You don’t have to give her a ride home, Raj. I will.” Pooja said as the concert came to a close, her irritation with him poorly concealed. Ananya didn’t object, standing next to Pooja as she gave him a half smile.
“Thanks for giving me a ride here. I appreciate it.” She said politely, her voice devoid of the light teasing that had been there earlier. She turned to leave, following Pooja. Raj’s heart squeezed as she left without another word, her polite demeanor unnerving.
It wasn’t like she had expected them to be friends, was it?
He stared at her retreating figure for a long moment, before breaking into a jog. He easily caught up with them, grabbing Ananya’s arm.
“I owe you an apology.” He said quietly, tugging her to a stop. He could see Pooja waiting up ahead out of the corner of his eye.
She simply looked at him, shrugging. “It’s no big deal Raj, I get it. I deserve it. I hurt you badly, and I understand that.” She tried to leave but he pulled her back, bothered by her calm acceptance of the matter.
“No, Anya, I don’t mean… I didn’t mean… look, it came out badly, okay?”
“Alright, that’s fine.” He looked at her with a gaping mouth, unsure of how to deal with her. She was worryingly calm, not a sign of anger on her face.
“Fine. That’s it? You’re not upset? I was a jackass.” He probed, trying to get a response. She smiled tiredly.
“I have no right to be, Raj. I know I hurt you. I can’t change what I did. I get it, we’re not friends, we probably never will be. There’s too much between us.”
The inevitability she placed on the situation was surprisingly painful. His stomach clenched at the idea of them never even being friends again.
Wasn’t that what he had wanted though?
He had thought that he didn’t want to see her again, hear from her again, or ever have to deal with her again.
So why was the idea of that so upsetting?
Had he expected something… else?
He realized she was about to leave and he hastened to respond, insistent. “But I was a jackass. I shouldn’t have said that.”
She stared blankly at him, unable to comprehend him. “Do you want me to be mad at you?”
Raj ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “I just… I just wanted to apologize.”
She regarded him quietly. “Alright. I accept your apology.” She paused. “Is that all, or was there something else you wanted to tell me?”
Their eyes met. He could see the anticipation in her gaze, wondering if he would admit what they both intrinsically knew. He pressed his lips together, slowly shaking his head in the negative. He saw the twinge of disappointment in her eyes as she gave him a nod, turning to walk over to Pooja.
Pooja wrapped an arm around her, giving it a squeeze before they slid into her car. Ananya stared out of the window, catching sight of Raj’s disappearing figure in the window. She sighed heavily, rubbing her fingers across her forehead.
“Why didn’t you just take the bus this morning?” Pooja asked.
Ananya shrugged. “I thought I would try his number.”
Pooja hesitated, but her frustration boiled over. “Why are you doing this to yourself Ananya? He’s a jackass.” Her voice had an edge to it, the boundary clearly crossed by Raj’s statement from earlier.
“He’s not, Pooja.” Ananya said quietly. Pooja didn’t bother restraining her huff of irritation.
“Would you care to fill me in on why? Because right now, I’m a little baffled. I mean, it’s your life, but… I’m your friend and I care about you, so I’m just trying to understand why.”
Ananya stared out of the window, silent for a long time. She took a deep breath, turning to Pooja.
“Raj and my mom never got along. My mom thought he was a bad influence because he encouraged me to follow what I actually wanted to do and to stand up to her. He thought she was bullying me into submission, and never quite understood that it was just her parenting style. He was right to an extent, but…” She trailed off, swallowing painfully.
“Anyway. Shortly before Raj was going to propose, they got into an argument that just blew up. I… couldn’t handle it. It was too much, and I was tired of being in the middle of their tug of war. So I told Raj I needed a break, and I left for Columbia Med School to appease Amma.” She paused, thinking. “My parents are the only family I have. I didn’t want to lose them.” She added softly.
“He said I was throwing in the towel on four years of our relationship. That I couldn’t just leave when things became difficult, that we could work through this but I just… couldn’t, not right then, anyway. I never intended for it to be permanent. I just needed some time. But he was furious with me. Understandably so.”
Ananya gave Pooja a regretful smile, shrugging sadly. “So it ended up being permanent.” She became quiet, looking out of the window again.
“He has every right to be mad at me. I was a coward. I should have believed in us, and I didn’t.”
Pooja reached over with one hand, squeezing Ananya’s. Ananya gave her a wan smile, blinking back tears.
“I fucked up.” She said simply, regret evident in her tone. Pooja shook her head.
“No, you’re human. You made mistakes. But you owned up to tend. You’ve got to stop living with the weight of them on your chest, or you’ll never be happy, Anu.”
“Easier said than done, Poo.” Ananya said, the dig with her nickname lightening the sobering conversation.
“Will you ever stop with that damn nickname?”
“Nope.” She paused. “Have I told you I love you lately?” Ananya asked. Pooja shot her a grin, warmth in her eyes.
“Eh. Once or twice. I love you too, Anu. But do us all a favor and stop living in the damn past, will you?”
She met Pooja’s gaze, sighing heavily. “I’ll try.”
Pooja smiled, squeezing her hand reassuringly again. “Good. Want to stop for bad Italian food at Fazoli’s?”
Ananya grinned and nodded, turning her gaze out to the passing road.
Song: Yaariyan (Reprise)
Artists: Mohan Kanan and Shilpa Rao
Movie: Cocktail (2012)
* Quoted from Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani.
Note: And that’s it for today! I hope you enjoyed it –Yaariyan happens to be one of my favorite songs, so I was excited to use it. Please do let me know what you think, I love reading your comments 🙂 As usual, follow buttons for both email and through WordPress are on the right side — if you find that you aren’t getting notifications, try following and unfollowing.