Raj bit back a sigh as Pooja disappeared around the corner, leaving him alone with Ananya. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She was staring at the ground, fidgeting with the clothes in her hand. She seemed to be thinking about something, her lower lip pulled between her teeth familiarly.
He quickly averted his eyes away from her lips, silencing the assertive reminder of their kiss. He pressed his own lips together. He could still taste her lip balm, the sweetness of the vanilla painfully familiar.
An awkward silence settled between them, and Ananya sighed audibly. She rocked back on her feet, wrapping the tag around her finger. Out of her peripheral vision, she could see Raj absentmindedly playing with the top of the toaster oven box.
She pulled out her phone, quickly texting Pooja, who had completely disappeared.
How long did it take a girl to pee?
“Are you coming to the Young the Giant concert?” Raj interrupted as he adjusted Nicholas on his hip, his arms beginning to ache. Ananya quickly glanced at his arms.
“Let me help with that.” She set aside the clothes.
“No, no, I’m fine.” She gave him a look, and he reluctantly maneuvered to hand her the toaster oven. She set it down and reached her arms out for Nicholas. Raj looked at her in surprise, shaking his head.
“I can hold him.”
“I’d like to.” She said, her gaze earnest. He hesitated for a moment, looking down at the boy in his arms, who was contentedly leaning against him. He delicately adjusted him, murmuring to him.
“Nicky, do you want to go to Ananya… Mami?” He asked softly, turning towards Ananya. Ananya looked up at him in surprise at the term but didn’t say anything. He hadn’t reacted to the word, his gaze settling determinedly on his nephew.
She moved closer, and Raj caught a whiff of her perfume. He sucked in a breath, determinedly ignoring the nostalgia that caught him off guard.
“Hey Nicholas. Do you want to come to me so your Mama can rest his arms until Pooja Chitti gets back?” She spoke quietly so as not to startle him, but he burrowed himself into Raj’s chest, one eye still watching her warily.
Raj tilted his head at the bag that rested on his shoulder. “There’s a toy in there. I don’t know if he’ll take it, since he’s pretty sleepy after all the excitement this morning but…”
Ananya shook her head, pulling back. She smiled but he could see the disappointment that tinged her features.
They stood in silence for another long moment, with only the sound of the mall around them for conversation. Ananya glanced down at her screen as it lit up, Pooja’s name flashing across the top.
Pooja Nair: Hey sorry, I ran into an aunty with my mom. This looks like it’ll take a while. You’ll be okay right?
Ananya swore underneath her breath. She could feel Raj’s gaze on her, curious and unwavering. She looked up and gave him a quick smile before typing out a quick text.
Ananya Iyer: You owe me for this. You left me here with *him*. What the hell am I supposed to do?
Pooja Nair: I don’t know, maybe kiss him again?
Ananya Iyer: Haha. Haha. Hilarious, Pooj. Consider becoming a stand up comic.
Pooja Nair: I’m sorryy. Promise it won’t happen again. Love you. Also can’t respond now, Ma’s glaring at me.
Ananya Iyer: We’ll… be in the food court? Maybe? I don’t know. Just text me when you’re done.
She shoved her phone into a pocket, glancing back up at Raj.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah yeah, uh… Pooja ran into an Aunty and her mom so…” Raj made a noise of sympathy, rocking back on his feet slightly. There was another silence. Ananya drew in a deep breath, turning to look at him.
“Do you want to come to the food court with me?” She asked, the words coming out in a rush. He hesitated for a split second and then nodded.
They quickly made their way out of the store, buying the toaster oven and then making a beeline towards the Food Court. Ananya grabbed a table, pulling out a chair for Raj, who sank down into it with a grateful smile. Nicholas had fallen asleep on his shoulder, his head lolling to the side.
“Do you want something to eat?”
He shook his head, just glad to have sat down. She gestured towards the Cheesecake Factory, and he nodded, watching as she disappeared into the restaurant.
He hadn’t realized just how much his arms ached until he was able to take some of Nick’s weight off of his arms and onto his upper body, leaning back in the chair.
He glanced at the bathroom briefly, sighing. He didn’t want to wake Nick, but…
“Let me hold him.”
He jumped in surprise and she held out her hands, gritting her teeth in apology. “Sorry. I didn’t realize I would scare you.”
He shook his head, cradling the back of Nick’s head as he adjusted himself on the bench. She looked at him earnestly, her voice quieter.
“Seriously, use the restroom. I can hold him, Raj.”
He held her gaze for a long moment then glanced at the bathroom, letting out a sigh. He didn’t particularly want to rely on her this way, but since he was left no other choice…
“Fine.” He said curtly. Ananya pressed her lips together, ignoring the hurt that tugged at her.
He may not trust her, but it wasn’t as if she would hurt Nicholas.
He nodded at the bench for her to sit down, and she pushed the thoughts out of her mind. Raj gently transferred his nephew to her, careful not to wake him up, and then jogged off, leaving her to her thoughts.
She glanced down at the child in her arms, gingerly holding him. She slowly began to relax herself, loosening the stiffness in her stomach as she leaned against the bench, letting him rest against her. She lifted a hand to Nick’s hair, and then paused.
She shook her head, pushing away the hesitation as she ran a hand over his head, a soft smile on her face. He was warm and smelled like baby powder, and she inhaled deeply, her smile widening as the baby nestled closer into her, seemingly oblivious to her unfamiliarity in his deep sleep.
She barely heard his approaching footsteps, completely engrossed in the way Nick’s chest rose and fell evenly. He stopped short when he saw her, her head leaning slightly forward with Nick sprawled out across her, sleeping comfortably. The smile on her face softened her features, the tension that strained it when she was around him slipping away, leaving the Ananya that he had known in its place.
He exhaled, taken aback by the way his throat suddenly seemed too tight. She had always loved children, and he felt the sharp ache of a forgotten dream. He drew another unsteady breath, trying to clear the memories of conversations from his head.
“There’s a cloth in the bag in case he drools.” He said quietly. He avoided her gaze, digging in the bag and pulling it out. She flashed him a brief smile, taking the cloth from him.
“He’s a really easy baby.”
Raj snorted. “That’s because he isn’t crying right now.” He noted dryly. “But he is a good kid. I love taking care of him, I don’t mind babysitting at all.” He added with a fond smile, sitting down next to her.
“You’ve always been really good with kids though, so I’m not surprised.” She responded, glancing up at him. Her mouth snapped shut as soon as she finished the statement, a verbal acknowledgement of their knowledge of each other.
His heart constricted and he nodded. He could feel her gaze drifting to him occasionally, only to snap away as quickly as it came. He glanced at her and accidentally met her eyes, inhaling sharply. He didn’t have time to look away, meeting her eyes directly.
“I’m sorry.” She said quietly. She licked her lips, pulling her lower lip between her teeth as she looked away. Her voice was devoid of resentment and anger, two emotions that had infected their interactions since she had come back. It was simply exhausted.
“I know.” He responded, holding her gaze. “But it takes two to tango.” He added softly, the words holding a silent apology. He drew a breath, pressing his lips together. “We’ve both made mistakes.”
She nodded slowly, a brief smile flashing across her face.
“Shit happens. Sometimes, all we can do is flush it down the toilet and move on.” She mused, repeating Pooja’s words to her from earlier. Raj snorted, giving her a look.
“Was that piece of brilliance from Pooja?”
Ananya grinned, nodding. “How ever did you know?”
“Lucky guess.” He said dryly, shaking his head. They exchanged tentative smiles tinged with fondness for a mutual friend, the awkwardness between them one of uncertainty. They didn’t know quite how to behave with each other, struggling to place their relationship between the defined boundaries of friendship.
“I heard my name. What were you saying about me, Anu?” Pooja asked as she walked up, looking between them. Ananya smiled innocently.
“Nothing, just passing on that lovely analogy of shit and flushing it down the toilet and such.”
Pooja held her gaze for a moment longer, her smile softening. If Ananya had spoken about that to Raj, it had to mean that they had come to some sort of truce.
Ananya reciprocated with a half smile of her own, her shoulders relaxing. Pooja tilted her head, her gaze focused on the child in Ananya’s arms. Ananya followed her gaze downwards, raising it back up.
“Raj had to use the restroom, so I took Nick from him.” She explained. Her face softened as she looked back down at a peaceful Nick. “I don’t have the heart to move him.”
“If you’d like to stay for a little longer, I don’t mind sitting here for a bit. He should wake up soon anyway, he usually wakes up at least once during his nap.” Raj murmured, watching Ananya. Ananya looked up at him, and he swallowed nervously. He felt uncertain about the words, offering tentative friendship. She nodded once, a slight smile curving her lips.
“I’d like that. Do you mind, Pooja?”
Pooja shook her head, sinking down between Raj and Ananya. An odd sense of relief swept through her. She was glad that her best friend was taking steps to release herself from the chains of guilt that had weighed her down for three years.
It was about time.
Song: Tune Jo Kaha
Artists: Mohit Chauhan
Movie: New York (2009)
Note: I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get this up — between exams, work, and my internship, it has been very difficult to find time to write (if I want to sleep and have some resemblance of a social life as well 😀 ). But I promise I won’t abandon this story — I’m making slow but steady progress, and I promise I will update whenever I can.
Thank you for sticking with me, and much love always.