Raj jumped when he heard the lock turn in the door, turning away from the tomato sauce he had on the stove to look around the corner. He smiled widely, surprised.
“Hey! I didn’t think you were coming home tonight.” Raj said, wiping his hands on a towel as he greeted Anand. Anand raised an eyebrow at his apron, unable to hold back the loud shout of amusement.
“I’ll Whip You?” He asked, still laughing. Raj’s cheeks suffused with color.
“Shut up.” He muttered, running a hand through his hair. “It was at a garage sale and I kept going to work with shirts that smelled like oil so I picked it up for a dollar.”
“And that was the only one you could find? The plain black ones are like three dollars!”
“I didn’t know that at the time! It was back when you left for that month long tour so I had to learn how to cook.”
Anand continued to snicker, taking off his shoes as he walked into the apartment they shared. Raj gave him a curious look, tilting his head.
“Did you get into a fight with Natasha?” He asked, a slight hint of admonishment in his tone.
“No, Dad.” Anand retorted, rolling his eyes. “This is my apartment too.”
“Pretty sure you haven’t slept here once in the last year.” Raj pointed out, a smirk playing at his lips.
“Natasha doesn’t have you at her place.”
“That was your comeback?”
“Wow, they just keep getting better.”
Anand glared, sinking down onto the couch. Raj walked back over to the stove, turning it down and covering the sauce.
“I thought I’d stop by to give you the setlist.” Anand said as Raj sat down across from him. “It’s our last show here before we drive out to Minneapolis to perform. I might stay back and review some performances for that magazine though.” Anand added, his forehead creasing. Raj observed him quietly, and Anand looked up with a rueful smile.
“I want to pursue my dreams but… sometimes I can’t help but wonder if it’s worth it.” He said, shrugging. Raj sensed the tension behind his words as he took a deep breath, directing his gaze out at the kitchen.
“It’ll work out. Persistence eventually pays off.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re effectively guaranteed a job.” Anand replied, a slight bite to his words. Raj chose not to respond, and Anand sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sorry, that wasn’t meant to be resentful. I do technically have a degree in music education, but… I don’t want to abandon this, you know? And this wedding is making me realize how unrealistic this dream might be.” He added quietly, his mouth turned down at the corners uncharacteristically.
“What makes you think it’s unrealistic?” Raj asked, his brow furrowing. “Is Natasha not being suppor-”
“Oh god no.” Anand cut him off, a warm smile on his face. “Natasha is the most supportive partner I could ask for. It’s just that I’m realizing that we will want a family soon, and I don’t want to be away on tour for most of my kid’s life.” He exhaled slowly, smiling sadly.
Raj bumped his shoulder. “Cross that bridge when you come to it. Focus on the wedding for now.” He paused, drawing a deep breath. “You never know what will happen.”
“Speaking from experience?” Anand asked quietly, meeting his gaze directly. Raj looked away, staying silent. “How’s it going with her? I haven’t had a chance to ask you since she came back.”
“It’s fine.” He said shortly. Anand didn’t press him. “I spoke to her at dinner the other day and it was fine. We had a brief conversation.” He said after a moment’s silence.
Raj shot him a sideways glance. “What else did you think would happen?”
Anand shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe you decided to kiss her again or something. I never know with you two.”
“I wouldn’t do that. I’m not stupid.” Raj snapped immediately, the words coming a little too quickly. Anand merely fixed him with a look, a wry smile on his lips.
They sat in comfortable silence for a long moment, each lost in their thoughts. A shrill beep from Anand’s phone broke the silence and he heaved a sigh and placed his hands on his thighs, standing up.
“That’s Natasha. We’re getting dinner with her parents.” Raj nodded, following him to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow night with your guitar and drumsticks? Thanks for doing this, man.”
“Anytime. I’ve always got your back.” He said. Anand smiled and turned to leave, glancing at his phone.
“Hey, is Ananya coming?” He asked on a whim, the words coming out before he could think the better of them.
Anand stopped, turning around. His brow creased in confusion, and Raj hastened to explain.
“She just mentioned that she wanted to hear you play since it’s been a long time, so I figured I would ask.” He explained awkwardly, wondering why he was even asking the question.
Anand’s brow relaxed, and he nodded. “Yeah, I asked all of them to come. I hope that’s okay.”
Raj shook his head, waving Anand off. “Yeah yeah, that’s totally fine. I just wanted to make sure you had asked her since she wanted to come. That’s all. Uh… anyway, I’ll let you go. Say hi to Natasha for me”
He inhaled deeply as he shut the door, leaning against it for a moment.
Why had he asked about Ananya? It wasn’t as if he cared whether she came or not.
A brief memory flashed across his mind, her laughter still ringing in his ears. It was from back when Lonely Boys had first started, and he had been their lead guitarist. Anand had contacted a woman who had booked them for a day full of concerts, and they had practiced for weeks, anticipating a festival of some sorts. It was back when Anand was still mostly doing covers of popular music, and he would often pick up the Billboard Top 100.
It was only after they arrived at their location that they had realized they were playing at the local retirement home, for which Anand’s set-list was most definitely not appropriate.
Ananya had been the only one who had showed up, yelling louder than the quiet crowd, proudly wearing the t-shirts they had made.
She had always shown up, at every concert without fail.
He shook his head. That was years ago, and he didn’t quite know what had brought it up for him at this moment. He felt a sharp pang as he recalled the first concert after they had broken up and his gaze had automatically swept the audience, looking for her. The sadness that had flooded him that moment had nearly crushed him, and he had shoved his guitar to the back of the closet, unwilling to open himself up to those emotions again.
He had never expected to keep it away for two years, but it had been driven by a combination of a lack of time and trepidation.
He walked over to the stove, picking up the lid absentmindedly. The distinctive smell of copious amounts of garlic and basil wafted through the air, relaxing him. His gaze drifted to the guitar that sat in the corner, untouched since he had last played it almost eight months ago.
He turned the gas off and walked over, opening up the case. He ran a finger over the smooth vinyl, cringing as the chord came out untuned. He took it out, adjusting the knobs carefully.
He strummed, the sound immediately filling him with warmth. He grabbed the sheet music that Anand had left behind, his fingers uncertain. Shaking his head, he doubled down, practicing sections of the piece over and over again until he mastered them.
He leaned back with a sigh, a brief prickle of doubt lingering in his mind. He regarded the sheet music with uncertainty. He had hit chord after chord that he had trouble tuning, a byproduct of three years with only sporadic practice.
Play for yourself, not for the mastery of it. You can tune it as much as you like, but the minute you stop enjoying it, you’re not going to get anywhere.
His teacher’s voice rang in his head, and he picked up the guitar once more, setting aside the sheet music. His fingers found the chords to his favorite song, and Raj immediately felt himself relax, the earlier frustration slipping into music.
“Wow, I forgot how different it looks from back here than it does when you’re in the audience.” Raj noted, glancing out from backstage. They were playing as a part of a smaller concert series, held in a park that sat on the shore of the lake. He felt the stirrings of nerves, running a hand over his guitar strings.
Anand grinned, his eyes lighting up. “It never gets old. Ever.” His own guitar was slung around his neck, his excitement contagious.
“Are you sure you want me to do this?” Raj asked, swallowing nervously. Anand gave him a look, shuffling through his music.
“You’ll be fine. I know it’s been a while but you’ve practiced and it’ll come back.”
“You sound awfully confident in me.”
“I don’t have much other choice.” Anand said dryly. Chris laughed, thumping Raj on the back.
“You’ll be fine Raj, you’ve played with us before.”
“I haven’t played with you guys in three years.”
Chris waved him off. “Details. It’ll come back. I promise.”
Raj could hear the crowd’s noise grow as the band who was playing before them finished up their song. Anand gave them a nod and they walked out, greeted by enthusiastic applause. He squinted, unaccustomed to the sheer intensity of the fluorescents beamed at him.
The sky had darkened, the oranges and pinks fading into a deeper blue. He drew a nervous breath as he scanned the crowd, unable to pick out faces against the lights. He ran his hand down the neck of his guitar, taking solace in the cool vinyl against his skin.
“Good evening, Madison!” Anand called, walking up to the mike. Raj watched him from behind, amazed by the ease with which he engaged the crowd. He had picked a more recognizable set-list today, mixing in music by other artists along with original compositions. As Madison’s own, the Lonely Boys were well loved.
Anand turned and gave him the cue, and Raj lifted his other hand, cradling his guitar to himself as he strummed. Anand leaned into the mike, beginning a crooning set of vocals as Chris joined in with a rhythmic, energetic beat. Raj found his nerves relaxing as the music infused his body, and he glanced up from his fingers to meet Anand’s questioning gaze. He grinned, and Anand looked relieved, turning back to the crowd with his full enthusiasm.
He barely realized as the songs flew by, throwing himself into the music. His fingers returned to the chords like meeting an old friend, the initial awkwardness dissolving as the comfort returned. By the time they played the last song of the concert, Raj’s nervousness seemed ridiculous. Although he had in no way come close to matching how he used to play, he didn’t care.
“You guys were so good!” He saw Natasha approaching, a wide smile on her face. Anand wrapped her in a hug, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. Feeling strangely intrusive, Raj looked away, only to catch Ananya’s gaze behind the couple.
He inhaled sharply, his heart stopping. He had long since stopped looking for her at concerts, and while he had known she would be here… the sight of her actually here was far too close to what had been.
She brushed her hair behind her ear, giving him a small smile as she walked around Natasha and Anand. “You were good.”
He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He knew she noticed, the warmth in her eyes dimming slightly. He felt a pang of guilt, sharper than he had anticipated. She had averted her gaze, glancing around at the crowd that surrounded them.
He cleared his throat. “Thank you.” He said quietly. She turned to look at him, smiling at him. He glanced over at Natasha and Anand, who were surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers.
He turned back to Ananya, who stood with her hands crossed in front of her, her gaze sliding over the crowd. She winced as someone bumped into her from behind, muttering an apology. Her shoulders grew stiffer, her fingers twisting around themselves as she looked around, shifting from foot to foot.
“Do you want to look for some food with me? I’m starving.” He asked, scanning her face. She turned to look at him and nodded, and he began to weave through the crowd, texting Anand as he walked. He hesitated, briefly turning to look at her. She was walking with her arms pressed to her sides, her face tight with tension. He slowed down for her to catch up and she gave him a grateful smile, lengthening her stride. But before she could reach him, another man ran into her from the other side, his body blocking her from his view.
He heard the man’s gruff apology as he pushed past her, oblivious to the discomfort on her face. He saw her chest rise and fall slowly, but when she lifted her gaze to his, she stilled, hastily pasting a smile on her face and brushing it off as if she wasn’t bothered, pushing through more forcefully.
He reached for her forearm as she approached but stopped, dropping his hand as quickly as he had lifted it.
“Sorry I made you wait.”
“I understand. It’s hard when you have tiny legs.” He said, a hint of humor in his voice. She looked up at him in surprise and then her face eased into a smile. He returned it briefly then turned around, continuing through the crowd.
He glanced back to make sure she was following, and found her walking particularly close to him, her gaze directed down at the ground. Her arm brushed his ever so slightly and he stiffened, goosebumps trailing up his skin. Someone pushed her from behind and she stumbled, her fingers digging into his shirt as she reached for him. Her fist tightened around his shirt as she pressed against him, and he could hear her rough breathing as they walked through.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed through the last bit of the crowd, breathing in relief as the cool air washed over him.
“You okay?” He asked gruffly, looking at her briefly. She nodded, the tension that lined her face fading away as she stepped out of crowd. She glanced at his arm and dropped her hand abruptly, looking to the side.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-” He shook his head before she could finish her apology.
“Don’t apologize. I know you don’t like crowds.”
She looked up at him, an inscrutable expression on her face. He shifted uncomfortably, rubbing the back of his neck.
He didn’t respond, a sharp pang in his chest.
Of course he remembered.
He remembered everything.
“It’s fine when the concert is going because I’m distracted by the music.” She said, almost to herself. “I need to get over it.” She muttered, her jaw tightening.
“You don’t need to get over it. There’s no need to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do.” He found himself saying, feeling the need to convince her of that fact.
Why did he care?
She nodded, but he could tell that she wasn’t convinced. He opened his mouth to add on but then shook his head, shutting it.
He didn’t need to say anything more. He had said what he had needed to, it was up to her now.
But for some reason, he kept wanting to say more.
They began to walk towards the parking lot in silence. She brushed her hair behind her ear, wrapping the end around her finger in a gesture he recognized as nervousness. He abruptly looked away, focusing his gaze ahead of him.
She shivered, wrapping her arms across her chest. She glanced up at him, his face set stoically as they walked together. She opened her mouth to say something, and then closed it, instead choosing to look straight ahead.
“So where do you want to go to eat?” He asked, turning to face her as they approached the car.
Wariness flashed across her face. “We don’t have to get anything, I can just go home and eat. We can just wait for Natasha and Anand.”
He regarded her for a moment, taking in the ready out she was giving him. He could just end the night here and leave, and no one would be the worse off for it. His chest tightened, hollowness lingering within his ribcage.
“Natasha and Anand will be a while. I’m hungry and… it would be nice to have a companion.” He said, stopping his thoughts before he had a chance to wonder why he had offered to spend more time with her. “Uh… Paul’s Pel’meni? I don’t think anything else is open, it’s almost 10 PM.”
She hesitated for a moment, seeming to consider arguing back. But instead, she simply nodded with a smile.
He drove quietly, running a hand through his hair as he eased into a comfortable speed. The skyline of the city came into view, the warm white light of the capitol shimmering against the lake. He heard her inhale slowly, and looked over to see a soft smile on her face.
She caught his gaze. “I’ve grown up here, but this view never gets old.” She said, her voice tinged with faint pride.
“There is something about this city that makes you fall in love with it.” He responded. She nodded, looking back out through the window.
“Thank you.” It was almost inaudible, and he turned to look at her curiously. “For getting me out of there.” She said, by way of explanation. She offered him a smile of gratitude, her eyes searching his face.
He gave her half a smile, shrugging. “You would have done the same for me.”
He caught the ghost of a smile on her face as she turned back to looking at the road, and found one pulling at his own lips, feeling content with her for the first time in years.
Song: Aye Ajnabi
Artists: Udit Narayan, Mahalakshmi Iyer
Film: Dil Se
Note: I hope you enjoyed this update — to all of my readers, a very very Happy New Year. I hope 2017 is filled with love and happiness. As always, I love to hear your thoughts — please do let me know what you think. The buttons to follow the blog through email or WordPress are on the right. Cheers to 2017!