They sat down across from each other, elbows resting on the table as they waited. The tiny restaurant was tucked in a corner in a nondescript brick building, across the street from a popular bar and one of the most popular streets in Madison.
She glanced around. The bright green walls were a shock of color, muted only by the dull lighting. There was a couple sitting in the corner, immersed in themselves, while a small group of friends spoke quietly next to them.
“It never changes, does it?” She looked up, catching his gaze. She smiled slightly, and shook her head.
“It’s been the same since I came here years ago when I was little.”
“Some things remain constant.” He mused. He heard her inhale, nostalgia flickering in her eyes.
“Full order of potato pel’meni with the works for Ananya and one for Raj?” The guy standing behind the counter held out two ceramic dishes filled with steaming Russian dumplings. Ananya inhaled deeply, her eyes closing contentedly as the warmth coursed through her.
She lifted a bite to her lips before she even sat down, stopping in the middle of the restaurant. Raj turned to look back to find her standing with a happy smile on her face, savoring the creaminess of the potato complemented by the warmth of the spice mix and the coolness of the sour cream.
The image was all too familiar; a look of bliss she had whenever she took the first bite of her food. He found himself smiling as she flushed when she realized he was watching her, suddenly embarrassed.
“I like food, okay?” She asserted defensively. He merely raised an eyebrow, delicately digging into his own portion.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“But you implied it through your expression.” She said perfunctorily, glaring at him accusingly. The combination was just so her that he burst out laughing, shaking his head.
She stared at him in shock for a long moment before her own lips curled into a smile, stretching into a full blown laugh of reciprocation.
Some things really did remain constant.
They sobered slowly. Ananya didn’t know where to look, unwilling to meet his gaze but not wanting to look away. A strange tightness accompanied the sudden discomfort at sharing such an intimate moment, shaping a hollowness in her. It glimmered with unsaid possibilities of what they could have been, the brief moment offering a chance at new beginnings.
His Adam’s apple bobbed as he cleared his throat, looking down at his dish.
“It’s not going to eat itself.” She said. He looked up, catching the nervousness that hid behind her words.
He shouldn’t be letting his guard down. He should be — no, had to keep his distance.
He was supposed to be putting the past aside, and that was most definitely not analogous to becoming friends with her.
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.
The mantra he had repeated to himself so many times since she had returned rang hollow, lacking the conviction it had held just weeks before. He found himself craving the ease of their friendship, each shared moment of warmth reminding him of a thousand more they had once had.
“Really Raj, staring at it as if it holds answers doesn’t help either..” She said dryly. Her voice was strong but her eyes revealed vulnerability, darting across his face as she struggled to decipher what had changed so suddenly.
Why he was back to being so silent?
They had shared that moment of laughter. They could be friends again, she knew they could.
Had she said too much? Or not enough?
She determinedly silenced the uncertainties and hope that has bubbled up so easily, berating herself.
She couldn’t let herself hold onto those moments. She needed to move on. Flush it down, Ananya.
They ate in silence, struggling to fill the chasm that had broken beneath them. She ate quickly, trying to end this meal as soon as possible.
Why was she even trying to be friends with him?
“How’s your writing coming along?” He asked abruptly.
She looked up from her dish in surprise, her spoon stilling. She searched his face for a sign of resentment but it was set in marble, a carefully placed mask. Her eyes slid up to his, and she caught a flicker of apprehension as the silence stretched on.
I should have asked a different question. I should have-
What would you have asked, Malhotra?
He didn’t want to know the answer to that question.
His doubts were cut short by her, as she set her spoon down, leaning back, the skin between her eyebrows crinkling.
“I’m kind of stuck. I don’t know where to take the characters. They’re in a critical place and I don’t know what I want to do with them.” She said, her mouth pursing thoughtfully. He didn’t say anything, merely nodding as he went back to his food.
“They’re on the verge of a breakup but I don’t know, the reasoning just isn’t… convincing enough. It seems so flimsy, especially since they’ve been together for two years.”
“Is this the moment where they breakup because she’s not looking to settle down yet? Just after they attend her sister’s baby shower, right?”
Her gaze flew up to him, her mouth parting in surprise. He could feel his cheeks heating up, and he swallowed reflexively.
“You remember.” Her voice lilted up, the words thrown somewhere between a statement of fact and a question.
He struggled to tear his gaze away from hers, his heart pounding against his ribcage. He cursed the words that came to the tip of his tongue, threatening to shatter his carefully cultivated facade of dismissiveness.
Of course I did.
She was the one to break away, looking out of the window. Her pel’meni had long since lost their heat, the steam giving way to lukewarm leftovers.
“It doesn’t seem right for him to breakup with her there. He loves her.” She said after a long pause, the sound of their silverware against their dishes oddly loud against the glaring music.
“Then he shouldn’t. He would want to make it work.” He stated, as if it were the easiest answer in the world. She looked at him with a wry smile, shaking her head.
“How is it always so easy with you?”
She could see a shadow of a bittersweet smile pull at his lips. He looked away for a moment before looking back to her, his eyes glimmering with slight humor. “I aim to do the minimal amount of thinking.”
She laughed, shaking her head in amused exasperation. The tension that had held him back slowly seeped away, and he found himself laughing with her. They quieted, but the silence didn’t seem to be one they needed to fill. They leaned back in their respective chairs, content to just sit for a moment and enjoy a rare fragment of comfort.
“Is Himal Chuli still open?” She asked, returning her gaze to him.
“Yeah. Oh my god, they make the best seitan.” He murmured, almost to himself. She made a noise of agreement, her eyes closing as she recalled the taste.
“God, I’ve always wondered how they spice it. I tried to make it but seitan is just so hard to flavor.”
“I think the trick is in the marinade.” He said thoughtfully, his forehead crinkling. “I tried to make seitan once too, but it just came out gummy and disgusting. It’s one of those foods that can be either the best thing you eat or the worst thing you eat.”
She considered him with surprise. “You cook?”
He snorted, shaking his head. “Cook is a generous term. I can feed myself.” He paused, smiling. “But I’ll admit, I do enjoy it. There’s something satisfying about finding the perfect combination of flavors.”
Ananya’s eyes lit up. Food had been one of the passions they had shared. While Raj had been utterly inept at cooking when they were in college, she had loved cooking and he had loved to taste for her.
“Martha Stewart. Well, and my mom for Indian food. Oh, and Tarla Dalal.”
“That woman is a godsend to the food industry. Martha Bakes is legitimately one of my favorite shows.”
“There’s something incredibly funny about you settling down after a long day to watch Martha Bakes.” She said, giggling. Raj rolled his eyes, a light flush highlighting his cheeks.
“Men can bake too.” He said defensively, scowling.
“Oh, I know, but you were so averse to cooking shows that it’s hilarious and ironic that you willingly watch a baking show.” She reached out and patted his hand, smiling. He stiffened and she immediately pulled her hand away, her fingers curling into a fist. She swallowed hard, placing her hand in her lap. “Force of habit, I’m sorry.”
There was a tense pause before he spoke again. “I think my best dish is my tomato sauce.”
She raised her eyebrows, an amused smile on her lips. “Tomato sauce isn’t a dish.”
“It is too! It takes skill to make it without making it watery.”
“Sure it does, but that isn’t the dish. That’s a portion of it. What makes tomato sauce good is what you put with it.”
“Not true. It stands very well just tossed with pasta. It’s like heirloom tomatoes — it’s not worth drowning them in spices, Indian style, because their flavor is just so good alone.”
“Have you ever tried making tomato sauce out of them?”
He shook his head vehemently. “That’s a travesty. Heirloom tomatoes should not be sullied. They just need a touch of salt, pepper, and maybe balsamic vinegar and basil.”
“See, I disagree with that. There’s value to modifying things that can stand on their own, because there’s a chance they’ll also be complemented by other palettes.”
“Such fancy terminology. I’m a home chef, not an Iron Chef.”
“Please tell me that’s on your apron.”
Raj’s mouth snapped shut, embarrassment writ on his face. Ananya narrowed her gaze curiously.
“What’s on your apron?”
He mumbled something inaudible, clearly anticipating her teasing. She leaned in. “I didn’t quite catch that.”
“It says ‘I’ll Whip You’ and it has a winking whisk.” Raj muttered, watching her expression out of the corner of his eyes. He couldn’t help but bite back a smile as her face lit up, vainly trying to keep the laughter at bay. He rolled his eyes, gesturing. “Go ahead. Laugh.”
“Just what made you think that would be a good purchase?” She asked incredulously, dissolving into laughter.
“It was cheap and convenient.”
“Yeah, but they’re like three bucks for a plain one at the store!”
“I know that now.” He said, scowling. She merely shook her head, smiling.
“What happened to the Raj that preached researching every little detail before he bought something?” She asked. He grew quiet, the weight of her words settling in. He lifted his gaze to her.
“He changed.” He said simply. They held each other’s gaze for a moment before she looked away from him, a regretful smile ghosting across her lips. She stared down at her plate, the metal of the spoon warm from her hands.
“We should probably go.” She murmured. He nodded, standing up from the table.
“I’ll drop you home. Don’t even think about saying you’ll walk by yourself.” He asserted, before she could say anything. She opened her mouth to protest but shut it, displeasure writ across her face despite her acceptance. “I appreciate the lack of argument.” He noted dryly, earning himself a glare.
He drove to her house in relative silence, shooting a glance at her from time to time. Her head was pressed against the window, her gaze directed out of it as the buildings blurred. He couldn’t help but notice how she had changed in the three years it had been, unsettled by the tug inside of him that entreated him to learn more.
He wanted to know more.
How had her first book signing gone? Was it as she had dreamed of?
Had she dated anyone?
Had she missed him?
He sucked in a sharp breath. He felt her curious gaze turn to him, and he shook his head. She gave him a brief smile and turned back.
He could brush it off as curiosity, but he knew himself better. He was wading into dangerous waters. The promise of closure was luring.
But the promise of…
He smiled bitterly.
It was never as easy as just being friends with Ananya Iyer.
She made it so damned easy.
Swallowing hard, he turned away, exhaling. The tightness that had permeated him all night seemed to come back in full force, assailing him with doubts.
Was he being foolish?
He shook his head. There was no question about whether he was being foolish, only about whether he wanted to do anything about it. He craved the closure, and then once he had found it… he could let go.
Or it would shatter him in a way that he couldn’t put himself back together again.
He stilled, astounded by the direction of his thoughts.
“Raj? You know that you passed my house, right?” Ananya’s voice broke into his thoughts, tinged with amusement. He blinked, and shook his head, looking out the window. He cursed under his breath, swinging the car around in a quick U-turn.
“Shit. Sorry.” He muttered, pulling up to the curb by her apartment.
She stopped as she got out of the car, leaning into the window. He glanced at her briefly before turning his gaze back towards his steering wheel, grappling with the questions that curled in his mind.
“Thank you. That was fun. Maybe we can…” She didn’t, shaking her head and cutting herself off. “Thank you.” She repeated, deciding against asking him anything else. Her gaze lingered on him, as if she were waiting for something.
He felt her deflate as he simply nodded curtly, catching her expression out of his peripheral vision. He heard her inhale, determinedly smiling as she moved to turn away. An ache pressed against him, relentless.
He should drive away.
“Ananya!” He called, just as she put her key in the door. She turned to look at him in confusion, her silhouette outlined in the doorway. He swallowed hard, drawing a deep breath and silencing the voice that warned him against it.
“We should do that again sometime.” He said, his chest expanding against his ribs as the words left his mouth. A genuine smile stretched her lips and he felt himself relax, a strange sense of satisfaction sweeping through him. She nodded, giving him a wave as he drove off.
Closure. This was about closure.
Note: And that’s all for today! I hope you enjoyed the chapter. As always, the follow buttons are on the right hand side of the page. Please leave me with your thoughts if you can, I love to read them 🙂