The giant, marquee letter sign cast a light across a whole block as Ananya approached the crowd standing in front of the building. She glanced around, craning her neck as she sought him out. He was tall, but not tall enough to stand out from a crowd, and she struggled to pick him out.
She jumped with a small scream, her heart jumping into her throat as she whipped around to find herself face to face with the very person she was looking for. His head tilted slightly, his mouth quirking in poorly concealed amusement. He reached out a hand to steady her.
“Okay there?” He asked, his voice holding a hint of laughter. She glared at him, collecting herself.
“I’m fine. You just… surprised me.” She ran a hand through her hair, and his gaze briefly followed it before it returned to her own. Humor faded from his eyes as awareness crept in, and his fingers curled into his palm as he stepped away from her.
She swallowed uncomfortably, directing her eyes to the door instead as he cleared his throat.
She stood in awkward silence, rocking back on her heels as she struggled to fill it. She took solace in the fact that he seemed equally uncomfortable, his hands shoved in his pockets.
“You know this coat?”
“It’s the one you’ve had since –” He broke off, biting his tongue as he realized what he had been about to say. He saw her jaw tighten and cleared his throat. “Uh, I just thought you would have gotten a different one.” He said, shrugging casually.
She stared at him for a moment, before turning away without much of a response. He looked off to the side, letting out a small breath as it formed a cloud in the air.
Had he acknowledged the fact that she had had it the day of their first date?
She shook her head, admonishing herself silently.
Don’t overthink it, Ananya.
“It’s not very old.” She said finally.
He said with a shrug. There was a long silence as their attempt at small conversation faded. She opened her mouth to try again but shut it, shaking her head. She suddenly missed the ease of their conversations, untainted by the uncomfortable silences that permeated any interaction now.
They fell silent, and she rocked back and forth between her feet, the air colder than she had anticipated.
“They should be opening up soon.” He murmured. “But if you’re cold, we can go next door to the coffee shop.”
She shook her head. “I’m fine. It’s just chillier than I expected.”
There was another pause, and she let out a frustrated breath. He looked at her for a moment, before looking back down.
“It was that day too.” He said quietly, finally acknowledging the chasm that stood between them.
Her eyes widened perceptibly, her . “I do remember, you know.” He shrugged dismissively, trying to brush it off.
“I didn’t ask.” She said quietly, her voice holding a hint of an edge.
He chuckled humorlessly, shaking his head. “You didn’t need to, Anya.” She stiffened, but he couldn’t read her expression from the angle he was at.
The endearment rolled off of his tongue, punching her in the gut every time he said it. It was a glaring acknowledgement of how well he knew her, of everything they had once shared. She sucked in a breath until her stomach pressed against her spine, letting it out with a slow whoosh.
“I was amazed you said yes, you know.” He said after another moment, immediately biting the inside of his cheek.
Fuck. Why had he said that?
He shot a glance at her out of the corner of his eye when she didn’t respond, her face unreadable as she kept it pointedly neutral.
They shuffled towards the door inch by inch, the conversations of the people around them mingling into a single, unintelligible mesh. “You’re wearing an oxford shirt to a concert?” She asked, avoiding acknowledgement of his comment. He scowled defensively.
“To be fair, I came from work.”
She laughed. “That is so typically you.”
“Would you rather I just take it off?” He asked sarcastically.
She sucked in a breath, the familiarity jarring. He snapped his mouth shut, the words dying on his lips.
She had always teased him about his obsession with his clothes, showing up to her house in a button down and jeans even for a lazy night in.
He would get annoyed with her teasing and threaten to take it off, her laughter dissolving into desire as he unbuttoned the first few…before she helped him with the rest, pushing it off of his shoulders and…
She silenced that train of thought, her cheeks flaming.
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. His jaw was set tightly, and she recognized his determination to keep his emotions off of his face. His eyelashes were long, framing his eyes as he adjusted his glasses on his face. She laughed wryly to herself, shaking her head.
Even after all these years, she could still read him like a book.
He cleared his throat uncomfortably, digging out his wallet as they took a step closer to the entry.
“Let me get your ticket.” He shuffled through his wallet, pulling out a ticket and handing it to her. She turned it over, feeling something sticking to the back.
“Wait, there’s something stuck…” She trailed off, staring at the ticket stub. The breath left her in a whoosh, faded letters in all caps looking back at her. She turned it over gently, the thick cardstock smooth from the years that had passed. Her heart grew loud in her ears, the pulse drowning out her thoughts as she swallowed the shock.
“What…” His voice died as he saw what was in her hands, his stomach twisting nervously. He froze, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Fleeting panic coursed through him, and he resisted the urge to snatch it out of her hands.
She looked up at him, her eyes scanning his face. Questions pooled in her eyes and he looked away. The silence seemed unnaturally long as he held his breath, waiting for her to ask.
“You kept this?” She asked, holding it up.
“Uh… yeah. I kept it.” Even in the dim light, she could see the darkening of his cheeks, clearly uncomfortable. “It was our first date. I haven’t…” He shrugged, trailing off. He kept his gaze carefully ahead, not looking at her as he took it from her and placed it back in his wallet.
He had kept it. He had kept the memory of their first date.
She fought the voice at the back of her head that urged her to take hope in the fact that he had kept it.
She reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet. She unconsciously pressed her finger against the ridge of her own ticket stub from that night in the side pocket of her purse as she pulled out cash to pay him back, her stomach clenching at the memory.
The guard at the gate reached for her ticket and her ID, letting them in. “So if you want to go somewhere else, I was just going to go up near the stage…” Raj’s voice was barely audible as they pushed through the crowd, drowned out by the low thump of the bass.
“What?” She yelled, despite the fact that she was standing right next to him. He shook his head, leaning in close to her ear as he pulled her closer by her wrist. She held her breath, unnerved by his close proximity. She could feel the warmth of his fingers against the sensitive skin inside her wrist, conscious of her racing heartbeat.
Could he feel it?
“I was just going to go up near the stage. If you want to go somewhere else…” His breath whistled against her ear, the implication in his words clear. She swallowed the hurt, nodding with a curt smile. He began to move away, dropping her hand and leaving coldness in his wake. She stared after him for a moment before making a spur of the moment decision, snaking through a few people as she reached and grasped his wrist.
He pulled back in surprise, turning to look at her. “What?”
“Uh…” She hesitated.
“If we want to get up to the stage, we have to go now.” He said, clearly annoyed.
“Do you mind if I come with? I don’t know anyone else here and it’s not fun to listen to a concert alone.” She asked, all in one breath. He looked at her as if she had asked the most obvious question in the world.
“You don’t have to ask. Just come.” He snapped, moving forward again. They pushed forward to the stage, the music petering out as they reached. They stared forward, not interacting with each other. As the opening band left the stage he turned to look at her.
“I’m sorry about how that came off. I didn’t intend to be so sharp with you.” He said, extending a conciliatory statement. She smiled sadly, shrugging.
“This is awkward. I get it.” She said simply. The resigned acceptance in her tone bothered him, and he stared ahead for a second before turning his gaze to her.
“I don’t hate you.”
She glanced up at him, her eyes walled off. “You don’t have to-”
“I don’t hate you.” He repeated, cutting her off. People around them turned to look curiously, and he snapped his mouth shut. Ananya looked around self consciously, brushing a piece of hair behind her ear. He pressed his lips together and sighed, stepping closer so he could drop his voice even with the din of conversations around them.
“Look, I just… It’s weird, and it’s awkward, and yes, I’m still trying to figure out just where this will end up going. I don’t know if we’ll get back to-” He broke off, stopping himself from acknowledging it.
His jaw tightened for a moment, and she could hear the quiet curse that rolled off of his lips as he struggled to choose his words. “I don’t… I don’t want to hate you.” He paused. “It’s just not feasible.” He said, smiling humorlessly.
Her lips tugged up in response. “Always logical.”
He returned her smile tentatively, just as Young the Giant stepped onto the stage, the crowd swelling with cheers as Sameer leaned into the mike to call out a greeting. They sank back into the music, exchanging cautious smiles as they turned towards the stage.
“They’re always so damn good. I never get tired of seeing them.” She sighed happily as they walked out of the Orpheum. It turned into a sharp intake of breath as the bite of the cold air washed over her, and she hastily shrugged on her coat.
“My Body is always so good. I love that they end with that. You know, that song has been around for quite a while now and I’m still not tired of it.”
He nodded, and she turned to him in confusion as the light turned green, as he walked with her across the crosswalk.
“Didn’t you drive?”
“Hmm?” He asked, turning towards her. “Oh, yeah, I did. But I don’t really feel like going back to my car right now.” He said, shrugging. They held each other’s gazes for a moment before she looked away, her hair blowing forward as the breeze blew, covering her face.
They walked in an oppressive silence, struggling to find the words to fill it. Ananya pushed her cuticles back absentmindedly, her gaze directed at the ground as they walked.
“Do you want to get food?” He asked suddenly, grasping at straws. “Los Gemelos is still open, and they have good tacos.”
“I really like their tortas.”
“They have those too.”
“Why not?” She asked, and they made the turn towards the restaurant, pushing open the creaky door as they stepped in. Loud Spanish music blared from the speakers, despite it being nearly midnight, a bored man in his 20s regarding them with some degree of irritation.
“Table for two?”
She sucked in a breath, her mind immediately flashing back to that first date they had been on. She chuckled mirthlessly, shaking her head at herself. It was such an innocuous statement, and yet she…
“What?” He asked, pinning her with his gaze as he sat down across from her. She looked up at him, giving him a wan smile as she shook her head.
He stared at her for a moment longer and then shrugged, opening up his menu. She swallowed hard, fighting the urge to just tell him what she had been thinking of.
“I was just reminded of the waitress at Kabul. I was so mad at her for interrupting our conversation.” She said, the words spilling out of her. She bit her tongue as he raised his gaze slowly. “I was going to ask you if you liked me.”
He laughed, a hint of discomfort tinging his voice. “That would have made my life a lot easier.”
“You would have admitted it?”
“I was pretty sure at that point that it was reciprocated. I only started to doubt myself when you refused to let me pay for you.” He muttered wryly, shaking his head. She couldn’t help but smile, looking down at her menu just as the man from the counter approached.
“You guys ready?” He asked impatiently. They ordered quickly, picking random items off of the menu.
“How are your parents doing?” She asked as the man left, her eyes turning back to him. He smiled, regret touching his lips.
“They’re doing well. It’s been a long time since I’ve been down to see them, actually.” He fell silent, growing pensive.
She leaned forward on her elbows, looking out of the window. The music had long since faded to the background, the volume ceasing to startle her. She watched with amusement as a group of undergrads walked past, their voices loud and tinged with the influence of alcohol.
“It’s hard.” He said suddenly.
She snapped out of it, looking at him in mild surprise. He didn’t quite know why he had said that, least of all to her.
Because she would understand. She always did.
He silenced the tiny voice that spoke from the back of his brain. He stared at his fingers, absentmindedly twisting them.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those people that didn’t wait six months to visit their parents. But life catches up with you.”
“That’s why I moved back.” She said quietly. His gaze lifted to hers. She inhaled deeply, tearing her eyes away so he couldn’t see the sheen of tears that prickled. “Amma and I were barely on speaking terms when I moved back, you know.” She paused. “Sometimes I wonder-” she stopped, shaking her head. “No. I shouldn’t.”
“You followed your dreams.”
“At what cost?” She asked bluntly, looking at him directly. He swallowed heavily, fighting the urge to look away. “When I finally followed them, I nearly lost my mother. And because I took so long to follow them I lost-” she broke off, biting the inside of her cheek. But he knew what she had been about to say, his heart roaring in his chest as the unsaid word hung between them.
I lost you.
They stared at each other. Regret stretched between them, her eyes darkening with a silent apology. His hand crept forward towards hers as she looked away, closing her eyes and exhaling.
“One order of vegetarian tacos and two tortas.”
His fingers snapped back as the man returned, balancing a plate on each hand as he looked between them. They dug into the food immediately, grateful for the relief it provided.
They could put that conversation off for one more night.
Song: Castle on the Hill
Artist: Ed Sheeran
Note: A Valentine’s Day update! I felt like the day of love deserved a chapter — and a little glimmer of hope in these two estranged people’s lives. Thank you for reading, and as always, the follow buttons are on the right. I appreciate comments greatly, and I can’t wait to hear what you think.