Ananya watched as Raj pushed open the door to his house, his face stoic. He hadn’t said a word during the drive back, instead staring quietly out of the window.
“You know where the guest room is.” He said curtly, starting up the stairs before she could respond. She stared after him as his silhouette disappeared behind his door, shutting it with a soft click. She recognized his fear hiding behind the sharp words, his face creased with worry.
Should she ask him if he was doing okay?
Did she even have a right to anymore?
She glanced around the kitchen, the familiarity disconcerting. The décor hadn’t changed in the three years she hadn’t been to this house; a painful reminder of the fond memories she had lost. She had often accompanied Raj when he came down to visit his family, reveling in the warmth and comfort of a family that had become her second home.
She swallowed hard, blinking back the sudden tears that had made themselves known.
She turned away from the area, feeling like she was intruding on old memories that she had no right to revisit. She made her way up the stairs, placing her duffel in the guest bedroom and sitting down on the bed. She quickly changed into her pajamas, pulling out her laptop and curling up on the bed to work on her next chapter.
She barely heard Raj enter the room fifteen minutes later, holding a towel. “I forgot to give you this, in case you wanted to take a shower.” She lifted her hands and he tossed it to her, turning to leave.
Should she ask him?
She hesitated, and then got up from the bed, breaking into a quick jog to catch up to him in a few steps. He turned, his brow furrowed in confusion.
“I just wanted to ask you if you were okay.” She said, the words coming out in a rush. His jaw stiffened and he nodded curtly, turning away.
“You know you can talk to me if you need it, right?” She asked tentatively. He stopped, listening. She cleared her throat uncomfortably, exhaling. “I- I know we aren’t on the best terms, we’re not even really friends but if you need it…”
“How do you think I am, Ananya?” He snapped, turning around to face her. His eyes were lit with surprising anger, his fingers curling into his palm. He let out a sharp breath, pressing his lips together. “You keep asking me if I’m okay, and I’m not. I thought that was pretty damned obvious.”
She recoiled, his words stinging.
“I wasn’t there when my father nearly died, okay? The doctor said that if it had been half an hour more, he would have been gone. Gone. And the last time he asked me if I wanted to come see him for his damned birthday, I was working. I’m not fucking okay.” He cursed as his voice broke, angry at himself for losing control.
“I just wanted to make sure-”
“You don’t have to.” He said, cutting her off swiftly. “You’re under no obligation to check if I am okay.”
She breathed in slowly, struggling to contain the needles that sliced through her throat. She nodded with a tight smile and began to turn around.
She didn’t have to take this.
She turned around, striding closer to him. “Look, I know we’re not friends, okay? I realize that you don’t want anything to do with me. But unfortunately, no one else could be here with you and so I am, and therefore, it is my responsibility to make sure that you aren’t beating yourself up over something that isn’t your goddamned fault.” She snapped, her eyes blazing. “I’ve been there, and I know how heavy that guilt is. But let me tell you right now – it does no one any good to have you moping like a teenager.”
His fist tightened in anger as he stepped forward, anger lacing every word.
He didn’t want her damned sympathy. He didn’t need her.
“Don’t fucking pretend to understand me, Ananya. It drives me nuts, it always has. You act like you know what’s good for everyone, but you don’t.” He threw the words out, ignoring the way her face blanched. She stared at him for a long moment, her smile sad.
“I’m not. I’m just trying to tell you that your family needs you right now, and that you wallowing in your guilt does absolutely fucking nothing to help.” She said quietly, turning on her heel.
He stared after her, feeling strangely more empty than he had ever before. He leaned against the wall, resting his head against it and closing his eyes. He heard her soft footsteps approaching, but he didn’t open his eyes even as she stood in front of him.
“Here.” He opened his eyes to find her standing in front of him, her arm outstretched. He glanced down at her palm, letting out a bark of laughter when he saw the silvery candy.
“You still carry Hershey’s kisses around?”
“You never know when you need to seduce a man.” She said dryly, letting her palm drop as he popped it into his mouth. He looked down at the crumpled silver foil in his hand for a moment before looking back up at her.
“I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.” He said quietly, playing with the foil. She regarded him silently, waiting for him to continue.“I haven’t come home as often since I started my Ph.D. I haven’t had time, with trying to get my prelim finished and then working on getting a paper out, finalizing my thesis and…” He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “It just slipped to the back of my mind, and I assumed I’d have endless time with them, you know?”
He fell silent, leaning his head against the wall in exhaustion. “And then today… I realized that it’s not infinite. I could have lost-” He broke off, unable to finish the sentence. He swallowed the heavy lump in his throat, his eyes red from the prickle of tears.
“But you didn’t lose him.” She said gently, placing her hand over his. He looked up at her, his eyes stinging. “You have to believe that. You didn’t lose him. He will be okay. They got to him in time.” She urged him to believe, her words insistent.
He regarded her for a long moment, his eyes scanning her face. He turned away and scoffed, shaking his head. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. Of all people…” He trailed off, a wry, humorless smile playing at his lips.
“He’ll be okay.” She repeated. Her breath fanned his face as she spoke the words, her head tilting up as she looked at him, willing him to listen to her. She could feel the heat of his arm next to hers as he turned to look at her, holding her gaze for a long moment. She squeezed his hand, her fingers sliding between his.
She leaned up, hesitating for a split second before pressing her lips gently to his forehead in a soft kiss. She drew back, touching his cheek as his other arm wrapped around her shoulders and pulled her closer to him. She rubbed small circles between his thumb and pointer finger.
“Thank you.” He murmured.
She looked up at him, her breath catching in her throat when she saw his expression.
His eyes leisurely drifted over her face, leaving hers as they traced her features. Her eyes were serious and dark, the faint light from above reflected in her irises. From this close, he could see the small lines that had developed around her eyes, the freckle at the base of her jaw.
Her features were so familiar. A painful tug traveled from his gut to his heart, a reminder of how much he missed her. He could feel the warmth of her breath fanning his face, smell the light floral scent of her perfume that lingered from earlier in the day.
But he was too tired to fight it.
Three years later, and she still had the same damned effect on him.
“Anya…” Her name slid off of his lips, resting at the tip of his tongue. He leaned in slightly, his hand rising to stand just millimeters from her face. Her eyes fluttered shut unconsciously, their noses nearly touching. He tilted his head, his lips just barely brushing against hers in a fleeting kiss.
They froze when they heard the sound of a key turning in the door, breaking through their haze. He briefly looked at her, and she slowly leaned back from him, exhaling slowly as she untangled her fingers from his. She gave him a slight smile as she stood up.
“He’ll be okay.” She said quietly.
He kept his gaze on her in his peripheral vision, watching as she padded down the hallway towards her room without another word. He cursed in his head, leaning back against the wall. Anjali appeared from the stairs, her exhausted features arranged in a tired smile.
“Hey Raju.” She said quietly, sinking down next to him. He gave her a wan smile, leaning his head against her shoulder as she let out a heavy sigh.
“He’ll be okay, right Didi?” He asked, suddenly feeling like he was eight years old again. He felt her nod against his head, her hand reaching for his, seeking comfort.
They sat in silence for a long moment, breathing in the moment of being with each other.
“Where are Nick and Javi?”
“Nick was fast asleep in Amma’s arms, and she had finally fallen asleep too. I didn’t want to wake them up. Javi is with them. He insisted that I come home.” He sensed the guilt in her voice at being at home, one that was mirrored in his own.
“Where’s Ananya?” She asked after a beat, turning to look at him. His heart paused for a moment before it restarted, a strange sort of nervousness filling him.
“The guest bedroom.” He muttered, gesturing to the stream of light that came from her cracked door.
“Did you ask her if she had everything?”
“Of course I did, Di. I’m not five.” He said, his tone far sharper than he had intended.
“I was just making sure.” She said lightly, choosing to gloss over his sudden defensiveness. He was particularly conscious of Anjali’s eyes on him. He looked down at his fingers, feeling like she could see right through him.
“Sorry. I’m just…” He shrugged, exhaling slowly. Anjali regarded him quietly for a moment, debating whether or not to press him further. She squeezed his hand before pushing herself up, tugging her hair into a messy bun.
“I’m going to head to bed. You should sleep too.” She said, ruffling his hair. He glared at her, earning a laugh from her as she walked down the hallway. She paused, turning to look at him. “If you need it, I’m always here for you, Raju.” She said softly. He smiled at her, nodding.
She held his gaze for a long moment, a fond smile on her face. She turned around, pushing the door to the guest bedroom open as she murmured something unintelligible to Ananya before she slipped into her own room.
Raj stared at the crack of light, his chest constricting. He swallowed hard, the temptation to walk to her room tugging at him. He got up with a sigh, his resistance crumbling as he walked towards her door, his fist lingering over it as he wondered whether or not he should knock.
The sound of the door opening once more downstairs caused him to turn away, his hand dropping to his side as he shook his head.
He would not do this. Not again.
Ananya came down the staircase quietly the next morning, pulling her hair up into a neat ponytail as she walked towards the kitchen. She walked over to the cupboards, her mind in another place as she absentmindedly poured the milk and water to brew herself a hot cup of chai.
“Did you sleep well?”
She jumped, stifling a scream of surprise as Uma’s soft voice came from behind her. She turned to face her sheepishly. “Sorry, I didn’t expect you.”
Uma stared at her for a moment and then nodded, giving her a half smile. She moved to grab a larger pot and the flattened rice. She quietly measured six handfuls into another bowl, taking out a couple of potatoes and some onions as Ananya watched awkwardly from the other side of the island.
“You will have poha, right?” She asked, her gaze still on the pot in front of her.
“Yeah, that sounds delicious. But I can make it if you would like. You’ve spent the whole day in the hospital, you need rest.” She said gently, walking over to the stove as the milk she had placed there earlier began to foam.
“You don’t need to worry about me, Anu. I’m fine.” She said, her words carefully measured.
Ananya bit her lip, stung by the distance in her words. She almost laughed at how similarly Uma and Raj had responded, their words mirroring each other as they withdrew into themselves.
What had she been expecting?
It wasn’t as if his mom would embrace her with waiting arms. After all, in breaking up with him… she had broken with his family too.
An acute sense of longing pulled at her, and she squeezed her eyes shut, determined to push it down. There was no sense in wishing for the past, only a way to mold her future. She watched as the milk came to a boil, putting in the tea leaves as they worked side by side for a moment. She reached for the sugar just as Uma did, their hands touching briefly.
Stung, Uma dropped her hand, awkwardness rushing to replace the fleeting moment of comfort.
“I’m sorry, you can take it. I was just going to add some to my coffee.” She titled her head at the decoction that stood beside her, a glass of steaming milk in a tumbler next to it. Ananya’s throat tightened at the distinct sense of formality she was being treated with, a sharp contrast to the easy relationship they had once shared.
She quickly put the sugar in the tea before stepping back and leaning against the counter, swallowing hard. Her gaze drifted to the older woman. Uma’s hair had developed more pronounced streaks of gray in the last three years, swept back into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. Although she was small, she had always been dignified – but it had never stymied her warmth.
“How is Papa doing?” She queried finally, breaking the silence. Uma didn’t look at her as she stirred the poha, but her face darkened slightly.
“He’s fine. He should be coming home this afternoon.” She said softly, adjusting the flame.
They fell silent once more.
The words were out before Ananya could stop them, and Uma stilled, the gentle stirring pausing for a split second. Ananya’s chest was tight with the breath she was holding, a flood of unsaid words sweeping to the front of her mind.
Ananya felt the stirrings of dread as Uma forced her to confront what she had avoided with two simple words, her gaze unsettlingly direct. Ananya fought the urge to divert her gaze, choosing to meet it head on.
“For not saying goodbye.” She said honestly, hoping Uma would see the truth in her words. A sad smile graced Uma’s lips, a hint of bitterness entering her words.
“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to, Ananya.” Uma responded quietly, turning back to the poha.
Ananya swallowed hard, taking a deep breath.
“I don’t think it will ever be enough.”
“Shattered glass cannot be put back together again without the cracks.” She stated bluntly. Her unvarnished words cut, the hurt in Uma’s voice a reminder of how selfish Ananya had been. Guilt settled in her stomach, heavy and unrelenting at the silent admonishment in Uma’s words.
Flush it down the toilet, Ananya. You have to move on.
“No, it can’t be.” She said quietly. “But stained glass comes from broken pieces of glass.”
Uma looked up, regarding her silently for a long moment. A ghost of a smile appeared on her face, and she nodded slowly. “That is true.”
She fell silent just as Raj came down the stairs, his hair in disarray as he walked into the kitchen. His dark eyes met hers, darkening as he stared at her for a moment. She could feel her heart in her ears, heat pooling in her veins.
“Good morning, Raj. I’m glad you finally decided to wake up.” Uma interrupted.
Ananya started and tore her gaze away, distinctly conscious of Uma’s sharp look between the two of them.
Raj swallowed hard, turning his attention to his mother with an easy smile. He greeted his mom with a warm hug as he leaned over the stove, inhaling deeply. “Ma, you know me so well. I haven’t had poha in so long. You have to teach me how to make it.”
Uma’s face immediately softened as she ran a fond hand through her son’s hair, amused disapproval pulling at her lips. “How many times have I told you to brush your hair before you come downstairs? You look like a homeless person.”
“Ma, I’m 26 and you still lecture me about my hair.”
“Raju, you’re 26 and I still have to remind you about your hair.” She mimicked his tone, earning a laugh from him. Ananya watched from the other end of the island, feeling slightly out of place as they interacted. She moved to grab the tea, straining it into a mug and inhaling the scent.
“You made chai?” He asked, turning to her. She avoided his gaze but nodded, tilting her head at the extra cup on the counter.
“There’s some for you too. I added an extra spoon of sugar.”
Something flickered across his face, disappearing as quickly as it came as he reached for the cup. “How’s Papa?” He asked, his voice sobering in concern.
“He’s doing well. He already wants to go back to work.” Uma said, rolling her eyes. “I told him to take the week off and he tells me that he has to be in for a major meeting tomorrow and can’t afford to.”
“I’ll tell him. He really needs to take care of his health.” Raj said, admonishment in his voice despite the fact that the person in question couldn’t hear him. “I thought you were staying at the hospital?”
“I would have. Javi kicked me out. He said I needed proper rest.” Uma said, her face curling in mild annoyance. It softened just as quickly, and she shook her head. “Anjali is so lucky to have him. He’s a wonderful person.”
Raj made a noise of agreement, sipping his chai. Uma looked at him out of the corner of her eyes, her gaze narrowing.
“Have you even brushed your teeth?”
Raj shifted uncomfortably, guilt evident on his face. Ananya hid a snicker of amusement behind her mug as he sighed heavily, already making his way towards the bathroom.
“Yuck, Raju, you didn’t even brush your teeth. Is this how you are at your apartment too?” She called out after him, clear disapproval in her voice. “Six months without your mother over your shoulder, and all manners are forgotten.” She muttered underneath her breath, shaking her head.
Ananya couldn’t hold back her amusement, her laughter breaking free. Uma glanced at her, smiling slightly in spite of herself. She poured her filter coffee into the little cup to cook it, the bubbles foaming into a rich concoction. Ananya inhaled the scent deeply, comforted by the familiarity.
Uma paused, placing her tumbler down on the counter before facing Ananya fully. “I don’t know what your equation with Raj is now, Anu. That is between the two of you. But I hope you are serious about whatever is going on this time.” She said, her voice hardening. Ananya froze, taken aback by the sudden bluntness with which she addressed the elephant looming.
“I don’t… We aren’t… We aren’t dating.” Ananya managed to get out.”
“You may not be dating. But I’m not naive, Anu — I’m almost 60.” She said sharply. “I’m not blind.”
“I know that with your generation… breakups and such happen. But…” Uma chuckled humorlessly, shaking her head. “Do you know he never told me what happened between you two? He simply said that you had your reasons and then bottled it up.”
Ananya remained quiet, unable to say anything. She could see the sheen of angry tears in Uma’s eyes, the pain of her son felt as her own.
It was what she had seen in her own mother’s eyes as well. The worry, the fear, the overwhelming need to protect her.
Her mother’s choices were mirrored in the fierceness in Uma’s words, laying a shield over her son.
“Raj loved you, Ananya.” She finished quietly, her jaw tightening. “Don’t take him for granted.”
There was a tense pause as Ananya considered her words, biting back the overwhelming urge to defend herself.
She’s only protecting her son.
She reminded herself, a strange calm settling over her as she inhaled deeply and met the older woman’s piercing gaze directly.
“I understand.” She said softly. Uma nodded stiffly and Ananya picked up her mug, her strides long as she walked out of the kitchen. Hot tears stung the back of her eyes, embarrassment, guilt and indignation melding into one. She wrapped her arms around herself, focusing on the ground as she walked up to her room.
She stumbled into a warm body at the top of the stairs, long fingers wrapping around her upper arm to steady her. She muttered an apology, trying to twist her hand out of his grip but he held on. She looked up to snap at him but her words died on her lips.
She felt her cheeks heat in embarrassment, as he regarded her for a moment that felt longer than it was.
His jaw tightened for a moment before his hand loosened on her upper arm and she pulled herself free, practically running the short distance to her room.
It was clear from his expression that he had heard everything.
Song: Man on a Wire
Artist: The Script
Note: And that’s where I leave you for today! I hope you enjoyed this chapter — please let me know what you thought of it. As always, follow buttons are on the right and if you find that you aren’t getting notifications, try unfollowing and refollowing the blog. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter at @chotidesi.