Ananya glanced up from her laptop as a shadow fell over her keyboard, her stomach twisting with nervousness as she met the older woman’s eyes. Uma Malhotra stood in front of her with her hands clasped around a dark blue purse, her hair pulled neatly into a bun that sat at the nape of her neck.
Ananya immediately stood up, her hands folding into a namaste out of habit. Uma smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“May I sit down?” She inquired politely.
“Of course.” Ananya said, despite the nervousness that knotted her nerves. Uma took a careful seat across from her at the coffee shop, her eyes gazing around the small area with a discerning eyes.
“I took a chance that you would be here. This was where Raj introduced you to me.” She said after a beat. Ananya nodded, shifting in her seat uncomfortably as Uma’s gaze turned towards her. She nodded towards Ananya’s laptop, her words genuinely curious. “Were you writing? I apologize if I interrupted you.”
Ananya closed it, shaking her head. “I was, but it’s no issue. I was hitting a block anyway.”
“What is going on in the story? I read your first book. It was very well written.” Uma said. Ananya struggled between happiness and embarrassment, realizing that her ex-boyfriend’s mother had read the sex scenes she had written.
“I was just finishing up a scene between Isabelle and her best friend, Maya. Isabelle’s struggling to decide whether she should take another chance with Andrew.” Ananya said, realizing how closely her words mirrored real life as Uma’s expression changed.
There was a tense pause as the words settled between them, memories of the past rapidly flooding the space.
“You are probably wondering why I am here.” Uma stated.
Ananya shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. Uma smiled wryly. “I know you better than that, Anu.”
Ananya flushed with a sheepish smile. Uma studied Ananya with an unsettlingly knowing gaze, drawing a deep breath. “The last time we met… I was less than polite to you. I apologize.”
“You had every reason to be.” Ananya responded, genuinely meaning the words. Uma brushed her off.
“I came here today because Raj is devastated.” There was a hint of accusation in her voice, her gaze sharpening as she regarded Ananya. Ananya’s eyes snapped to hers, immediately guarded. Her heart clenched sharply, palms going clammy as Uma’s words sunk in.
Had Raj told them what happened?
“Raj didn’t say anything. I was concerned because he was withdrawing into himself again.” Uma added, her voice gaining an edge.
“So you came here to yell at me?” Ananya asked, unable to keep the regret and bitterness out of her voice. Uma’s jaw tightened at her harsh words but Ananya couldn’t find it within herself to apologize, her hurt getting the better of her. Her mind assailed her with memories she had fought to forget, heartbroken and angry words rattling inside her head.
“Maybe it is true! I’m terrified of committing. I’m scared that you’ll fucking break my heart again and I’ll be left behind to pick up the pieces. Why the fuck would I trust you again?”
She shoved the memories down as she had since they had broken up, determinedly locking them up into a box.
Just like three years ago.
She ignored the taunting voice in her mind, instead raising her gaze defiantly to Uma. She held it for a long moment before Uma sighed, running a hand over her hair in a gesture so reminiscent of Raj that…
Ananya looked away, swallowing the pain that immediately throbbed in her stomach.
“I didn’t come here to yell at you, Ananya.” Uma said, her voice faintly exhausted. “I am not your mother.”
But you once were like one.
The thought flashed through her mind unasked, and Ananya saw her emotions reflected in the older woman’s eyes for a split second before she looked away. The words stung more than they should have, and Ananya resented the hurt.
For fuck’s sake, what else did you expect?
“I came here to understand you.” Uma said, after another tense silence. Ananya withheld the scoff, and Uma continued. “I want to understand what is going on. All I see right now is that you hurt Raj, and while that makes me furious, Navin and I know that there has to be another side to this.”
She paused, a rare moment of vulnerability in her voice. “The Ananya we knew loved Raj, and I simply cannot fathom that…” She drew a long breath, her voice steely again. “Raj won’t tell me, and I do not know why. He always had this innate sense of honor.”
“I just want to understand.” She spoke the words so quietly that Ananya wouldn’t have heard them if she hadn’t been listening.
Ananya stared at the table, struggling with her emotions. She didn’t know what to say, a hundred thoughts running through her head as Uma’s question forced memories long suppressed back to the surface again. It was a time lapse of their entire relationship, from the moment they had met on the dock her freshman year to the smashed chocolate cupcake that had lain on her countertop, uneaten.
Her eyes stung with tears, with one simple thought standing out among the rest.
She missed him.
She heard a rustle and before she could react, Uma reached across the table to place a hand on Ananya’s for a second. Ananya’s fingers curled in surprise and she drew away, self-consciously placing her hands back in her lap.
“I am sorry.” Uma said quietly.
Ananya looked up in shock, blinking rapidly as she belatedly realized that the tears that sat at the corners of her eyes were evident for the other woman to see. She resented the sympathy in Uma’s eyes but yet, all she wanted to do was cry into Uma’s arms as she would have three years ago.
Flush it down Ananya, flush, flush —
She let out a choked laugh, shaking her head.
Who was she kidding with this? Pandora’s box never stayed shut, and this was her personal Pandora.
Instead, she spoke, the lump in her throat reflected in her words. “Raj and I broke up for the first time because I accepted Columbia medical school’s offer. We had been fighting for a few weeks about what I wanted to do with my life, because I didn’t want to be a doctor and Amma wanted me to be one.”
Ananya forced the tears down, the angry words of their fight ringing in her head. “I knew he wouldn’t agree with my choice. I didn’t want to fight again, so I took the coward’s way out and accepted it without telling him.”
Uma’s face hardened but she said nothing, and Ananya continued, the words spilling out of her. but he… just didn’t understand. My mom means so much to me and I just couldn’t break her heart. She had my best interests at heart.” Ananya said firmly, her eyes glimmering with defiance.. “I don’t regret making that decision, but…”
She fell silent. “I would do anything to not have hurt him.” She said quietly. “We got into a huge fight, and I assumed he just wanted a break so he could collect his thoughts but when I came back a little while later apologizing and asking to talk again, he told me he was done with me forever.”
She drew a shaky breath, forcing herself to continue. “The next time we saw each other was at Mihir and Archana’s wedding, and since then… we kept fighting our feelings for each other.” She laughed humorlessly. “So we… ended up in this weird in between place where we weren’t quite dating, but we also were. I asked Raj where this was going and…”
The words stuck in her throat, tears that she had successfully kept at bay rushing to the front of her eyes. She muttered a curse under her breath and followed it quickly with an apology, the tears sliding down her cheeks against her will.
Why did this still hurt so much?
“I’m sorry.” She said quietly. “I haven’t really talked about this since we broke up.”
“I understand.” Uma responded, regarding her silently for a moment. “I wish I had known.” She added, hurt in her voice.
“I thought he would have told you.”
“He didn’t want me to see you badly.” Uma smiled slightly, shaking her head. “He wasn’t wrong, I guess.” Uma said after a moment. “I would have been furious with you.”
Ananya stayed silent. Uma thought over her next words for a long moment. “Raj cares about you deeply, Anu.”
She made a noncommittal noise and Uma continued, more insistently. “He does, Anu.”
“But yet, he can’t find it in himself to trust me.” Ananya retorted caustically.
Uma didn’t flinch at her tone, her gaze steady. “You know very well that those are two very different things.”
Ananya looked away, chastened. “I don’t want to be in a relationship that has no trust. I’ll always be waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Ananya said quietly after a beat of silence.
“I wouldn’t want you to. You deserve better than that.” Ananya barely contained her surprise, and Uma smiled reluctantly. “I do care about you, Anu. You became a second daughter to me.”
Uma paused. “I was angry with you. But I understand why you made the choices you did now.” She reached across the table, urging Ananya to look at her. “I just wish I had known sooner. It’s the past, and… Raj isn’t blameless in this situation. It always takes two hands to clap.”
Uma continued to talk, her voice gentle.
“In those three years… he was fine. He pulled himself back together, threw himself into his thesis, dated a few girls but it was… different. He became cynical.”
Uma exhaled. “But when you came back again he…” She looked up. “He had that same spark in him again.”
Ananya’s heart clenched painfully, reminding her of what she had lost. His face flashed through her mind, heartbroken as he asked her to reconsider. She repeated the phrase she had said to herself over and over again since they had broken up, willing herself to believe it.
I’ll be okay. I’ll get over this.
Uma stayed silent for a long moment, considering her words. “He loves you, Anu. He always has.”
All of the breath left her in a rush, forcing her to confront everything she had avoided. Ananya looked away, unable to bear the weight as her feelings flooded through her, refusing to let her stuff them back into the box.
Uma stood up, pausing before she turned to leave.
“And I suspect that you still love him too.” Uma said quietly, giving voice to the words she had so determinedly repressed.
The words sat on the tip of her tongue, appearing before she could think twice. She bit it so hard she felt the metallic taste of blood, swallowing the words back down.
She couldn’t love him.
But she knew she was lying to herself as she said the words, leaving a deeper emptiness in her heart than before.
Song: Teri Khair Mangdi
Artist: Bilal Saeed
Movie: Baar Baar Dekho
Note: I apologize for the delay! I know I promised an update last Tuesday but my boss assigned me an editorial to write, so I spent my week reading papers and doing intensive editing. I hope you liked this chapter — we’re in the home stretch here, so all this pain and angst is slowly coming to a head. Thank you so much for sticking with this story.
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