Monday, 15 April 2019

part 5 : Unleashing What Remained Unsaid

Stepping inside, the sweet mix of fragrances greeted him, so did the familiar tinkle of the wind chimes at the entrance. It was invariably the same every time, a deja vu sensation. Which should make sense since he came there once almost every week, if not for the flowers then for just dropping in to say hello...but wasn't the whole concept of deja vu a greater mystique? - related to memories long lost and forgotten, things you could not recognize right away, even though they felt awfully like an experience from before? He never could understand what it was that he felt.

Now walking in, as his vision was starting to adjust to the room lighting which stood nowhere in competition with the bright shining autumn sun outside even in the waning hours of late afternoon showing no signs of fading into an early evening glow, he saw her in her usual spot. Settled comfortably into the rocking chair in a corner, her nose, with the glasses resting at the very tip, buried deep into a book, another Austen novel he presumed. Before he could offer his greetings to her, Mrs Douglous, who owned the shop and every beautiful flowered stalk in it, he heard the chimes play their jingle again, and then a cheerful voice from behind him boomed into the small florist shop,



"Someone looks gorgeous today, how about a cup of coffee girlfriend?"

Armaan turned around to realize that the deep and partially Brit sounding clipped syllables belonged to a young boy, most likely in his late teens, who walked up crossing past him - dressed in a chest number 4 Arsenal club jersey clinging wet to his distinctively outlined chest muscles and soccer shorts, the gear a complete picture with the shin guards covered by long stockings and securely fastened studs. His hair, in wet flicks fell over his head band, and Armaan analyzed moving up ahead to get a better view that he was coming straight off the field, as the boy moved to give the old lady a tight hug and she pushed him away scrunching her nose and making a face.

"Get away from me you freak, asking a woman 5 times your age out for a date, and that when you're sweating like a pig and smelling like a skunk, my poor flowers will die of the horrible odor...get out of here, and don't enter until you look human...disgraceful and far from anything civilized"

As she finished in a disdainful voice, with a prude air of pretense, Armaan shot a look at the boy who looked unruffled and was grinning. There was an appeal about him, an air of being carefree yet thorough in his mannerism. His next words came to Armaan as a pleasant surprise.

" 'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing.
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?"...
(Its better to be bad, than to be thought bad, when you have done nothing to be thought of as so. People will think you're vile whether you are or not, why then should you forgo your wishes and happiness for the fear of being accused of being improper, when that will happen irrespective of your thoughts and deeds.)

Armaan looked wide eyed as the young boy still holding his expression befitting the recital looked up at Mrs. Douglous his eyes with cocked eyebrows challenging her to respond to the smart justification. But before she could Armaan quipped,

"You're British?"

Intended as a question, it sounded like he stated a fact, making the boy reel around to finally realize the presence of a third and he said with a smile,

"The accent still gives me away...or is it soccer this time?Or maybe both?"

Armaan smiled nodding with a thoughtful look, "Actually the rare combination of all three - idolizing the celebrated soccer midfielder Fabregas...quoting Shakespeare...sounding not prominently Brit yet unmistakably so - that's far more an English touch than a regular American teen should possess..."

The boy raised his eyebrows in amicable appreciation and said, "Indian by origin actually, but British by birth yes...definitely not hard to figure out. I still have to give you one thing, you made it sound like an analyzed fact, not an obvious guess!"

Armaan's smile widened his dimples deepening, as he shook his head dismissively but the old lady spoke up,

"Demands of his profession. He is a pschologist, and as his ex-patient I can tell you he's a master at his job. Never fails a patient, no he doesn't, right Doc? "

"Stop embarrassing me Mrs. Douglous, this Dr. Psychologist tag is not quite a charming addition..."..."You're a psychologist? Must be my day to meet the whole lot of you in Chicago I guess." the young boy exclaimed cutting off Armaan who raised his eyebrows seeking explanation.

He oblidged, "I am meeting another psychologist for dinner, " seeing Armaan give a slight frown he quickly added, "No nothing wrong with me, no disorders..."....

"Unless you count a disobeying cupid struck heart as one!" said Mrs. Douglous meaningfully with a mischievous smile cutting off the young boy.

Armaan gave him a 'oh-I-see-what-you-mean' look, as the red from the heat of the game turned a crimson in the boy's face and he mumbled indignantly,

"Girlfriend! What are you talking about there is no one I..." She cut him off again,

"There is. No way have you been buying flowers for your living room every other day for like three weeks now. This mystery missy really is the one you should be taking out for a date young man, not me. But make sure your appearance isn't such an obvious turn off, or even Shakespeare himself would fail to save you a rejection."

At this Armaan broke out laughing, but realizing how uncomfortable the boy had become specially in the presence of a man he knew not beyond his profession, he walked up to him and said smiling looking him in the eye,

"I'd say asking out is a chance worth the shot. Its better anyways to get a no, than to never say what you had to, and unless you picked someone completely unworthy of yourself, I don't see you being rejected"

The boy smiled hesitantly, but realizing the man before him meant what he said entirely he relaxed and his smile deepened as he nodded ever so slightly. Armaan moved towards the flowers and picked up three identical bunches - all a mix of fresh daisies and gerberas and placing them on the counter as he fished his wallet he heard the boy say in a curious voice,

"Three?" As soon as he said it and Armaan turned around to face him he looked away and mumbled quickly, "I mean, I apologize, none of my business."

"But it is mine, why three Doc?" Armaan turned back to face Mrs. Douglous and he smiled mysteriously placing the cash on the counter without a word. Then he picked all three, walked to the boy gave him one out of the three and said,

"Ask her out without delay, soon enough to give her these flowers while they're still fresh, " then turning around he said to the old lady pointing to the other two bunches in his hand, "One for my niece, one for...I still don't know...Have a good day Mrs. Douglous!"

The young boy, left alone with the the lady spoke talking to himself, "Daisies and gerberas? - Now how in the world could he guess Minnie's favorite combination..." he frowned puzzled...

******************
As he drove back home, Armaan was unconsciously smiling at every passing sight. He was unable to determine what about the boy he just met, and was unlikely to ever meet again, had brought this spirit of elevation within. The confrontation with Ridhima in the morning had caused an instantaneous sinking feeling, inflicting what had seemed like another blow, perhaps one harder than all before; the conversation was still playing in his mind, after almost 8 hours were past but something in the last few minutes changed the impact it had on him all day long.

Meeting the boy, though was all but a random encounter, felt like more than just that. His happiness had been infectious. Armaan felt light, actually happy if he dared to admit, something he had not experienced in years, like there was a motivation to be so; perhaps the last time he felt it this strong was when he saw Ridhima the very first time. Ridhima again. He shook his head hard. No, don't think of her Armaan, not for now. Forcing himself to be distracted as he parked his car in the garage, his eyes fell on the abandoned basketball lying in a corner.

An image of the boy, his messy out of a game look flashed again, it made him smile. Then checking his wrist watch for the time, he realized he still had 2 hours before dinner, Lovely was staying the night at Keerti Bhabhi's house to have a change of place. On a sudden impulse he picked up the ball and tentatively tried to twirl it on his forefinger. It was as perfect as it used to be many years before, his smile widened. Whistling unintentionally he unlocked the main door and let himself in, then ran up the steps two at a time to his bedroom to get changed into his sports wear.

After a long time he felt like playing basketball, not knowing how in the world he could explain this sudden feeling of being high. How could the gloom from the morning, as intense as it had been, be fading away with an encounter so inconsequential, after the way he had talked to her? But somehow the regret was fading, the loneliness which had refused to leave was for the moment something he had to remind himself of feeling. The only certain sense was that of a settling peace, maybe it was a start, a new beginning. He rumaged through his wardrobe looking for his sports gear while his mind was racing with thoughts.

Perhaps telling Ridhima the facts had gotten him partially rid of his guilt and helped him in a way he had not realized immediately? In fact now that he thought about it wasn't he somewhere deep inside almost relieved that she would now be compelled to reconsider her likely perception of him living a happy life after betraying their love.

He had tried bearing the brunt of the situation upon himself, from both ends, his family and Ridhima; but perhaps in that intention he had damaged more than he realized. Changing into the pair of shorts and jersey he finally found he sighed. Had he let himself be doomed to an everlasting melancholy, at the same time also keeping Ridhima from the truth she rightfully deserved to know? She would not know the whole of it, that would go to his grave, but at least this may ease out the grudges.

"Is it too much to hope for, to think she may..." he sighed speaking the first words in over 20 minutes, as he stood in front of the mirror talking to his image, his hand brushing through the hair stopped midway and he saw his reflection was deep in thought..."She may...still...could I hope to rediscover at least the friend in her?"

He had over the years thought it was appropriate to never go back to the past and correct any opinions she may have held of him post his unannounced departure from her life. Yet this had now come upon the two of them, another rendezvous...and inevitably so. Now she knew facts, at least more than before, perhaps it had been the right thing to do all along. If he could expect her to understand unspoken emotions, could she not be trusted with handling facts? He never really gave it a chance. He picked up the ball again taking a deep breath, and looking his reflection in the eye he exclaimed,

"I need to stop being an escapist and running away from her. I still stand my ground, and she knows nothing more, its way too complicated to be revisited. I wonder how she will react at the next appointment though. Guess I have to let her decide this time, its not and can not be just about me." And nodding in grave satisfaction he walked out of the room, his stride much more purposeful...

******************
Stepping into the dim lit pizza place, he felt the temperature drop by several degrees, from the warm and humid autumn night air outside, to the intensely air conditioned inside of Giordanos. He walked to the seating counter,

"Hi! I am Armaan Malik, looking for a certain Minnie Singh, its a table for four."

********************
"Oh hell Gappu I almost, "... "Massi..." Gappu emphasized his interruption to Ridhima with a forced smile as the three of sat on a corner table facing the window overlooking the winding multiple laned Chicago Loop,

"Its Gaurav, please?" Minnie giggled as Ridhima shot him a mock apologetic smile for letting slip his rather embarrassing nick name and continued,

"And its not massi, its Ridzy, Mr. Gaurav Bansal, " she retorted with a sugar sweet smile teasing him, then turning to Minnie she asked, "Whats wrong with Gappu anyways, suits him don't you think?" Gappu looked at her with daggers in his eyes, a look Ridhima was aware of but preferred to ignore as Minnie now broke out laughing, managing to say in between,

"I thought Sawyer was good as well, but he insists on being called Cesc...you know how it goes - him and his love for Arsenal, its like I'm always second..." she paused as Ridhima raised their eyebrows at her choice of word and the meaning she intended, Minnie added hastily, "I mean...everything else is secondary to his devotion for Arsenal and their superhero Cesc Fabregas..."

She finished kicking herself mentally and lowering her gaze to focus on diligently unwrapping her silverware. Gappu stared at her in surprise, pleasant surprise as a smile slowly set in until it was wide and deep and he too lowered his eyes to his silverware. Ridhima did not know how to fight the urge to laugh out loud, so she too occupied herself with the same task, then looked up within moments as she remembered again.

"Gappu...I mean C.E.S.C.," she said spelling out the letters with emphasis, "Did you tell Minnie you spent an hour deciding what clothes you should wear tonight?" Minnie choked on the water she was trying to drink and Gappu glared at Ridhima, and kicked her under the table.

"Ouch!" Minnie exclaimed looking at Gappu in shock and slight pain of the hit, as he gasped and said quickly, "I'm so sorry Minnie I was..."...

"Trying to kick my massi, " Ridhima completed realizing what had happened and looking at Minnie in concern she asked,

"You fine?" as Minnie nodded with a slight frown Ridhima looked at them solemnly and said, "I'm sorry, I'm not exactly trying to make this hard. Its just, I wish you both would not be so awkward with each other over the obvious."

They both looked up at her, Minnie's look conscious yet anticipatory, while Gappu's anger at Ridhima suddenly softening and she continued speaking, looking them in the eye,

"You know, if you ever feel for someone, they really deserve to know about it. And there never will be a better moment than right away. I am not saying it should be an unthoughtful impulse, but if you know what you feel..."

she paused lowering her eyes, then looking back at them she smiled warmly and said, "I am always there, for both of you, and I just want to see you happy." Then taking their hands next to each other she held them in hers and said,

"I love you..." she paused suddenly as her gaze stopped on his face standing across from her, "both..." she completed her sentence but her eyes could not move from his face as he looked back at her stunned just about as much. Minnie and Gappu puzzled by her sudden distraction forgot for the moment how conscious they were and turned around to follow her gaze.

"Hey buddy!" she jumped off her chair to give him a hug, and Armaan broke the eyelock with Ridhima sitting across. Now looking at Minnie he returned her hug, then breaking off he gave her a bunch of daisies and gerberas with a smile which he hoped would hide his rising sense of shock. Then in the effort of avoiding Ridhima's gaze his eyes fell on Gappu who got up from his seat with a smile of recognition and offering his hand he exclaimed,

"Hello Doc! I didn't expect to see you again, so soon" Armaan returned his handshake and said with a smile, "Me neither. And you do seem ummm..."

he paused looking at Gappu's formal fawn collar shirt, worn with a casual caution the sleeves folded up to his elbows and top couple of buttons left open, tucked into a pair of blue denims and semi formal closed suade shoes,

"Quite transformed from when I saw you last a couple of hours ago," seeing the anticipation in his youthful brown eyes, he added, "Looking good!" smiling as Gappu acknowledged his approval relaxing.

"Well he worked hard hoping to make just that impression on you Armaan," All three of them turned at Ridhima's words, Armaan narrowing his eyes not knowing what to expect next, neither how to respond, but Gappu solved that issue for him,

"You know him?" before either of them could answer Minnie couldn't not intervene,

"Wait a minute, " she said turning to Armaan, "You know Gaurav? And you know Di?" Armaan shook his head and said, "Him, Gaurav that is, we met at the florist, and just talked generally, I didn't even know his name until now...and her, I mean..." Ridhima cut him off,

"We are friends from Cambridge." she said looking at Minnie, then turning back to Armaan she moved forward taking the second bunch of flowers from him and exclaimed with a smile,

"Thanks for the lovely flowers Armaan. You never forget them do you? But I want my usual jasmine stalks next time." Armaan stood rooted to his spot, his look blank the face not knowing which of the many emotions inside was god enough to display. Was this real, she was talking like it was five years ago again. And did she just say they are friedns? No this can't be happening, not after this morning, someone wake me up.

"Ummm yeh...I, no we...uh...together at Cambridge, yes." Hastily he smiled not sure of how convincing it was in comparison to the warm smile Ridhima was flashing at him, strangely it was genuine. Then drawing in a a quick whif of air he said more coherently, "Ridhima was same year as me, I'm just, surprised to see her, uh...here I mean."

Minnie and Gappu smiled at each other, then at Armaan and Ridhima and Minnie said,

"Yeh surprised alright, I can see that, you look like you saw a ghost. Is that how you greet the charming ladies you went to school with?" Ridhima answered for him, "

Well no guy can be pleased to meet the only girl who beat him at basketball when he claimed being invincible." Armaan narrowed his eyes at her, what was wrong with her, how could she be talking like...like nothing had happened, like the past five years had evaporated between the two of them. Then it struck him what she had just said and he spoke up, "Can I get a seat before the discussion runs into memoirs of trivial victories?" Ridhima moved making space on her couch before he could sit anywhere else and he had no option but to follow the cue.

"So uh, Dr. Armaan?"

Gappu said tentatively unsure of how he was expected to address the stranger from the florist shop, now that he was a stranger no more, Armaan smiled, at him forgetting his personal discomfort for then and said,

"Armaan is fine, I'd rather you drop the Dr. Tell me what's your preference - Fabregas or Gaurav?"

And he was almost startled as both the girls on the table broke out laughing, and hi fived across the table, while Gappu muttered in an undertone looking not quite pleased with the joke on him yet again. Armaan looked from one to the other and said obviously puzzled,

"Uh, am I missing something here? Something I ought to know..?"

At this Ridhima and Minnie broke into another spell of giggles and Armaan shot a questioning look to Gappu who just shrugged away shaking his head, looking back at Ridhima, Armaan opened his mouth to ask again but stopped. Now this definitely was deja vu, she was laughing exactly as she had been the first time he saw her, perhaps this was a new start...again...he could almost understand why meeting Gappu at the florist had made such a difference, it runs in the family he reasoned, happiness just seeps into the air around them. Lowering his eyes he smiled, and unwrapped the only remaining sealed set of silverware on the table for four...

*******************
After the bills and a generous tip had been paid off by Armaan before any of the other three on the table could realize, the four of them decided to walk up to an ice cream place close by. As they strolled, Armaan and Gappu continued the discussion they had started at the dinner table revolving around the current season of football leagues in Europe, while Ridhima and Minnie certain they could not endure another minute of it looked at each other exasperated. Ridhima let out a slightly irritated sigh and looking at the backs of the two of them walking ahead deep in conversation and exclaimed,

"Gappu!" It was bull's eye, he turned around immediately hearing her use the nick name again and frowned hard as Minnie looked away hiding her smile and Armaan looked up at her as she stood frowning slightly.

"I agree with Minnie about the soccer second to nothing factor now. How rude is this?"

Armaan saw Gappu turn slightly red with the blatant statement hurled at him, he decided it was time to help the poor guy, Ridhima was born to make life hard for the men who dared to be a part of hers.

"Ridhima! You can't expect him to get involved and actually enjoy the girl gossip you and Minnie were indulging in, I mean save him some peace."

Ridhima now looked at Armaan with narrowed eyes, and retorted, "What did you expect us to do, wait in silence like forever in the futile hope of getting some attention from you?...Until you both were finally done with your discussion on who lost to whom and why and what should be done and how it never was and...Why don't you both try to go coach the teams they might just finally learn what the game is all about."

Armaan mostly missed the second part of her remark, it was the beginning he was stuck at, 'wait in silence like forever'...Then realizing with a start that she was quiet and he was expected to respond he said,

"I uh..." he fumbled for a moment before turning to Gappu and Minnie, "I forgot to ask you both, hows it going with the musical? The shows start from tomorrow right?"

Gappu nodded, givivng Ridhima a side look of disapproval for acting dominating as ever, and Minnie was just uncertain about something here, she felt like she was missing a piece, her uncle had been...almost awkward tonight, it was like him to not speak much, but this was definitely an edge over that. Now she heard Ridhima say,

"Oh yeh, ummm we never got around to talking about that, good idea Armaan."

Minnie was more puzzled than ever, now the last part sounded like she was almost apologizizng for her retort before. Something between these two was passing her by not quite understood, one moment she felt they were old friedns from school, hence the ease of communication, no formal airs, but then there were moments like this, when Ridhima and Armaan just got...conscious, of what, she did not know.

Gappu said, "Its going pretty well Armaan, we're all set for the opening tomorrow, It starts with a song from Minnie, believe me the audience will be enchanted." Minnie blushed slightly at the compliment forgetting her confusing chain of thoughts and Gappu smiled, he was trying to take Ridhima's advice, maybe he really should let her know what he felt, and soon, it was apparent anyways, just needing to be stated soon.

"What song Minnie?" Ridhima asked, "Why don't you give us a trailer?" she finishes smiling in encouragement. "Oh yeh that sounds like an idea Minnie, go ahead..." Armaan added, and Minnie looked at them then at Gappu, who nodded,then back at them and stated,

"No trailers." as the three of them looked at her frowning she opened her handbag, then taking out two envelopes she said handing them to Ridhima, "You come and watch us. These are the VIP passes. I want to see both of you in the first row, together and cheering for Gappu and me." she finished, Gappu smiled at her, and she smiled back her mind deep in thought as she glanced back at Ridhima and Armaan who looked at each other.

******************
"Hey beautiful! Still awake?" Ridhima saw Gappu come and stand next to her, facing the view outside her bedroom window again she nodded and said, "I like Minnie."

He smiled then turning his face to look at her he said simply, "And I like Armaan."

She looked at him with a jerk, frowning hard, "What?" ...

"What?" he answered back, "Is it so hard to like him? Hes a great guy, and I thought you said hes your friend whats so shocking about me thinking well of him?"

Ridhima looked away quickly and trying to mask her initial shock by her next words,

"I mean it was a strange thing to say after I said I like Minnie." Gappu didn't let sight of her expression as she said this and answered now,

"Hmmm, I thought it was our moment to confess approvals so I gave mine after you gave yours."

Ridhima turned to face him again, this time without a word but the question was evident in her gaze, after a couple of silent moments she spoke, "I have no idea where the hell you' re taking this, but its ok, I ain't that interested to know, " then pausing a second she went on in an intended voice of her own this time,

"When are you telling her what she means to you? She knows it anyway Gappu, but hearing you say it will still be a moment that will last her a lifetime, don't delay it anymore."

Gappu looked at her and smiled lowering his head at first, then he took her by surprise pulling her into a hug, "You're the best, and I love you."

Ridhima smiled deeply hearing his whisper and returned the hug. As they parted she said in a naughty way, "Was that rehearsal for the real confession?"

He looked at her breaking into giggles, gripping her shoulders firmly so she would look straight back at him he said, "Is that how you would want the real confession to be?" Ridhima's smile lingered, but a slight frown formed on her face as she nodded uncertain of his double meaning statements now,

"Gappu?" she asked tentatively as he continued looking back at her, his gaze steady, "What are you trying to imply here?"

He shrugged in response and said simply again, "The obvious..." which did not quite make his intention obvious to her and her frown deepened. He added after the long pause, "What are you so confused about massi, I'm talking fairly straight ain't I?"

She nodded still uncertain but dismissing her doubts. She could ask him but then she would have to bring Armaan into the picture and she wasn't sure if this was the right moment. She decided to call it off for the moment and said,

"Just want you to be happy. And Minnie too. What way you go about it is at your discretion, do what would be special for her." Gappu smiled at her again nodding and whispered goodnight bending to kiss her forehead lightly. Reaching the door he truned around to see her gazing at the skyline again.

Tentatively he said, "Is this Armaan the same Ammy you talked about in London?" She debated for a second before turning around to face him,

"Ammy?...ummm yeh, thats him."

To her relief he did not pursue this issue any further and left with a smile. She sighed out loud. Then turning back to the window she closed her eyes momentarily. What was with his comments right now, they had sounded so allusive. No Ridzy its just you, guilty conscious. He was just a kid that time, there is nothing he implied, its you thinking more than is as usual. She sighed. Armaan Malik. How many more ways would name intrude her life she wondered.

But did she mind it as much as she should? Something about the dinner was almost a pleasant feeling. She was glad to have acted on her impulse deciding to behave the way she had with him. It would have been the most immature thing to have let her differences with him come between Gappu and Minnie. But that had not been the sole reason and she knew it whether she would admit or not, it was this compulsive need to give him a chance anyways, and somehow the situation presented it so perfectly.

She gave a small smile now and whispered ton herself, "I can't believe I'm allowing you into my life again. Its like I've been hoping for this day for the past five years, and I still don't know why. Part of me wants you back to be able to show you how perfect my life is without you, to be able to hurt you half as much as you hurt me. The other part refuses to see sense, it wants to forgive you, just to be with you, to spend time with you, to hear you talk when you rarely do in between my endless rambling. But what should I forgive you for Armaan, I can't seem to connect the pieces here, Lovely and you, Minnie your niece. I don't see where any of this is going anymore. I just know tonight was a time I dreamed of many nights. A family-like dinner out, ice creams after that, chats and laughter and dimwit jokes and more laughter, but most importantly, you by my side all through it. I don't know how to fight this feeling, I know you are married, but Lovely's truth doesn't make it any easier for me to accept truth for what it is, and you refuse to talk anymore. You can't stay silent forever, I just won't let you. You have to tell me everything, from scratch. I need to know, and I deserve to know."

Moving towards her bed, she saw the passes to the musical for the next evening lying on the bedside stool. Picking them up she flipped them with her thumb deep in thought. Then putting them back she got into her bed and snuggled into the comforter. Sleep for now she told herself, tomorrow maybe a long day.

******************
"Ritu Di, hi! Gaurav this side. I think the plan is starting to work, at least on massi, well on Armaan as well. I still can't believe he turned out to be the same man I met at the florist shop, its like a God willing thing. He is a wonderful guy, if he is like that with strangers, how could he have intentions to hurt massi. I mean he could not stop looking at her all through dinner. Everytime he thought we were busy among ourselves he would steal looks at her. I can still not figure out what was on his mind, but he feels for her, thats an unmistakable fact. And yeh Minnie gave them two passes for tomorrow, they will have to show up tomorrow, and together!" he paused hearing an excited Ritu on the other side, and slowly his smile widened. Tomorrow would be fun no doubt...

*******************

NJ

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