Friday, 19 April 2019

part 7 : Unleashing What Remained Unsaid

Over the next almost ten minutes he saw her make several futile attempts at trying to cut into the middle lane. As her eyes darted between the windscreen to keep track of the road ahead, and the rear view to scan the traffic behind her for an opening. Her actions appeared to be under control, but it was evident that the calm was gradually evaporating.

"I feel like the wheel is going to come off any second if I try to turn, is it simply because I now know that its faltering?" she whispered without looking at him more as a question to herself.

He heard the gravity in her tone as she bit her lower lip. It was almost frustrating to not be able to take over from her, the wheel posed definite trouble, not negligible in the least, but was also not the worst possible; if she didn't panic and blunder so to say. In his better judgement she had missed at least a couple of chances to crossover to the middle lane, she was trying hard but somehow would hold back the second she could just about do it. And he felt like she knew that as well as him, which was perhaps making it worse for her. Her voice betrayed the lack of confidence and that was bothering him much more now than the wheel itself. His mere presence wasn't support enough. He sighed quietly, it would be a spectacle he knew, and he would have never done it if...if only it was him driving...but greater delay would definitely not be worth the risk, and there had to be a first to everything.



He extended his hand with the thought, turning on the park lights; and saw her frowning harder without looking at him, her eyes still glued to the traffic in her lane. He turned around bending over towards the back seat without explaining himself and she shot him a quick puzzled look before focusing her attention back to where it was meant to be. It did not however stop her from wondering what he was up to. The fact that he was half leaning against her was not making it any easier, she could feel his side frame digging against her shoulder, and did not know what irked her more, the unexplained proximity or its effect on her as she stiffened to his touch. The situation was mess enough without him adding to her discomfort. She shot him a glare which he obviously could not see, considering he was absorbed with rummaging through the back seat in a quest undefined.

"Armaan!"

she said at long last shooting him another look, an exasperated one this time,  just as he turned around, and for a moment neither could break the look as he stayed still, half bent over her profile outline on his side. A high beam reflected off the rear view from the car behind her closing in made her scrunch her eyes the next moment, and she looked away - the awkwardness touching a sudden peak. Armaan's steady gaze followed her fidgety eyes, which moved rapidly from one thing to the next, to everything in sight except him and her changing expressions before she managed to conceal them with a deep set frown of concentration. It was not until that moment that he realized how closely in contact he was with her, and had been for the past few minutes as he had been engaged in his search, looking away now he hastily moved back into his seat. The moment she felt the weight lift away from her shoulder she let out a breath which had been unconsciously held onto, but without meaning to, she found herself longing for the warmth of the contact, wishing it had persisted. It was followed by silent self reproach, when would she learn to have any control over herself in his presence, she cursed mentally. As she remained quiet avoiding the obvious question, he explained breaking the silence.

"I remembered you would have a rough duster somewhere under the seats...like before."

She continued looking ahead not chancing a glance at him, but his remark had only puzzled her further, not to mention the uncertainity of her feelings as his tone softened at the last two words. 

"So?" was all she managed, she would have stammered for sure had she attempted a more elaborate response.

"Can you open the sun roof for me? And start braking gradually when I tell you to, then change lane when you touch a 50 on the speedometer, nothing higher."

"Huh?"

She turned around to face him, her confusion too great to avoid even a look, and her eyes caught the pastel colored duster in his hand. As she looked at him again, he moved his hand forward and her eyes followed it as he pressed down the controls for the sun roof. The cold night wind gushed in making a sudden noise and as she turned back to him, she saw him get up in his seat and move half way up through the sun roof.

"Armaan what are..."

"SOS..." cutting her off he stated simply over the sound of the wind as the car raced at a highway usual of about a hundred miles an hour. She frowned for a second before her eyes widened in realization of his action.

"Alright start braking Ridhima, I got a signal from at least up to four cars behind us, the lane will slow down."

She obeyed his instruction, he definitely knew what he was doing, most certainly better than she did, and at the moment she was only to glad to pass him the controls and take orders. It was a descending sense of relief to have him take real charge, and she let out a sigh before realizing she did so...

******************
"Relax Ridhima, let him go, poor guy, he'll be stammering under your glare soon."

She turned around still frowning as she heard Armaan whisper close to her ear  from behind and he signaled the young mechanic to leave. Moving on he stood by her side and extended a cup of coffee towards her with a slanting grin, indicating her to take it. She did, without returning his smile though and looked ahead to where her car was being fixed, not wanting to retort to his pass. Not after he had gotten her out of the situation with such ease.

SOS, he called it, and thats exactly what it had been, the whole lane behind her slowed gradually as he signaled with the rough duster, and it was not more than ten minutes before she was in the rightmost slowest lane, getting out of it at the next exit. The wheel it turned out was flat, and lose. And opening the boot she cursed Gappu for not keeping the spare only to find that Armaan had already called to inform him and then consequently 911. The car was towed to her garage soon after, and they got a ride from the cops. She had not missed his persistent smile throughout the ride, and at one point when she mouthed an irritated 'what' at him he shook his head in response, smiling more. She rolled  her eyes, unable to think of what he could find so amusing at a moment like that, of course preferring to ignore the gnawing feeling that it was on account of the mockery she had made of herself. She concluded silence for then was her only refuge, and she looked out of the window at familiar spots flying past as barely recognizable blurs, not like she was looking at anything anyways, her mind almost vacant, at a loss of thoughts, or perhaps too many to handle?

Now she frowned at her coffee raising the cup to take a sip, then deciding otherwise, she turned abruptly to face him, and was not altogher surprised. He was smiling, his hands dug into the pockets of the denims as he gazed ahead, she knew not at what. She stared at him for a long second, before finally looking away. Could his humor at her cowardice last this long? Swallowing her pride she knew it had to be said now, she owed him one, and leaving it to a later moment would only require reintroducing the topic she would rather end it right away.

"Ahem..." she cleared her throat seeking attention, and he broke his unblinking gaze to face her, not quite as she would please, still smiling. Tentatively he cocked his eyebrows in question and she started in a low voice averting his direct look.

"I...er..." she paused uneasily "Thanks a lot."

Having spoken the words, she looked up to catch the flicker of something in his eyes, which disappeared before she could know what it was. Just the smile again, visibly widened by her words as he gave a slight nod in response. Somehow, unlike her anticipation for the worse his manner was neither condescending nor mocking. Looking back ahead of her she took a sip from her coffee. In fact it wasn't humiliation at all she thought with slight surprise. She sat down on the edge of the sidewalk, tired. And then although that was all she had intended to say, she suddenly had a alot more to tell. Either that or just that he was a patient listener, strange though that the latter was to serve as a motivation for her to speak her mind.

"The whole scene...back there...I mean...the cars zooming past, and the countless beams from the headlights seeming like blurs with the descending dusk, I just lost alacrity of thought...it was almost...almost intimidating and then I had this...this gripping apprehension that the wheel was..."

She paused running her free hand through the lose strands of hair and holding them back for a bit. Then letting go she shut her eyes and lowered both her head and her volume as she spoke on,

"Its so...unlike me...I don't know how to describe the feeling it was...like my nerves were wrought with the stress, they wanted to surrender and let the fateful occur. Not in peace though, I felt...so helpless, its never happened before." She sighed opening her eyes and stared at her coffee without focus.

"Ridhima..." he whispered, almost inaudibly, more concerned than smiling now. He realized he had unestimated the intensity of her stress. Silence from her implied more trouble than had been resolved, and she had remained so, for most part of the past hour - almost submissive. How had he concluded that to mean that her tension had been dealt with. In the engulfing sense of content of having been by her side, he had conveniently overlooked the unusual.

"Ridhima..." he repeated sitting down beside her and she looked up, as his voice much closer this time disrupted her silent musing.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly before he could speak, "That was quite a spectacle I created, and you had to face the embarasment for no fault of your own," she said, fiddling with coffee cup in her hands.

Armaan was further disturbed by her words, he could not decide which emotion was dominant here, whether she was more embarased or guilty, or simply exhausted with stress. He looked at her for for several seconds then decided to take a chance, he had done it all evening now and each one had worked, it couldn't kill to push his luck just a bit more.

"Well I couldn't be any more glad about it, " he said in an intended tone, and she raised her eyebrows at him in question. "It saved me plenty of trouble." he further added with the hint of a lilting smile.

"Like?" Even though she was incapable of reading between the lines, his manner seemed to announce there was no mockery involved here, she risked revealing curiosity.

Armaan stated in a solemn voice, "I have to be a fool to remind you of this but..." looking up into her eyes, "I showed up 45 minutes late for an hour long musical we were supposed to attend together, and you were waiting all of those 45 minutes, possibly longer...for me..."

He paused letting the last two words hang in the air, not posed as a question, but as a tentative stance, to observe her reaction as she looked away fixing the lose strands of hair behind her ear, then concentrating on stirring her coffee. Any traces of guilt that had remained for having made her wait were wiped away, instead there was a spreading happiness within him as she did not refute his claim, and although he wanted to jump out of joy he satisfied himself with a smile for then, which became smug in the effort to hide it when she looked up at him the next instant uncomfortable with the silence. He continued with a more earnest look,

"You possibly wanted to boycott me an hour ago Ridhima, and now we're talking, no arguments, you're actually want to thank me and apologize. Its like a stroke of luck! In fact..." he paused chuckling at a thought, "if I wasn't straight I'd go kiss the mechanic for his earlier act of negligence"

Despite herself Ridhima broke out giggling.

"Eeewww..." she said trying to sound disgusted but still laughing and looking at him she rolled her eyes.

Then shaking her head she looked back at her coffee again, grinning to herself. Armaan broke into a wide smile himself, and couldn't help staring at her. As she raised her head slightly, lifting the cup to her lips, he snapped away before she could notice, then he added,

"Yeh whatever. You have no idea what it takes to handle the angry you, I was certain I'd be at the receiving end of at least an hour long lecture today."

"That's why you got into the car uninvited?" she snapped back making a face at him.

"Someone's remembers to be grateful now, so much for being there. You know what, I think we should get back to the part you were thanking me."

She gave him a dismissive look choosing to ignore the retort as she drained the last of her coffee. Inwardly she was smiling and thanked him indeed, not just for the car, but for easing the strain between them almost effortlessly. She felt so much more relaxed...and happy. She lowered the empty cup. She could stay like this forever, even at the expense of having him make fun of her, if he would only be by her side. If...she sighed almost unnoticeably. Armaan didn't miss it. Hastily he spoke again.

"I'm having doubts about your license though. I mean you couldn't have passed the tests for an authentic one. Wait, do you even have one?"

He had planned on none of that, but didn't want the conversation to end, not yet, not ever. She shot him a frosty look and it only made him smile, as she fished in her wallet and flashed the ID before his eyes, smiling back at him now, triumphantly. He grabbed it from her hand before she could stop him.

"Nice pic." he said with a mischievous smile at her, pulling it higher out of her reach as she struggled to snatch it back.

She felt his breath on her neck, and could sense his unwavering gaze on her face which was but inches away from his own, and moved back hastily fixing the lose strands behind her ears again, trying to cover her blush under a grumpy look. He lowered his arm, the smile refusing to leave his face, as his eyes refused to leave hers, neither under his control, the reasons, both obvious and unknown would have to be left for sorting until a later moment.

"Lets see...the deceptive innocent look versus the seemingly harmless smile," she glared at him at he pointed out at the photograph on the ID, pretending to be deep in thought, "Which one was it that enticed them into issuing you a real license?"

She narrowed her eyes at his act of innocent curiosity, and muttered through gritted teeth, "I passed all my tests. It doesn't mean I can't make mistakes."

"Mistakes like that after almost a decade of driving?" It was hard to say which was more fake, the astonishment reflected in his expression or his tone.

"It happens in the world of mere mortals like me, which happens to exist beneath the realm of perfectionists like yourself. How hard is it for you to understand today was an exception to my usual driving skills?"

"Oh no no no! It isn't half as much about your faltering driving skills honey, even if its baffling how you did not sense the wheel yourself. Its more about refusing to believe a man who in his kind intentions tells you it isn't normal."

She looked at him with an air of finality. "Alright, you don't have to nail it in, I get the point. You skepticism about my license is well founded, I'm an awful driver, and if it wasn't for you, I'd be in some random ICU this second with broken limbs, perhaps some ribs, malfunctioning organs, loss of blood, basically thank you so much! Is there anyway I can ever repay?"

"There is," he stated simply, almost in the same single breath in which she had rattled off that long tirade.

Her look faltered from a defensive one, softening slightly at his reply, passive yet firm, and somehow solemn. She did not break the look however, trying to read his expression better, but he spoke saving her further effort to do so.

"I want you to know why I was late. Please hear me out?"

As she remained quiet, taken aback by his sudden request, he continued in a softer voice,

"Ridhima it was unexpected and I..."

"Its alright." she cut him off. Then looking him in the eye she said, "I'm sure you didn't intend it to happen Armaan, it must have been unavoidable. I just over reacted. I mean 45 minutes delay is unlike you and you wouldn't answer your phone, I was beginning to get worried and..." she paused looking away wondering if she spoke more than was needed.

"I still want you to know," he said quietly, sparing her any awkwardness at having confessed her concern.

She wondered why. She was ready to let the issue pass, why was he insisting. It didn't matter did he not see? Or did it? He had mentioned Lovely trying to explain earlier and she had not let him. She stayed quiet.

He watched her fiddling with the empty coffee cup giving no further response, and took it for an affirmative. She had not only waited for him, but also been worried, the usual Armaan should have been apologizing to rid himself of the guilt, he on the contrary felt content like he had not in quite some time now, her spontaneous words had given him a sense of security.

She had forgiven him without explanation, and better logic cautioned him against revealing any more information than was absolutely necessary, the more she would learn about his life, the more she was likely to alter her previously held negative opinions about him, which would he knew not lead either of them to any good. But he knew equally well it was what he wanted desperately, deep inside. His whole being refused to see sense, he felt a need within, to tell her that the concern was mutual.

He had to explain how Lovely had at the last minute refused to come along for the musical without her 'daughter', and had told him to call off the plan when he admitted having no extra child passes. Then how she had let go of the situation only when Chirag had, coincidentally called just then and convinced Lovely with some far fetched tale about her daughter having demanded to see a movie with him. He told Armaan to drop her over at his place which he did. She had to know why he, Armaan couldn't have left Lovely all by herself at home, she had to know also about Chirag, being here in Chicago, and being Lovely's psychiatrist.

In fact she had to know nothing was real in his marriage except the outward appearing rituals, nothing ever had been from the very start. She had to know about his family, his ma and baba, about Muskaan and Rahul...there was no end to what she had to know, neither to what he could never tell her.

But for now he just wanted her to understand why he had been late, and how he had to struggle to be patient with Lovely, as inside the frustration at getting delayed kept mounting, how for each minute of the procrastination he was causing he cursed himself in his worry for her, Ridhima.

And so he told her - at least all that he could, while the real secrets still remained unsaid.

*******************
Ritu saw her unconsciously swirling the contents of the already cold cup of hot coffee lying before her. She was having to fight the urge to ask about the evening, she had to. Ridhima knew nothing. Neither that Ritu was aware of the social accidental encounters her friend had had with Armaan, nor that she had played a significant role in making them happen, nor that Chirag, Gappu and now as she had been informed even Minnie were part of this mission, a mission to reunite Armaan and Ridhima, mission ARMIDZ, they called it. And so she sat silent, hoping Ridhima would break the spell soon, and talk. She did not have to wait long.

"I can't stop being affected by him Ritu. I wish that I could, cause I should." Ridhim stated, with no direct refernce to the subject of her thoughts. Ritu looked up with hope surging within, then qucikly assumed her act.

"Him? You mean..."

"Armaan." Ridhima answered without letting her complete the question.

Ritu punched her fist in the air beneath the table, while maintaining the blank look and spoke again trying hard to sound disapproving.

"Armaan? I thought you resolved to treat him just like a client Ridzi. Besides you said he doesn't even show up for the appointments. Don't say you are affected even by his absence."

Common girl, say yes you are affected, by his not being there as much as his being. Admit now, that you care for what he does and does not, says and says not, listens and listens not. Just say you're madly in love with him, and I'll hug and tell you to get him cause so is he. Ridhima interrupted her progressive chain of thoughts speaking up again in a guilt ridden tone, her voice low.

"I actually...we met today for the musical, which we did not attend, and yesterday at Giordanos for dinner, and...oh we met at my office before all that yesterday morning cause I called him, cause I wanted him to explain what..." she paused then looked up in a sense of urgency, as Ritu quickly donned her shocked expression,

"You know Ritu, Lovely, I mean his wife, she has...uh...I forgot the name, its a mental disorder, something with an 'S'', she isn't normal, I mean not like me...and you" she added the last two words hastily. It took Ritu all her self restrain to look shocked at the information as she spoke, trying to sound as disbeleiving as she possibly could.

"What? You mean he ditched you for her despite how she is and you still care? You disappoint me Ridhima."

Ritu gave a silent pat, one each to herself and to Ridhima, for different reasons both obvious, as Ridhima nodded her head with her eyes lowered.

"I do. I can't seem not to. I tried hard, to be distant, to be professional, to be just friendly, nothing works. I care for him as much as I did five years ago, in fact I feel like I care even more now, definitely more than I ever would if he was just a friend. And his non chalance and neutrality helps in no way. I can't hate him, neither ignore him, he just...seems to have invaded my whole system, I can't flush him out? There is no way to get rid of him Ritu." pausing she sighed looking at her friend as she added in solemn resignation, "I don't even think I want to."

Ritu wanted to do the victory jiggle, containing her happiness was taking every bit of control, but the miserable look on Ridhima's face humbled her. She wrapped her hands around Ridhima's which held onto the coffee mug unconsciously seeking a warmth which it could no longer offer.

"Ridzi..." she started, this time not having to act earnest, "You love him." She did not pose it as a question. "Why do you refuse yourself the possibility that he maybe just as much in love with you?"

Ridhima lowered her head into her hands. Her own puzzling thoughts were furthered by the question Ritu put forth, and she missed out on the realization that her friend had a sudden change of mind and was now encouraging her to think in a direction she had earlier forbidden her to consider. Nor the fact that Ritu did not once ask her for any elaboration on half explained statements. For then she was too occupied to see the obvious unusual.

"Could he be in love...with me?" she whispered to herself and Ritu gave a small smile. If only you realized how much, she thought. Aloud she said,

"Follow your heart Ridhima, it wont mislead you, I promise." And she got up from there, to give Ridhima some solitude for thought.

***************
Unlocking the bolt, he quietly let himself inside, shutting the door gently behind. He walked inside, without turning on the lights, he didn't need any to find his way even with his attention elsewhere. Moving towards the steps climning up slowly his mind reeled back. Everything in the past 48 hours seemed to have been a step ahead not backwards. He smiled to himself. His face felt warm and he could sense a blush creeping in which would have been visible but for the darkness which engulfed it as he thought about Ridhima. It had been a series of meetings since yesterday morning, each better the one preceding it, he was still unsure if he should finally believe that it was all happening to him and real. He didn't know where these sudden hopes were leading him, or perhaps deep inside he did. But for once he did not want to be commanded by his wisdom. He just wanted to let go, to be swept into the tide of chances that were emerging every possible way, he wished to take a risk. Smiling wider, he opened the door to his bedroom. Making as little noise as possible he got himself a pair of night clothes from his closet and left to change.

Brushing his teeth he saw his reflection in the mirror he faced. Was he imagining or were his eyes looking brighter, less tired perhaps, although he had slept less hours in the past two days than he could remember ever since he graduated. There was an unusual shine he concluded, and the smile, he shook his head in disapproval at his reflection, the smile refused to leave even when covered in frothy toothpaste. He felt like a child.

"Armaan, dude, get a grip..." he mumbled brushing more rigorously than was needed, to employ the restless energy for something productive. When we finally got done he flashed his teeth wide with an inspecting look. Then shaking his head he muttered reproachfully looking away,

"Losing it..." Opening the door he was going to turn off the light in the washroom when his eyes fell on the bed. He narrowed his eyes to ascertain if he saw it right. The bed was indeed empty. Forgetting the light he walked towards the bed, still doubting his eyes but a closer view changed nothing. It was not only an empty bed, but also looked like it was kind of made, definitely not slept in. He frowned. Chirag had called to confirm that he had dropped off Lovely and not left her alone till she took her pills and went to bed. But then, where was she. An inkling of apprehension began to creep in and he went out to check the other rooms. The study, the guest room on that floor, then he ran down to check the kitchen, the living, the family room, even the pantry...there was no sign of her. Not bothering to about causing disturbance anymore, he turned on the every light that now came along his way, soon the whole house was flooded in a yellow glow.

"Lovely!" he said...then again and much louder this time..."LOVELY?"

At the very next thought he pulled out his mobile and speed dialed Chirag. Pick up the phone man, he thought with rising desperation, please pick up and say you know whats happening. At long last a sleepy voice answered and Armaan started off without giving it a break as he walked back into his room, turning on the only lights which were still switched off. As he paced the floor narrating details his eyes fell on the half open sliding door to her walk in closet. Tentatively he moved towards it, not hearing anymore what Chirag spoke on the other end, now completely awake.

His eyes widened in horror at what he saw...

"Oh my God..." the words left his mouth but were never heard since there was no voice. Just when he thought life was starting to loosen up...

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

NJ

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