“Show off.” Aman muttered under his breath as his friend pretended to stumble, almost fall over, and by some miraculous intervention of fate, save himself and whack the tennis ball towards his opponent.
A round of hoots, cheers and a smattering of laughter from the sides made Aman roll his eyes.
“That’s your fourth set. Well played, Raizada. We should do this again sometime.”
“Sure, Karwal. Anytime you feel like getting your ass kicked on this court again, give me a call.”
Arnav’s opponent grimaced politely before making his way off the clay.
Aman waited patiently for Arnav’s fan club to dissipate before moving to hand him a towel and a bottle of water. “Was that really necessary?”
“Of course it was! Karwal’s a prick and he never loses an opportunity to make me look bad in front of the boss.”
“I did not mean your jibe at that idiot, Karwal. I meant that little stunt you pulled right now at the end of the game. How old are you again?”
“Thirteen,” Arnav grinned before taking a long swig of water from the bottle.
“You sure as hell act like it. So did it get you a date for tomorrow’s Champions’ Ball?”
Arnav narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “I don’t need a date for the Champions’ Ball. I already have one, remember?”
Aman snorted. “You mean you have a dance. One dance. Unless you also count your entry into the ballroom.”
“It is a date. One that is going to end with a bang, if you know what I mean.”
Aman made an incoherent sound of disgust. “That ceased being funny after we turned twenty one and graduated. Now it’s just disrespectful. Not that I expect her to fall for your questionable charms, but I advise you to not mess around with her.”
Arnav whistled a careless tune as he ripped his shirt off and strolled into the showers.
Khushi was still lining her eyes when her mother appeared at her door, a box in hand. The brush clattered onto the dresser and a pair of dark eyes shone with excitement.
Her mother winked conspiratorially before shutting the door behind her.
“Indeed, it is. Your grandmother is probably turning over in her grave right now, but I couldn’t resist giving this to you tonight.”
Khushi traced a reverent finger along the intricate gold vines that wrapped around star flowers of pearl and gold. “Ma…are you sure? I shouldn’t. Aren’t you supposed to give this to me only on my wedding day?”
“Don’t be silly. It’s mine to do what I like with. And this is a really big deal. Not to mention, it’ll look fantastic with your saree. Let’s try it on.”
Khushi allowed her mother to slip the necklace around her neck and help her with the matching earrings.
“There. You look beautiful. I’m almost tempted to put a nazar teeka on you.” Laughing at her daughter’s horrified face in the mirror, Mrs. Garima Gupta expertly repleated Khushi’s saree and pinned it in place.
“MA! Stop fussing! I’m going to be late!”
“Alright, alright, go. Are you sure you can dance in those heels?”
“Ragini’s going to drop you home, right?”
“Yes! Can I please leave now?”
“One last thing, invite your date over for tea one of these days. Your father and I would love to meet him.”
“MA! He isn’t my date. I don’t even know him. I’m just dancing with him because he won the Men’s Annual Tournament.”
“Arrey, why are you getting so defensive? I’m not asking you to marry him, just ask him over for chai!”
Laughing at her daughter’s flushed face, Garima pushed her gently out of the door. “Khushi, sweetheart, you’re ridiculously easy to tease. Now go have fun. I can hear Ragini honking downstairs.”
Khushi peeped into the ballroom from behind the massive double doors through which she was to make her entry. The muted light of chandeliers with artificial candles lent a mellow and somber aura to the large ballroom and its occupants engaged in polite small-talk. Even the lady at the bar with the flashy diamonds appeared diminished and toned down. Khushi felt mildly worried that she’d breathe too loudly and attract disapproving looks from the club’s old guard.
A discreet cough brought her attention back to the man at her elbow, her partner for the first dance– Arnav Raizada.
“Don’t think so loudly, the old bats will have conniptions.”
His words mirrored her own thoughts so precisely, Khushi couldn’t stop the tiny gasp that escaped her lips. She looked at her partner carefully for the first time that evening. He had opted for the more informal blazer and trousers instead of a three-piece suit and the open collar of his white shirt revealed a scrap of tanned skin. He could do with a serious haircut, but was nice enough looking. She especially liked the twinkle in his eyes.
“Whatever disease this ‘conventional’ is, keep it away from me. Is it contagious?”
Khushi shrugged, grinning freely. “Probably. Don’t stand too close to me, I think I have ‘conventional’ too.”
He stepped closer instead, making her uncomfortably aware of the way his blazer stretched across his shoulders and the way the faint spicy scent of his cologne invaded her senses.
“I changed my mind. I think I like conventional.”
Before a rather flustered Khushi could respond, he stepped away from her and offered her his arm. “I also think it’s time we made our entrance at this very conventional party.”
Khushi had never felt as conflicted about a person as she did about the man she was currently eating dinner with.
He was not really her ‘type’ and yet she found him oddly attractive. He alternatively made her laugh with his snide observations about the party and its people and feel guilty for laughing at everyone. He would engage her in friendly banter one moment and lean in with a practiced pick-up line the next. And what vexed Khushi the most was how she couldn’t stop her rising colour and nervous laughter even when she recognised his intent to discompose her. All in all, she wasn’t sorry when they’d finished eating and he asked her for another dance.
“For someone who plays tennis so well, you’re a surprisingly awkward dancer.”
“Did anyone ever tell you that you have all the subtlety and tact of a five year old?”
“My mother may have mentioned it once or twice.”
Khushi winked impishly while maneouvering him to a relatively empty spot on the dance floor.
“There. Now you have more space to move awkwardly in.”
“Just keep breaking my heart, why don’t you?”
Khushi laughed, swaying to the beats of an old Aretha Franklin number. Here, she felt at ease. His physical proximity didn’t bother her when he wasn’t deliberately trying to fluster her. In fact, she found it comforting. And it was endearing, the way he tried to manfully keep up with her while missing every second beat.
She liked Arnav, she realised. Maybe she would ask him over for a cup of chai someday.
Her mother’s smirking face flashed into her mind instantly. On second thought, maybe she’d stick to asking him for a cup of coffee at the club.
“Arnav, are you sure you’re feeling alright? That’s the second time you’ve spaced out today. The meeting I understand, it was boring as fuck, but over lunch? I know it’s serious when it’s distracting you from your lunch.”
“Oh, shut up!”
The unheated, almost uninterested response made Aman put his fork down, fold his arms, lean back in his chair and look critically at his friend.
“Did anything happen last evening that you want to tell me about?”
Arnav continued fidgeting with the dice-shaped pepper shaker on the cafeteria table. “Khushi asked me if I’d like to grab a cup of coffee this Saturday.”
“That is impressive, and a little unexpected. I was fairly confident that Khushi Gupta would be intelligent enough to see through your cheesy pick-up lines. Clearly, I was wrong. So what seems to be the problem? Isn’t this exactly what you wanted? A date?”
Arnav finally looked up with a tiny furrow in between his brows. “That’s just it. I have a date with her and I can’t figure out for the life of me, why she asked me. She was, as you say, too ‘intelligent’ to fall for my suave moves.” Ignoring Aman’s indelicate snort, Arnav continued. “In fact, she was visibly uncomfortable every time I tried complimenting her or hitting on her. We got along well for the most part of the evening– we danced, she commented on my atrocious moves, we ate dinner together and it was honestly a far more entertaining evening than I had expected it to be. But there was nothing to suggest that Khushi might be interested in anything more. Which is why, I’m a little confused about what to make of this invite.”
Aman would have laughed had it not been for the genuinely puzzled expression on his friend’s face.
“Has it occurred to you that she may just want to be…well…friends? That she may just like hanging out with you with no sexual interest in you?”
The frown on Arnav’s forehead deepened. “It has. And I’m not sure I like that idea. I don’t like women taking only platonic interest in me.”
Aman picked up a carrot stick from his plate and threw it with unerring aim at Arnav, hitting him squarely on the forehead. “You know, if you were less of an asshole, she might actually develop a desire to date you.”
Shaking his head when Arnav continued contemplating the pepper shaker with single-minded focus, Aman returned to his neglected food.
“Seriously? You don’t eat meat because the idea of eating living things bothers you?”
“How does that make less sense than not eating meat because my religion forbids it?”
“No, that makes very little sense to me too. But humour me over here– how are you okay with eating plants? They’re living organisms too, right?
Khushi sighed. “Because I would starve otherwise. I have to eat something. So I go with whatever appears to be least sentient.”
“What about bacteria in dairy products?”
“Wow, Arnav, can we not talk about bacteria in dairy products while drinking coffee? It does not make my coffee more appetizing.”
Arnav threw his head back and laughed. “Your arguments are flawed, but the spirit is cute.”
Khushi didn’t bother responding. A warmth that had nothing to do with her cappuccino coursed through her veins. She hoped the heat didn’t manifest itself on her cheeks. She hated the idea of appearing nervous and gauche in front of Arnav.
“So why don’t you play tennis professionally? I’ve always wondered– you’re clearly very, very good.”
“Tennis was only ever a hobby. I enjoy playing but I don’t think I could play with the pressure of doing it for a living or representing the country, or even the state. I did tell you I’m conventional. So I have a conventional career.”
“Actually, graphic design isn’t all that conventional a career.”
“Well…more conventional than tennis. You clearly opted for the give-the-parents-a-heart-attack career path.”
“It’s not that bad. My parents are artists. Advertising is more stable than that. Plus, I can’t draw to save my life. I clearly couldn’t follow in their footsteps.”
Khushi narrowed her eyes. “Wait a minute. Are you telling me that you are Antariksh and Poorna Raizada’s son?”
Arnav cocked an eyebrow at her. “I didn’t know you were into the desi art scene.”
“Well, I’m not, to be honest. My parents are. We even have Midsummer Madness hanging on a wall in our living room!”
“You never truly appreciate how small the world is until things like this happen.”
“But that’s crazy! My mother is going to be so thrilled! She’s a huge fan! Do you…do you think it would be alright for my mother to meet your parents some time? It would make her so very happy.”
Looking at hopeful glimmer in her eyes, Arnav didn’t have the heart to refuse. He shifted uncomfortably in his armchair. “Sure…they’re swamped with work now…but I’ll let you know just as soon as they have some time off.”
“Of course! Whatever is convenient. Thank you.”
The bright smile she sent his way made Arnav curse the uncertain fluttering in his stomach.
“But…you’ll owe me one after that.”
Khushi nodded. “I will. The question is what will I owe you?”
“I’ll collect the debt when the time comes.” Ignoring his accelerated heartbeat, Arnav shot her a suggestive leer that made Khushi roll her eyes.
A bead of sweat trickled down Khushi’s back as she focused on the ball soaring towards her. She swung the racquet in her right hand towards it, noting the satisfactory thump it made on contact. She had barely a second to recover before the ball came back to her side of the court. This time she was forced to run a quick couple of steps to her left and use her backhand to send the ball back over the net. The next time the ball flew towards her, Khushi skilfully landed it in the far end of her opponent’s court. He hadn’t a hope of hitting it. She bowed at his little mock salute.
“I can honestly say that I feel no embarrassment in losing continuously to someone who plays as spectacularly well as you do.”
“Khushi laughed loudly, high with the adrenaline in her system. “You’re not continuously losing. You’ve lost two sets.”
“And I will keep losing unless you let me win, which would be much more humiliating and more than my bruised male ego will be able to take.”
Playfully spraying some of the water from her bottle in his direction, Khushi dodged his threat of retaliation. “And your over-long hair doesn’t threaten your masculinity?”
“What a sexist thing to say! I thought we had moved past such rigid norms of masculinity and feminity. Do you hear me say anything about your shorts?”
“No, that’s because you’re too busy eyeing my legs to complain.”
This time Arnav stood stock still in genuine shock. “Did the demure Miss Gupta just accuse me of ogling her legs?”
“Don’t even bother denying it. I saw you.”
Arnav ran a hand through his hair, making it stand up awkwardly. “Well…I can’t deny that you have a fine pair of legs.”
“Arnav! You could pretend that you don’t know what I’m talking about!”
“Er…you just told me not to bother denying it. So I figured I’d make things easier. Please make up your mind.”
“See, I know you were, you know you were, you know I know you were. So I’m allowed to call you out on it. But it’s polite to pretend you weren’t, anyway.”
“That was the single most confusing statement I’ve heard all day.”
“Are you up for another set?”
“You mean another crushing defeat? I guess.”
“Arnav, what is going on with you and Khushi Gupta?”
Arnav swallowed the last of his sandwich, took a sip from the glass of water in front of him and wiped his mouth before answering.
“Nothing is ‘going on.’ We go out occasionally. She’s fun.”
“She’s fun? Seriously?”
“So this was the woman you didn’t want a platonic relationship with a few weeks ago. What gives?”
“Oh, I still don’t. Only thing is, I don’t want just a fling either.”
“That’s…nice. Who are you and what have you done to my friend?”
“Abducted him. I now have his body and intend to mate with this human female Khushi and populate the earth with our half-alien-half-human-babies.”
Aman shuddered. “I really didn’t need that mental image. No, seriously, what the fuck are you smoking? At the beginning of this month, all you wanted was a date with her because she was oblivious to your existence, and now you want…more than a fling? How much more?”
“Aman, you really have to curb this tendency to sound like my jealous girlfriend. I…I don’t know. I want a relationship with her. I think I’m slightly, possibly in love with her.”
“In love? Arnav, if this is some kind of sick joke, it is really not cool. Khushi is going to be seriously hurt, and you will have gone too far.”
The beginning of a cloud began gathering on Arnav’s face. “Why would you think I’m messing around?”
“Because I know you. You haven’t ever dated anyone seriously. And now you claim to want a relationship with Khushi Gupta who is clearly not even your usual type, terrible as that sounds. Forgive me if it feels like your bruised ego talking because she never gave you the time of day before this.”
Arnav gritted his teeth, his nostrils flaring. “Give me a little more credit than that, Aman. If you claim to know me so well, you’d see that I am serious about her.”
“Alright. I believe you. What about Khushi? Is she also ‘serious’ about you? Have you even talked to her about this so-called ‘serious’ relationship?”
Arnav pushed his chair out and stood up. “No, I haven’t. And I am trying to. I would have liked a little bit of support from my best friend, however.”
He walked out of the cafeteria without looking back.
Khushi sat cross legged by the pool, eyes closed as the slightly nippy autumn breeze ran its fingers through the damp strands of her hair.
These days, sun down meant that the pool emptied quickly. Very few were dedicated enough to brave the rapidly cooling water in the evening. And so it was the perfect place to spend a quiet evening doing nothing.
Khushi opened her eyes and smiled at the silhouette in front of her.
“Mind if I sit here with you?”
“Of course not.”
“I thought I’d find you here. I needed to talk to you.”
As Arnav lowered himself onto the ground next to her, she could finally see his face properly. Stunned, she raised an involuntary hand to his head.
“You cut your hair?”
She grazed her fingers against the shorter, crisp locks of hair at the nape of his neck.
He seemed to shiver as the playful breeze danced around them.
“Yes.” Wrapping an arm around her waist, he drew her into his side, resting his chin on the top of her head.
Khushi returned his embrace, settling herself more comfortably against him.
“What did you want to talk to me about?”
Arnav slipped his hand under the hem of her t-shirt, absently tracing a pattern on her waist. Khushi waited patiently for him to begin, content with closing her eyes again and letting the gentle rise and fall of his chest lull her into a daze.
“Are we ‘serious?'”
Khushi made to break away from him to get a better look at his face, but the tightening grip around her waist prevented her. Snuggling back into the crook of his arm, Khushi used her free hand to tug on his collar and make him meet her eyes.
“I was hoping we are. Aren’t we?”
“I was hoping we are too.”
Burying his fingers into her unbound hair, Arnav tilted her face closer to his and pressed his mouth to hers in a hungry kiss.
Breaking away to catch her breath, Khushi pushed gently at his chest, sighing when he continued to kiss his way down her throat.
“Arnav, you have to stop doing that…”
“Doing what?” He pulled her closer for another heated kiss, one hand sliding down to cup a breast, brushing his thumb again and again over the sensitive tip, right through the material of her thin t-shirt.
Resisting the urge to swing a leg over his and crawl onto his lap, Khushi made a commendable effort at pushing him away again.
“Arnav, we have to finish this conversation.”
With a slight groan, Arnav placed one last kiss on her lips and sat up straight, breathing deeply.
“Alright, now tell me why you suddenly felt the need to ask me this question?”
“That’s just it. It’s not a sudden need. I’ve wanted to know for a while now. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer if the answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear.”
“That was another specimen of ‘most confusing statement heard all day.’ But jokes apart, why would you even ask, Arnav? Don’t you know me enough to know that I wouldn’t keep going out with you and spending so much time with you if I wasn’t serious about you? Conventional, remember?”
“That’s just it. I’m not conventional at all. Even my best friend wouldn’t believe that I am serious about you. He thinks you’re an ego trip because you never seemed to notice me. And he’s known me for years. What hope did I have of convincing you? And then you were always so…so…friendly.”
“I mean, you wanted to hang out with me generally, not because you were dazzled by my charm and extraordinary good looks; you wanted your parents to meet mine because they like art and not because you were interested in our parents meeting each other…you see what I mean? What is so funny?”
Khushi gasped for breath, unable to contain the spasms of laughter shaking through her.
“A) Modesty is clearly not your strong point, B) I did want our parents to meet generally also but how creepy would it be if I said so. I thought guys were freaked out by that sort of thing. And finally, C) I have no idea how ‘serious’ relationships work. I…just go with what feels right. And…you somehow felt right. From the beginning.”
Arnav grinned, pulling her into his arms again. “I’m glad. Because I think I lost a little piece of my heart that first evening when you walked in looking like a million bucks and told me that I’m a surprisingly awkward dancer. And then continued losing pieces every time we met.”
“See! How do I even respond to something so cheesy? Can you imagine the pressure? This is why I smile uncomfortably and change the subject.”
“One last thing. Will you please tell Aman that we’re ‘serious?’ I am not talking to him right now, but he needs to know.”
“Go tell him yourself!”
“Come on! I cut my hair because you wanted me to.”
“Did you really?”
“Of course! This is as ‘serious’ as I can get.”
Khushi laughed again, resting her forehead on his shoulder and blinking away the sudden moisture that had appeared in her eyes. Haircut-official did put a different spin on things.
Ainvayi. Because I’ve heard a few cutesy sports-related love stories recently. The last in that line was Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi who could well have been an alternate universe Arnav-Khushi. Gah.