The phone buzzed like an angry beast, muting the guitar strings with an abrupt clang. His thoughts jerked to a halt and he let out a vicious curse. He knew without checking it was from home. His family had been calling nonstop even though he’d told them he couldn’t make it tonight.
Irritated, he let it go to voicemail and waited for the music to resume. A sigh left him as the song restarted and he let his head fall back against the bonnet of his car. He’d been listening to it on loop for days now, much to everyone’s chagrin. Like a Bollywood romeo, his sister had teased and she was right. Even the stars above seemed to laugh at him.
Well, to hell with them! Couldn’t a man nurse a broken heart in peace? He was too much of a lightweight to drink himself to stupor but by God, he deserved a few hours of silence.
As if on cue, the music stopped again. Great, he thought, apt time for God to listen to him now. The silence he’d wished for stretched on for miles and just as suddenly, he wanted it gone. It felt oppressive today, this quiet. This place. Barely an hours drive from the city, it was – used to be – his favorite haunt. He came here to think, be, celebrate, grieve; a secret haven only one other person was privy to.
But perhaps it was time to move on from both.
He was about to cut his losses and go sulk in his car when a voice from behind broke the quiet.
“What’s your obsession with that bloody song?” The question was as unbidden and uninhibited as only she could be. “You must know it by heart already.”
He fumbled for his phone, switched off the tune. “Every note, yes,” he answered, managing to keep the surprise from his voice. She wasn’t supposed to be here. Their respective moms – next-door neighbors and best friends of thirty years – had been in a frenzy about the dinner party at her place tonight. She should be there, dressed to the nines and serving auntie’s decadent qeema samosa’s to some douche MBA.
But then, he mused as she plonked herself beside him, when had she ever done what she was supposed to do? God, he loved her rebellious streak.
“How come I didn’t know Paris was you favorite city?” she asked.
“It’s not, and no,” he continued, anticipating the question, “the song’s not about that.”
“Then what’s it about?”
“Paris here means a temporary space of yearning,” he whispered, keeping his eyes on hers. “It’s a mental reality you create to hide when things get too tough. An escape, illusion of one’s own making. Temporal. Warm. Perfect.” Like you, he thought.
She snorted. “Yeah, no, too escapist for my taste. I like my reality, thanks.”
His teeth ground together in annoyance. “Thank you for coming all this way to insult my musical taste. Anything else about my personality you’d like to comment on?”
“Not now, but I’ve a list of things at home. I’ll Watsapp you. And here,” she retrieved a tupperware from the leather satchel, a graduation gift he’d spent a quarter of his first paycheck on. The cactus she’d given him – gift giving was not her forte – sat in bedroom and never failed to make him laugh. “I saved you some samosas.”
Acid churned in his belly. He’d rather starve. “I’m not hungry. What are you doing here anyway? Shouldn’t you home, serving tea to your potential betrothed?”
“I would, gladly,” she retorted and something nasty crawled up his throat.
“If he’d showed up,” she mumbled under her breath but he heard it anyway.
“What?” Anger shifted to rage and he scrambled to his feet. “What a bloody jerk! What’s his name, address, phone number?”
A rare grin stretched her face before she shifted and stretched out on her back, uncaring of the dust on he denims. “Gonna teach him a lesson, are you, Hulk?”
“Damn right I am. How dare he stand you up? Come on, let’s go. We’re going to slash some tires, egg the asshat’s house.” He began rolling his sleeves, mentally preparing for the battle to come. Nobody insulted his best friend. It was a privilege granted to him alone.
She sighed, crossed her arms beneath her head. “It’s pointless. Your mom will make you wash the gate, replace the tires.”
He winced. It was true. Amaan did not understand retaliation, no matter how justified. “Who’s going to tell her?”
“Call me crazy but since it’s also her car and gate, she’s bound to notice.”
“What the hell are you-” His jerked back so sharply his brain rattled. “Wait, what? Her car… So, you mean…”
She waved her hand, a queen waiting for her pawns to grow a brain. “Keep going, it’ll occur to you.”
Something terrible was happening inside him. His stomach was sinking, heart expanding. He swallowed dryly and decided to sit down before his shaking knees completely gave in. He moved to sit cross-legged beside her, cleared his throat. “Are you saying that the guy our neighbors have been yapping about, the jerk who’s face I’ve wanted break all week and who stood you up tonight is me?”
“Congratulations, the bournvita is working.”
Joy burst in his soul even as his intestines started a steady crawl up his throat. “Oh, shit. Mom’s going to kill me.”
“Yeah, no, I called dibs.” She sat up straight, eyes narrowed. “But I thought I’d give you a chance to explain, for old times sake. So tell me, what was so urgent that you couldn’t be bothered be show up to finalize your own goddamn wedding dates?”
He was a cautious man by nature and so steadily sneaked back a few paces. “I would have if somebody had bothered to tell me it was mine. And forget wedding, when the hell did we start dating? Was I in a coma or something?”
“We’ve been together since kindergarten! Dating is redundant-“
“I’ve never even told you or anybody how I felt-”
“What’s there to tell? It’s as obvious as air-“
“This is ridiculous,” he continued, barely listening as indignation took over. “I can’t believe my family would do something so reckless. What if I was in a relationship with someone else? This could’ve been disastrous.”
She snickered. “Like anybody else would have you. And just by the way, I talked to your family, not them.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me. I went to your parents and told them it was high time we got married. None of us are getting any younger.”
His mouth dropped open. “You talked to Amaan and Baba? About us?”
“Why is that a surprise? It’s always me.” She started counting on her fingers. “Our first sleepover, the hiking trip in college, post-graduation holiday”
“Marriage is more than a hiking trip!”
“Not when both require stamina and patience. But you were taking forever getting there, and I’ve got plans for us.”
He pressed the bridge of his nose. Typical, he thought even as his heart filled to bursting, just typical. How could he have ever thought she’d choose another to annoy for the rest of their lives? But that was besides the point.
“How could you even talk to my parents before talking to me?”
She paused then, arched one sardonic brow. “Want me get on my knees, Cinderella?”
She was more likely to break both his kneecaps. But it wasn’t everyday the love of your life admitted they were as equally enamored. What was life without having a little fun?
He examined his nails, buffed them on his shoulder. “Well, if you insist.”
Her smile was quick, sweet and completely insincere. “Sure, honey.”
He caught her fist a hair’s breadth before it smashed into his face. “Now, now, it’s a sin to hit your would-be husband.”
“Not if he’s a idiot. I’m sure God recommends it then.”
Her free hand swung and he barely caught it, used the grip on her hand to pull her forward and wrestle her into his lap before she could think of using her legs to kick him. “Easy, tiger.”
“Get off me, jerk.” She wiggled for freedom.
“Settle down.” Only years of practice made it possible for him to block the elbow she tried to plough into his gut. He shifted her until her back met his chest and wrapped both arms around her, trapping her arms from doing any more damage. “Shush, easy now,” he mumbled when she tried to protest. “Let’s take a deep breath and calm down.”
She sniffed dismissively. “I’m always calm.”
He buried his grin in the shoulder-length cap of her hair, a gesture as old as their bond but today it appeared new, headier. Slowly, as though testing boundaries, he pressed his lips to her temple and felt her still. The tension in her shoulders eased away and she leaned back into him, allowing him more access. A silent answer to his silent question. How he’d ever assumed she wouldn’t know the words trapped in his heart, he’d never know. But he, they had a lifetime to overcome such mistakes.
He shifted to rest back against the car before perching his chin on her shoulder. “Tell me.”
She watched him from the corner of her eye. “What?”
“How long have you known what you are to me.”
Her gaze drifted back to the stars. “As long as I’ve know what you are to me.”
His grip around her tightened. “You sure you want to get married? Don’t get me wrong,” he assured quickly when she tensed a little. “I want to. But I know jumping into this isn’t easy for you and I’ve no problem waiting, taking this steady if that’s what you wish.” She’d grown up in a broken home, which made her both, comfortable in her own skin as well as vary of all institutes and traditions that demanded she change to accommodate another’s lofty standards. He could wait eons if that’s what it took to reassure her.
“No, I’m sure.” She turned to look at him now. “I don’t want our labels to change,” she whispered. “Don’t want us to be anything other than what we are. Best friends.”
“For life,” he vowed and moved his hand over hers, linking their fingers together.
“But if you break me, I’ll throw you off our roof.”
“Done. If you break me, I’ll tell your Mom it was you who busted her Audi.”
“Cold.” A smile tugged her lips, head dropped back on his shoulder. “Done.”