An Incurable Insanity Chap 20: Sounds

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20: SOUNDS

-0-

“My feet are killing me!” Ruhi moaned, draping herself on a lamppost. “You didn’t say we’d be walking this much!”

He shrugged, unperturbed. “You didn’t ask. Anyways, I’m not too familiar with the layout.”

They had just passed the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he’d gotten thoroughly riled watching her squander a good half hour hunting for Leonardo Di Caprio’s nonexistent star.

“Why are you not interested in Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, or even Neil Armstrong who happens to be my idol?”

“Yes, I am. But Leo.” She sighed, closing her eyes. “When he froze to death in those icy waters in order to save the love of his life…”

“Gosh you sound like an out-of-work mortician.” He smirked.

“Yes, that would be your opinion because for you love is a gimmick and anyone who gives up his life for it, a moron!” Her eyes bore into him like two very cold steely knives before she whipped around and marched away in a swirl of white.

“I didn’t mean it that way! God how do you make this woman tick?” he mumbled, hurrying after her. He didn’t have to go far. She was doubled over at the corner brooding at her three- inch heels.

“You could always take them off or—”

“Now don’t say you’re offering to give me a ride!” She stepped back in a flurry.

“What…and break my back!” he burst out as though at some fantastic joke. “I meant you could also choose to suffer by keeping them on.”

“Thank you for great advice!”

“Anytime, sweetheart!”

They stood at the intersection of Hollywood and La Brea, scowling at each other for several minutes.

“I think we are lost.”

“You’re bang on target for once!”

“Don’t you even know how to read maps?”

“I do, but I have no clue where I parked the blasted car!”

“Men!”

“Hey wait!” Why do I always seem to be running behind her?

The strains of MJ’s “Bad.”

Hooking around the corner, they came upon a small group of young black men jiving to the very familiar beat. They had managed to attract a sizeable crowd, and everybody seemed to be having a very good time.

“Let’s move on now. You can see this some other time.” Shaan grabbed her hand.

“No wait, that time may never come,” she retorted with spirit and pushed herself to the front.

I don’t think I’ll ever get her to myself today, he thought miserably when suddenly he heard the song change and a collective gasp from the crowd followed by loud applause. He gaped in disbelief when he saw his wife grooving with a pimply teen to the tune of PYT, and to make matters worse, she appeared to enjoy it.

“How dare you dance with anyone else besides me?” he said as he hauled her angrily into his arms.

You don’t own me!

I think I do…very much so!

She tried to elude his grasp but found him too agile and determined.

“Not too shabby for a guy who spends most of his time in front of the computer. You are a revelation, Mr. Grey. Now you better feed me something really cold or else I’ll melt into the sidewalk!” she said, all flushed and hot.

They had ice cream at a place he knew. She chose raspberry and cream while he requested his float to be spiked with gener- ous dollops of rum, which the proprietor kept hidden under the counter just as Eric had told him. He took all his girlfriends there.

-0-

Venice Beach.

“Did you come here to show me couples necking on the sand?” she asked, giggling.

Blast! She sounds more drunk than me! Shaan thought, feeling stone-cold sober. “No, I brought you here so you could walk barefoot. Sand is good for achy feet.”

“Shut up and stop making excuses Shaan!” She laughed before darting away on the famed boardwalk, deftly avoiding the scores of avid skateboarders.

What does she mean? Does she know how I feel? He cursed himself, following slowly behind, looking toward the horizon for inspiration and not finding any; the sun had set awhile ago.

“Sorry!” he muttered, nearly stumbling over a couple who were indeed “necking on the sand.” What could be going on in their minds?

The girl I’m sure believes herself to be in love while the guy…I bet he doesn’t even know her name. He chuckled.

Gawd! Is that what Ruhi takes me to be? A rake who would dump her soon after he has had his fill? Damnit! I bet that’s it. I need to set her mind right, but how?

His eyes scouted earnestly for her white figure. Where the hell has she disappeared?

“Ruhi! Holy crap! Are you out of your bloody mind!” After a harrowing search for what seemed like an eternity, he came upon her standing waist deep in the warm waters, her arms stretched out in front as though reaching for someone.

“I’m not suicidal if that’s what you’re worried about,” she said, trying to flick away the restricting hand he had placed on her shoulder. “It just feels so good when the sand erodes beneath your feet and the sea slowly pulls you toward her, like a mother calling to her child.”

“It all sounds very cool, but in reality, this is how most imbeciles like you lose their lives! It’s called oceanic current darling, and it’s simply ruthless!” he hollered, roughly dragging her back to safety.

I’m certain I’m marked for premature death, but dying happy is always better than dying lonely, he agonized as she wrenched herself from his grasp.

“You called me an idiot!”

“Of the first order!”

She blundered away in a huff.

“Ruhi?”

“Don’t call me that!”

“Fine then, Bee. Anyhow, it fits you better,” he mumbled. Then, in a barely audible whisper, which the wind carried to her ear, he said, “Please, shall we call it quits now? My heart can’t take it anymore.”

In response, he was bestowed a dazzling smile, and her arms reached out to him. Her eyes sparkled with something he dared not guess. They walked side-by-side, hand in hand on the beach, stealing furtive glances of each other, wondering, hoping, wishing.

“Shaan?” She stopped in her tracks and took a step, bridging the void between them.

“Yes?” He waited holding his breath.

“Let’s perchance imagine for just one moment that the world as we know it was coming to an end tomorrow.” I don’t know why I’m saying this, but I don’t care. Perhaps the sea is affecting me.

“What do you mean, Ruhi? Nothing like that is going to happen.”

“What is the last thing you’d want to do before you die?” she persisted, peering up into his eyes, her face gleaming ethereal in the moonlight.

I’d want to make mad, furious love to you if that’s the last thing I do! He pulled her in to his arms, defying her to read his mind, battling against his instincts.

Yes, that’s what I’d want too. Her hands reached up to clutch at his shirt, finding comfort in the heat that radiated from his skin and closed her eyes wishing the moment would never end. But that’s the only thing he wants from you, Ruhi. A sob escaped her mouth as she pushed him away.

“Don’t you dare run from me!” he yelled, pulling her back. “Stop playing these ridiculous mind games. Say what you wish to say right now and get it over with. Scream, shout, or even hit me! Just let it all out, Ruhi, just do it!”

Damn those lips are begging to be saved, he thought as their faces drifted closer and their breaths mingled…raspberries and cream. Her mouth parted; she felt drawn to him like a magnet.

Almost there, now give it to him, Ruhi, let him have it! She broke away, laughing while her chest ached. “I was just jesting, Shaan. Who really cares about what happens tomorrow? Let’s go home.”

He gazed after her in stunned disbelief. I’ll have you, then I will kill you, if that’s the last thing I do.

tbc

An Incurable Insanity Chap 19: Sights

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19: SIGHTS

“You are driving at 80mph, way above the speed limit. What if you get a ticket?”

“I’m willing to chance it. Too tired of playing by the rules.” Who the heck cares! Be wild for a moment, and that moment will last a lifetime! “Hold on!” His eyes sparkled as he stroked the accelerator and edged into the leftmost lane—the fast lane.

She held on to the dashboard but couldn’t deny a sensual rush when they breezed past the rest of the traffic. “Where are we going?”

“Wait and see.”

“Hell! Must have got off the wrong side of the bed!” The piercingly loud wail of a police siren could be heard approaching fast behind soon followed by flashing lights of blue and red.There goes a couple of hundred bucks and all the affected bravado down the drain! What a fool she must think me to be! Shaan frowned as he slowed to pull the car on to the shoulder.

But the cop speeded past, and Shaan heaved a sigh of relief.

“Seems like some poor punk has stolen the limelight. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am, but my day will surely come.” He winked mischievously.

He isn’t really too bad when he applies himself to the task, she thought, starting to get the drift. He was humming again. “I hate silly love songs!”

“No don’t!” He leaned over to stop her from toggling with the dial, scraping her fingers in the process. She jerked her hand away. “I love them, just like I love old romantic movies.”

Her pulse quickened as his brown eyes sneaked sideways, and he mouthed the words of an old Eagles melody as if they were meant for her and her alone.

I am not afraid to say anymore that I want you to stay with me and be my wife for real. Get it quick, lady, for I can’t wait.

How I wish you had told me all this before, Shaan.

Are you hearing me, Ruhi?

She looked away.

That rogue Pratik! Must have a rose garden for the sole purpose of impressing females! I’ll kill him if he tries to mess with my girl again!

Don’t gnash your teeth, you look like a pig!

“Did you say something?”

Shaking her head, she giggled.

Vixen!

“Oh this is beautiful!”

They were driving down Sepulveda Boulevard, having left behind the concrete monotony of the freeway.

He grinned, pleased. “Wait till you see what’s next. It’ll leave you breathless.”

You already do. For the next half an hour or so, Ruhi was, as he had promised, agog with enchantment as though she’d been magically shipped to another world.

Shaan chose to remain mysterious, but she could sense his fervor when after parking the car; he grabbed her by the arm and hurried her to a spot from where they were shuttled on a computer-operated tram to the top of a hill, which he explained was part of the Santa Monica mountains. She gasped, literally sucking in her breath when they came upon a huge complex, which appeared to have sprouted from the hill side.

“This is the Getty Museum, one of the richest in the world when you take in the value of its art collections. It was built by an oil billionaire who was known to be a miser yet who left most of his estate to this place. To me that makes him one of the most generous men on earth! I love it here!”

A spontaneous smile creased Ruhi’s lips. She had never witnessed him so enthused before and found it very infectious and attractive. “So is art your second love after fancy flying objects?”

He paused for a moment at the entrance while holding the door propped open for her. “No, it’s my third.”

She flushed under his gaze but didn’t ask him to elaborate. She was afraid of what he might say.

“So what do you think of this one?” he queried later with interest. They were standing in front of a particularly arresting portrait of an old Roman peasant woman.“I think she’s happy even though she’s dirt poor since she still has the love of her husband and children.”

“No, I think you are wrong. I feel she is miserable because he left her for another younger and more beautiful woman.”

Ruhi was subject to a piercingly sharp survey but was able to maintain her cool. “She is finished crying, now all she wants to do is take him to the guillotine!” she continued defiantly.

He chuckled. “There were no guillotines in Rome at the time this picture was painted.”

“Whatever, I don’t care! She only has vengeance on her mind!”

So you want to kill me! I need to get my hands on that Swiss army knife.

“Hold that pose! You look like a girl who has swallowed a vile- tasting insect!” He laughed, pulling out the Nikon.

“Shaan! You—”

“Do you folks want a picture together? You make a handsome couple,” a man in a French beret offered amiably, and Shaan immediately handed him the camera.

“What are you doing?” she asked irritably when he hugged her from behind, placing both arms around her waist.

“Playing pretend as you like to do so often. Now smile!” he whispered, leaning his head close to hers while Mr. Beret snapped away.

I hate you. I really do! she screamed inside, her eyes welling up with unshed tears.

“C’mon, cheer up, Bee. Wipe that sour look off your face. We are good friends and housemates remember? Now tell me if you recognize this one!”

She blinked hastily dabbing her eyes with a tissue. Let me enjoy myself while I can. “Oh my god! It’s Irises by Van Gogh!” She stared agape at the very familiar painting. ”Don’t tell me it’s the original!”

“Are you off your head? It is the original! It was painted when the artist was in an asylum the year before he died. Its evidence that genius does not require a sane mind. Poor chap, he received only three hundred Francs for it,” Shaan muttered while dolefully regarding the canvas.

“How much is it worth now? A million, two?”

Shaan Googled on his cell. “For crying out loud! It was last valued at over one hundred million! It is one of the most expensive pieces of art in the world. Poor Van Gogh!”

Later at the museum café while Shaan frowned at his lackluster cappuccino.

“Perhaps you should steal it,” Ruhi interjected casually, taking a bite of her cold tomato mozzarella sandwich.

“Steal what! Irises? Are you kidding me?”

“No, I am serious. I could help,” she said eagerly.

Throwing his head back, he guffawed. “Good god! No wonder I love you. You are one of a kind!”

She flushed beet red, unable to swallow. What is he trying to say? “What are you doing?” She drew back when she saw him approaching too close for comfort.

“There is ketchup on your chin. There… Now it’s gone, my beautiful friend.”

I hate you, Shaan.

I love you, Ruhi!

“So what is next on the itinerary, Mr. Grey? Care to enlighten this curious bee?” Ruhi asked as they proceeded along a narrow winding road, which appeared to be steadily climbing into the hills. She had been tolerating her husband’s curiously aloof behavior for at least the past half hour and it was driving her berserk.

When will you stop calling me with that pathetic excuse of a name, Ruhi? Don’t you know that I hate it already?

“We are bound for some education and entertainment.”

“Education and entertainment!” she exclaimed. “How is that possible?”

“Anything is possible here in LA…you shall see.” He was back at his enigmatic best.

“Oh this is marvelous. I should compliment you on your choice of sights, Grey!”

They had just stepped inside the Griffiths Observatory, one of the most popular landmarks and destinations in Los Angeles located on the south side of Mount Hollywood, which houses one of the largest telescopes in the world.

“I should tell you that this place was my most favorite haunt while in school and during the first two years at work. I used to come here on clear nights to gawk at the planets and stars and dream that perhaps one day I could journey to them as well.”

Laughing when he saw her eye him incredulously, he said, “I don’t mean in person but via one of the spacecrafts that I helped design.” And it does seem like the dream may finally come true. He sighed, gazing into the distance.

That’d mean you were preoccupied with Des for the last couple of years. That sick witch!

I hate it when you look at me like that, Ruhi! What’s biting you?

“Anyway, this is the Foucault’s Pendulum.”

“What in crazy hell is that?” I know that you are trying to distract me, Shaan, but I do not intend to make it easy for you.

“Oh calm down, Ruhi, or Bee, or whoever you are right now,”Shaan blurted out his poorly disguised exasperation. Why can’t you just spill the beans instead of throwing casual barbs now and then? “It demonstrates the rotation of the earth. The free-swinging pendulum, suspended by a forty-meter long steel wire knocks down each of the pegs, which the earth’s rotation brings into its path about every seven minutes.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely.”

Then as if to prove his point, in precisely the space of seven minutes a peg toppled down from its upright position. Ruhi who had been watching with baited breath, let out a whoop of delight and clapped her hands loudly, which brought forth a few titters from the late-afternoon crowd.

“Get a grip, Ruhi, you are creating a scene!” Shaan growled, dragging her outside.

“But I want to see more pegs being knocked down, Shaan. That pendulum is way cool!” She struggled to free herself.

“I’ll show you something even cooler. It’s high time for some entertainment,” he said through clenched teeth, roughly shoving her into the passenger seat.

“Look at what you’ve done!” she griped, blowing over a sizeable bruise taking shape on her arm.

“Sorry, but we are running late, and you were behaving like a regular clown!”

“No I wasn’t! How can you—Why are we stopping here?” she demanded, suddenly antsy as the car drew to an abrupt halt along a lonely stretch of road.

He didn’t answer instead sprung out, ran over to her side, and held her door open pointing up the verdant hillside.

“What’s that? Yikes!”

“Presenting the famed Hollywood sign up close and personal. The iconic symbol of wealth, success, and entertainment!” He grinned, watching her as she stared openmouthed.

“Oh, thank you!”

“Now what was that for?” he asked, momentarily taken aback after she treated him to a quick hug and a miniscule peck on the cheek.

“For rough handling me so you could show me this. You are simply too cute sometimes. Oops!” She colored, clamping a hand on her mouth.

God, do I love you my poisonous insect!

“Shall we make a move?” he asked with an inscrutable smile, which made her nerves reverberate under her skin.

It’ll be a pity to waste such gorgeousness, but it has to be done, she thought regretfully as she strapped herself in.

tbc

An Incurable Insanity Chap 18: Jaunt

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18: JAUNT

-0-

He looks cool, Ruhi thought as she stole a peek at her husband. Shaan had chosen to don a polo shirt in heather green and tan, casual pants over which he had pulled on a teak cord blazer. She was seeing him wear a jacket or for that matter anything which even came close to being called formal attire for the very first time and he looked…good!

Good enough to rev the pulse rate up a few notches and make me giddy. He’s also watching me, conveniently taking cover behind those shades, and it’s driving me nuts! She raised a hand to her forehead.

“Are you all right?” He asked steadying her arm.

“Yes I am.” If you’d only remove those glasses.

“Better?” He smiled, removing them as though having read her mind.

She frowned upset, though in reality it was because they had just stepped into the very dark and cool interiors of the restaurant. She almost ran into his back, blinded for a few seconds.

“Are you really all right, Ruhi?” This time with both his hands on her shoulders and his husky voice drizzled with a pleasing anxiety.

“Yes, I am!” As soon as you take your bloody hands of me, you handsome brute! She glared at him.

Surprisingly the result was immediate but not due to the force of her thoughts. Shaan too was having quite a rough time maintaining a bland disposition.

Is she growing outrageously provocative by the day, or am I falling for her feminine wiles?

“Ahem…Welcome to the Olive.” The hostess had to raise her voice slightly to get the couple’s attention. They seem engaged in a task quite different than what usually brought people to the restaurant. “Table for two?”

Shaan affirmed with a brisk nod and led the way. He was trying his best to appear indifferent not really bothering to note that this affronted Ruhi quite a bit.

“I hope this would do. Unfortunately, we are booked solid.” The hostess looked apologetic as she led them to an enclosed booth.

“Yes, this’ll do fine, thank you,” Shaan replied with a slight smile. It’ll do very well indeed.“Ladies first.” He directed Ruhi ahead with a gracious tilt of his head.

What a weird guy he is, at times rude and at others charming.

The hostess eloquently rattled off the beverage selection after they had taken their seats in the cozy booth, which appeared to be way too intimate for Ruhi’s liking. Her discomposure did not escape Shaan who watched quietly as she slid to the farthest end.

Damn I need a drink! “I’ll have a glass of your best Kalyra and sparkling water for the lady please.”

“You are drinking! Isn’t there a law against drinking and driving in this country?”

“Yes. But that is as long as I don’t go above the legal limit or cause an accident,” he explained softly, his minute scrutiny made her writhe in her seat.

“I still think it’s a bad idea though.”

Darn! Doesn’t she realize the havoc she’s stirring in me right now in that virgin white summer dress, that it needs something to blunt it?

She blushed while attempting to rearrange the neckline of her blouse, which tended to expose her delicately boned shoulders. She had never before felt the need to do so but his eyes… She grabbed the menu to hide her confusion. “What am I supposed to order when I can’t understand a single word!”

“Let me help,” he said, removing it from her hand. “Since you have trained your palate to rebel against most cuisines, I decided as my very last-ditch attempt to bring you to one of my favorite places and if you happen to dislike this too…you are on your own.”

She couldn’t help breaking into a smile.

“Hello! Good afternoon, folks! Welcome to the best taste in town! And a rose for the lovely lady!”

They were startled out of their reverie by a flamboyant voice, which belonged to a particular slim and long body now bent at the waist offering the aforementioned bloom to Ruhi.

Shaan smarted at how the ABCD was able to provoke an immediate smile of pleasure on his girl’s—My girl?—face. Bloody slick bastard!

Have I seen him before? She racked her brains as she stared at the neat figure all in black with slick gelled hair smoothed back into a tiny ponytail at the nape of his neck ala Amitabh Bacchan in Cheeni Kum. Then it hit her when he looked directly at her with a cheerful smile. “Ahh! A desi beauty unlike any other, how lucky you are, sir.”

He addressed Shaan without taking his eyes of Ruhi who colored crimson. He is the five-cent guy!

He didn’t appear to recognize her though and was now sporting a quizzical look.

“Ahem!” Shaan brusquely cleared his throat, thoroughly irritated at the daring of this young upstart who seemed to have Ruhi eating out of his hand. Perhaps we were better off at home!

“Do you serve anything to eat out here?”

“Oh, please accept my apologies, got a little sidestepped. But of course! Can I start you off with an appetizer? I recommend some Artichauts or our best seller Tomate con Meile?” he said as Ruhi scanned the menu for details…

“No, I don’t favor any of that. May I?” Shaan asked her briefly and, without waiting for her reply, quickly ordered for both of them including the entrées.

“Excellent choice, sir, I couldn’t have done any better.” Mr Sleek hair disappeared with a brief nod of his head after shooting another puzzled glance at Ruhi.

“That was very rude of you, Grey!”

“I don’t think so. Anyway, since you haven’t been here before I thought I may just as well go ahead and do the honors. Did I do wrong?” The hell I care if she thinks I did! The hell I care if she thinks anything! Blast! She’s my wife for God’s sake, and here I am tolerating some nitwit boldly flirting with her!

Ruhi looked on with consternation as Shaan squeezed hard on the stem of his wine glass. “Watch out you may break it!”

“Huh?” Why the hell does she not seem to know anything?

She shivered.

“Are you cold? These Americans consider even seventy degrees hot!” he said, offering his jacket.

“No thanks I’m fine.” It’s your eyes. They seem to be piercing through to my soul, and I feel naked. Her hands shook as she tried to sip on her sparkling water, suddenly wishing that they weren’t here but in the apartment watching comedy reruns on TV, making small talk, playing pretend.

“Hey, I know where I’ve seen you before!” Mr. Sleek hair had reappeared with their food. “You were on the bus that day look- ing all hot and bothered, and I came to your rescue with the nickel. Cool! Isn’t it?”

She inclined her head. “Yes…those five cents.”

“What five cents!”

“Shaan? This nice…” She hesitated.

“My name is Pratik, by the way. Pratee to my friends.”

“He pitched in with the change I was missing for the bus ride, and I still owe him. Can I borrow it from you?”

Shaan delved into his pocket and produced the coin.

“Ah…uh, I guess that takes care of it.” Pratik sounded a little disappointed. He stood there looking curiously at the couple.

Ruhi smiled. “I think we should introduce ourselves.”

Like hell we should!

“I am Ruhi and this is my…friend.”

“Hi! I’m Shaan and we live together,” he volunteered with a broad grin stretching out one hand while placing the other familiarly around her shoulder.

“But…” She stared at him, a slow flush creeping over her cheeks. How could he? She couldn’t bring herself to face Pratik.

“Isn’t that correct, my dear?” he said, looking at her for affirmation. His eyes bored into her, indicating a certain level of intimacy that didn’t exist.

“Nice to meet you, Shaan.” Pratik shook his hand, the flashiness instantly substituted by incredulity.

-0-

Damn you, Grey!

You asked for it, Bee.

“Why did you say that?”

“Say what?” He leaned close, hemming her against the hood of his car.

“That…that we live together?” she gasped out with a nervous frown. Out of the corner of her eyes, she thought she spied Pratik watching them not so discreetly from the entrance of the restaurant.

“I was speaking the truth, and I believe you like honesty no matter what.” His air was defiant.

“But…the implications. What will he think?”

“Think? Who cares what he does think? My dear, this is America where cohabitation is commonplace, and it was you who started it all. You wished to hide our true relationship,” he said, grinning smugly.

He has me trapped in a web of my own design, and I thought I was clever. Yet I don’t feel mortified, rather I feel agitated and aroused. She smiled and took his breath away.

tbc

An Incurable Insanity Chap 17: Reactions

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17: REACTIONS

-0-

Ruhi and Shaan stood in front of each other in an awkward silence. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath to ventilate her insides. Then appearing to have made up her mind, she stepped up to him, grabbed the coffee cup from his hand, and marched out of the room.

“Hey, but I’m not done with that yet,” he called after her in vain.

There was a loud clatter as the cups were violently dumped in the kitchen sink, the sound of a brief run of water from the tap, and a few seconds later he heard the front door close with a decisive bang.

“God! This girl’s bent on driving me insane!” He hurried into the living room and for sure she had left. Her sneakers were missing and so was her cell phone. Thank heavens! But she had left her wallet behind; she won’t go far, he surmised. Dropping down on the sofa, he held his head in his hands. “Is this what I want to live with, the rest of my life?”

He smiled shaking his head slowly in resignation. “Yes, I’m pretty sure of that now. Might as well start getting used to her ways.”

Glancing at the clock, he estimated he’d give her a couple of hours, hoping by then she would have walked long enough to be willing to listen to reason.

But this time, Ruhi didn’t walk, she ran.

She ran—away from her feelings and warped-up emotions, away from herself and what she feared she had become. She ran to escape reality.

She paused at the bus stop where she had met Sunshine but didn’t find her there, and it concerned her. She had developed an affinity for the elderly woman. Perhaps she has a date today, and old or not, she deserves all the happiness she can get.

With a smile, Ruhi thanked her. Sunshine had taught her a very important lesson—live life to the fullest and with no regrets. It was something she had to remind herself of constantly. I have to achieve that goal before it is too late.

She turned right at the corner, then continued straight ahead following the route of the Orange line bus. It was a long, seem- ingly never-ending boulevard, which changed its name from Rosemead to Orange Grove just like it changed its character, twisting and curving before straightening out again.

The road’s like me, she mused. It reflects the way I’ve been trying to fool myself by assuming the guise of Bee.

I am still the same young and vulnerable girl who had come here seeking to win undying love from her husband. But he ruthlessly killed the dream, and now after I had allowed the wound to scab over, he has laid it open again, so it feels just as fresh as the day it was first inflicted.

The street signs grew blurry as tears filled her eyes, and she waited for the traffic light to turn green at the crosswalk.

No, he cannot do this to me, he cannot be so mean. He was just pretending that’s all.

But it had seemed so real. The way he had looked at her, the pressure of his fingers on her skin, the words that he had spo- ken—everything so sincere. And for one—for just one ludicrous moment—she wondered, what would it feel like if she let him make impassioned love to her, the way only a man could love a woman?

She stopped in her tracks dazed and breathless. “No, Ruhi! Stop daydreaming. Banish those thoughts from your mind. They are sinful, taboo!”

But the tiny inner voice persisted. They are not. You are wedded to him and physical intimacy is a natural consequence.

“He doesn’t love me, and I believe there can be no intimacy without love and trust.”

But he did say that he was done with Des. Didn’t he mean it?

“He is just a player. Someone who toys with the hearts of young and innocent women like me.”

But there has been no hint of misbehavior. He has been nothing but the perfect gentleman since you met, she argued with herself.

That’s how these guys work, Ruhi, slowly. Do I really know anything about him except what he has told me? Am I really sure that this Des is a done deal?

“No, I’m not.” She stopped again, at once rattled and afraid. “I don’t know anything at all. I haven’t even met her. They may just pick up from where they left off after I’m gone, leaving me holding the baby.

“Oh god! What a fool I am. I was almost ready to be the sacrificial lamb at the altar of Shaan and Des!”

She sat down prostrate on a vacant sidewalk bench, realization hitting her all at once. He is indeed very clever, but I am no less. “Ruhi Sharma will get you for this, Mr. Shaan Ahuja.” Her face lit up; this is going to be really exciting.

Suddenly, she heard a piercing scream and saw a small child shoot out from a store behind her and launch himself right onto the street. She saw nobody following behind. Jumping off her seat, she raced after the boy and plucked him out of the way of the oncoming traffic. Accompanied by the sounds of screeching tires and brakes, she ran back to the store with the child struggling in her arms and marched inside with the purpose of giving the owners a piece of her mind, when she was nearly knocked over by someone tall and spare heading in the opposite direction.

“I don’t want another penny from you, darling sis, and don’t expect me to be back any time soon!” The lanky person announced loudly before blundering out onto the street, shouldering her aside without as much as a sideways glance.

Oh no, he’s the nickel guy, she thought, her eyes following as his long legs carted him swiftly away.

“Hey wait! Your five cents!” But I don’t have any money. A quick dig into her pockets confirmed that fact.

“Surjit! Surjit! Kithe chala gaya?” (Where did he go?) A woman called screaming from inside the store.

“Mamaa!” the struggling bundle in her arms yelled back.

Surjit? Ruhi frowned at the little boy who had almost succeeded in slipping out of her grasp.

“No you don’t! Not until I tell your mother a thing or two,” she said, placing him firmly on the large counter of what looked like a medium-sized convenience store.

“Surjit! My son!”

A harried-looking young Asian woman popped out of the back. Her weary and drawn face made it appear as though she carried the weight of the entire world on her shoulders. “What are you doing with him? Let him go!” she shouted as soon as she saw the boy in Ruhi’s grip.

“Madam, if it wasn’t for me today, you would be singing a different tune.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your boy had run out on to the street and thank heaven that I was there to rescue him, or else…” You’d be preparing for a funeral! Ruhi opted to not rub it in.

“Surjit! Oh this boy will have my life one day!” The young woman let out a frustrated sob. “I don’t know what to do with him. Thank you. I’m so sorry I was rude. It has been so difficult lately with my husband sick and me having to manage on my own…and so many other things…” Her voice trailed off as she gazed forlorn into space.

Feeling a sudden outpouring of sympathy toward this woman who was barely a few years older than her yet who already seemed to have her platter of misery spilling over, Ruhi sensed her anger melt away. “I’m really sorry for your situation, but do keep a better eye on your son in the future.”

The young woman smiled. “I will. You look like you are from back home. I am Sanjana Singh, the owner of this store.”

“I am Ruhi or Bee as I sometimes like to call myself,” Ruhi replied with a short laugh.

“Hi, Ruhi, Bee.” Sanjana seemed amused. “Hmm…interest- ing. Do you want a drink or something? You look tired. Have you been running?”

Yup, running from somebody dangerous. “I could do with a drink of water, then I should get going. My…friend is waiting for me.”

“Do stop by sometime. I’d love the company. It can get very lonely here. And yes, thank you so much for saving Surjit. I don’t know how to express my gratitude enough.”

“You don’t have to say anything.” Ruhi put her arms around Sanjana’s shoulders who hugged her right back. “I’ll surely stop by.” She waved while stepping out of the store. She had found a kindred spirit.

I have to come back anyway. I still owe that nickel.

Her phone buzzed loud in her pocket, jolting her out of her musings. It was the first call ever that she had received, and it was from him. She recognized that she’d almost forgotten the original intent of her mission. Schooling herself to sound as carefree as possible, she answered.

“What’s up, Shaan?”

“It’s been two hours, Bee.”

She sensed a sudden thrill at the sound of his voice, the smooth tones floating like a caress into her ear.

“What does that mean, Shaan? It’s not 7:00 p.m. yet.” She retorted, swamped by an irresistible urge to taunt him.

“Damn you, Ruhi! I will…I have had too much of this!” She could imagine him smoldering with vexation. It made her laugh.

“My poor Grey. Angry at your Bee? I was just teasing. C’mon, be a sport. Smile for a change.”

Meanwhile in the apartment, Shaan stared at the phone in disbelief. He couldn’t believe this was the very same girl who had been living with him for the past five weeks. Was she becoming a baffling enigma or he was going mad? Perhaps I should consult a shrink!

He shook his head in an attempt to clear it. I will not lose my cool no matter what she does. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Your dad called.”

“What? And you are telling me now!”

He grinned. “I tried to call you earlier, but you wouldn’t pick up the phone, Ms. Bee!”

There was a long pause. “Uh…huh. I guess I didn’t hear it ring. Did you complain to him about me?”

The clever bitch, apologies and aggression in the same breath! Seeking to control his mirth, he attempted to cover it with injured irritation, “Why would I do so and get myself into trouble? It was your idea, so handle it yourself. By the way, he is on a business trip and just called to check in. He also wanted to make sure you were behaving.”

“Oh yes he was!”

Shaan looked up and saw her stride in angrily through the door.

“He thinks way too highly of his damaadji! Time I showed him your true colors. You…!” She looked away. He could sense her on the brink but too proud to shed tears.

Seized by an overpowering need to touch her, he walked up and took her hands gently in his. “I was just kidding. He said nothing along those lines. He loves his little girl more than anything else in the world.”

“Are you telling me the truth?” Her big eyes, which had now transformed into pools of liquid black, posed the simple question.

“Yes. Your Shaan would never lie to you,” he assured her, taking the vital first step. He couldn’t keep his silence any longer.

Time stood still. For a brief blissful moment, he even believed he saw a glimpse of submission in those lovely eyes. Perhaps it was his flight of fancy.

“No! Don’t try to divert me from my purpose. Remember, we really don’t have much time left to convince my parents that we hate each other,” she said resolutely, removing her hands from his grasp.

This is going to be a long uphill task, he thought and sighed. “All right, I needed to tell you something, but you aren’t in an amenable mood. Get ready, we are going out for lunch and then to see some sights or spawn the wrath of your precious dadamoni and di!”

“But I am always in a receptive mood for you, sweetheart!” Her voice dropped to a seductive whisper as she scooted closer.

An abrupt surge of excitement rushed through his being. Was she indeed melting? Could this be true?

“Gotcha!” She flung her head back, laughing merrily. “I was just pretending!”

“You had me almost fooled there.” The words escaped his mouth before he could clamp it shut.

His gaff didn’t escape her notice as she eyed him perceptively. “Then I am a worthy student of a great master. I’ll be ready in fifteen minutes.”

Shaan collapsed in a chair, trying to will control over his erratic respirations. Wow! It’s obvious she is playing with me. He grinned. Life is definitely taking an exciting turn. Can’t wait to see what happens next!

tbc

An Incurable Insanity Chap 16: Interplay

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Chapter Links

16: INTERPLAY

Ruhi knocked on her husband’s door. “Grey? Are you up yet?”

“Just a minute! What’s up, Bee? Want something?”

I bet she has concocted some kind of revenge for last night, he thought with trepidation when he saw her looking terribly innocent and oh so cute holding a cup of coffee in her hand with her face scrubbed squeaky clean, a natural pinkish hue on her cheeks, and her heavy mass of hair caught up in a crooked bun. But the aroma from the fresh brew was strong enough to infuse him with happy serotonin.

Happy enough that he wondered, How would she react if I kissed her? She would probably run a mile or worse use that Swiss army knife. Better to be safe than sorry. He grinned sheepishly hoping she hadn’t read his mind.

Midnight eyes appraised him. It’s obvious he hasn’t slept much. His eyes are puffy, he looks haggard, and also a little nervous. He’s probably anxious about last night. Well I’m not going to make him feel any better!

“Just wanted to check my e-mail, haven’t done so ever since I got here.”

“Oh what an idiot I am!” he said, running fingers through his tousled hair. “Of course you need to access your stuff. I should have given you the password. Let me do it now.”

Holding the door wide open, he said, “Come on in. Sorry it’s a mess.” He grinned ruefully while scrambling to right the bed- sheets and scoop up the pillows, which had fallen to the floor.

“I’m not used to having visitors,” he added, gathering up the books and magazines, which lay scattered all over.

“These happen to be my faithful sleeping companions, and I guess they’ll continue to serve that purpose for a long time,” he muttered softly, stealing a glance at her and was rewarded by a deep blush of discomposure.

“Here’s your coffee. Shall we?” she said, thrusting the cup sharply toward him.

She is gutsy, that’s for sure, he grudgingly admitted to himself while hastily clearing the miscellaneous paraphernalia from his desk.

His life is full of books, papers, and the occasional woman in that order, she thought conjuring up the picture of the mysterious Des in her mind. The perception so hilarious that she clamped a hand on her mouth to stifle the laughter.

His eyebrows scrunched together. “Something funny?”

She shook her head; her body shaking with mirth. “It’s just that our situation is so odd. People would have a tough time believing.”

“Then it’d be better not to reveal the truth, wouldn’t it?”

Oh yes! Better for you while I prepare myself to be hanged and quartered.

“Here you go. The username is…” He looked embarrassed. “I should change it.” He wrote it down on a piece of paper.

She looked at it and started to laugh again. “Seems like our lives can be defined by a series of four-letter words.” Then she muttered something, which caused his jaw to drop. “And don’t you dare tell me that it’s not ladylike to swear, Grey!”

“I won’t. Didn’t know you could handle it.”

“I can. I went to college.”

He laughed. “I think that’s justification enough. The password is worse. You can change it.”

She did. “Now if you will give me some privacy please.”

“Oh, yes of course,” he said, walking out of the door.

She scoured through the e-mails, most of little consequence, which she deleted without opening. Among the rest were some that included references and certificates from her work and school, which she had made requisitions for before embarking on this nightmare of a journey.

I guess I was counting my chickens before they hatched, but what else is a new bride supposed to do? Stop dreaming?

Cousin Vinay had sent some pictures he’d taken at the wedding; her piqued fingers hovered over the attachments. “I have to see how naive and gullible I was before I came to know the truth.”She hadn’t yet looked at the wedding album, which lay hidden and almost forgotten in the deepest recesses of her suitcase.

That’s not me, she thought, contemplating the image of a girl dressed in bridal finery smiling brightly at the camera. Ruhi has lost her innocence; she is now an experienced woman of the world who has been there and done that thanks to her husband. She frowned, in the least he turned out to be good for some- thing. He looked suave in red and bloody sincere as well. She spied a lot of envious looks pointed in her direction—a good- looking, well-established groom from a well-to-do family. What else could a girl ask for? How she wished they were here looking at her right now.

“You are looking drop-dead gorgeous in those pictures.” She heard his voice utter softly from behind.

“But apparently, that didn’t work in my favor.”She swiveled around, her eyes blazing.

He didn’t wither. “There are plenty of things that do.”

She flushed. “A little too late to realize that, aren’t we?”

“Ruhi…” She turned back, dismissing him, and started typing furiously on the keyboard.

He sighed and sat on the bed, opening the manila envelope, which Sujoy had handed him yesterday. He hadn’t found the time to go through the contents in detail though most of what he had gleaned made him feel excited and nervous at the same time.

Yes, this is what I had been waiting for: a step into the big league, membership into an exclusive club, which only admits the best and the brightest. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath savoring the feeling of success. It’d be nice to share the spoils with someone else.

And that someone is you, Ruhi. ‘

His eyes snapped open, waking up as though from a period of prolonged darkness and ignorance. Nothing seemed more real or true. She belonged here with him. She was the only one whom he could think of sharing his joys and sorrows with. Des had been someone he had latched on to at a moment of weakness with hope that she’d give him what he hungered for. But she had used him, sucked him dry, leaving him so thoroughly disillusioned that he’d committed himself to a life of loneliness. But this girl sitting in front of him was different. He felt drawn to her despite everything, and whatever she did to irk or irritate him just happened to pull him closer. What had wrought this change in him, he wasn’t certain, perhaps it was her pluck and her “I won’t take it lying down” attitude, but regardless, he was now sure that he didn’t want her to leave in three weeks. But making her stay would be an entirely different affair.

Maybe I can reason with Bee, she is definitely more approachable.

At least I have found myself and know what I want, he thought smiling while reading the letter again.

Mr. Shaan Ahuja, you have been chosen to participate in a highly ambitiousand confidential mission from among a group of exceptionally deserving candidates. Due to your brilliance and hard work, you have earned yourself a place amongst the topmost tier of engineers. You have passed the first and most important preliminary step; the final decision will be made after a rigorous selection process.

What would that involve? he wondered. Whoever drafted these official letters fancied themselves to be CIA agents in training. He chuckled.

“Grey?”

“Hmm?” He looked up; she seemed flustered.

“Uh…” She wrung her hands as though in a stiff conflict. “I have a close friend who is getting married next month.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“What?” She stared at him as though he had uttered something absurd. “Yes, I think it is a good idea because she has known him for years, and Abhay is best for her.”

“Then Abhay is a lucky man.” It’d be a tough job for any guy to win her approval. I envy this Abhay.

“Because he is engaged to my friend?”

“No, because you think so highly of him. I bet there are not a lot of men out there who belong in the category.”

She smiled, catching his trend and capitalized on it. “You are absolutely right, and that is why I want him to marry my best friend.”

“So what’s the problem? Give her your blessings.” He didn’t like Abhay.

“The crunch is that she is having last-minute jitters. Says she won’t tie the knot unless she convinces herself that arranged marriages work, and no matter how much I try to reason with her, she just won’t get it!”

“So what does she want?” He asked, walking up to her.

“She wants to see us, you and me, right now with her own eyes and decide either way.”

“How would it help her?”

Ruhi flushed, disconcerted. “She wants to analyze us, determine if we’re happy or not, and this silly girl believes she can do it just by observing us together. She fancies herself to be highly intuitive!”

“So you want to show her that we are happy?” he asked with a playful smile. He was feeling good that morning.

“I do but I’m not sure it’ll work out,” she declared with a skeptical pout.

“We can always try to pretend. After all, Bee and Grey are friends, and they don’t exactly hate each other, do they?” he whispered softly, settling on his haunches next to her chair.

“I…I have no idea what happy couples look like.”

“I do, just follow my cue,” he assured while turning the web- cam on.

Radhika, a girl around Ruhi’s age with a cap of curly dark brown hair whose astute eyes spoke a lot about her intelligence, was eagerly waiting at the other end.

Switching on his charm, he addressed her, “Hi, Radhika, I am Shaan, your friend’s most ardent admirer.” He winked slyly at Ruhi who glowered back. Giving both her shoulders a tight squeeze, he whispered harshly into her ear, “Damn you! This is an act!”

“Hi, Shaan! Wow! I’m Radhika. I should probably not look.” Ruhi’s pal giggled and blushed.

“It’s working! Your turn. Go on!” he urged.

“Wha…at?” She couldn’t say anything but grin like an idiot at the camera. His close proximity was driving her pulse haywire and compel- ling her to retreat as far away from him as possible. How was he able to do such a good job at pretending?

“Damn you, Bee!” he muttered under his breath. Then aiming a brilliant smile at the camera, he said, “I don’t remember seeing you at the wedding. My sweet wife must have made you well aware that I never forget a pretty face. Didn’t you, precious?”

What is he talking about suddenly turning all cryptic on me? Does he mean Des? Take your bloody hands off me! She stomped his foot hard enough to make him loosen his grip but not for long.

This weird but intimate interplay was not lost upon the captive audience at the other end who chipped in, “Hey! Don’t forget about me. I’m still here!”

“Oh yes! Sorry, Radhika! As you can see, my wife has me completely under her spell,” he said, bringing his face close to her warm cheek and inhaling deeply. Gosh! Does she smell good?

“I get why Ruhi has not been in touch ever since she left home,” Radhika said, her face turning deep red.

“Radhika, I’m sorry but we…I mean, Shaan and I…” Unable to proceed further, Ruhi gave up.

“Have been otherwise occupied. Hmm?” he said, appearing to complete her sentence, speaking her mind, fulfilling an irresistible urge. Then he turned his intent gaze upon her as if sharing a deep and intimate secret; his brown eyes speaking volumes trapped her within. She couldn’t look away.

“Ruhi!”

Gosh! What was I thinking? Thank God for nosey friends! “Ye… es! Radhika, sorry…I forgot. Grey—I mean Shaan…Lord!”

“It’s okay, dear. I got what I needed. I won’t be a bother anymore. Thanks and bye, Shaan!” Radhika signed off with a broad smile on her face. It was exactly what Ruhi had wished to see, but her own heart was in a mess.

Shaan withdrew from her reluctantly, her allure having taken a definite hold on his senses.

Swiss army or not, those lips were meant for kissing. He sighed. With her hair now spread like a dark cloud over her shoulders framing her delicate face, she looked like a lost waif, fragile and breakable.

No, I cannot afford to make a single error, but the going’s getting tougher. I need to pretend some more. “Give me a five, Bee! I think she fell for it hook, line, and sinker,” he exclaimed, grinning broad with delight and victory.

I did too, almost. There was a bitter taste of regret in her mouth.

tbc

An Incurable Insanity Chap 15: Feelings

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Chapter Links

15: FEELINGS

A glance at the dashboard told Shaan that he was on time; it was twenty to seven. They had decided by mutual agreement to be at home by 7:00 p.m. give or take thirty minutes. Indeed he had relaid the ground rules.

He smiled, remembering how she had reacted.

“Humphrey Bogart doesn’t really match up to Ingrid Bergman, does he? He lacks the charm and looks way too unromantic while she is so ethereal and beautiful. Cary Grant would have suited her much better.”

She was watching the wartime romance classic Casablanca with keen interest, and he was watching her watch it.

“It was his first romantic role, but you see the movie went on to win three Oscars, so there were quite a few people then who didn’t agree with you.”

“I don’t care, I still prefer Cary Grant,” Ruhi asserted raising her head, smiling when he looked away. She’d been aware of his perusal all along. “So Grey happens to be a romance movie buff. How neat.”

“Not only romance, all kinds of movies,” he muttered, flustered at being caught in the act. She was not really as innocent as she had seemed when he first met her, and it had started to play on his nerves.

Electing to put her on the defensive, he said, “So, my good friend, if you want me to let you continue on in your misguided adventures after yesterday’s fiasco, you have to follow a few new guidelines.”

Her eyes opened wide. “What the—”

He raised his hand. “It is really not ladylike to swear. I am your landlord, therefore, I do have a say in this matter.”

“Didn’t I tell you in the beginning that we do what we want, no questions asked?” What does he think of himself?

That his announcement had upset her applecart was obvious, yet it didn’t bother him, rather he was enjoying this standoff. “Hear me out and then decide.”

He waited for her to calm down. “First, in order to remain out of trouble, you have to limit your jaunts to certain areas of the city, which I will chalk out for you.”

“But that’s ridiculous! I—”

“I don’t think Daddyji will be very pleased to know that you take routine rides in cop cars. You may even get booked next time.” He could see her mind racing, but she held her tongue. “And I would like to set up a curfew of 7:00 p.m. for the both of us.”

“What for?”

“So that you’ll have enough time to cook dinner and pay your part of the dues!” He knew by now that he’d have to talk her language to get her to toe the line.

She smiled. “Thanks for the reminder. I think it’s doable.”

He was treated to an awesome repast that night.

-0-

But today is a little different, he thought as he parked in the garage hoping to find her in a receptive mood.

She was.

“Oh, Grey! I beat you by half an hour. Do I get a discount?” She looked like a schoolgirl waiting in line for free Christmas candy.

“Whatever for?”

“The rent?”

He dearly wished he hadn’t mentioned it.

Without waiting for his reply, she continued, “I also went to the grocery store today. In fact, I walked over. It really isn’t far, and I managed to get everything we need for a couple of days, and I paid with your card. Isn’t that great? From now on, you don’t have to accompany me anymore.”

He stared at her suddenly hit by an overwhelming realization.

“Well, at least I can save you the trouble for some more time.”

Their eyes moved to the calendar in unison; three more weeks to be exact.

Damn it, Shaan! She’s going to leave, and you have no way of stopping her.

I wish I had married Grey; he has feelings.

Abruptly, she broke the silence. “Let me get some dinner. Are you in the mood for Bee’s special Chinese?”

“Uh…Actually, Sujoy and Debo have invited us over tonight. Do you want me to make an excuse?”

Looking confused for a bare moment, she said, “No, I think we should go.”

“But they don’t know anything about us, and…”

“They didn’t know anything to begin with. The only difference now is that I’ve come to terms with my take on the matter, that’s all.” She was as calm as can be.

“I don’t want you to pretend, at the same time, I don’t want to involve them in our complications.”

“I understand, Shaan.” She didn’t remember to call him Grey. “You’ll be the one left holding the ball and perhaps answering some awkward questions after I’m gone, but it’ll pass. They are nice people, and they like you for who you are. We don’t have to tell them the truth and hurt their sensibilities.”

He continued to be in doubt.

“We shall go. I’m in the mood for some Bangla food!”

He was then dispatched to get something for little Anu— “We should never visit someone empty-handed”—while she got dressed.

When he returned a half an hour later, he found her ready. Wrapped in a blue silk sari with modern geometric print, her luxurious hair brushed to a shine, cascading over her shoulders, she looked stunningly elegant.

“I thought I’d better put to use some of the wedding saris, Debo may like it,” she explained with a shy smile.

“I do too,” he blurted without thinking.

“Shall we go?”

He noticed that her neck was bare except for a simple gold chain and so was her forehead. She drew the pallu over her right shoulder; he didn’t say a word.

-0-

“Sooswagatam! Welcome little sister and brother-in-law. You are late.” Sujoy greeted them at the door.

“Sorry, I got delayed at work. Ruhi was ready and waiting.” Shaan was clearly embarrassed at this formality, but his wife was surprisingly taking it well.

“Dhonyobod, dadamoni!” (Thank you, big brother.)

“Welcome, Ruhi, Shaan!” Debo hurried into the living room from the kitchen.

As Ruhi hugged her, she enquired after Debo’s health.

“I get tired easily. Wish Ma was here.” She did look run-down.

“She will soon be here. What do you say, dadamoni?”

“I’m not so sure about it. Debo’s younger sister back home is pregnant too.” Sujoy seemed at a loss.

“Everything will be fine, bhabhi.” Shaan offered a reassuring smile.

“Yes, I know it will because Ruhi is here with me now. She will take care of me, won’t you?” Debo looked at her expectantly.

“Yes, di, I will.” Ruhi felt miserable uttering these blatant lies, but she couldn’t afford to reveal the truth either.

Debo seated her on the divan and subjected her to a thorough once-over. “You have changed! Hasn’t she, Sujoy? What have you done to her Shaan in just two weeks?”

He looked confused.

“She’s looking awesome, confident. More calm and relaxed, happier. I expect you are taking good care of her. Is he, my dear?”

Ruhi dipped her head in shy acquiescence.

“God bless you both. You make such a great couple. Has he taken you anywhere, bon?”

“No, not really, work…,” Shaan said, overcome with guilt.

“Hey, that’s no excuse. You have to make time. She deserves it. I will cover for you if you wish.”

“But, Sooj.”

“He will, dadamoni. Only yesterday we were making plans to visit Hollywood this weekend,” Bee said, glancing sideways at Grey who smiled gratefully.

Sujoy pulled Shaan aside into a room, offering work as excuse.

Debo lamented aloud on the vagaries of men. Ruhi merely smiled.

Then she heard a baby cry. “Oh, di, I forgot to ask, where is Anu?”

“Anu has been cranky ever since we returned from the doctor’s office today after her shots. I had just put her to sleep half an hour ago. Looks like she is up again.” Debo sighed.

“Don’t you worry, di, I’ll take care of her. You relax or do what you need to.”

Ruhi hurried into the nursery to see little Anu standing and sobbing piteously in her crib. Picking her up, she rested her tiny body on her bosom and rocked her gently till she fell asleep. Later she found Debo in the kitchen, bustling around humming a merry tune, the comfort of routine activity appearing to have temporarily banished the cobwebs of worry. She offered to help.

“Thanks, dear, everything’s ready, even Shaan’s favorite dish or he’ll threaten not to visit again.”

Ruhi saw Debo examining her curiously and realized that the sari had slipped off her shoulder while tending to Anu.

“What is up, dear? Where is your mangalsutra and sindoor? I noticed earlier but didn’t bring it up.”

“Umm…the chain broke. I have given it for fixing.”

“Then what about the sindoor?”

“I…The whole thing fell on the carpet yesterday and made a mess. I have to go get some more.”

“Ruhi look at me.” Debo gently propped her face up by the chin. “You consider me like your elder sister, right?”

She answered with an apprehensive nod.

“Then there are certain things, which are essential for a married Indian woman. It doesn’t matter what your husband may say, but you should not take them lightly. You should never go without your sindoor because it is an auspicious symbol of your marriage and also a sign that indicates your love will prosper. Therefore, even if you don’t have your wedding necklace, you should at least wear your sindoor.”

“Yes, di, I will try to get some as soon as possible.”

“Soon? Why not now?”

Ruhi felt trapped as Debo dragged her to a tiny shrine and picked up a small silver receptacle full of the vermillion powder.

“I can put it on, di, give it to me.”

“No, I have a better idea. Shaan!” Debo called out.

Ruhi felt upset; her body began to tremble.

“What is it, bhabhi? Time for food?” Shaan appeared, smiling along with Sujoy.

“Shaan, I didn’t expect this from you. I know you love your wife dearly, but letting her go about bareheaded. It is not right.”

“Let them be, Debo, they are a modern couple. It’s their life. You don’t have to interfere.” Sujoy chimed in acutely embarrassed; his wife was quite the traditionalist.

“You keep out of it, Sujoy, I know my sister. She will listen to me.”

She handed Shaan the receptacle and urged him, “Take this and put it back where it belongs with God as your witness and don’t ever let her go unadorned again.”

Then as he hesitated, she asked, frowning, ”Is there something wrong between you two?”

“No, of course not.” He looked at Ruhi who had grown completely silent.

“Go ahead, Shaan,” Bee said softly, giving him permission.

He pinched a small amount of the red powder and placed it firmly in the parting on her forehead. Not entirely certain why, but this makeshift ceremony appeared more meaningful to him than the one on his wedding day.

“Perfect! Now my mishti bon looks like a bride, a very beautiful bride.”

The rest of the evening went by as a blur for Ruhi. She had managed to reconcile with her upcoming status, but the wound had opened again. Marriage, love, hatred, Shaan, Ruhi—friend- ship, affection, Grey, Bee…feelings.

Shaan could see her lost in thought looking very beautiful yet unhappy with the red streak in the center of her forehead, and it affected him, the emotion deep enough to throw him in turmoil, and he couldn’t wish it away.

During dinner, Ruhi couldn’t eat much but agreed that the food was excellent. All of a sudden, she sprang up to embrace Debo. “I’ll miss you badly, very badly.”

“Miss me? Are you going somewhere, Shaan?”

“Uh, no. Bee…Ruhi means to say that she wants to see you every day.”

“Of course you can, my dear. Drop by any day. I will love the company, and Anu adores you already.”

“Yes, di, I will.”

-0-

Back at the apartment.

“I’m sorry. What happened was something I was afraid of.”

Ruhi appeared not to hear; instead, she walked into the hall- way bathroom and stared at the red dot on her forehead. She raised her hand then wavered…
Why can’t I erase it as easily as before? Am I changing? Do I feel different? Is Bee just a camouflage for Ruhi—a protective layer?

No, it has to be done; I can’t afford to gamble with my emotions, she resolved, lifting her hand again. But when he looked at me today, there was something in his eyes that I haven’t seen before. She wanted to cry out loud.

Shaan stepped in; he had been watching silently for the past several minutes.

Meeting her gaze in the large mirror, he turned her around. “Close your eyes.”

A gentle puff of air swept over her forehead and erased the symbol. She felt her shoulders lighten, yet at the same time also a strange melancholy.

“Ruhi…Bee?”

She looked up.

“I will never force you to do anything against your wishes, never. You can trust me,” He stated with a brief smile before turning abruptly and walking out, leaving her alone. He didn’t witness a lone tear roll down her cheek.

Ruhi, Shaan, marriage, love. Bee, Grey, friendship, affection, emotions, or mere feelings?

tbc

GLOSSARY

Mishti Bon (Bengali): Sweet person.

Di: Elder sister.

Mangalsutra: Sacred thread that a married woman wears around her neck.

Pallu: The edge of a sari

Sindoor: Red vermillion powder worn by married women along the parting of their hair.

Sooswagatam (Sanskrit): Welcome.