Those pools of brewed liquid would churn around pupils of the sweetest licorice. They’d shimmer in the most intoxicating moments, like a waft of steam was caught inside them. There was a depth to those eyes, so profound and savoringly bitter, that I had to remind myself to ingest them slowly. But the way they’d cast themselves upon me, followed by that brilliant but coy smile imbued with the spicy scent of musk––there’s no other sensation that can so exuberantly muddle my interior. There’s nothing more that I’ve ever yearned for, than that moment my nose is pressed against his, and I can soak in the rich infusion of charge and desire in that gaze’s brew.
My eyes found my mother, who was hovering over me with a fixed expression of concern upon her lightly freckled face. I glanced back down at the enchanting mixture of coffee and hazelnut creamer steaming within a ceramic owl, whose wing was gracefully altered into a handle my fingers were gripping too tightly.
Her kara tapped against my face, the gleaming silver band having slid down her wrist as she brought her hand to my forehead, “You’re warm,” she said, “Do you have a fever?”
I tucked loose strands of my mane behind my ear as I shook my head, “No, I just…” I sighed, “You know how coffee makes me sick.”
She shook her head, “Then why do you drink it?”
The golden radiance of the sun was obscured by clouds of varying shades of gray. The only luminescence to pervade through the masses of slate was a dull light that washed out most of the color from the kitchen. Even the mahogany of the table I was benched at lacked a certain luster on its polished surface.
My mother’s fingers edged my chin up, my eyes following to where her pupils waited to examine me further, “You were thinking of him again, weren’t you?”
“I can’t control it sometimes,” I uttered, shrugging away from her touch and staring out the window at the pale light of day. My brows furrowed as I observed a network of fine silken strings intertwined with one another on the crook of the ledge outside the glass. The threads glistened and wavered every instance a breeze blew.
A leaf comprised of a hue as warm a cinnamon as his skin, tumbled across the lawn and into the web. It was as if the wind ushered it this way; stirring the leaf to flutter like a wing where it was least able to fly.
My lashes encumbered my sight for a few moments before my mother’s soft hand gingerly tucked more waves behind my ear.
“Ash, it’s not a crime to grieve lost love. It’s only been a few months, maybe you should–,”
“I already told Nani I would do it,” I interjected, raising an eyebrow as I refocused on my worrisome mother. Her ebony hair was frizzing at the ends and her round face held lines of worry. I was grateful though at the very least that she was what our culture considered more modern than most of my family. Disclosing struggles with boys was an otherwise untouched subject in a household full of Indians focused on the same pathway of life. But my mom and I were of a different sort; there was nothing I couldn’t tell her and there was no way of living I was too afraid to confront just knowing I had a confidante in the very being that raised me solely.
My mom groaned and rolled her eyes, discarding her empathy for the root of annoyance she truly felt, “I still don’t understand why you told her it was okay to set this up Asha. You’ve been against this for almost twenty-six years. Why now?”
I got up and walked towards the sink, spilling the liquid energy that did nothing to bolster my vitality any more than my mother’s incessant questioning of my life choices. “Mom, the whole arranged marriage thing isn’t like how it was in your day,” she raised an eyebrow, “Which wasn’t that long ago. But it’s no longer about meeting the guy the day you get married. It’s like an Indian matchmaking service where your family gives you the bait and is hopelessly waiting for you to bite.”
“Uh, first of all, that’s a disturbing way of putting it. Secondly, I know you’re only doing this because you broke it off with–,”
It didn’t seem relevant to hear his name the second I finally accepted my grandmother’s offering of a bachelor upon the steps of my newly graduated doors. I found it a curious thing in our culture, how exactly it was that elders viewed the burgeoning generations and their acclimation to the more ‘American’ appeal to romance. When it came to implicating the cultural standard, it didn’t seem to rack their brains of the improprieties most of their offspring had conducted prior to the commitment of what their parents always knew was waiting for them.
“She thinks this is a rishta for you Ash,” my mother carried on begrudgingly, “She just walked in a few minutes ago and literally went straight into the closet looking for a chunni for you to wear.”
“Wait, what?” I exclaimed, hurrying through the hall until I’d arrived at the walk-in closet where my grandmother was fruitlessly sifting through an assortment of colorful cloths. Her skin was like softened butterscotch and her graying hair was tied loosely in a bun as she examined each material through her wire-framed spectacles. My mom was right behind me, triumphantly crossing her arms and cocking her head in a manner that asserted I may have undermined my grandmother’s intent to invade the circumstances of my life.
I shook my head, “Nani, I’m not wearing a chunni.”
She glanced up, a bit taken aback as her eyes scanned my long-sleeve black blouse, floral skirt and accompanying tights, “Is that what you’re going to wear?”
My eye nearly twitched, “Yes.”
“Oh puth, he’s a dentist. Don’t you think a pretty suit with a chunni would work best?”
My immediate answer would have been too sarcastic for her taste, so I bit my tongue before appealing to a more polite sense of speaking, “Nani, I’d rather be wearing something I’m more comfortable in.”
“You look nice enough, but don’t you think a kameez with maybe a tikka and–,”
“Mom, she wasn’t born in India. This is what girls here wear,” my mom interjected.
My grandma shrugged her shoulders with an exaggerated defeat we were quite used to seeing when things didn’t go her way and she was outnumbered. “At least put your hair up or in a braid,” she inserted, her wrinkly fingers trying to detangle my locks.
I wrapped my fingers into her palms, “Nani, I told you not to make a big deal of this. It’s just that if this doesn’t work, I don’t want you to be sad, okay?”
She squeezed my hands before cupping my face and giving it a playful shake, “Hah puth, but when when you get married to him, you’ll have me to thank for it. And then everyone’s going to say, ‘What a wonderful job Asha’s Nani did in finding her a good munda.’ And don’t forget, when you have kids you can name one after me!”
My mom groaned and I smiled uncertainly, an uncomfortable feeling beginning to naw at the interior of my stomach.
The sky was still a mix of monochromatic shades as I drove towards the cafe I was supposed to meet Shaan at. The feeling of unease had ceased to relieve my insides, especially since my erratic grandmother had been trying to wrap me up in the cotton scarf she’d finally decided on as I was sprinting out the door.
“Do you think November will be a good time to go to India for her wedding shopping?” I heard her ask my mom before I’d gotten into my car.
I’d sped off then, not sure if hearing what my mom retorted with would make me laugh or cringe in a realization that was only just beginning to dawn on me.
My car rested in a parking space just outside the cafe as I furtively sunk into my seat. “Just breathe,” I mumbled to myself. But the onset of anxiety was not butterflies before a first date; no, the real apprehension was of what I was doing, and why I was even doing it.
Was I trying to prove a point? Was I trying to move on? My stomach churned. I felt the pit deepening and spreading to my chest, sending a pang of regret that reverberated throughout my mind. I raked my quivering fingers over my face, shaking my head in the realization that I’d never been ready to take this step or accept so heavy an offer.
A streak of slick oil diverted my gaze to the parking lot in my rearview mirror; a BMW had just pulled in. A few moments passed before a tall character emerged with cropped hair the hue of his car, wearing a navy button-up, tapered khakis, and cognac colored chukka boots. I raised an eyebrow, sinking into my chair until my head nearly hit the buckle.
Young dentist. Nice car. Fashionably conscious. Nani made sure to check all her boxes when she set this up. So why was the feeling of fleeing such a pervasive thought? Probably because the boxes I would’ve checked were already preoccupied with the ideal of someone else. I huffed, pondering in silence of what I was about to do.
The cafe was cozy enough when I entered. The walls were a rich mahogany with a subtle golden illumination that fed into the tranquility of the ambiance. It was furnished with wooden tables, chairs and accents, with a stone fireplace in the corner and secluded booths wrapped in a groovy fabric most would find unappealing if the rest of the area wasn’t so lavish.
Shaan was already seated, but when his eyes spotted me he stood up quite swiftly. He opened both of his lean arms for a full embrace, but I went in for the half-hug, my tight smile exuding an air of disregard that sustained the awkwardness of the greeting. As we sat down across from each other, and my eyes finally graced his, I regretfully noticed the ocher hue of his irises.
“I already ordered you a cappuccino,” his voice, a low tenor accompanied by a slight rasp, did nothing to deter me from his small imposition, “Your Nani told mine that you love coffee.”
I let out an unamused chortle, superseding my previous stiffness for an air of a more overweening nature, “Yeah, she makes weird assumptions about what I like. I’m more of a tea person.”
He nodded, pursing his lips in a peculiar manner, then flagging down the waitress with a quick glance and gesture of his fingers.
“Chai tea?” he questioned when she’d arrived.
I smiled sweetly, ignoring his question and directing my response to the enthusiastic brunette with a notepad, “Actually, I’ll take the darjeeling with a spritz of raspberry please.” I’ve never once used the term ‘spritz’ out loud.
“So you’re a writer,” Shaan said, easing back into the booth’s tufted padding. I noted how he’d hardly reacted to my arrogant display. It seemed I’d have to take it up a notch.
“Yup. And you’re a dentist. That’s fancy.”
His eyebrow raised only slightly, and if I didn’t know any better, an almost playful spark twinkled from within his gaze. Our eyes did not deter from one another, and the peculiar battle I’d begun was something he was now ensuing in return. My brows furrowed unconsciously, and that moment of confused vulnerability stirred him excitedly. Damn it.
He let out a small laugh, and the pearlescent shine of his teeth was only momentarily blinding, “I guess we’ve been briefed by our families already. You recently graduated with your Master’s in English, started a new job, and you’re also back home with your mom now. So, how’s that been?”
“What about your dad?”
“Not around. Next?”
“You know, this isn’t speed dating. You’re more than welcomed to take time with your answers.”
“Are you a dentist or a psychologist?”
The waitress came just then, setting down our plain white cups with their adjoining saucers. A dribble of Shaan’s mocha trickled down the ceramic mug and dropped into a small brown puddle on the surface of his plate. I swallowed, ingesting the brewed hue with my eyes.
I blinked, “What?”
He glanced at me as the brunette bobbed away, “I was talking to the waitress.” He paused to take a sip of his cappuccino, a suspicious stillness encumbering him as I tried to recover from my momentary daze, “So…how long ago did you break up with him?”
My brows knit together, “What?”
He let out a breath as he stirred his coffee intimately, “I’ve been wondering for the past few weeks how someone as beautiful, intelligent, and obviously as fierce as you, would agree to be set up by what is the last resort for Indian families in America in the modern age. And now I understand it. Your heart was broken.”
Suppressing my own exposure was like raking pine needles from a tree when they were still falling in heaps.
“What happened, he ordered the wrong tea for you?” he poked nervelessly.
I let out a breath of unamused laughter, “He cheated on me.”
His silence was almost as disheartening as the sadness he stared at me with.
“He let me go without a fight,” I uttered, sipping my tea and cringing on the inside at the bitter taste of the raspberry, “He did something bad and I had to do right for myself, and yet it feels like the amount of pain I’ve been dealt is more excruciating than he will ever feel,” I tucked a loose wave behind my ear, allowing my eyes back to that puddle, “Nothing can ever return the time spent loving someone that never loved you back.”
“I understand,” Shaan commented after a heavy few moments passed.
I stared at him thoughtfully and huffed, “Ah, so you’re here for the same reason. The attractive dentist who’s still single. It all makes so much sense now.”
He smiled at me with the most dazzling and natural propensity, “I guess we both rushed ourselves into something we weren’t ready for.”
“You seem just fine,” I chortled lightly.
“I’m going to be very honest with you,” he said, leaning towards me, “I parked, sat for a second, and nearly drove away.”
I laughed again, feeling more myself than I’d ever let him in on, “In that nice car? I’m sure it would’ve been easier to just drive away.”
His cheeks were tinted in a rosy hue, “Actually, that’s my mom’s car. She didn’t think mine was showy enough, so she made me take hers. My career is only just starting and I have school to pay off still. Can’t afford a fancy car just yet.”
Laughter came much easier after that. We conversed for a long while on the comparisons of our families, friends, and the different ways in which we both have preserved and blended our cultures with the American way. We even briefly discussed our past relationships, bonding in the sorrow of what we both still longed for. But for a while, there remained nothing in the world more undemanding than being in that moment where the pain faded into a memory I stored somewhere deeper than my emotions could reach.
He sobered abruptly, looking into my eyes with a profound perplexity, “Why’d you agree to this? Couldn’t have just been my picture.”
“Same reason you probably did,” I shrugged, “I was vulnerable. My grandparents really wanted this for me and…well, I didn’t know what else to do.”
“You haven’t healed though.”
“You know as well as I do, it gets tiring waiting for the healing to happen. I thought pushing myself to do something out of my comfort zone would help speed the process along.”
“And meeting me didn’t help?” he prodded.
I felt the ghost of a flirtatious smirk upon my lips, “I wouldn’t say it was a complete loss.”
He smiled at that, “You did the right thing.”
I grinned, “What? Coming here to meet you?”
He shook his head, “Breaking it off with him. You did the right thing,” I felt myself stifled by a mist threatening my eyes, “You don’t deserve to be prioritized anywhere less than number one. Just remember, these customs, our culture––they hold no meaning for anybody when you aren’t aware of who you are first. That realization, it comes and goes, but the love and patience you have for yourself should always be forever.”
I cast my pupils towards the remnants of my teacup, enchanted by the ochre hue of the nearly-diminished liquid.
The radiance of the sun was undyingly glorious as it shone through the bay window the next morning. I breathed in, smiling as the light splayed onto the dining room table where I sat.
“You want some coffee?” my mother’s voice chirped. She had been rather overjoyed by last night’s events as I confessed them to her.
“How did you leave things?” she asked when I had finished telling her.
I shrugged, feeling a warmth across my cheeks, “He told me when I’m ready, to call him. And the day that I do, he may have miraculously healed himself.”
“And are you going to call him soon?”
I shook my head, smiling warmly to myself, “Not until I’m ready to.”
My mom promised to keep my grandmother at bay until then.
My eyes spotted the glint of shiny thread outside. I got up and headed towards the door, “No, I’ll take some tea though. Darjeeling if we have it.”
I strolled over to the window’s ledge, gently plucking the leaf from the web. A breath escaped my lips as I turned it over in my palm, the edges tickling my flesh as I realized the hue of the leaf resembled the tone of my skin more than any other shade of cinnamon could vary.
A breeze cradled the leaf from out my grasp, carrying it away until I ventured back inside, no longer afflicted by where it would go.
-Kiran Bains Sahota