“A relationship without love has no meaning.” Mukesh drove his fork through a cube of paneer tikka on his plate and held it in front of me. “It’s like this piece of paneer, but unseasoned, ungarnished, and uncooked.”
I looked down at my plate of untouched food, still contemplating if I should have broached the topic. But Mukesh was in town only for a couple of nights, and this was our only meal together. His busy schedule left him with hardly any time to spend with me.
His cutlery scraped across his plate as he fished for another piece of paneer to stuff in his mouth. The sound drew my gaze towards him just as he asked, “Don’t you think so?”
I folded my hands in front of me. “It’s not that simple, Mukesh.”
I must have sounded more irritated than I intended as he tore his eyes away from his food and frowned at me. “Why not?”
“It just isn’t. You won’t understand.”
“Then help me understand, Kavya.”
Mukesh was never the one to let go of something easily, so changing the topic was futile. If only there was an easier way to tell him what I wanted to say. “Unlike your coding, life isn’t all zeroes and ones. If Priya makes the wrong choice, she’ll fuck up not one, but three lives.”
Mukesh placed his fork down and smiled. “Look, no matter who she picks, Sid or Aakash, someone is going to end up hurt. Now it’s up to Priya to decide if she wants to be happy or not.”
This innocent smile and the calmness with which he spoke were the reasons I’d never managed to see this discussion through before. But today, I had to. I’d promised Priya that I would. Besides, she was getting married in less than a month, so I was running out of time.
Before I could say something, a waiter interrupted our conversation. “Would you like to place your order for the main course?”
Mukesh looked up at him apologetically. “Can you give us a few more minutes? I’ll call you when we’re ready.” After the waiter nodded and left, Mukesh picked up the menu lying next to his plate. He glanced through it and raised an eyebrow. “So, pasta? Like always?”
I shrugged. “You decide.”
He looked up from the menu and rolled his eyes. “For once, Kavya. Just once. Can you try deciding something for yourself?”
If Priya were in my place, she would’ve thrashed Mukesh for being insensitive, but unlike her, I’d always run away from conflicts. With what Mukesh said, it was easier for me to let go than reminding him for the hundredth time that I hated making decisions, then going over my reasons all over again which was the fact that there was no way for me to go back and change a decision, and that life doesn’t have a reset button like his games did. So while he picked something from the menu, I stayed quiet and looked around.
When we’d walked into the restaurant earlier in the evening, the thought of how Mukesh would react to the truth about Priya had had me distracted. Since then, I hadn’t yet found the time to appreciate the usual warm yellow lights that flooded the seating area, or the soft instrumental music on low volume that gave the restaurant its romantic vibe. We’d arrived early by Bangalore’s standards, and the restaurant was empty back then, but even now, hardly any tables were occupied. An older couple, probably in their forties, and a younger one in their early twenties like us, were the only other people eating here.
Mukesh and I could’ve been as lost among ourselves as those two couples were. It was our favorite restaurant after all, and we were out on our monthly date night. But I’d brought up Priya soon after we’d taken our seats, and now, he had his face buried deep inside the menu booklet, probably cursing me for it.
He hadn’t picked a dish yet, and I wasn’t surprised. Every time we went to a restaurant, he’d look through all the descriptions in the menu, create a mental list of pros and cons for each dish, then evaluate them based on his preference—which changes every night—then, on what he expected the restaurant to cook well, before finally arriving at the dish he wanted to eat. Naturally, he hardly ever experimented when it came to food. Or with anything else in life for that matter. For him, it was a small price to pay for predictability. During my various moments of uncertainty, he encouraged me to do the same. Evaluate all options, make an informed decision. That was the best one could do under the given circumstances.
It never worked for me though. My heart and brain often pushed me in different directions, and though my brain had all the data points to back itself, I almost always ended up listening to my heart. Its voice was always as captivating as a symphony. The previous year, I had to decide between either moving to Mumbai for a better job or staying in Bangalore for Mukesh. My brain had warned me that long-distance relationships seldom work, yet my heart made me believe we’d be an exception, that our love for each other was more than strong enough to last a little distance. Then on a different occasion, which was a few date-nights ago when I had to decide if I should drag my close friend Priya between him and me, my brain had believed it was a stupid idea, but I’d listened to my heart once again. It knew very well why I was doing it.
Thankfully, my brain and heart had both agreed now when I’d decided to come clean to Mukesh. They both believed I had to tell him the truth. I had to tell him that—
“You and Priya are the same.” Mukesh’s words pulled me out of my mental tussle. I hadn’t noticed when he’d placed the menu back on the table, picked up his fork and knife, and was cutting into his last cube of paneer.
I shuffled in my seat. “What do you mean?”
“You’re both indecisive.”
A second insensitive statement, with this one about a weakness that I’d been struggling to overcome for quite some time now, and it had to be a sign from the universe that there was no turning back, that I had to see this through.
I straightened up. “Oh, yeah? Like you’re being real mature now with your lack of empathy? You know Priya can’t just walk away from her relationship with Sid. They’ve been together for five years. It’s only in the last year that she’s started feeling like they’re drifting apart.”
Mukesh smiled again. “I understand, Kavya. But the fact is they have drifted apart. Priya might like to believe it’s because of their physical distance, but even if she and Sid lived in the same city, these differences would’ve reared their ugly head at some point. If not Aakash, she would’ve found someone else’s arms to fall into.”
I paused for a second to gather some courage before diverting the discussion. “What about us then?”
His head flinched back a little and his smile vanished. It took him a moment before he spoke again. “What do you mean?”
I let my gaze drift to the young couple two tables away who were holding hands, laughing, and giggling among themselves. “Don’t you think we too have been fighting a lot these days?”
Mukesh picked up his napkin, wiped his mouth, then placed it back on his lap. “I agree we do. I really do. But I also think that our fights are nowhere as bad as what you’ve told me about Priya and Sid.” He looked away as if he was contemplating a parallel thought. “I wonder what Sid thinks of their fights. He surely must have noticed them too. Unless, of course, these two have different perceptions of their fights.”
I hadn’t expected that deduction from him. One less thing to point out, I told myself.
His brows furrowed when he looked back at me. “Look, Kavya. You can’t compare the time we spend together now with our college days. Back then, all we did was have fun because other than getting good grades and landing a decent job, we weren’t worried about anything. But now that we’re getting married, we have to plan our future.”
I fiddled with the solitaire diamond ring I wore on my left hand. Eleven months ago, at this exact table, was where he’d proposed to me. But something in him had changed that day. The fact that we hadn’t picked a date for our wedding yet was the one thing that gave me a sense of relief.
He leaned back. “Maybe this distance is causing more problems than it needs to. Soon, you’ll start looking for a job in Bangalore, then we’ll start living together, and a lot of these problems will go away. You’ll see.”
It would be an understatement to say that Mukesh loved Bangalore. While I didn’t hate it, I didn’t want to leave Mumbai. Definitely not for Bangalore. And although working in the travel industry meant that I could find a job in any major city in the country, I wasn’t ready to leave my life behind and move to someplace else. Besides, with its better connectivity, Mumbai provided me with better travel opportunities to faraway countries that I’d wanted to travel to.
Weighed down by Mukesh’s heartless logic, as usual, I felt at a loss for words trying to express emotions that I didn’t completely understand myself. Continuing the conversation further would only lead to more such arguments from him. I needed time to reframe my thoughts, and it made sense to defuse the situation for now. “I don’t want to spend all my day stuck in Bangalore traffic.”
“Oh, come on. Not the same traffic bullshit again.” I was glad that a certain playfulness was back in his voice. The mention of Bangalore’s horrendous traffic situation always gave him an opportunity to brag about his motorbike. “You know you’ll never be stuck in traffic. Not when you have me and my bike to drive you around.”
Buying a car was always a part of his growing-up plan, but the devilish grin on his face reminded me of why he’d continued to stick with his motorbike. More than the ease with which his bike could navigate traffic in ways a four-wheeler couldn’t even dream of, he enjoyed the feeling of my breasts pressing against his back every time he hit the brakes, or every time he flew his bike on highways and I would grab onto him tightly from behind.
As the conversation lightened up, the knot in my stomach eased a bit. The rest of the conversation might have to happen some other day when I was better prepared. Maybe I could tell Mukesh all about Priya over an email as I’d originally planned. Priya would be mad, but maybe she’d understand.
I forced a laugh, then grabbed my fork to finally eat something. The paneer tasted softer and juicier than any other day I’d eaten here. Maybe coming early had its own benefits. Before I could relish it more though, Mukesh started talking again.
“I understand, Kavya, you’re worried. But you know, right? A little bit of argument is common between couples.”
I nodded. In my head though, I was furiously trying to come up with something else to talk about. But all the thoughts in my head kept settling on Priya and Sid—and Aakash—or on Mukesh and me.
I shoved the last piece of paneer into my mouth and threw the fork on my empty plate. “Can we order the main course? I’m hungry.”
“Sure, but you never told me your choice.”
I was glad Mukesh didn’t question my hunger given the amount of paneer I’d just shoved down my throat. But I also still didn’t have the energy to figure out what to eat. “And I said you decide.”
He rolled his eyes, then waved his hand at a waiter. After placing an order for the usual ‘spaghetti aglio olio with chicken’ that we’d share, he returned the menu and looked at me. “Tell me something. Why are you and Priya so afraid of making decisions?”
His determination to see our conversation through made my stomach knot up again, and I wished I had some of his resolve. I knew more about Priya and Sid and Aakash than Mukesh did. And I knew exactly what I wanted to tell him. I’d known it for a while. All I’d ever lacked was the courage. And I knew I should’ve spoken to him sooner. Maybe things could’ve been better between us now. Or worse. Who knows?
I sighed. “Because we’re afraid of the outcome, of what impact it could have on people around us. Like me, she doesn’t want to hurt someone because she didn’t make the right choice.”
“Who are all these people you keep talking about? And why do you girls care so much about them?” Mukesh was back to sounding irritated. “Let’s say you did hurt someone. So what? If they’re close to you, they’ll understand. Maybe not now, but eventually they will. As for everyone else? Fuck them.”
“And we are back to your zeroes and ones. Forget it, Mukesh. You won’t understand.”
Mukesh scoffed and leaned back, and I looked away. The older couple had finished eating, and they walked towards the door. The man had an arm draped around the woman’s shoulder, and she’d gently placed her hand around his waist. I wanted to be that woman—be with the love of my life for decades, and yet have enough love left between us to want to walk side-by-side every time we went out.
A few minutes later, Mukesh bent forward to reach for his glass, took a sip, then broke the silence. “Anyway, what has Priya decided then? Sid or Aakash?”
I continued staring at the door that the older couple had just passed through. “Aakash. But she doesn’t know how to tell Sid about it.”
“And how long is she planning to drag this on for?”
“I don’t know.”
He chuckled. “And Aakash is okay with it?”
I gulped. “They haven’t explicitly said to each other that they like the other person. But after work, they spend all their time together.” My heart was now thumping in my chest so loud, even the chefs in the kitchen cooking our spaghetti must have heard it.
Mukesh frowned. “So Aakash knows that Priya is officially going out with Sid, and yet he’s never asked her about him?”
My head felt dizzy, but I was prepared for these questions. I took a deep breath. “No. I believe he’s just happy spending time with her. Bringing up Sid would mean Priya will have to choose between the two, and he’s probably afraid it won’t be him.”
“Wait. So, Aakash and Priya like each other, but they don’t want to face the fact that Priya is with Sid?”
I turned my head down. “I guess.”
Mukesh paused for a moment, as if analyzing the situation in his head, then snickered. “What a fucked up situation.”
The smugness on his face increased my annoyance, and I shot my eyes at him. “You think this is funny?”
In an instant, the look on his face turned serious and he leaned forward, resting his elbows on either side of his plate. “No, I don’t. But like I said before, Priya is not only fucking with her own life but Aakash and Sid’s as well.”
“Okay, Mr. Zero-and-one. Tell me what you would’ve done if you were in Priya’s place.”
“If I wasn’t happy with Sid and liked Aakash, I’d dump Sid.”
The importance of that moment in our conversation weighed down on me, but I continued to look up. “And what about Sid?”
“What about him?”
“What happens to Sid?”
“Nothing. Sooner or later, he’ll understand, and maybe even appreciate her decision. If she’s not happy with him, he won’t be happy with her either.”
This was the moment I was waiting for. I took a second, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. I still wasn’t sure if the words in my head were the best for conveying what I felt. Although, with what Mukesh said next, I didn’t need any of those.
“But first, Priya needs to make sure she really likes Aakash. And that it’s not some kind of infatuation.”
I took a deep breath and let it out sharply. “It’s not.”
“She told you that?”
I shook my head.
“Then how do you know?”
I didn’t say anything. The next set of words was going to take some more courage, maybe some more time.
Mukesh looked at me, his eyes confused. “Kavya?” His voice had lost some of its confidence.
I tried to look him in the eyes as I began speaking. I wanted to. But the words just won’t come out. So I turned my head down. “Because I am in love with Aakash.”
When he said nothing for a while, I looked up at him. His eyes appeared frozen, and his mouth was slightly open. A moment later, he blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Priya and Sid are getting married next month. Aakash works in my office, and it’s the two of us who spend all our time together after work.”
“But.” Mukesh looked more confused than I had ever seen him before. “Why?”
With the truth finally out, my thoughts met no resistance, and they flowed freely out of my mouth. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Mukesh, but we’ve drifted apart. A lot. We don’t agree on anything. Be it regarding something as important decision as our career, or as simple as what dish to order. I order spaghetti with you only because you don’t want to try any other pasta.” I paused to take a breath. “You might think I’m blaming this on our physical distance or you, but the truth is, our thoughts don’t match. In fact, they never did.”
“What are you talking about? We started fighting only recently.”
A waiter stopped by and asked us if he could clear our table. I nodded and leaned back to let him pick our plates and replace them with clean ones.
Once he left, I leaned back in front. “Like you said, we’re not in college anymore. All we did back then was go out and have fun. We never thought about our future because we never had to. Deep beneath though, don’t you think we’ve both wanted different things from life? You wanted to settle down, buy a big house, a fancy car, and have kids, and while I wasn’t yet sure what I wanted, I never cared for any of those. And now that I know what I want, I feel even more disconnected from you. I want to travel the world. I want to meet new people and learn about their cultures. And I don’t want to end up working in the same company for the rest of my life. I get that it works for you and your life plans, but I don’t want that.”
“Why did you never tell me this before?”
“I couldn’t. Remember my work trip to Australia nine months ago?”
Mukesh seemed to struggle to nod.
“At first, I was afraid to go to a new country all on my own. But it was a great opportunity to rub shoulders with some big names in the travel industry. So, I went anyway. I had to. And it changed the way I looked at traveling.” I smiled. “Those two weeks were the best two weeks of my life. I saw a new world there, met new people, had new kinds of food, and learned about new traditions. It was like a whole new culture out there. And it made me want to explore and learn about all such cultures around the world.”
“Okay, but we’d planned to travel the world together as well. We went to Thailand six months ago. How’s this any different?”
“It is. All we did in Thailand was go around taking photos at popular tourist destinations and eat at Indian restaurants. No matter how much I pushed you, you never tried their popular dish, Pad Thai, or participate in events where you could socialize with the locals. While I was busy trying to learn their common phrases, you weren’t even interested in learning about how they greet each other or say goodbye. So, you see? Our idea of traveling itself is so different.”
Mukesh didn’t say anything, and I continued, “Tell me, what other foreign food have you tried other than pasta or pizza?”
Our waiter arrived and placed the bowl of pasta in the center of our table. Seeing the look on Mukesh’s face, I turned toward the waiter and smiled at him. “Thank you. We will serve the pasta ourselves.”
The waiter asked if we needed anything else, and I refused. By the time he left, Mukesh seemed to have wrapped his head around whatever I’d said. A hint of frustration was evident in his voice. “Then why all this drama? Why did you have to manufacture this whole story about Priya?”
A few weeks ago, Priya had asked me the same question, and it was only natural Mukesh would ask me the same. I told him what I’d told Priya back then. “Like always, I once again needed your help in making a decision. Maybe one last time.”
“And what if I’d argued that Priya should pick Sid instead?”
“I would’ve still told you about Aakash, but maybe some other day. Your reasoning gave me the assurance that you’d be able to see why I’m doing this. It gave me the courage to talk to you about it.”
Mukesh’s shoulders dropped a mile, and he let out a loud sigh.
I placed my hand on his. “Remember what you said? A relationship without love has no meaning.”
“But I still love you.”
“And I love Aakash.”
No matter how much he talked about logic, beneath his hard-shell pretense of zeroes and ones, he was just like any other human being, capable of a large range of emotions. His face had displayed many of them this evening, but those tears bursting to break out of his eyes as he held my hand broke my heart. I had to keep reminding myself what he’d said just a while ago. Sooner or later, he’d understand, and maybe even appreciate my decision.
I squeezed his hand. “I know this breaks your heart, Mukesh. I really do. But no matter who I’d picked, one of you was going to end up hurt. You gave me the strength to think about my own happiness.”
Mukesh nodded slowly as a drop of tear found its way out of his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. He picked up his napkin, and as he wiped his eye, he let out a chuckle. “What if Aakash doesn’t love you back?”
“We might not have spoken to each other about it, but I know he does.”
Mukesh shook his head. In his mind, he must have wanted to press the reset button on our relationship like he did in his video games. A moment later, he sighed. “So, what next?”
I picked up the bowl of food kept between us. “One last pasta.” After I skilfully served the pasta on both our plates, I raised my glass of water for a toast. “To happy memories.”
Mukesh scoffed. He looked unsure and I had to egg him. “Come on, Mukesh. Despite all our fights, I hope we remember us for all the good times we’ve had together. And you know we’ve had plenty of those.”
He took a deep breath, then picked up his glass, clinked it with mine, and smiled. “To happy memories.”
We spent the rest of the dinner remembering our days at college and our trip to Thailand which was our first and only international trip together. When we walked out of the restaurant, I didn’t long for him to have his arm around me as I often did previously. I was soon going to be in the loving embrace of the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
On the pavement outside, I returned the ring back to him. For one last time, I hugged him, then stood on my toes as I kissed him on the cheek. “I hope you find the love that you deserve.”
Mukesh smiled ruefully. “I hope you do, too.”