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“Have you eaten?” His mother greeted him in the elegant gold and white massive two-story entryway and pulled him into a tight hug.
It was a little over a two-hour drive from Durham. Hardly required sustenance. Plus, he’d been eating lightly for the past two weeks anticipating the food fest his cousin’s wedding promised.
“I’m fine,” he said. He always said he was fine, but he’d never been able to avoid a meal when he arrived home.
“You need to eat.”
“Later,” he said. “How’s Asha?”
“Asha as always keeps her own counsel,” his mom sighed. “It was not a love match, but still Guneet was a solid choice.” His mom’s tone was already in Monday morning quarterback mode. “He came from a good family in Atlanta. He was willing to relocate and start his career as an anesthesiologist in Charlotte. Your father had paved the way for him at his hospital to join the anesthesia group.” His mom airily waved her hand in a “what can you do” manner, and Rohan’s stomach churned, acid rising. “Now, who knows? Ungrateful, stupid man. He didn’t even attend an elite medical school. Poor Asha practically scraping the barrel. What prospects will she have now? She’s thirty-six.”
His mother had been singing Guneet’s praises along with her sister-in-law only a couple of months ago when the match was finally agreed upon. But now, the man who’d been about to become family in a few days was stupid and ungrateful and about to have a job offer rescinded. And her eldest niece had been consigned to the dumpster of unmarriageable with one unforeseen act over which she’d had no control.
Rohan could barely swallow the acid that burned at the back of his throat. This always happened when he came home, but he’d forgotten to take a Nexium in anticipation for today, and he couldn’t ask him mom for a Tums or anything because the brain-picking one hundred and one questions would begin.
“I thought you liked Guneet.” He couldn’t help poking his mom a little.
She waved Guneet away, her gold bangles making a musical sound.
“Asha is thirty-six; what could she do?”
The casual dismissal had him balling his fists.
“A hell of a lot better than a man who dumped her days before her wedding,” Rohan said, barely swallowing his next thought before he said it. Asha deserved a devoted groom and an aunt who would comfort her, not roll her eyes at her pain, disappointment and humiliation or casually dismiss all that Asha brought to marriage—her sweetness and light, Ivy League education, accomplishments, kindness, family dedication, reputation as a top OB in high-risk pregnancies with a wave of her hand while reducing her to one fact. Asha was too far over the line of thirty.
Had Asha felt like she’d settled, or had she harbored feelings for Guneet? He didn’t know shit about her dating life.
Your family doesn’t know about yours.
Not that what he did what would be considered dating, exactly. Swiping right when he was in the mood for a casual hookup would leave his family—jaws hanging to the floor—aghast. But while he’d had far too many opportunities to count, he hadn’t had a lot of choices because he had a hard rule. Hard no on dating classmates or fellow residents. You couldn’t avoid someone after things inevitably went south when you had to round with them each morning, look at them over a patient in the OR during the day or night or sit beside them during the case autopsies every Monday.
“That seems harsh, Mom,” Rohan said, again bottling up the rest of his words. He’d never publicly argued with his parents or overtly pushed back on anything. “Asha is kindness personified. She’s beautiful, intelligent…”
“Of course, of course, beta,” his mom called him “son” far more than she’d ever used his name, and somehow it always made him feel shoved back into his childhood. “Of course.” His mom patted his cheek. “But Asha should have snagged her husband after medical school or residency. Definitely before her fellowship. Too dreamy, that one.”
He didn’t think of Asha as dreamy, but when was the last time they’d had a heart-to-heart? She was more than four years older than him. She’d always been in charge, guiding, inspiring, helping them all.
“I didn’t,” he said, pissed at the double standard.
Wrong thing to say. The speculative appraisal his mother gave him chilled his bones.
“I know,” she said softly.
“I’m going to check on Asha,” he said quickly, but his mother took his hand.
“You are such a good son,” she said. “Your time will come.”
Exactly what he was afraid of. Damn, he should have jumped back in his car and gunned it out of Charlotte. Well, maybe he should have texted Asha to see if she wanted to bust out with him. Rani would be game. Five days off. Road trip. The idea beckoned, tempting. He hadn’t had more than an occasional weekend off in nearly six years.
“You should do something for Anju Auntie,” his mother spoke in a soft voice as she walked him to the kitchen. As expected, several Le Creuset pots—blue, yellow and red—bubbled on the stove, emitting enticing flavors, and despite his protestations that he wasn’t hungry, Rohan’s stomach growled.
“Like what?” Relief coursed through him now that his mother was not currently eyeing him like marriage market meat. “Mummyji,” he greeted his grandmother who smiled at him. He dutifully took her hands and bowed his head. She waved her hand over him, murmured a blessing, and he stayed crouching a little so she could kiss his cheek. She then patted both his cheeks like he was still seven and smiled and told him in Punjabi to sit. She would bring him food. She was in the middle of rolling out chapatis with his mom’s mother. “Nanima,” he said, also taking her hands and bowing his head.
She complained he was too skinny. She would have done that if he didn’t run most mornings and hit the gym with his trainer several nights a week. If he came home more, he would likely be too fat. There was no middle ground. Again, she urged him to sit, telling him in Hindi that the food was nearly ready. Clearly, he was expected to eat, not comfort Asha.
“I will, I will,” he promised. “I’ll eat with everyone.”
Not like he had a choice.
But he’d enjoy the meal. He loved his Mummyji and Nanima’s cooking. For his entire life, Mummyji had lived with him or his cousins, taking care of them all while his dad, uncle, mom and aunt had built successful careers. He loved them for their care and unconditional love, but they both made it so damn hard to stop eating even when he was full.
“I’m going to see everyone.” He pressed his palms together, the silent namaste and a promise he’d be back to eat soon.
Of course his mom blocked him from leaving the kitchen.
“You will help her, won’t you?” His mom’s voice edged with demand, now that she’d lost his full attention.
“Asha? Of course.” But what could he do? Rani, who was writing her dissertation in clinical psychology—last he checked—would be better at soothing any heartbreak than he was.
“No. Anju Auntie, you know just a little…” She mimed giving a shot.
“You want me to drug her?” he asked in disbelief.
“Shshshsh.” His mom’s beautiful eyes widened innocently.
“You want me to drug Auntie?” he repeated. His mom had made some pretty intense and out-there demands during his thirty-two years. And she thought he was essentially responsible for her personal sun and moon rotation—no pressure there. But this? All kinds of wrong. All sorts of breeched barriers.
“Just a little something.” His mom rubbed his arm soothingly, while his nanima returned to the chapatis, chattering away in Punjabi to Mummyji and pretending that they didn’t speak or understand English so that he and his mom could pretend that they had privacy. The determined whir of the exhaust fan didn’t do much to cut the fragrance of the roasted cumin and cardamon overlaying the scents of the daal, sabazi, and butter chicken—his favorite, that he usually tried to resist.
“Anju Auntie is not a zoo animal I can tranq so that I can clean her teeth,” he said firmly because his mom would push. And push. And keep pushing.
“Just a little pop of something to calm her down.”
“Like what? No. Forget I asked that. I don’t even want to know. I have a little over two months more of my training at Duke, and I’m not pissing it all away prescribing something for a family member. Besides, you’re a doctor. You can prescribe something if you want.”
“I am a dermatologist,” his mother said with dignity. “And your language, Rohan could use some elevation. I am your mother.”
Like he could forget.
“All I’m asking my only child, my precious, accomplished, loving son for is a little something for my cherished sister-in-law to take the edge off so I can talk to her more reasonably. There are plans we must make. We need a message. Anju needs to calm a little.”
Plans? His aunt was the top event planner in Charlotte. Bigger than that. The wedding for her eldest daughter had been spectacular even for her reputation. Sure, his family was a pillar of Charlotte’s large Indian community, starting with his grandparents who had immigrated in the early eighties, and they were fairly wealthy, but they weren’t celebrities.
“Surely you have something in your car. Pills? IV?”
“No.” What shows had some of her friends been streaming and discussing at the wine and book nights that would give her that idea? Besides, his father was a cardiac surgeon. She would know the lines he wouldn’t cross.
He wouldn’t, would he?
Worry tugged at him. His mother frowned. She was still so beautiful at sixty. She hated the vertical line that had formed between her brows so much that she’d started using fillers a few years ago, which now gave her the look of a familiar stranger. She could be his older sister, not his mother, and it was disconcerting.
He looked across the elegantly opulent open ground floor of his aunt’s lakeside house. Everything was bathed in pink and orange. His father leaned against the balcony railing, whiskey in his hand, watching his twin pace. He should join them. They’d expect it, but he wanted to check in with Asha. Maybe she was taking this better. He could see Asha sitting down on the patio by the dock, staring out at the lake. Her sisters—Rani sat in a chair next to her and Shanti was as always, on her phone, hair obscuring her face, sitting on Asha’s other side.
An idea took hold.
“Are you even listening to me?” his mother huffed, crossing her arms across her slim body.
Had she been talking?
“Just be with Anju Auntie,” he urged his mom. “Let her cry. It’s a huge disappointment and shock and…hurt.”
“It’s humiliating,” his mother cut to the bone. “Asha publicly rejected two days before jai mala. Two. It’s the first wedding of the season. The largest. Most anticipated and now it’s gone. Poof,” his mother made a clicking sound deep in her throat and her hands mimed an explosion. “By tomorrow everyone will know that Asha has been rejected. He changed his mind. What does that mean? How can a groom change his mind at the last minute? He had two meetings with her and the family. He agreed to the marriage. He and Asha even attended two social events together. Changed his mind.” She pffted her lips and rolled her eyes. “Everyone will think there’s something wrong with Asha, that she’s da…”
“Keep it down,” he interrupted as his mom’s voice rose with each word.
Asha was not damaged goods, and the last thing she needed was to be reminded of the public rejection. God. What was she thinking? Or feeling? He couldn’t even imagine, but he could easily imagine a groom getting cold feet. Marriage was forever, or it should be. No Kapoor had divorced. Ever.
“And now it’s too late,” his mom whispered, her tone heavy with significance.
“She shouldn’t take him back if he changes his mind again,” Rohan said. “Guneet’s a douche.”
Rohan had only met him once at an intimate family party—with sixty or seventy-five guests—a meet and greet with the family. He’d seemed like a good guy. Nothing spectacular. But no warning bells. He’d been into college hoops so they’d talked for a few minutes, and then Asha had led him off to meet more people.
But Rohan was loyal and any good qualities Guneet possessed were now consigned to the trash bin.
“Your language. You don’t talk to your patients like that, I hope.”
Rohan barked a laugh, imagining if he rolled out a few f-bombs during a consultation.
“There’s nothing funny here,” his mom said. “Asha is ruined.”
“Mom cut the drama. It’s the twenty-first century. Asha’s had a disappointment, but she still has her family and her career. She hardly knew Guneet. A few months and she’ll meet…” He broke off at his mother’s pitying look. Her lips pressed together tightly.
“No one will agree to match with her now.” His mom was adamant, like Krisha had just whispered a secret of the universe.
“You don’t know that,” he objected.
“I do. Everyone does. Asha knows too. People will talk. They’ll think something’s wrong with her.”
“Asha is a lovely person through and through. No one will think this is her fault.”
“Beta, you are so sweet.” His mother patted his cheek. “You never see the bad in anyone.”
That was patently not true.
“But it’s true. Asha’s good name is gone. People were already saying she was too old.”
“Hell no,” he burst out, pissed that Asha, who had done so much for so many people in the community over the years, would be gossiped about negatively and reduced to a number she had no control over.
“You do not know this town like I do. Her age is an issue. Her only hope now is to accept someone far beneath her.” His mother shuddered.
“I don’t buy it,” Rohan shook his head. “Asha is at the top of her field. She’s smart. Kind. Generous. Beautiful. She’s not doomed. No way.”
“You are such a good son,” his mom approved. “Loving. Loyal. But we have to plan. We need to deflect this tragedy.”
His mom and aunt had epic social skills, but this debacle was far too heavy a lift even for them to spin into something positive.
“We’re just going to have to take it on the chin,” he said, not really caring what people said about them. He knew who he was. He knew the good his family had done for others and for the community.
“No. We don’t go down. We fight back. Anju will try for a match for Shanti next. But I think she should wait. Let the gossip die down. We…you and I can give our friends something much different to talk about.”
Again, she looked him up and down like she was at a livestock auction.
“Mom, let’s just shelve this. I’m going to check in with Asha. See if there’s something I can do.” Saliva flooded his mouth even though he hadn’t eaten today. He felt like he was going to vomit.
Damn. Just damn. He’d been safe while he’d been training. His parents respected academics and training. But early June he was being cut loose to enter the fully adult world. And he could feel the noose around his neck. His father had already started the push for him to join his cardiac practice. And now his mom had all but said she was on the hunt for his bride.
Nope. Not happening. Not now when freedom was in sight.
He pocketed the boat keys, a loose idea forming. It was a bit early in the season, but unseasonably warm. And maybe getting out of ear- and eyeshot would help all of them. Childish. He’d only arrived but already wanted to flee.
Five days to go.
Rohan walked through the great room and outside onto the covered deck. He waved to his dad and pointed at his three cousins down sitting on the dock as an excuse to escape. He ran down the stairs, past the massive patio, pool, pool house and tennis court, and for a moment, he had an image of himself as a boy, running across a lawn—maybe at his first house or maybe a park, chasing Asha as she ran ahead of him, laughing and blowing bubbles that drifted over her head and trailed behind her like she was a magical fairy.
He jammed his hands in the pockets of his suit trousers and walked down the dock with purpose. This sucked. His three cousins seemed trapped in a bubble world just out of reach. Asha stared blankly across the lake, her sundress hiked up to mid-thigh and her bare legs dangling in the lake. Shanti stared at her phone, concentration absolute, fingers flying. Rani had a pitcher of something that she stirred frantically as if she were creating a critical, time-sensitive potion.
They’d been holding on to this news for nearly two hours. He felt like his head was going to explode from the pressure. The need to do and say something, to solve this problem was fierce. He strode past them without a word and began to methodically tug off the blue tarp on the boat. He hit the hydraulic lift to lower the boat into the lake. He hopped on board and turned to his cousins.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here. Bring the juice.”
End of Excerpt