“They are all here. Why are you still in those clothes?” Smita’s disapproving eyes stared at Avni from head to toe preparing for a nastier comment. “You look worse than a homeless person. Do you really dress like that every day?”
“It is a mystery how your marriage has survived 25 years.” The one-sided conversation ended with a smile from Avni. The blank smile she was so comfortable with just like the grey joggers she was now pulling off her 50 years old feet. She loved her feet, long toes with big rectangular nails, a dream pair for any pedicurist. So, she had been told many times. Pedicures were one thing she could not give up, even when money was tight. It only meant she was cleaning, scrubbing, and painting them herself sitting on the edge of the tub, after the kids slept, reading, and listening to ghazals.
Smita once again shook Avni out of her daydreaming, “Seriously, sis, start getting ready. You are the reason for the get together.”
Avni smiled yet again this time walking away before Smita could react yet again with sarcasm.
Draping a saree and twirling with its length, Avni caught herself staring at the moment she admired her mother getting ready for events. She always wore a saree, the prettiest and most graceful woman in their family. Roses were her thing. She always wore 3 in her hair for every party. Her favorite flowers. Avni stood draped in the saree gifted by her children she finished her look for the night with white roses in her hair.
It was Smita who noticed her first. “You look just like mom, beautiful. What a dramatic change from the earlier look!”
They hugged a little tighter tonight. Remembering all those who were not here to celebrate with them.
Soon the evening started to move faster and louder. With every guest, she gave a new smile and a gentle thank you, for the gift they bought. The guests kept arriving and Avni kept smiling. Her smile and saree were intact. No one could have believed she had worn a saree after almost 10 years. She looked around to find her husband hoping for a hand to hold onto standing here listening to guests she hardly knew. But her eyes failed to find his wandering soul.
“Where is Aakash? We must wish him as well.” A very pink woman sparkling with diamonds asked Avni.
“Oh, he is around here somewhere. I will go find him. Thank you again, for the lovely flowers.”
“Avni, high time you know where your husband is. Hahhahah!”
Avni walked away giving a blank and small laugh searching for the husband who should have been here, right next to her. Just like that day. The day he was supposed to pick the kids from school, instead, she had to because he was running late and they met with an accident. A lucky escape, where all three of them came home without a scratch. God had been very generous that day. The thought of the accident sent a chilling shiver down her long-arched spine. But still no Aakash to hold hands with.
“Champagne, ma’am?” The waitstaff was doing their job of keeping the guests drunk and happy. “No, thank you! I am good.”
“You look lovely ma’am. We are so happy to be a part of your special day. You and Aakash sir make a beautiful couple.”
“Thank you”, the smile was polite and empty. They were the official caterers for every family gathering. From Diwali nights to New years’ Party, to Happy Friday. There was no end to gatherings with friends and family in their household. In fact, Avni had pleaded for no party this anniversary and obviously failed. She just wanted a quiet night with her people. The people she truly loved. The ones who truly made her smile with her eyes.
Walking past a loud group of men, she could not help but hear the obnoxious joke obviously about women. She stopped and contemplated the repercussions of calling the rowdy men out for their stale and disgusting sense of humor but decided not to. Especially since they all belonged to Aakash’s office.
“Hi, Avni, it is such a lovely party. Thanks for having us. But I still haven’t been able to find Aakash. Where is he?” It was their old neighbor from the house they lived in 10 years ago. Before Aakash became a big shot and bought this huge mansion for his family.
“Well, all I know is he is here somewhere. hahhaha!” Avni was running out of laughs and excuses, but the party was nowhere close to an end. “Thank you so much for coming. Did you all eat? The buffet is open.”
“Oh, yes we did. The food, music and décor, everything was amazing. We all had a lovely time. Thanks again for having us. But we will leave now.” Avni hugged and just for a second thought of not letting her go. It felt good to be hugged back. The women smiled holding hands and finally letting go.
The dance floor was full of people she could not recognize. The garden felt big and cold in the middle of the summer. “You ok mom? Who are you staring at?”
“Nobody in particular. Do you know where your dad is? I cannot find him anywhere.”
“He is at the bar, he just made me this drink. You want to try it?”
“No thank you! I don’t drink.”
“I know, but I thought you can make an exception just for tonight.”
“Sorry mom! Come let’s dance. You love dancing.”
“I do but not right now. I need to find your dad first. Eat something if you are going to be drinking all night.” Avni’s hand touched her cheek gently and walked away.
The bar was full of people. Men and women, she knew from Aakash’s office, and Country Club and even college, but Aakash was missing. A deep sigh and Avni walked past the impatient crowd at the bar. The bartenders had enough experience of handling parties, they could work under such pressure, Avni told herself as she walked forward.
The loud and obnoxious noise was finally quieter and irrelevant. It was the car, that worried Avni in this moment. The car did not start right away almost making Avni re-think her decision. But then started with a growl the second time. It was the old jeep. The one she had brought before the kids came along. As the jeep roared its way out of the gate, Avni smiled at the confused watchman waving him goodbye.
The streets were empty waiting for Avni to announce her arrival. The cool wind loosened the roses in her hair and one of them fell out of the window. So, she let the others fall out too, feeling the skin on her face for the first time. Her mouth broke into a smile. A real one this time. Alone and smiling, is all that she wanted.