EXCERPT: WHAT A HAPPY FAMILY

One

Natasha

Any second now, Natasha’s going to freak out in the exact way her therapist told her not to. She looks around the brunch table. Everyone’s still in a good mood, a mood she’ll definitely ruin after she makes her big announcement.

Maybe she should wait.

No, she’s already put it off too long. And she should be able to handle everyone’s reactions. Isn’t that what being an adult is about—handling things?

Her boyfriend, Karan, is next to her, laughing at something his mom, Anita Auntie, just said. Anita Auntie tells another joke with a mixture of English and Gujarati words.

“And then,” Anita Auntie says as she transitions from jokes to more general gossip. “Instead of letting her parents look at her horoscope, she swiped left or right or in some God-knows-what direction on her phone. That’s how they really met! The we-saw-each-other-on-the-beach-in-Jamaica-tale is just a cover story. Her mom told me at Patel Brothers.”

Anita Auntie always uses a combination of charm and curiosity to learn everyone’s business. In another life, she could have been a CIA agent. All Natasha’s favorite aunties share an endearing and sometimes scary blend of ruthlessness and tenderness.

 

“She’s smart, I tell you.” Anita Auntie continues as Karan shakes his head in disbelief. “And so lucky to find someone when she’s thirty-eight years old! Ever since I heard about how Meghan Markle started dating Prince Harry, I’ve told my kids that most people aren’t that lucky, okay? Meghan may have gotten a fairy tale in her thirties, but everyone else, when they find someone good enough early on, they need to just seal the deal, like they say here. Otherwise, all the good ones get taken up and then you’re left with nothing!”

 

“I should sew that onto a throw pillow.” Natasha scoffs. “Attention, single people everywhere! Go after good enough . . . or else!”

 

“I’d get one for my dorm room.” Her brother, Anuj, runs a hand through his thick, wavy hair, which he hasn’t cut since he started his freshman year at Cornell. The combination of his hair and his boyish face reminds Natasha of Dev Patel.

 

“Cheers to that.” Natasha raises her champagne glass in his direction. She can always count on him to back her up.

 

“Oh, Natasha!” Mom shakes her head. “Anita made a good point. You girls today don’t have the same pressure we did, and sometimes it’s important to make sure that, you know, you don’t miss out on opportunities.”

 

“Actually, we girls have a lot of pressure, from every possible direction, and don’t need more,” Natasha says.

 

Mom doesn’t respond. She just purses her lips. Translation: this is not the moment for Natasha to dismantle the patriarchy. Plus, she’s going to make Mom mad after she tells her everything. It’s better to not rock the boat right now. Instead, she sips her mimosa and tries to ignore that odd mixture of panic and peace that overcomes her whenever she’s about to be in trouble.

 

Her mind drifts to another lesson from her therapist: live in the present.

 

She can do that. She can be like those light and happy people in that yoga class she went to last weekend. She can smile and take deep breaths and go with the flow. That’s how good Indian girls behave, and for the rest of this Sunday, she can at least try to act like one.

 

Mom hosts this joint family brunch at the Joshi house once a month. On the outside, it looks like a scene from one of those cozy Hallmark movies. Two families who have been best friends for decades. The parents, with their cups of chai and black hair flecked with gray. Their children, dating and working stable jobs that include health insurance. Bowls of green chutney and puffed rice are passed around. The scents of fried eggs and ginger permeate the air. A plate of jalapeño cheddar biscuits is at the center of the table. I’m like Martha Stewart with cumin and chili powder, Mom used to say.

 

Anita Auntie and Mom launch into another conversation, this one about how some random friend’s daughter would be “the perfect match” for the local sari shop owner’s son.

 

Karan squeezes Natasha’s forearm. “Our moms are out of control.”

 

“Seriously! And they both keep each other going,” Natasha says. Anita Auntie always gets more talkative around Mom. “I get all the Atlanta news from family brunch.”

 

Thank God nobody, not even Karan, knows her news yet. She tries to picture the way everyone will react and then how she’ll even feel just twenty-four hours from now. What if she hates living back at home? She always seems to regress to her middle school self when she’s here. Maybe she’s making a terrible mistake.

 

Her dad and sister, also therapists, would tell her she’s catastrophizing again. Her dad and sister would be right.

 

“Karan, beta,” Mom says. “Are you sure you’re eating enough?”

 

Karan smiles and tilts his full plate toward her. “I took thirds!”

 

Mom beams, satisfied. Feeding people is her love language, but she takes it to another level with her precious Karan because she loves him and also because he’s a sign that Natasha has her life together. To be fair, Mom’s not the only one who feels this way. Everyone thinks that just because Natasha’s in a long-term relationship, she must have some grand things figured out, when really, people in relationships can be just as messed up as people not in them.

 

Mom squeezes her hands together and says, “Ketlo dayo chokro che.”

“Yes, we all know he is such a good boy,” Natasha says.

 

“You’re all great kids.” Dad smiles.

 

Jiten Uncle, Karan’s dad, nods. Mom and Anita Auntie exchange grins. What is with everyone today?

 

Natasha tries to motion to Anuj and ask him if he also thinks something’s weird about the vibe. But Anuj doesn’t shift his focus from the parents, who are all now laughing about the way Dad and Mom said “Francis Cut Key” when they were asked on the citizenship test who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Apparently, one of their friends in Bombay had pronounced the name that way and it stuck. Dad’s told this story a million times but still gets a kick out of it.

 

“Ah, we really had no idea what we were doing when we came to this country,” Dad laughs. He and Anuj glance at their Apple watches. “Where are Suhani and Zack? Anuj, can you check on them?”

 

“I’ll do it!” Natasha yelps before her brother has a chance to say anything. “I’m, uh, going to go grab some more stuff anyway.”

 

By “stuff,” Natasha means “alcohol.” Once she’s safely in the kitchen, she pours herself another mimosa the proper way, champagne with just a splash of orange juice. She takes a whiff of the fruity drink and wraps her sweaty palm around the cool, smooth glass. At least if everyone’s in this great a mood, her news will be received better. She learned years ago that timing is everything when it comes to her family. Depending on the emotional temperature of their house, the same bad report card could result in either Mom yelling or everyone giving Natasha an endless lecture about her lack of trying.

 

She sends a quick text to her sister and brother-in-law: ETA?

 

Suhani: Two minutes!

 

Suhani sends three smiley-face emojis. Suhani and Mom love using emojis and GIFs.

 

“Hey, where’d you go?” Karan comes into the kitchen and hands her a plate of fried potatoes. “I brought you some food.”

 

“I don’t deserve you.” Natasha stabs four potato wedges with a fork.

 

Maybe it’s because they’re now in their early twenties, but she’s starting to see how her boyfriend is perfect husband material. Conventionally handsome. Cultured. Caring.

 

And polite. Really polite. In every way, whether it’s how he tucks in his Bonobos shirts, holds doors open, or says “please” before every question. Even his penis is polite, rising to the occasion (literally) only when Natasha’s ready.

 

But then why has she been so off lately? Why has it taken more effort to be around him or around anyone?

 

It doesn’t matter right now. All that matters is that she’s taking the first big step to making a change in her life. She pictures herself two hours from now, after she’s announced that she needs a break from everything. Of course, she won’t say she got fired, gently fired—her boss gave her an it’s-not-you-it’s-us type of speech Natasha thought was only reserved for breakups on television. She’ll tell everyone that she’s done being an assistant at an ad agency, that she’s taken the initiative and decided for herself that there will be nothing else besides focusing on her (not yet existent) comedy career. Like a charming talk show host, she’ll make her point both clever and compelling. (In her mind, she says all of it in a British accent. Her imagined adult conversations are always in a British accent for some reason.) Her parents won’t take it well, but Karan and her siblings will get it. And after the words are out, that’ll be it. Just her and the sweet freedom of knowing she is officially going after her dreams. She is one step closer to being like those bold and brave women she’s admired for so long.

 

Natasha and Karan go back to the dining room, where Dad is in the middle of one of his speeches.

 

“So, of course, he’s fine now but this really all goes back to social justice.” Dad raises a fist into the air. He has a habit of turning even the most mundane anecdotes into dramatic monologues that somehow always conclude with a topic that riles everyone up. At Suhani’s wedding, his toast ended with, “And here’s to life! And better mental health care for all! And to never forgetting what’s important to fight for!” A flurry of cheers and whistles erupted through the crowd and was repeated after Mom finished with her part of the speech. A Deepak and Bina Joshi performance never ended quietly.

 

“Natasha.” Mom motions to Natasha with a freshly manicured hand. “Come help me for a second.”

 

Once they step into the hallway behind the dining room, Mom squints at her. “You didn’t want to do your hair before brunch?”

 

“No.”

 

“Or put on a little eyeliner?”

 

“No.”

 

“Or stop biting your nails?”

 

“Again, no.” Natasha pretends to ignore Mom’s gaze scanning her from head to toe. “I’m going for the effortlessly chic look, emphasis on the effortless. You should try it. Once you wear athleisure and no makeup, there’s really no going back.”

 

The steely look in Mom’s eyes makes Natasha think she’s getting ready to run after her with tweezers or a mascara wand.

 

But Mom just sighs. “Fine. If you go to the laundry room, you’ll see two gift bags by the sink. Can you go get them for me? They’re saris for Anita Auntie.”

 

“You got her saris just because?” Natasha asks.

 

Mom and Anita Auntie are always picking up little gifts for each other—lipsticks, novels with hot guys on the covers, spices from Patel Brothers—but saris are typically reserved for celebrations. When Natasha’s sister, Suhani, got married, the upstairs linen closet was stuffed with yards of jewel-toned fabrics.

 

“I picked them up from that new boutique in Decatur a couple of weeks ago,” Mom says. “Suhani wrapped them up nicely for me.”

 

Of course she did, Natasha thinks. Her sister comes home every other week and somehow has no problem helping out with the most boring tasks. Natasha feels pangs of guilt and peace at the reminder of Suhani taking on the responsibility of always being there for their parents, even though she’s married and works eighty hours a week.

 

“Okay, I’ll go get them later,” Natasha says.

 

“Get them now.” Even though Mom is still smiling, there’s an edge to her voice. “And then give them to Anita Auntie, okay?”

 

“Why did you get them for her?”

 

“Because she’ll like them, that’s why.”

 

“Okay.” Natasha drags out the latter syllable so it sounds like she’s saying “Okaaaay.”

 

She takes her time to walk to the other side of the first floor. The house hasn’t changed in years. Mom found a way to infuse personality into each room through a combination of colorful wallpapers, framed family photos, and soft yellow lighting. Every shelf is adorned with a mixture of statues of Hindu goddesses and souvenirs from trips around the world.

 

Natasha returns with the saris and hands them to Anita Auntie.

 

“Thank you, beta.” Anita Auntie leans forward to hug Natasha. “I can’t wait to wear these.”

 

She doesn’t seem surprised at all to get two bags of saris.

 

Before Natasha can ask anything, Anita Auntie turns to Mom and says, “Ah, Bina, the house still looks so festive. I can’t believe it’s already been two months since Suhani and Zack got married!”

 

Natasha follows her gaze and takes in the perfect décor that was arranged for her perfect sister, who was, of course, a perfect bride. Jasmine garlands drape the windows. Giant brass pots are filled with floating candles and rose petals. Dyed rice is in the shape of a massive lotus flower by the front door.

 

“We love all of it.” Mom nods in agreement. “I don’t ever want to take the decorations away. Deepak’s letting me indulge for another month. I can’t even imagine the house without all this!”

 

Mom places a hand on her cheek as though she’s delivering some sort of profound monologue. She may have quit acting decades ago, but her need for dramatic, grand statements will never disappear.

 

“Maybe you can just keep them up. You know, until you need them again.” Anita Auntie flashes a not-at-all-subtle smile toward Natasha and Karan.

 

“They do look good,” Karan agrees. “How about le—”

 

“I think you should take them down,” Natasha interjects. “They’re quite intense.”

 

“Oh, c’mon, Natasha, your sister’s wedding was beautiful. And brides are so much fun to see! All those gorgeous clothes, the youth,” Anita Auntie says. “Didn’t Suhani’s wedding make you want . . .”

 

Anita Auntie makes a lot of her points by starting a comment and letting it trail off.

 

“Please,” Mom says. “Natasha would never agree to a traditional wedding. She’s already made that clear to us.”

 

“But you’d look so nice!” Anita Auntie says as though she’s made a groundbreaking scientific discovery. “Just like Priyanka Chopra!”

 

Natasha zones out as her boyfriend’s mother gushes about every mundane detail of the celebrity wedding. Leave it to her to compare Natasha to a movie star when in reality, Natasha was cast as LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick, in her middle school’s version of Beauty and the Beast.

 

“Yup, I’d look just like Priyanka, without the plump lips, thick hair, and toned body,” Natasha says. “But Mom’s right. I’m not interested in having a wedding like Suhani and Zack’s.”

 

Everyone laughs as if Natasha is a little girl saying a word for the first time.

 

“We know that’s what you think, beta.” Mom narrows her eyes. “Everyone knows. You can’t keep your thoughts to yourself. Ever.”

 

“And that’s a problem?”

 

“Natasha, beta, you’re so funny,” Anita says in a feeble attempt to defuse the tension. “Remember when we all thought you’d be a comedian?”

 

“Uh-huh,” Natasha says. “And that’s actually what I still want to do.”

 

She’s giving you a window! Natasha thinks. Just tell them all now.

 

She had been reading about her favorite female comedians lately, how they were courageous enough to try and fail and create something of their own. She needs that now: courage.

 

“Who was that actress you wanted to be like?” Anita Auntie says. “You used to read her books and watch her shows . . .”

 

“Mindy Kaling,” Natasha and Karan say in unison.

 

“Oh, she’s done thinking about all that,” Mom says with a wave of her hand, as if Natasha’s childhood dream is an unpleasant smell.

 

“Actually, she’s not even just thinking about it anymore,” Karan says. “In a couple of weeks, she’ll be compet—”

 

“Karan, no.” Natasha kicks his foot under the table.

 

Luckily, both of their moms are too distracted by Priyanka Chopra’s Instagram feed to notice the conversation cutting off. Mom shows Priyanka’s latest selfie to Anita Auntie as they both nod approvingly at her eye makeup.

 

There’s no way they can know about Natasha’s upcoming comedy competition. In just two weeks, she’ll join twelve other aspiring stand-up comedians at the Midtown Comedy Center’s Comedy Competition. The top four will be selected by a panel of judges and move on to the next round. The winner gets a standing open mic spot at Midtown Comedy Center. As if preparing a routine wasn’t mind wrecking enough, the venue also required each comedian to hand out fifty flyers in order to guarantee a slot. Natasha and Karan had spent three boring hours at Lenox Mall trying to get people to take a hot-pink paper that said come to stand-up comedy competition night! Only ten flyers were distributed and Natasha saw someone use theirs as a place to spit out their gum.

 

“What were we talking about? Oh right, Natasha is at a real job now, which is good.” Mom darkens her phone screen and widens her large, almond-shaped eyes. “You know, we had to grow up so quickly, coming to America and all. So many things we weren’t able to do or think about, so our kids would have a better life. And now they’ve realized they need to grow up, too.”

 

Oh, Mom and the two rituals from India she refuses to part with: kohl eyeliner and guilt tripping.

 

Suhani’s high-pitched voice echoes through the house. “Hel-lo!”

 

Thank God, Natasha thinks. Suhani and Zack are here, which means Natasha has a chance to escape.

 

“They’re here!” Dad says with an enthusiasm that’s always been just for Suhani but has recently heightened now that they’re both officially psychiatrists. She’s his star now. In his field. She’s even a third-year resident at his hospital.

 

Zack enters the dining room holding a bottle of Prosecco, which he hands straight to Natasha. His brown wavy hair is brushed to one side, which makes him look even more like Andy Samberg than usual. He isn’t conventionally hot, but from the first time Suhani brought him home, Natasha could see how his easygoing attitude, sense of humor, and polished-but-not-trying-too-hard style gave him a level of sex appeal.

 

“Hey, you,” he says as he gives Natasha a warm hug.

 

“Hey, I need a nap already,” Natasha says.

Zack chuckles. “I’m not surprised. Just hang on for another hour or so. You’ll be fine.”

 

Natasha smiles. She got a brother-in-law who understands her. Everyone was worried how Mom and Dad would react when Suhani started dating a Jewish guy whose start-up was located at one of those cool coworking spaces and not some douchebag Indian doctor that they surely always envisioned for her. But it only took a few months for Dad to respect Zack’s knowledge of finance and Mom to be charmed by Zack’s charisma. The similarities between Jewish and Indian cultures also helped.

 

Well, all that plus the fact that Zack and Suhani have the perfect relationship. Unlike the other guys Suhani dated, Zack took pride in her ambition, in her need to constantly achieve and be more, do more, have more. He boasted about his “hot, go-getter wife” whenever anyone prompted him. Even when they fought, they found a way to speak to each other respectfully and come back together. And ever since they’ve been together, Suhani has been lighter and freer, a nice contrast to how intense and brooding she was growing up.

 

Natasha hears Suhani’s soft, catlike footsteps getting louder. She always thought residents were supposed to look worn down and ragged, with unkempt hair and extra weight around their middles. But looking at Suhani only makes Natasha aware of her own frumpiness. She can’t decide if being next to her sister makes her want to put on makeup or drown in tequila shots.

 

Suhani’s red nails accentuate the three-carat princess-cut diamond on her left ring finger. She’s wearing a sleeveless blush pink knee-length dress. Despite the ninety-degree Atlanta summer heat, her hair is sleek and shiny without a hint of frizz. Just thinking about Suhani’s morning routine of showering, blow-drying, toning, moisturizing, priming, and then applying makeup is exhausting. Women like Suhani are so fabulous that they remind you how not fabulous you are.

 

What would it be like to be her? Natasha wonders. To be beautiful, admired, accomplished, an Indian auntie’s dream. Or really, everyone’s dream. People are happily under her spell, as if she’s some petite desi fairy who spreads magic wherever she goes. Babies always smile at her. Bartenders give her free drinks. Natasha’s two best friends from college, Ifeoma and Payal, often refer to Suhani’s Instagram for outfit inspiration.

 

“Nani,” Suhani says as she wraps Natasha into a hug.

 

Nani means “small” in Gujarati and was what Suhani called Natasha the day she came home from the hospital in a white receiving blanket. Their parents love telling the story of how Suhani had begged them for “a baby sister I can take care of” every day for years before Natasha was born.

 

“Glad you made it.” Natasha inhales a mixture of peony and jasmine flowers. She can feel her sister’s shoulder blades jutting out through the thin fabric of her dress.

 

Everything about Suhani seems the same at first. Despite the fact that her makeup is all intact, the dullness in her eyes and the droop in her narrow shoulders give away that she’s exhausted. Still, she’s one of those women who always looks glamorous, even when tired, whereas Natasha throws on whatever clothing is closest / fits / has been recently washed.

 

Suhani squints at Natasha. “What’s wrong?”

 

Natasha considers smiling and saying she’s fine, but that would be useless. She can’t bullshit her sister. Throughout their lives, Suhani could take one look at Natasha and tell she was lying about anything. A shitty report card, a hidden container of weed, a regretful hookup.

 

Natasha rolls her eyes. “I’m just a little over brunch.”

 

Suhani laughs. “Is it really that bad?”

 

“I don’t know,” Natasha says and then, after seeing Suhani raise a skeptical eyebrow, adds, “It’s not that bad. I just always feel like an outsider. Like everyone’s waiting for me to screw up in some way.” She regrets the words the second they come out. Suhani won’t get it. Nobody will. Nobody understands that Natasha can be at her loneliest with the people she loves the most. Family, the place you’re always supposed to belong, can be the same place that shows you you never fully will.

 

“You know that’s not true. You just have to get out of your head for a little bit, not overthink things,” Suhani says as she reads Natasha’s facial expressions. “Just have fun and be with all of us.”

 

“You’re right,” Natasha says and, seeing a chance for a quick escape, adds, “I’m going to grab something from upstairs.”

 

She runs up the wooden staircase and breathes a sigh of relief once she’s safely in her room. Posters of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Shah Rukh Khan are plastered across the walls. The bottom row of her bookshelf is lined with Beverly Cleary’s Ramona novels, Natasha’s favorite series since she was in the third grade. She and Suhani still sometimes call each other Ramona and Beezus.

 

She falls onto her unmade bed. Her sheets smell like the lavender fabric softener Mom’s used since she was in elementary school.

 

“Natasha! You’ve been upstairs forever!” Mom’s voice jolts Natasha awake. She looks at her phone and realizes she fell asleep for almost half an hour. Shit.

 

“Sorry! Coming down!” Natasha yells.

 

She splashes cold water on her face. The first thing she notices when she leaves her bedroom is the absence of sound. Where did everyone go?

 

“Hello?” Her voice echoes off the high ceilings.

 

The wooden steps creak as she makes her way downstairs. Everyone left? Thank God.

 

But when she goes back into the dining room, Karan is standing with a bouquet of roses. His laptop is open on the dining table and there are pictures of them flashing on the screen. Right now, it’s one of when they were eleven years old, in front of a roller coaster at Six Flags, strawberry Popsicles dripping in their hands.

 

“Hey, what are you do—”

 

“Natasha, I love you. I always have. I know things have been tough for you lately, but I’m here for you . . .”

 

The rest of Karan’s words blur into the background. They become one with the straw tablecloths from India and the Peruvian brass candlesticks. She picks up bits of him saying he wants to be with her, that he always has.

 

Her throat becomes dry and tight. She watches the entire moment as if she’s suspended above it, somewhere near the spinning ceiling fan.

 

The words Karan is about to say linger over them. Panic seizes every inch of her chest. She takes a deep breath and tells herself to stay calm. Her nerves won’t have to ruin the moment if she refuses to let them.

 

Karan reaches into his right pants pocket and kneels down. “Natasha, will you marry me?”

 

There it is. The question she’s heard so many times in movies and shows. Even though she figured it would someday be asked of her, for some reason, she doesn’t feel the way she thought she would. Instead of excitement, there’s a pang of fear, and something else, something she can’t quite recognize.

 

As Karan opens a slim velvet box, she sees that he even went to the effort to get a box that would be concealed in his pants. Her gaze shifts to the round sapphire on a platinum band. He knows she wouldn’t like a diamond. Hot tears spring to her eyes. She doesn’t deserve someone so thoughtful. She never did.

 

“I, um, I . . .” Natasha stammers.

 

Karan shifts his knee. For some reason, the hope on his face pushes Natasha to give him the only thing she can: honesty.

 

“No,” she says, her voice clear. “I can’t.”

 

“Excuse me? What?” Karan shakes his head as though he’s been woken up mid-dream and is now trying to process reality.

 

“I’m sorry,” Natasha says. “I can’t marry you. There’s no way I’m ready for that now.”

 

“Why are you saying this?” Karan’s face falls, which is all it takes for her to hate herself. “You’re kidding, right?”

 

“Me? I should ask if you’re kidding! This is totally catching me off guard.”

 

“That’s sort of the point.” Karan lowers his voice, a sure giveaway that he’s mad.

 

“Yeah, but I mean, this is so random. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but shouldn’t we at least talk about this? You really want to get married? Married?” Natasha asks like she’s learning the word for the first time. “And now? We’re so young . . .”

 

“Yeah, I guess we are.” Karan frowns. “But I know this is what I want. I always have. We literally played together in our diapers. And I’m ready to start our lives together. Our real, adult lives. And you’re the one who said I need to be more exciting and spontaneous.”

 

“Yeah, I meant in little ways, like getting late-night McDonald’s on a whim.” Natasha shakes her head. “This is not McDonald’s!”

 

A heaviness lingers over them like a cloud. She tries to see things from his perspective. Maybe he really is ready to start his adult life. He just got the job as senior accountant at Buckhead CPA and moved into a high-rise on Peachtree Street. They picked out furniture from IKEA and took some of her parents’ hand-me-downs. Oh my God, was all that because she was supposed to move in there? How could she have missed the signs that he was planning this?

 

“I’m sorry, I really don’t see myself as a wife right now, or even soon. I was going to tell everyone I’m moving back home today . . . to focus on my comedy full-time.” Natasha struggles to find words that seem good enough.

 

“You’re moving back home? And making comedy your job?” Karan shakes his head. “Why?”

 

“Because. I want to. There are a lot of things I plan to do before I even think about getting married.”

 

“But if you know you want to marry me someday, then what’s the problem with doing it now?” Karan raises his eyebrows.

 

Natasha wants to tell him that employing his high school debate skills isn’t going to get him far in this type of situation. But she stares at him and says, “Because I just don’t want to. And I definitely don’t think it would be right if I said yes just because I felt forced. C’mon, you’re my best friend. We don’t need to rush this.”

 

More pictures flash on the laptop. Their families at Baskin-Robbins, Karan pushing Natasha on a tire swing, both of them sitting in the nearby Laundromat next to a massive container of Tide. Karan has always been a part of her family. And he’s right. This has always been the plan between them and, maybe even more so, between their families.

 

“You’ve seemed so out of it lately. And it’s affected us,” Karan adds. “I thought this would make you feel better.”

 

“If you think things are off between us, then we need to work on it, not use a proposal as a Band-Aid for any issues. I’m sorry, but I can’t say yes.”

 

She considers walking toward him, holding his hand and telling him she loves him. She expects him to understand, like the rejected guys in her favorite southern romance movies. They always had the perfect I’ll-be-fine attitude (and hair). She pictures Patrick Dempsey at the end of Sweet Home Alabama or James Marsden in The Notebook. Those guys must have had pretty decent lives after they were let down.

 

But Karan slams the laptop lid. “You know what? I’m done.”

 

“Done? Done with this conversation?” Natasha says.

 

“No. I’m done with this.” Karan gestures to the space between them. “It’s always so complicated with you. I thought I got used to it but, man, you’ve always just got something.”

 

“Always? Really?” Natasha crosses her arms.

 

“Yeah. I can’t ever get through to you. You know sometimes, you start crying and freaking out over things and then never let me help you. It’s a lot with you, Natasha. It really is.”

 

“I get that I’m a lot.” Natasha whispers. She didn’t need Karan to tell her that. She’s known that for her entire life. And so has he. Since when was it an issue? “But can we at least talk about all this?”

 

Karan keeps staring at the hardwood floor. “I don’t think there’s anything to say.”

 

“But if you cou—”

 

“Goodbye, Natasha.” Karan slides the laptop under his arm and walks away.

 

“What’s the problem here?” Mom interrupts as she steps into the room. “Just say yes!”

 

“Mom!” Natasha says. “What are you doing in here?!”

 

Three lines emerge on Mom’s forehead. “We’re all waiting back there for you to move things along already! Hurry up!”

 

“Don’t tell me to hurry up!” Natasha says as the other eavesdroppers collect around Mom. Dad, Karan’s parents, Suhani, Zack, and Anuj. Goddamn it, that’s why they are all so excited today.

 

Karan’s parents are standing on the side, quiet, their stunned faces turned toward the floor. What would it be like to have such placid parents? Would she have been more normal if she came from a family like his?

 

Anita Auntie clears her throat. “We should leave. Now.”

 

“Anita, wait,” Mom says.

 

Anita Auntie shakes her head. “I think we should be with our own families right now.”

 

Our own families. Seemingly innocuous words but really, a message: our families are separate.

 

And just like that, brunch is over.

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© Saumya Dave, 2021; Photo credit: Sultan Khan