FYI: This is a story of fluffed angst, whatever that is. This might be slightly AU since I do not remember a lot of 'I Do,' aside from some things, which are included in the story. Also, if I'm going to keep writing, I think I need a beta.
She approached him with her hands buried in the pockets of her bulky winter coat. Looking faintly apprehensive, she tried to peek over his shoulder at the chart he was filling out. Her chin grazed the cloth of his lab coat, which he wore like some old blazer. The white coat on Ray's body was an element of his personal aesthetic, not just something that doctors wore.
Neela spoke over the telephones and the cluttered hospital chatter.
"Can I ask you a favor?"
"Yeah." His voice sounded gravelly, quiet. He squinted at his signature on the paper, aware that whatever the request, the answer would most likely be a yes.
"It's about my wedding. How do you feel about wedding dresses?"
Picking up another chart, he turned around to look at her impishly. "I'm not sure we're the same size."
His shift was going to end in a half hour.
"I'm going to head out to get my dress, well, buy my dress, and Abby can't go. I was wondering if you were willing—"
"Can't any of the other—"
"Yeah," she said, "Sure, of course. I mean. I haven't asked anyone else yet and…"
"Is that an 'okay, I'll do it' or 'okay, loser, stop wasting my time'?"
He had a special affection for the way she said "loser." It was one thing he remembered about her from one of their more infamous first encounter at Jumbo Mart; the way the word sounded when it came out of her mouth, the utter look of self-loathing in her eyes. It was intriguing. Well, there were a lot of things to remember about that moment. He'd been half-tempted to go back to get another cupcake, to get another look at her in that hat, and maybe ask her for her number. They'd have a quirky summer romance from the films. He'd help her get through her rut, or whatever her problem was, and in return, she'd bestow him some shop girl affection and store contraband.
Then she came back to her real job, and was tracking him down at shows to scold him for not taking his job too seriously. Neela may have very well been utterly unbalanced, but she could kick his ass and, with a handful of looks of loathing fired in his direction, somehow held some moral high ground to do it.
Ray reiterated the answer more resolutely. "Okay."
"Okay," she said a bit breathlessly, "Um. I'll meet you when your shift gets over." Neela gently tugged the sleeve of his coat, "I owe you."
Ray did not know why she had chosen the store that she had chosen. Apparently, they were the only customers in the room. It was a shop with two stories, both levels overflowing with South Asian attire, mostly for women. They sat in the lower level, more accurately, the basement, where the really good merchandise was kept.
Neatly folded saris in clear plastic packaging were set on the glass counter in front of them. Some were taken out and sprawled across the counter. The golden and silver embroideries gleamed against various lush shades of red.
Neela began to speak to the woman attending to them in English and then changed over to another language. In a whisper, Ray asked what it was she was speaking—she replied that it was broken assortments of what she knew of Hindi and Punjabi. She said she sounded mostly like a really drunk child, but she hoped it gave her some kind of consumer street cred.
All he could initially feel comfortable doing was touching every bit of fabric that was put in front of him, rubbing it between his fingers. There was so much to take in, the shine of the hem, the precision of the needlework, the cracking sound when saris were unfolded, the way that each sheet of material smelled. He could sense her being similarly overwhelmed, but she was better at concealing it.
At the beginning of his medical career, there were many instances when shifts ended and his entire body was just so filled to the brim with exhaustion that all he could do was go home and sit in the dark. All he wanted to do was bawl, even if it wasn't a particularly bad day. It took some time to acclimate to it all.
He hadn't been living with her that long, but he recognized that look in her eyes. It had been surfacing on her face intermittently throughout the day. He wondered if this would be the moment she'd crack, with all the wedding cloth staring back at her.
"No, that's too much," he heard her say. Apparently, he'd been zoning out long enough that they'd started talking prices and had switched over to English.
"Look." The woman touched the garment as if it were alive. "It's imported. It's French chiffon."
"I'm going to wear it once, what's the logic in that?"
A grin broke at the corner of Ray's mouth. Neela had not gotten the memo on wedding dresses.
"Maybe you can ask Gallant to chip in for half."
"Why would I make him pay for something that only one of us is going to wear?"
He made the same face as he often did when she said things like that. It was disbelief mingled with self-pity for having to interact with her and, perhaps, a twinge of fascination as well.
"What have the men in your life done to you to make you think like that?"
Here was the problem. The real wedding saris were expensive, like a month of rent paid by the two of them and more kind of expensive.
Neela didn't like the other non-wedding saris that were provided to her. The woman, a little flabbergasted, suggested another sari. It was beautiful, impossibly soft. It was not atrociously expensive. However, there was the case of the coloring.
"White? That's the fucking color of mourning."
Ray had to replay the last sentence in his head, to confirm whether she had said the last sentence in English, whether he suddenly understood Hindi, or whether "fuck" in Hindi just sounded a lot like "fuck" in English.
The woman gave Neela an indignantly impatient look, which made her catch herself. She apologized. Ray doubted the woman felt the same way, but he found "Bridezilla Neela" kind of endearing.
"It's not all white," the woman responded in not-English, "It's decorated. Look at the embroidery. It's not that uncommon for women to wear this kind of white nowadays."
A little bit later, there commenced one mad dash after the other into the dressing room as Neela hastily tried on the final few choices. Ray would just sit outside the curtain, hear her fumble out of things, while he touched and looked at whatever was dangling from hangers and doors near him.
It was one sari after the next. He would stare. He would smile. He would nod. He would stare some more. At the clothes, at the smoothness of her back, the shape of her waist. The look in her eyes every time she pushed aside the curtains.
One of these dresses would be the one. And, for the smallest splinter of time, he'd be the only one in the world to see her in it—well, except for the saleswoman, who kept trying to surmise the amount of money she could get Neela to pay.
She ended up settling on the white one, because of an assortment of reasons that would make absolutely no sense later, because nobody at the ceremony would really know that white was the color of mourning, that she could wear it again if she wanted, and that it was cheap… or cheaper. Ray felt like he had let her down in a way, with whatever moral support he was meant to provide.
Nevertheless, she glowed in the moments that she chose the rest of the accessories and pieces needed, that the transaction was officially made, that this sari was carefully folded and placed in its bag, and as they finally stepped out of the store. The sari could've been lime green and foam, all that mattered was that wedding preparations were made in one day, and she had just bought the dress. A whirling sense of privilege drifted onto him in seeing her like that.
Ray had begun a list of qualities of his ideal woman in his early adolescence, not on paper with bullet points or anything, just some things he always kept in mind. The list ranged from "is nice," "has pretty eyes" and "likes sports" to having a comprehensive appreciation of the L.A. punk rock scene. Somewhere during that time spent with Neela and the wedding saris, he added onto the list the ability to haggle like a half-drunk in two languages.
They had been driving for a bit and not saying much. The glowing had subsided, as had a substantial amount of the sunlight. The sari was deftly situated in the back seat, as if it were another passenger. Ray drove the car and Neela, her elbow propped against the bottom of the window, observed the self-involved momentum of the world outside.
He felt compelled to talk to her. "What's up, doc?"
"You getting cold feet?"
She eyed him charily. "Is that what you think?"
He couldn't tell her what he thought. Maybe it was just the past few days that put him in a weird mood. For the entire ride, he'd been fighting some senseless impulse of taking the next left, entering some freeway and driving off somewhere he'd never been, they'd never been. It would be him, her, the sari and cold winter wind, all at once, headed in the same direction. He decided against it, because it was kind of kidnapping.
"I think that," he said slowly, both hands on the wheel. Ray's eyes stole a quick glance at her. She looked at her lap, vulnerably silent; waiting for a finish to the sentence he started, "I'm gonna be the first to cheer after the vows are made." It was cheesy, but what exactly do you say to people who are essentially about to elope?
He shrugged. "Or at least the loudest one."
Ray bit his lip and looked at her again. She was smiling.
A few moments more, without saying anything, the crackle of the radio was allowed to permeate through the car. There was something on the news on influenza, its symptoms and statistics and all the worst case scenarios. They were reminded again of how it was December, flu season, and of the job that followed them everywhere, even to wedding days.
She restarted the conversation.
"What are you wearing?"
"I mean, we know what I'm wearing."
"Oh." His eyebrows furrowed, making him look confused. "Uh, I haven't thought about it."
"You should wear that blue shirt."
"How do you know about that blue shirt?"
"I do your laundry."
"You won't anymore." It came out more wistful than he had intended. It came out more resentful than he had intended. He could see into the future, how after she'd leave, he'd be living in piles of his own laundry.
She didn't notice his tone.
"It's good to know that I'll be missed."
He would also miss taking so much pleasure in hearing her say his name. Some things were best left unsaid.
"Would you agree that there are times in life when it's a good sign to have the right thing scare the hell out of you?"
Or maybe it was good judgment. He had wondered if she would bring that up again, or at least a selfish part of him had. It's not like he wanted her to not get married today. He wouldn't be able to make good on his promise. Then again, he wasn't too attached to having to keep that promise. It was, well, it was healthy to think through these things.
"I'm putting you on the spot."
Ray shook his head. He just needed a little more time to think about how to respond. She sighed resignedly, ready to move on to another subject.
"What's scaring you about this?"
Neela blinked. "Everything."
"And what makes you think it's the right thing?"
"Everything," she laughed at this. "Because he asked me, because I said yes. Because I love him, can't think of living the rest of my life without him…"
He wondered how healthy of a process it was for him to go through this with her. She could talk to Abby or her own fiancée about this; because he was starting to feel like shit, and realizing he felt this way made him feel even worse.
"I'm not really that great at giving advice on life decisions." He wanted to wince at the preface. But, she was asking him, and that meant something. "But, it seems that the way," he sighed, "the way you feel, how you're feeling right now, you should- you should take that chance."
They finally arrived at the front of their apartment building. The car slowed to a stop so she would be able to step out, while he would look for a spot to park.
Neela did not move, instead asking him softly: "Would you take that chance?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean if you, if you could see yourself—"
—in her position? Yeah, well.
It was one of those days, of heavy hearts, good intentions, and silent pangs of regret that lingered unsaid on the lips of well-wishers. He suddenly felt old, like his life had passed him by. He was also happy for her. He genuinely felt happy for her and did not want to let her get in her own way.
"I wouldn't want to be the person who didn't."
Neela just gazed, as if letting what was just said to sink down and be embedded into her lungs for safekeeping.
She opened her mouth to say something. Her phone buzzed. It was Michael, letting her know that he had let himself into the apartment, and that he'd be waiting for her. Ray could see into the future, how he'd go into his room, put on that blue shirt and sit in the dark until it was time to give her away.
She said his name to pull him out of his prognosticating. She moved towards him and placed a tender, delicate kiss on his cheek. He decided to stop breathing right then and not make any sudden movements. There was a real sweetness about the scent of her skin. He counted the times his bare skin had ever touched hers, deliberate or not.
As she exited the car, she made her last exchange with him as a single woman: "I'll see you."
He wanted to say something in return, but couldn't. There was nothing to say. He had done his job. He had taken it very seriously, for her sake. He watched her walk away with a brave face as he would watch her at the ceremony and, maybe, one day—
—well, maybe some things didn't have to end between them.