The first time it happens, Neha's in town visiting her sister over winter break and persuades Stuart to meet her for drinks on the Lower East Side. Stuart's spent most of January holed up in Bobst Library grinding through academic journals and coding manuals, so it doesn't take much convincing on her part.
"That stuff is terrible for you," Stuart grimaces, watching in horror as Neha throws back a Red Bull martini in two bracing gulps.
"Tastes like shit, too, but gets you drunk quick enough," she says, signaling the bartender for another. "Which is exactly what I'm in the market for after the week I've had. Do you know how many Indian catering halls there are in Jackson Heights alone?"
"Spare me the gory details. This is the first time I've been out of the library in two weeks and I'm almost enjoying myself."
When he met her last summer, Stuart had barely spared Neha a glance before writing her off as Tumblr fangirl and getting on with things. But then again, most of Stuart's expectations had been flipped on their head last summer so he supposes he shouldn't be so surprised that Neha's odd and persistent charm has started to worm its way under his skin.
Neha rolls her eyes and reaches eagerly for the cocktail the bartender sets in front of her. "One day, Stuart, you'll come to me with the weight of the world on your shoulders. I only hope I'm able to offer you a fraction of the compassion you've shown me today."
Stuart tsks with manufactured disapproval, "Your sister's wedding hardly qualifies as the weight of the world."
"She certainly seems to think so." Neha downs the rest of her drink and slaps a few crumpled bills on the bar. "C'mon. Let's get out of here. I've got a craving for tapas."
They're out the door less than a minute later, hoofing north up the Bowery en route to the Village. It's bitterly cold, and the sinking winter sun cuts sharp angles down the avenues. Stuart loops an arm through Neha's and they tuck closer together for warmth as they walk.
They talk about the upcoming semester and how they've both saved their humanities requirements until the end. They make vague plans for Stuart and Yo-Yo's trip to Chicago over spring break to visit her in Hyde Park. They savage Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy. They spend an inordinate amount of time debating the merits of fanfiction and cosplay. Then, they're too busy stuffing themselves full of piping hot empanadas and garlicky shrimp to say much aside from "try this" or "have you tasted that yet?" When he's finished eating, Stuart sips slowly at his wine and eyes Neha with an appraising gaze.
"You're a lot easier than I thought you would be," he says, the thought falling unbidden from his lips.
Neha arches an eyebrow at him. "Flattery comes naturally to you, doesn't it?"
Stuart scowls. "You know what I mean."
Before he can answer, his phone chirps out a message alert.
Neha gestures magnanimously at Stuart, asks, "Aren't you going to get that?"
"I wouldn't want to be rude," he says, pointedly echoing an argument they've had many times before.
"You've been very gentlemanly, Stuart. I'm impressed," she says, fondly smiling at him over the rim of her wineglass.
Stuart doesn't want to give her the satisfaction, so he waits until she's leaves for the restroom before checking his phone. Among the wreckage, there's a text from his roommate Nate, asking him to pick up beer on the way home. Stuart glances at his watch, dismayed to find that it's already past 10. He's planned for an early start tomorrow. He frowns and gestures for the check.
They're both surprised to find several inches of snow have accumulated over the past few hours. Neha leans into him and laughs, the sound carrying crisply through muted streets. She pulls out her camera and snaps a shot of the two of them bundled and scarved, the emptied city laid out behind them in a warm amber glow. She uploads it to her Twitter feed, Stuart later discovers, #redbullonicecapades.
Her joy is infectious and Stuart's a little buzzed, so he grabs hold of Neha's hand and they take off running, kicking up clouds of white powder down streets and sidewalks. They stop at the corner bodega to stock up on Tecate before trudging the last few blocks to Stuart's apartment. Nate's already passed out on the couch, so Stuart shoves the beer in the fridge before herding them into his room. They collapse onto his bed, flush-faced and dewy haired, still shivering from the cold. Stuart's glasses are still foggy with condensation as they both tuck into pairs of new pajama bottoms and heavy woolen socks he'd collected at Christmas.
They drift off before they've had a chance to make their way through a single episode of Arrested Development on Stuart's laptop, curled into each other like parentheses. When Stuart wakes up the next morning, Neha's already gone. There's a blue post-it stuck to his phone.
Had to run. Army has a half day.
His chapped lips crack with the size of his grin.
The second time it happens, Neha's apartment is being fumigated. When she arrives on Stuart's doorstep the day before Halloween with an obscenely large suitcase and an ominous looking shopping bag from Party City, Stuart gets the sinking feeling he's not going to be allowed to let the day pass unobserved this year.
"I'm getting too old for this," she calls out the next evening from his bathroom, where she's lining her eyes with glittery gold and silver goop that Stuart will never be entirely able to wash out of his hand towels.
"For what? Binge drinking or cosplay?"
"Ha. Aren't you a charmer?" She has her revenge a moment later as the refrain of some ubiquitous chart-topper begins to echo tinnily off the bathroom walls. Stuart rolls his eyes and refreshes the Geekwire page on his laptop. He's absorbed in an article about digital surveillance in China and nearly jolts out of his seat when Neha looms over the back of the couch. Her brow wrinkles in confusion. "Why aren't you dressed yet?"
"I... Um," Stuart stutters, and who can blame him? Neha's kitted out in a metallic and barely there Slave Girl Leia costume, bikini-topped and bare-waisted in a short, flared skirt and tall calfskin riding boots. "Why aren't you dressed yet? It's negative five degrees out there. You aren't seriously planning to go outside in that, are you?"
Neha laughs, reaching down into one of the many heaving piles of clothing she's managed to scatter through his entire apartment in the single day she's been there to pull out a stylish black cape. She draws it around her and it drapes perfectly about her frame, subtle hints of its red silk lining peeking through.
She forces him into a pair of nut-crushing, superskinny pleather pants and a weird ass blouse he swears he's seen hanging at the back of her closet. Stuart does not take any pleasure in being dolled up as a poor man's Han Solo but Neha flashes him a mischievous grin, urges, "C'mon, Stuart, I know you're dying to unearth that light saber from the dark recesses of your hall closet." How she even knows what he has hiding at the back of his hall closet is beyond Stuart but he goes to fetch it, grumbling as she herds him out the door.
It's chilly as they stand waiting for the next train to the Castro, and Neha bounces in place to keep warm. Stuart resists the urge to say "I told you so" and settles instead for a pointed glance. Neha merely laughs in response as the train rolls in. She falls easily into conversation with a group of girls dressed as superheroines that get on after them, and ends up bouncing plotlines off of Batgirl about something she keeps referring to as her XMFC barista AU. Stuart has no idea what they're talking about and takes the opportunity to get in a few more levels of Trees vs. Mummies before they disembark.
Eight hours later, they're stumbling up his stairs, splattered with spilled beer and singing an off-key rendition of The Monster Mash. They'd paraded up and down the Castro among the ghouls and glitterati, popping in and out of bars for pints along the way. Stuart's ended up with someone's fedora on his head. The current whereabouts of his light saber are unknown, a fact which leaves him greatly troubled.
"Yes, yes. You lost your precious," Neha giggles, grabbing the keys from him after he fails to fit his key into the lock for the seventh time.
"Try harder, Princess Fanfiction," Stuart slurs eloquently.
Neha snorts, throwing the door open on her first attempt. "Shut up before you wake up even more of your neighbors," she says, tugging him hastily inside.
"I don't remember you complaining when my precious helped fend off the unwanted attentions of the nerd horde this evening."
"Oh, you mean when you attempted to joust with any male within a five foot radius of me?" she asks, holding steady against the wall as she peels off her boots.
"Jousting requires horses, you know. And apologies, I didn't realize I was cockblocking you," Stuart pouts, swaying dangerously on his feet. "So, that's your thing now? Nerdplay?"
Neha laughs, pushes him down onto the couch and curls up against him. "You're a bit slow on the uptake, aren't you?" she murmurs softly, attempting to brush a patch of glitter off his cheek.
Stuart isn't sure that qualifies as an answer, but then Neha's reaching for the remote and there's a tussle to be had over whether they watch QVC or late night infomercials. In the end, neither wins out; they settle for a rerun of Knight Rider.
They fall asleep on opposite ends of the couch that night, legs entwined under a tangled heap of blankets, blissfully catatonic as the television drones on in the background. Stuart wakes in the morning with a crick in his neck and a moan of protest. Neha wiggles her toes idly against the back of his thigh. It's faintly ticklish, but Stuart doesn't attempt to stop her. Another few minutes pass before she surfaces warily from a cocoon of afghans.
"Coffee?" she pleads, her voice cracking with last night's exertions.
"Sure, I'd love some," Stuart smirks, right before his hangover hits.
"Serves you right," Neha says with satisfaction as he crumples back into the fetal position with a pained grunt. After a few minutes, she gives in and goes to start a pot of French Roast.
"Knew you'd see things my way, Patel," Stuart mumbles in weak and petty triumph before promptly passing out again.
The third time it happens, they're at Nick and Dana's wedding in Lake Tahoe.
Stuart, Yo-Yo and Neha have booked an upscale lakeside cabin for the weekend. Stuart thinks it may have even featured in one of the issues of Architectural Digest the owners left conspicuously placed on the antique coffee table in their perfectly appointed living room. It's probably costing them a small fortune, but, then again, Stuart's still adjusting to life with tech-money. And, frankly, Stuart had been too busy the past six months helping Nick try to contain Billy's enthusiasm for wedding planning to care one way or the other.
He's sitting out on the porch steps, overlooking the meticulously manicured lawn leading down to the lakefront, when Neha flops down next to him. She takes a long sip off her beer, before offering him a pull.
"It's beautiful here," she says as he reaches out to take it from her. "The weather's supposed to be gorgeous this weekend."
He wipes the excess liquid from his lips off on his sleeve and hands her beer back. "Please tell me that we're not turning into the kind of people that talk about the weather," Stuart says. Neha smiles at him and they both sit quietly taking in the scenery. After a while, Stuart offers, "I'm sorry Rajiv couldn't make it."
"I don't—" she starts, before they both jump at the sound of a large thud from inside.
"It's cool," Yo-Yo calls out, "I didn't break anything." Then, the sound of glass shattering.
Neha pulls herself to her feet to assess the damage just as Billy's car pulls into the drive. "I'll leave you to it, shall I?" She flashes him a wicked grin before scampering back inside.
Stuart suppresses a groan. Billy lumbers gracelessly out of the driver's seat of his rented convertible. He removes his sunglasses, makes a thorough inspection of his surroundings and whistles appreciatively at the view.
"Swank digs you've got here, Dinty Moore," Billy says in greeting.
He's manic with excitement and likely over-caffeinated, which Stuart knows from experience can make for an exhausting, and often reckless, combination. He hauls himself up off the porch stairs, and offers Billy a hand in greeting. A second later, Stuart finds himself engulfed in a warm embrace and ushered up the stairs for "the tour, the full tour, and make sure you don't leave out where the magic happens."
Later, Stuart finds Billy out on the terrace of the lakeside lodge Nick and Dana have rented out for the wedding. The clink of glasses and the muted horns of the band drift in and out with the breeze.
"That went well, no?" Stuart asks, reaching out to take the flask Billy offers him.
"Sure did. Even managed to weasel a smile or two out of my favorite Walter Matthau impersonator. You having a good time today, grumpy little man?" Billy asks, pasting on a tired smile.
Stuart is having a good time. It had been a heartfelt and moving ceremony, Nick and Dana reciting their own vows. Lyle and Marielena, belly swollen to near bursting, had left already, calling it an early night. Billy had given a hilariously inappropriate speech as best man before nearly starting a riot at the bar among a group of Dana's blonde, nubile cousins. Neha and Yo-Yo have spent much of the evening on the dance floor, grinning widely with laughter as they spin around the room.
"Yeah," he says, quietly. "It's been really great, hasn't it?"
Billy claps him on the back and hums softly in agreement. He offers Stuart another pull off the flask before sliding it neatly back into his pocket, undetectable.
"Looks like it's just us now, Stu. You, me and brother Yoseph," Billy says after a moment's silence, eyes steadfast on the horizon.
Stuart may be willfully insensitive sometimes, but he's not entirely emotionally tone deaf. He's spent enough time with Billy and Nick over the past few years to recognize that their friendship has changed because of Dana, in both small and big ways. But Billy's gotten better at rolling with the punches and making his own luck.
"Don't worry, we'll do Nick proud," Stuart says, tamping down the urge to cringe at the overt sentimentality of it all.
He waits for the moment to settle, then nudges Billy with his elbow. "C'mon. I saw Chetty at the bar inside."
"They're both in the back. It's like dueling banjos, except with sleep apnea," Stuart says, walking into the kitchen after getting Yo-Yo and Billy settled in one of the cabin's two bedrooms. Neha's perched on the glossy marble countertop, a cup of tea set atop her knee. "Is there more hot water?" he asks, running a hand casually up and down her arm.
"Should be," she says, blowing on her tea before taking a sip. She nudges his hip with a toe, eyeing him suspiciously. "You've been quiet tonight. Did you have a good time today?"
"Of course," he says, shooting her a brief smile before turning to fix himself a cup. "What about you? I know you're disappointed Rajiv isn't here."
Neha snorts indelicately. "Hardly, we broke up last month."
Stuart nearly drops his spoon. "What?"
"I didn't want to mention it before the wedding. But yeah, that's done and dusted. Not a big deal, really. The sex was starting to get really regimented and methodical, anyway," she say, with a casual shrug. "Nothing ventured, etcetera, etcetera. You should try it out sometime."
"Yeah, yeah. I've heard this song before," Stuart shrugs. He does not want to talk about his penchant for one-night stands with 21-year-olds, which even he can acknowledge is getting a bit ridiculous at this point.
Stuart sees the knowing glance in her eyes, the hint of a smirk tugging at her lips. He fights the urge to flip her off.
"Just so long as we're clear then," Neha says, tugging distractedly at a sleeve of the well loved grey cardigan she's wearing over her nightgown. She is suddenly guileless, washed clean of make-up, hair still pinned in the flattering updo from earlier. Stuart has a sudden flash of her then, a sleek and elegant stranger who'd exchanged sly glances with him from across the room.
"—Stuart, are you listening?"
"I asked if Billy's all right?" Neha says with amusement, gently pushing him out of the way so she can hop down off the counter.
Stuart answers, truthfully, "No, but he will be."
"Good," she says. Then she leans up and kisses him gently on the cheek. "I'm going to bed. Just shut the light off when you come in, okay?"
Stuart nods and stands quietly at the counter, finishing his tea.
He wakes in the middle of the night curled around Neha, his breath gusting warmly between her shoulder blades. Reflexively, Stuart draws her closer and buries his nose in the curve of her neck, breathing in Neha's spicy musk, faintly tinged with sweat and sleep. Stuart stills when Neha drowsily shifts closer, feeling caught and exposed. But she simply lays her hand over his own and murmurs "Go back to sleep, Stuart," before drifting off again. He follows soon after, soothed by the steady rhythm of her pulse.
Stuart stretches languidly when he wakes, alone, to the sound of a sizzling griddle and easy laughter filtering up from downstairs. Neha's side of the bed is still warm. His hand scratches idly at his belly before coming to rest on the tight, urgent heat of his morning erection. Stuart approaches the matter with his typical efficiency, startled into coming unexpectedly when he catches a trace of Neha's perfume lingering on the sheets. He's left feeling strangely unmoored, but doesn't attempt to parse the thought further. Instead, he heads into the bathroom to shower off the residue.
When he finally makes his way to the kitchen, Yo-Yo and Billy are already at the table, attacking plates of bacon and syrupy pancakes with fervor. Neha smiles, gestures at the plate they'd set out for him on the counter. Stuart can sense her eyes on him as he moves around the kitchen, and a rush of heat prickles at his skin. When he finally turns to join them at the table, the talk has turned to travel arrangements.
"So, we'll leave for the airport in an hour?" Yo-Yo asks, depositing his dishes in the sink.
Neha calls, "Shotgun," as Stuart slips into the chair across from her. Her eyes are sparkling with mischief and Stuart stomach plummets, knowing he's been read as easily as a book.
"'Atta girl," Billy says with pride, reaching out to stab another pancake from the heaving pile.
The fourth time it happens, it's all Lyle's fault.
Technically, there's an air traffic controller strike that brings 95% of the flights operating in the continental U.S. to a grinding halt. But Stuart isn't feeling particularly generous, having spent the past four hours wading through the chaos and despair of the Virgin terminal.
He's somehow managed to edge out the reeking hordes of grungy hipsters in town for Lollapalooza for one of the city's last remaining hotel rooms, a seedy double at the airport's Motel 6. He eventually finds Neha, glued to her tablet, camped out in an empty baggage claim area.
"I'm going to kill him," he says, picking up right where he left off when he saw her last.
Neha sighs, rising from her seat to collect her scattered belongings. "It's hardly Lyle's fault, Stuart. He didn't orchestrate the shutdown of the global aviation industry just to piss you off. Besides, he's hardly that savvy."
Fair enough. But this is Lyle's project. Stuart can't be assed one way or another about the Google Learn framework they're testing out at selected school districts around the country. Stuart has spent the last week training teachers in one under-resourced public school after the next, sweltering under his suit jackets as the sun had blistered relentlessly overhead. He can't be fussed about the details right now.
"But we wouldn't even be here if Marielena hadn't gone into labor a month early," he points out sulkily.
He's rewarded with a firm slap to the back of his head. "Ouch," he says, reaching back to rub at the spot gingerly. "What the hell was that about?"
"Are you seriously blaming this on a pregnant woman, you horrible little shit?" Neha snaps, shaking her head in disgust before spinning on her heel to search out their hotel shuttle.
Stuart grabs his luggage and follows her, muttering a string of expletives under his breath as he goes.
"You've got two options: Wait out the strike or find another way home. Rent a car, take a train; the company will reimburse you, of course," Lyle sounds weary. Stuart supposes having two infant children will do that to a man.
Even so, he's not in the mood to be forgiving. "Which part of this aren't you understanding, Lyle? The bit about the important meeting or the deadline I have looming over my head?"
Neha tears the phone away from him, puts Lyle on speaker and sets it between them on the bed. "Don't pay any attention to him, Lyle. He's been behaving like an ass all week," she says dismissively. "How's Marielena feeling? And Lily? How does she like her new brother?"
"Everyone's happy and healthy," Lyle starts to gush excitedly but Stuart interrupts, undeterred.
"That's great, Lyle. Now, if we can get back to the problem at hand? I need to get back tonight."
"Stuart, will you just stop already?" Neha says, pinching the bridge of her nose. "You're giving me a headache."
"You have a headache? My entire job depends on finishing up those privacy controls for Google Health. Good thing Nate and I are meeting with those VCs about our startup tomorrow night. Oh, wait."
"That's fantastic, Stuart," Lyle says, "I've been meaning to ask you how that was coming along."
"Isn't it just? Unfortunately—"
"Enough, Stuart! We're all fully aware of how incredibly inconvenient this is for you. Stop being such a dick about it," Neha stands, fists clenched at her sides. Anger rolls off her in waves. "Can't you, for once, even pretend to give a shit about something other than yourself?"
Oliver chooses that moment to start wailing in the background, and Lyle takes that as his cue to make a hasty retreat.
Neha does as well. She strides purposefully to the dresser, grabs her purse and one of the key cards. "I'm out of here. Don't bother waiting up," she says, voice unnervingly steady.
The door reverberates on its hinges behind her.
After several futile attempts to make alternate travel arrangements and the high-pitched squeal of the room's heating and cooling unit in its death throes, Stuart gives in. He spends the rest of the evening staring blankly at the television, trying his best to avoid hyperventilating from stress. In the end, he passes out fully clothed in a sweaty heap on top of the covers.
When Neha returns, she jostles him roughly out of sleep. "Wake up. You're taking up the entire bed."
He blinks blearily up at her, arches into a yawn.
"Why is it so hot in here?" she asks, grabbing her toiletries from her luggage and heading into the bathroom.
"The air conditioner gave up the ghost a few hours ago," Stuart answers, shedding his damp clothes into a slovenly pile next to the bed.
Neha pokes her head around the bathroom door, one eyebrow arched in disbelief. "Seriously?" she asks around a mouthful of toothpaste.
Stuart shrugs sullenly, pulling off his tee-shirt and crawling back into bed. "Poor Stuart. You just can't catch a break, can you?" Neha rolls her eyes and returns to her nightly ablutions.
He's nearly fallen back asleep by the time she settles in next to him. "I'm still pissed at you," she says, reaching to flick off the table-side lamp. "You've been a real bastard all week, but today took the cake. Congratulations."
"I try," he says around a yawn.
The night air is oppressive, pregnant with humidity. They lay listlessly in the dark for a long time before Stuart offers, shyly, "I'm sorry." Neha hums softly, lets out a long exhale beside him. It is a long time before sleep claims either of them.
When they wake in the morning, the heat has broken.
The fifth time it happens, Stuart stops counting. He figures it'll be the last time anyway, now that Neha's transferring to Google's Tokyo branch.
"Remind me again why I thought this was a good idea?" Stuart says, stumbling under the weight of Neha's two largest suitcases as they make their way up to her third floor apartment in Minato district.
"Because you're avoiding your father's new wife and her four teenaged brats? Don't even pretend like this was completely altruistic on your part," Neha grunts, readjusting her grip on a heavy box before using it to urge him forward. "Start moving, Stuart, or I'm going to drop this."
"That may be true, but I'm still planning on using this as leverage against you in the future," Stuart says with a smirk before heading up the stairs.
Honestly, Stuart didn't even know what he'd been agreeing to in the first place when Neha threw her arms around him with a huge sigh of relief at lunch two and a half months ago. He'd still been stuck on the whole I'm-moving-from-one-coast-of-the-Pacific-to-the-other part of their conversation. But Neha is obviously grateful for his company and doesn't needle Stuart about his life choices as much as his stepmother would have, given the opportunity. It's a close margin, though.
Instead, he spends the next two weeks arranging furniture deliveries and setting up her utilities with the broken remains of his college Japanese. She shops for cleaning supplies and pantry staples, sets herself up with a local mobile, tracks down the rest of her stuff at customs. In between, they take long, winding strolls in brisk winter air through streets lined with gated embassies and slick, minimalist boutiques. They discover wide city boulevards late at night, pavement alive with glitzy neon and boisterous youth. They methodically make their way through her neighborhood ramen shops, slurping miles of noodles in delicate broth before finally deciding a favorite.
They take the train out to Yamanashi Prefecture for a long weekend. Mt. Fuji looms majestically in the distance, as symmetrical and pristine as any postcard Stuart's ever seen. On a whim, they spend a surreal afternoon at Fuji-Q Highland amusement park, screaming themselves hoarse as they test the laws of gravity on some of the world's fastest, tallest rollercoasters. They tour the volcanic caverns of the infamous Aokigahara forest on the shores of Lake Sai; Stuart thinks the real tragedy is that the place is more famous for its suicide rate than its strange, eerie beauty.
Everything's perfect, except for when it's not. Stuart can't help being jarred every time something serves as a reminder that this isn't real life. That's waiting for him back at home, where there are decisions to be made about an opening in the New York branch, a recruiter for Sony who won't take no for an answer, an apartment with a lease that's set to expire soon.
Where he won't be able to escape the fact that his best friend has just jumped ship.
Neha manages to bag them a reservation for Christmas dinner at Kozue. From their vantage point on the 40th floor of the Tokyo Park Hyatt, they're mesmerized by the city sprawled out before them. The night skyline glitters electric, a sea of lights and activity encompassing them on all sides. The restaurant is a hotspot for ex-pats and high-end Japanese businessmen. Stuart thinks he would typically be bothered but he's too busy scarfing down quail dumplings and fried persimmons to care.
"Oh, god, this is heaven," Neha says, moaning around a mouthful of sea urchin croquettes. "You have to try this, Stuart."
"We've been over this many times before. This morning, even," Stuart says, watching as she reaches for another with her chopsticks. "Sea urchin triggers my gag reflex. I'll pass."
"I don't see why. It's like a burst of fresh ocean tide on your tastebuds," she says.
"More like stagnant brown tide. Also, it looks like a pile of cat tongues," Stuart pauses to take a sip of his tea. "Tell me, is that why you moved to Japan? To be among like-minded folk who can appreciate the true poetry of uni?"
It's framed as a joke and Stuart doesn't really expect an honest answer, so he's surprised when Neha responds with candor.
"No, I moved to Japan because I got tired of feeling like life is something that happens to everyone else. So, here we are."
Stuart glances up in confusion, waiting for her to elaborate.
"Look at our friends, Stuart. Yo-Yo just sold his startup for $31 million. His mother still buys his clothes for him, Stuart," she frowns, shaking her head in disbelief. "Nick and Dana have a baby on the way, and Lyle and Marielena are working on their third. Even Billy's moved in with Cathy—and Christ, Stuart, he is really overdoing it with those Will and Kate jokes. But," and here she pauses, takes a sip of her water. "I guess I just feel like I've been doing nothing but treading water in the over-chlorinated swimming pool at my local Y for the past five years. And I mean that literally, Stuart."
Stuart laughs, recalling the long and angry war Neha had waged over lanes and locker space against her brassy arch foe, 73-year-old Ida Greenberg, at the YMCA back in Mountain View. Stuart has, more times than he can count, been the recipient of text messages briefing him on the details of their latest scuffle. Stuart shakes off the creeping reminder of how much he's going to miss her.
Neha pouts, and sets her chopsticks down. "I'm so glad I can serve as a constant source of entertainment for you."
Stuart runs his hand through his hair, and scratches idly at the back of his neck. He's still waiting for an answer, so he needles at her, "Right, then. So, which is it? You've either lost your turf battle with Mrs. Greenberg or you're in the market for a Japanese husband."
"You're a juvenile, Stuart," she says, signaling the waiter for another round of drinks. She turns back to meet his gaze before continuing, "What I'm saying is that I got tired of waiting for things to happen to me and decided to make them happen for myself."
Stuart supposes he can understand that. He feels like he's perpetually on the verge of something that he's never able to pin down. But he's a pragmatic man who runs on logic and keeps his whims in check, not nearly as daring as Neha. He thinks that's why they're such good friends; they balance out each other's extremes so well.
Stuart coughs quietly, offers, "Rather bold of you, no?"
Neha rolls her eyes at him and the heavy weight of their conversation dissipates instantly.
December 31 eventually arrives, Stuart's last night in town before an ungodly early flight in the morning. Neha's giddy with the excitement a fresh start and a new year can bring, but Stuart's stomach is already churning with pre-travel jitters and a dull pang of longing he knows will only magnify once he leaves.
They make an early evening of it, opting for a local karaoke joint a few streets over from her apartment. They claim a seat on the banquet in the corner of the large group room they're ushered into, making their way through a pitcher of beer was they watch the other performers, a fair range of highly exuberant to despairingly awful. Neha is a marvel, wowing the crowd with her repertoire of classic pop B-sides, well honed after years of weekly karaoke nights with an equally keen Billy. She's mesmerizing, and commands the attention of the crowd with an easy finesse.
When the countdown begins, they're three deep at the bar trying to order a round of shots. Someone elbows Stuart in the back and he stumbles into Neha as the crowd around them erupts in noisy mayhem. He feels a warmth building in his belly and smiles dopily, unable to look away from her. Neha laughs and rolls up on her heels to lean in for a kiss, a light, sweet slide of cherry-glossed lips that catches at the corner of Stuart's mouth.
"Happy new year, Stuart," she murmurs softly against his cheek.
And Stuart, unfettered by beer and a disorienting jumble of emotions, doesn't think before pulling her in for a proper kiss, complete with tongues and teeth and wandering hands. Neha tenses and inhales sharply before relaxing against him, curling a hand around the back of his neck as her lips part beneath his own. She tastes slightly sour from the beer they've drunk and the cigarette she'd nicked off a girl outside earlier. Even so, it's easily one of the best kisses Stuart's ever had.
The bartender chooses that moment to bark aggressively at Stuart, demanding his drink order. Startled, he jumps away from Neha, as if he's been reprimanded like an errant child. She considers him with a piercing look, biting idly at her bottom lip. The moment seems endless, saturated with expectation. Eventually, Neha tips her chin up with a smirk, and Stuart burns with a desperate urge to know exactly how she looks coming undone beneath him.
"Shall we?" he asks, nodding at the exit.
Neha slips her hand into his and they head for the door.
Later, after they've made their way back to hers in a zigzag of back-alley kisses, after they've shed their clothes onto the living room floor in an eager and clumsy fumble, after Stuart's left a trail of tell-tale marks along the gentle swell of her right breast, after Neha's climbed astride his thighs to grind down suggestively against the insistent throb of his very enthusiastic cock, Stuart hoists them both up off the couch and makes for her bedroom, where they fall in a giggle-filled tumble onto her bed.
Stuart's not entirely surprised to find that Neha approaches sex like she does everything else in her life, willfully and gently teasing. She's happy to let him start out on a path of his own devising before eventually wresting control from him. When she rolls them over and pins Stuart beneath her, he can't hold back his laughter.
She narrows her eyes, blown black with desire, and inquires, "Something funny?"
"Nothing," Stuart says, flexing his fingers around the delicate curve of her hip. "It's just reassuring to know that you're as bossy in bed as you are in real life."
She huffs and swoops down to bite sharply at his nipple, and Stuart arches with a startled grunt. When he tugs her back up for a kiss, she meets his eyes with an affectionate gaze. Stuart feels like he's being unraveled from the inside out and stutters with a nervous chuckle, hoping he hasn't given too much of himself away.
He presses his nose into the warm hollow of her throat and pulls her closer.
"Don't overthink things, Stuart," Neha whispers in his ear when she draws him close for a final embrace the following morning "Get home safe, and I'll talk to you soon." She bundles him into the backseat of the waiting taxi with a warm smile and a wave before shutting the door firmly behind him.
Then, with a tap on the roof, Stuart feels the earth drop away beneath his feet as the taxi hurtles off into the pre-dawn haze of Tokyo. Stuart stares vacantly out the window as the buildings rush by, mind cluttered with images from last night: the bare patches of Neha's skin he'd traced with his tongue; the curve of Neha's neck as she threw her head back in throaty laughter; the rich timber of her voice as she'd crooned you can get what you want or you can just get old at him from across the bar.
He shakes his head, attempts to focus on the lengthy work agenda that needs tackling upon his return. Too soon, those thoughts give way to others about the apartment in Oakland and how it feels too big for him; the fact that his social calendar is suddenly at least 65 percent clearer now that Neha's gone; what it's going to be like living their lives 17 hours apart instead of within walking distance of each other. Stuart's stomach lurches. He thinks he might be on the verge of a panic attack before everything recalibrates with an abrupt and dizzying flash of clarity.
A wild laugh catches in Stuart's throat. He can't tell whether he's more embarrassed by his complete inability to deal with actual human emotions or more annoyed that Neha'd figured everything out a long time ago and has been waiting for him to catch up ever since.
Stuart can already picture the smug look on her face. Definitely more annoyed, he decides. Stuart will have to do something about that.
He leans in and tells the driver to turn the car around.