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Twenty Five For The Last Time

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It feels the way October used to feel back when she lived in Princeton, but it looks like summer and smells like a weird combination of ocean and smog.

San Francisco is unfairly cold in the middle of June, and Devi hates the fact that she has to wear a jacket as she makes her way to the Caltrain station from her apartment. (SF’s microclimate is preventing the world from experiencing her beautiful, brown shoulders, and quite frankly, that’s criminal.) Someday, she’ll fully accept the realities of living in this city, but for now, she stubbornly sticks her hands in the pockets of the jean jacket she’s had since high school and thinks about how hot LA is this time of year.

Eventually, she makes it onto the northbound train, where she takes a window seat and lets the sun heat her face. She’s scrolling through her instagram (Fabiola looks hot in that fit, and Eleanor looks happy as she visits her dad and Sharon), when she receives a text.

You better not be in the middle of bailing on me, Vishwakumar. Don’t forget, I know where you live and I’m loaded with blackmail material. :-)))

Devi laughs. She’s only going to this stupid Ivy League Alumni party because her best friend from undergrad is going, and Pooja could be persuasive in the most wonderful of ways. (And good god, that woman has some really blackmail-worthy pictures and stories of Devi. Finals were rough, okay? Showers and mental stability became temporarily optional). She quickly types out her response.

Yeah yeah yeah. I know you can’t live without me. I’m on my way!

Of course, the moment that Devi arrives at Alta Plaza Park and sees a crowd of white men dressed in “business casual” attire, she audibly groans and turns on her heel to leave. (She never really got what business casual was supposed to mean anyway, like just choose one theme guys. It’s not that hard.)

“Devi!”

She cringes.

“Devi Vishwakumar, turn around! I can see you, and I can tell that you can hear me!”

(Why exactly was she friends with Pooja again?) Devi momentarily considers running away, but almost instantly rejects the idea. She’s still very much a non-athlete, and she really doesn’t want to get sweaty for no reason. So, with typical Vishwakumar determination, she nods to herself and turns back around.

Her friend is now standing just a few steps away, laughing quietly to herself.

“Thanks, Pooja,” Devi exclaims sarcastically. “That was such an awesome way to introduce me to all of these snobby snobs who wear loafers to a goddamn park!”

Unfazed, her friend continues smiling as she responds. “Ah, how I appreciate your classic optimism and bubbly attitude.”

Devi glares at her, but Pooja just chuckles and closes the distance between them to pull her into a tight hug that smells like cardamom and cinnamon. It’s so familiar that it instantly makes Devi feel more relaxed.

“C’mon grouchy,” says Pooja, “not everyone here is wearing loafers. Some of these people are actually really great, and even if you hate them, I brought your favorite cider as a bribe to stay.”

“Ah, so this is why we’re friends…” Devi nudges her friend and smiles.

- - -

Two hours later, Devi is pleasantly buzzed and acknowledges that Pooja was right. Not every recent Ivy League alum who was living in the Bay Area was a complete tool.

But some certainly were. For the last five minutes, some guy named Jacob has been asking her inane questions that feel vaguely judgmental.

“Oh, so you grew up in LA?” His voice grates on her soul.

“Yep. Sherman Oaks High,” Devi drawls. “Go crickets.”

“I grew up in LA, too, but I went to private school. Actually, I think I might know someone who went to Sherman Oaks...”

A familiar hand lands on her arm, and Devi feels instant relief. (She was only two questions away from spilling the last can of cider all over herself to get out of this awful conversation.)

Pooja, in her infinite graces, leans in with a kind smile on her face. “Sorry to interrupt you two, but I have someone I want you to meet, Devi.”

Giggling and happy, they weave their way through the crowd until Devi trips on something in the grass and rams right into someone. A pair of strong hands steady her, and she watches with a combination of sadness and amusement as the last of her cider spills all over a pair of perfectly polished dress shoes. She doesn’t know whether to sigh or to laugh, and as she’s in the midst of deciding, the man in front of her speaks.

“I always knew you lacked grace, David, but I thought you’d have outgrown it by now.”

Her heart stops at the sound of that voice. (It feels like whiplash in her chest, painful and suffocating.) She hasn’t heard that nickname in years. She whips her head up to look into a pair of still-familiar blue eyes and tries to swallow past the sudden dryness in her mouth.

It’s funny, she thinks, that she can still decipher some of the emotions that flit across his face as she remains speechless. She sees a mix of doubt, displeasure, relief, and concern. As his brows push together and his lower lip pouts the slightest bit, she watches doubt and concern take over.

“Are you, uh, okay?” He lets out a weak, awkward laugh. “I guess maybe that should have been my first question.”

Devi’s brain slowly reboots.

“Uh, no. Or, yes. I mean, yes, I’m fine,” she says. “It’s only now occurring to me that I didn’t even consider apologizing about my drink. Ha… Ten years later, and I still can’t manage to get things in the right order.” She inwardly cringes as she watches Ben tilt his head in curious confusion. “Er, what I mean to say is that I’m sorry. About your shoes.”

He looks down at their feet like he’s only now fully realizing what’s happened. He purses his lips and shrugs.

“Oh. It’s alright.”

Devi surprises herself with how much she hates that he says that. She hates that she felt like she knew exactly what he was going to say (‘I’ll send you the bill, David’; ‘You should be, these cost more than your rent’; ‘Whatever, David, I’ve got five more pairs at home’; etc.), only to find that she was so fantastically, incredibly incorrect.

It makes her feel lost and wrong-footed for the first time in years.

Pooja must see something change in Devi’s countenance because she chooses that very moment to jump in.

“Hi! I’m Pooja.” She extends a hand out towards Ben. “I’m Devi’s friend. We met at Princeton.”

Ben blinks and reaches out to shake Pooja’s hand. “I’m Benjamin. Ben. I’m Devi’s, uh…” He seems to struggle with this point for a moment until he eventually lands on, “Well, we met when we were six years old.”

“Good to meet you, Benjamin.” She smiles and places a comforting hand on Devi’s elbow. “Well, Devi agreed to take me out to dinner, and she even agreed to pay, so I think we’re going to start making our exit.”

“Yeah. Of course. It was nice to meet you, Pooja.” Ben gives her a polite half smile before he turns his attention back to Devi. “It was… good. To run into you. I didn’t know you were in the Bay Area.”

Devi doesn’t know what to say to that, so she just smiles and nods. The awkward moment extends painfully until her friend tugs on her arm and guides them away from the stifling silence with a final friendly goodbye. (She can tell that Pooja has a whole host of questions, but she gives her friend a ‘not now’ gesture, and they continue moving.)

They’re a good fifteen feet away from Ben, making their way out of the crowd arm in arm, when Devi gets an inexplicable urge to turn around and shout something to him.

“Always knew you’d wear fancy dress shoes to a park, Gross!”

She initially considered tacking on ‘Don’t be a stranger!’, but as she watches him frown in an expression she hasn’t seen before, she realizes that he already is.

It makes something heavy and bitter settle in the pit of her stomach, and she shakes her head at herself as she turns back around.

She didn’t know what turned two people who knew each other into strangers, but as she continues walking away from the party (and from him), she thinks that maybe it was time, or that maybe it was distance, or that maybe it was just her.

 

====

Weeks pass after the incident in the park, and Devi can’t seem to stop replaying her whole interaction with Ben over and over in her mind.

It’s not that she’s hung up on some high school romance (or the lack thereof, in this case). She’s just turned twenty-five, so she’s not exactly focused on those years of her life anymore. It’s hard to explain (and she’s tried to explain it many times in the last few weeks to Eleanor, Fabiola, Pooja, and even Kamala), but there was something in the way that Ben’s presence felt at that stupid party that was so dramatically different compared to the last time she’d seen him that it made her feel off-balance.

Sure, they hadn’t really kept in touch after graduating from high school, but for some reason, she’d always considered him to be a sort of touchstone in her life—something that wouldn’t really change, even as the years passed and their lives evolved.

She didn’t realize just how much she had pinned on this one assumption until she realized how wrong it was. It wasn’t like it was ever part of her conscious thought, but it was one of those things that she’d lived her whole life comfortably assuming she could count on. Similar to the way she knew that her mom’s house would always smell like home, or that her dad’s voice would always bring her peace, or that Kamala would always sneeze the same way.

They’re the linchpins of Devi’s existence, and the feeling of Benjamin Gross’s presence had been among them for as long as she can remember.

Having this once-familiar thing feel so alien is throwing Devi completely off her game. It’s kind of like someone walking into their childhood home and finding that the dimensions of their bedroom had completely changed, despite the fact that the exterior had seemed comfortingly familiar. It feels like a violation of absolute truths.

“Vishwakumar. Earth to Devi. Hellooo?”

The voice yanks her from her thoughts. She turns up from her chai to glance at her friends and sees that they’re looking at her like she’s losing it. (She hates how familiar these kinds of looks are.)

“Is this still about your run-in with Ben Gross?” Fabiola asks hesitantly. “Why are you so hung up on it? You guys didn’t even date in high school after that whole… uh, two-timing thing…”

Devi flinches ever so slightly at the reminder. “Yes, it’s about Ben. No, it’s not about that whole two boyfriend mess.” She pauses, considering. “I don’t know, guys. It’s really, really not about some high school fling, okay? It just feels like I’ve gotten the rug pulled out from under my feet.”

Pooja nods slowly. “But you said you haven’t talked to him since you were eighteen, right?”

Devi nods.

“And you said that this whole thing has to do with how unfamiliar he felt?”

She nods again.

“Well that makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s been a long time. You’ve both changed a bunch, I’m sure.”

“Pooja’s right,” Fabiola adds. “I mean we’re adults now, Devi.”

Now Devi frowns. “First of all, don’t put that whole adulthood thing on me yet.” She makes a face of disgust and shakes her head. “Secondly, of course I know we’ve both changed. But that’s never mattered between me and him. I’ve known him since I was in kindergarten. I’d argue that we changed just as much between the first time that we met and our senior year of high school as we’ve changed between high school graduation and now.”

“Yes, but we were all at the same school back then,” Fabiola replies. “You kind of changed together when you were younger. Now, you’re just apart, and you’ve done your changing independently.”

Devi sighs. Fabiola is objectively correct, but she’s missing the essence of the thing. Change wasn’t supposed to matter for a touchstone in her life. “You just don’t get it.”

Fabiola and Pooja look at each other and shrug. “Maybe we really don’t… But that doesn’t mean we can’t help you figure this thing out.”

Devi watches as Fabiola turns towards Pooja and nods.

“So,” Pooja fidgets with her fingers. “I talked to some people and found out that Ben just finished his law degree at Stanford. The woman I was going to introduce you to at the party graduated with him and told me that he finished with dual focuses in Environmental Law and Policy and in International and Comparative Law. Also, he lives in South San Francisco with two roommates, and he has a dog.”

Devi’s mouth hangs open in shock. She’s not sure what to make of all this information, nor why her friends found it necessary to get it for her in the first place, but she’s oddly grateful. She remains silent.

Fabiola clears her throat. “Well, anyway, we just thought this might take away a bit of the mystery. We have his number if you want to contact him, but we wanted to leave that decision to you.”

Devi purses her lips, not entirely sure how to feel. “Can I think about it?”

Fabiola and Pooja smile kindly at her.

“Of course,” they say in unison.

 

====

She doesn’t get his number.

She convinces herself that it’s not because she’s a coward but because she shouldn’t have allowed Ben Gross to sit in such a sacred and essential space in her mind. (How his presence ever came to be associated with a sense of reliable familiarity on par with the color of her mother’s eyes is beyond her.)

So, in slightly more mature Devi fashion, she acknowledges the honest reason why she has felt so off-kilter recently, but moves on without actively addressing the issue.

Old habits die hard and all that.

 

====

Sometimes, though, the universe conspires against you anyway.

 

====

Devi’s sitting in Mission Dolores Park on a Saturday in early September, and she’s people watching while enjoying a burrito. She’s supposed to be doing laundry, but the last week at work had been brutal, so she’s giving herself a break with this little moment of relative peace.

The sun warms her skin and the sounds of the city blissfully surround her until she hears the familiar jingle of a dog collar over her shoulder. Whoever’s dog that is, it sounds like it’s racing in her direction, and just as Devi decides to actually turn around and see what’s going on, a large dog jumps on her lap and starts trying to get at the last few bites of her burrito.

Devi’s sole focus is on saving her lunch, so she takes a tiny piece of meat from the inside, throws it a small distance away, and watches with satisfaction as the dog jumps off and goes in search of the meat. She’s still basking in her small victory (congratulating herself for thinking on her feet) when she sees the dog swallow the small treat in one bite, look back towards her, and lick its lips.

Naturally, she shoves the entirety of what was left of her burrito into her mouth.

And that’s when she hears it. That’s when she hears him.

“Linus! Linus, come back here! What are you doing?”

Devi doesn’t bother turning around. She knows exactly who this dog’s owner is, and she can hear his steps approaching the spotted brown dog that’s laying happily in the grass all of six feet away from her. He’s apologizing before he even reaches them.

“Sorry, ma’am. He can be a little…”

His voice drifts off as he comes to a stop beside her, and Devi knows that she’s been recognized. She’s still sitting with a whole lot of unchewed burrito filling her cheeks, but she sheepishly looks up at him.

“David?”

She says nothing on account of the burrito situation, but she tries to awkwardly smile with her eyes. (She can tell that he kind of wants to laugh.)

“Right…” He scratches the back of his neck. “Were you by any chance eating a burrito just now?”

Her brows furrow in confusion, but she nods as she chews it vigorously.

“Was it from Taqueria Cancun?”

Again, she nods.

“Yeah, that’ll do it. I don’t know why, but Linus absolutely loves their beef.”

She watches as he squats down and rubs his dog’s belly with a smile on his face. As he gently reattaches his dog’s leash and rubs his ears, she can’t stop staring at the faint laugh lines that exist at the corners of his eyes.

After a minute, he looks back up at her and his smile fades just enough for Devi to notice. (She hates that she’s still so familiar with his face when she can’t tell what he’s thinking anymore.)

They stare at each other for a silent, awkward minute, and just as Devi’s about to say something, Ben stands back up.

“Sorry about Linus.” He wipes his hands on his jeans and gives her a small nod. “I’ll let you get back to your lunch.”

And just like that, he’s walking away, and Devi feels confused and lost and off-balance once again.

It isn’t until that night that she realizes she didn’t say a single word.

 

====

It’s nearing the end of October, and Devi’s hiding out in the upstairs bathroom at a dinner party because someone casually asked about her father and it made her want to cry. (While these days she’s really doing much better with managing the trauma of watching her father die, she still has moments when it becomes absolutely overwhelming.)

She picks at a loose thread on her skirt while she tries to refocus on her surroundings. It’s an unfamiliar environment and it smells too much like fancy potpourri and she just wants a hug from her mother, but she knows she can’t control any of these things.

She’s in the middle of taking a deep breath while staring at a plush hand towel when she’s interrupted by a knock on the door. Devi can’t find it in herself to speak up, so she simply hopes she remembered to lock it when she came storming in.

As the door begins to open, she sighs. Of course she didn’t.

Mentally, she’s scrambling to try to explain why she’s on the floor of a virtual stranger’s bathroom in the middle of a dinner party, when (of course, of course, of course) Ben Gross walks in.

As soon as he sees her, he throws his hand up over his eyes and tries to blindly walk back out the door. “Oh, shit. Sorry, I just—”

“Ben,” Devi says quietly.

“It’s just, no one responded, so I assumed— sorry, I’ll just—”

“Ben!”

He stops his awkward shuffle towards the door and slowly lowers his hand. His eyes wander around the room before landing back on her. Devi can see him consider the situation for a split second before he nods to himself, moving further into the bathroom and closing the door. Without saying a word, he sits on the floor by the bathtub, perpendicular to her own position by the sink.

“Are you okay?”

His voice cuts through the last of her haze, and she’s brought fully back to the present moment. (She can’t tell how she feels about that, but she’s grateful to not be crying in this bathroom anymore.)

“Yeah.” She doesn’t really want to elaborate, but she knocks her foot into his. “Thanks.”

He nods. A pause. “It’s soon, isn’t it?”

For a second, Devi doesn’t understand what he means. She tilts her head and gives him a curious look.

“Your father’s birthday. Isn’t it soon?”

(And this question makes her want to scream because how can this man remember something so intimate, yet still feel like a stranger? Why doesn’t this feel familiar? Why doesn’t the space between them hum the same way it did when they were younger?)

She swallows past the lump in her throat. “Yeah. It’s in a few days.”

He gives her this look that she can’t quite decipher, and then a silence settles over them.

“Wait,” Devi suddenly speaks. “Why are you even here? How do you know these people? Wait, no. Have you been here this whole time?”

Ben chuckles. “I haven’t been here this whole time. I wasn’t invited to the work dinner party thing, obviously, given that I don’t work with you. I only know Steve, and I came to drop something off for him.”

“Sure, sounds real legit,” Devi says mockingly. “If you were just dropping something off, how the hell did you end up in this bathroom?”

“I’ve actually needed to pee for the last twenty minutes.”

She stares at him. He stares back.

“What?”

“What do you mean ‘what?’ That’s what people usually do in bathrooms, David. I’m not the one breaking the convention.”

And this stupid response, for whatever reason, fills her with joy. (The hint of snark felt just familiar enough that the whole bathroom seemed a little bit lighter.) She laughs loudly and heartily, and he looks at her with a happy sort of confusion. He chuckles before joining in with a soft laugh. She basks in the sound of the laughter, soft as it is, and enjoys that his dimples have only become more pronounced with age.

Their laughter dies down, and after a moment, he says, “I never understood you, David.”

He says it so casually, the corners of his lips still turned up, but it cuts right through Devi’s momentary joy. She hates that they have such different understandings of their relation to each other.

“No,” she says. “I think you were the only one that ever really understood me.”

He meets her eyes then, and she’s familiar with this expression (though she wishes she wasn’t). He’s shocked and sad and hurt. He blinks it away and stands up.

“I’m gonna go check if the downstairs bathroom is available now.” He gives her a closed mouth sort of grimace and walks out the door.

When Devi eventually leaves the bathroom, she finds a tall glass of water tucked into the edge of the doorframe on the floor. Knowing who placed it there only makes her want to cry all over again.

 

====

“You should call him and leave him a long rambling voicemail that he can listen to over and over as you confess the way he makes you feel.”

Devi rolls her eyes. She’s FaceTiming Eleanor as she eats her lunch, but she’s regretting her decision more and more every minute.

“There’s no ‘way he makes me feel’, El. I’ve run into him three times. It’s just a coincidence.”

“I don’t know,” Eleanor sing-songs. “This seems fated to me.”

“Of course it seems fated to you! Have you met yourself?”

“Yeah, yeah, say what you want. But there’s truth to be found in the dramatic arts, Devi! That’s the whole point.” Eleanor picks up her phone to look right into the screen. “Listen, maybe the fates aren’t saying that you guys are soulmates, but you’d be crazy not to reach out to him after running into him so many times. Especially since you know each other.”

“I don’t feel like that’s true anymore…”

“Oh please. You two will never not know each other. You’re written way too far back into each other’s origin stories.”

Devi swallows.

If the lost feeling she got after seeing Ben for the first time in years had taught her anything, it taught her that she and Ben were bound. (Even if they really didn’t want to be.) He played as much a part in shaping who she was as her relationship with her mother or her father’s death or her friendships with Eleanor and Fab and even Aneesa.

“... I know.”

 

====

Because the world is a son of a bitch, the next time Devi sees Ben, it feels like they’re back in high school.

It’s the end of November, and Devi took some time away from her research to visit her mother and grandmother back in Sherman Oaks. Her family never really did the whole Thanksgiving dinner thing when she was growing up, and they’re not planning to do it this year either, but Devi has loved pumpkin pie since she was a kid.

She’s at Trader Joe’s trying to gather the necessities to bake a pie with her grandmother when she quite literally bumps into Ben.

“Oh sorry, I wasn’t--” Devi chokes on her words when she turns her head and sees a familiar pair of blue eyes looking back at her.

“Oh.” His expression is unreadable. “Hey, David.”

Devi fully realizes that she’s staring at him, but she can’t stop herself. It’s strange to look at Ben and see a man, when in her mind she always remembers a boy.

He squirms uncomfortably under her gaze and looks down at her basket. “Ah. Pumpkin pie?”

She blinks. “Huh?”

He gestures down towards the things she’s carrying. “Your basket. Looks like you’re making pumpkin pie.”

“Oh, uh, yes! I love pumpkin pie.” Devi clears her throat. “I’ve never really made it myself, but I wanted to try it with my grandmother to spend some time with her. She’ll probably hate it and find it too ‘western’, but I mean it’s pumpkin pie, and it’s Thanksgiving season. It’d practically be a crime if I didn’t try.”

He smiles softly at her, almost as if what she said made him happy against his will. “I actually make pumpkin pie every year. It was always my favorite, but my parents hated it so they never bought or made any. Too homey, I guess.”

She’d almost forgotten about his parents. Remembering it all makes her surprisingly sad.

“Is that why you’re here? To spend time with your parents and make pumpkin pie?”

Ben’s brow furrows, and he shrugs. “I guess so. They leave in two days, so it’ll just be me for the rest of the week. Not sure I’ll be making the pie this year. I don’t think I could eat it all by myself anymore.”

“Then don’t.” Devi only registers what she’s blurted out when she sees his eyes go wide in surprise. “I mean, maybe you can show me and my grandmother how it’s done. And that way, we can split the pie between four people.” Ben continues staring. “It’s a win win?”

After what feels like an age, his eyes return to their normal size and the corners of his mouth tilt up the smallest bit. “Are you admitting that I’m a better cook than you, David?”

Devi smiles brightly at this little jab. (The space between them is starting to feel more familiar.)

“In your dreams, Gross.”

- - -

Devi had been right about her grandmother. As soon as she found out what they were making, she’d kindly said no and went in search of the cookies Nalini kept hidden in the hallway closet. (Devi knew her mom had hidden them in an attempt to stop her grandmother from eating too many sweets, but she couldn’t find it in herself to deny her grandmother a treat. Even if she didn’t want to make pumpkin pie with her.)

Ultimately, this just means that Devi and Ben will be making the pie on their own.

Devi doesn’t know how to feel about that.

A knock at their front door grabs her attention, and she practically races there so that her mother doesn’t answer it and say something embarrassing.

When she opens the door and sees him standing there, she feels suddenly caught between two worlds. The world in which they’re both grown up—where Ben has visible scruff and a squared jaw and the faintest of frown lines—and the one in which they were kids. He still wears fancy watches and styles his hair the same way and has the same brilliantly blue eyes, and it reminds her of the boy she knew when she was growing up. In this very moment, standing in the doorway to her childhood home, he manages to be familiar and new at the same time, and it’s confusing and exciting and strange.

“Uh, David? Can I come in?”

“Oh.” Devi blushes as she realizes she’s just been staring at him this entire time. “Yeah. Yes. Come in.”

Before Devi has the chance to say anything about it, Ben bends down and unties his shoes. Then, like it’s the most natural thing in the world, he toes them off and leaves them by the door.

Unidentified emotions well up inside of her as she finds herself staring at him again, but this time he meets her gaze.

“What?” His cheeks turn the slightest bit pink. “Your family still takes their shoes off at the door, right?”

“Yeah. We do.” She gives him a soft smile, a tender smile, and guides him to the kitchen. “C’mon, Gross. Let’s see how horribly you do as a baker.”

- - -

As it turns out, Ben is a remarkably effective baker. For the most part, Devi’s in charge of prepping their filling while Ben makes their pie crust from scratch. (She pretends that she’s not mesmerized by his forearms as he rolls out their dough, and she’s only partially successful at convincing herself.)

It’s awkward at first, but as the time passes, playful insults flow a little more freely, along with laughter and smiles and nudges. They catch up.

She learns that Ben wants to work on policy related to climate change at both the national and global scale, and that he got Linus when he was twenty and still an undergrad at Yale, and that he’s been less lonely since leaving Sherman Oaks. He has friends and a few ex-girlfriends and people to share his life with. (This makes Devi smile. It’s a contrast to the last time they had a heart to heart in this very kitchen.)

Ben listens raptly as she tells him about her experience changing majors in undergrad and about her choice to go to grad school at UCSF and about her continued friendships with Eleanor and Fabiola. He smiles the most genuine smile she’s ever seen when she tells him stories about her father and about her healthy relationship with her mom.

They manage to do all this while barking orders and criticizing each other’s work. It feels both mature and very childish, and Devi thinks that this may be the happiest she’s been in a while. Even Nalini enjoys having Ben in the house (but it’s mostly because he’s still a bit of a suck up).

In the end, their pie turns out amazing. Between the four of them, they eat three quarters of it in one sitting. Her mother spends most of the time interrogating Ben about his life, but almost as soon as they’re done eating, her and her grandmother excuse themselves to go to bed (probably due to both old age and the effects of an impending food coma).

Devi and Ben are left to clean up on their own. The parallels to their life in high school don’t go unnoticed by either of them.

“This feels so strange, doesn’t it?”

Ben looks up from the pan he was drying and meets her eyes. “In what way?”

“Almost like some distorted version of deja vu. Like I’ve seen almost this exact scene before, but it feels so much different than what I remember. It’s familiar but not familiar at all, and my brain can’t make sense of it. Like I’m in some sort of limbo.” Devi makes an unsure expression. “Does that sound crazy?”

He shakes his head softly with an understanding look in his eyes. “No. I get it. I felt that way when I was walking around my parent’s house by myself. Familiar but different.” He shrugs. “I still know what it sounds like when nobody’s there, but my life isn’t anchored in that loneliness anymore. I think the emptiness of that house doesn’t really sit inside of me the way it used to.”

It hurts her to hear that he was so achingly lonely for the majority of his life, to be reminded that she was around and chose to leave him behind just like everybody else did. She can’t find the right words to apologize for doing what she did in high school.

He saves her from trying to find them. “Anyway, I think anyone would agree that I’m like ten times cooler than you now, David. And that’s all that really matters.”

Devi chuckles and punches him in the arm. “You wish, Gross.”

He looks at her with a soft smile for a second before it shifts into a playful smirk. “Nah. I really am the coolest. I mean, honestly, would a lame person be able to bake such an amazing pumpkin pie?”

“Hey!” She flicks water at him from the sink. “It was a team effort!”

Ben laughs. He honest to goodness laughs. For the first time in almost a decade, Devi is hearing him laugh fully and freely. She tries to memorize the new feel of it all—the rich sound of mirth that fills the space around them, the warmth that spreads to her fingertips, the faint lines by his eyes, his more pronounced dimples, the curve of his mouth, the gentle shaking of his whole body.

With all the subtlety of a raging thunderstorm, Devi is struck with the desire to touch him, to be near him. It tears through her, this need to be connected to this person and this person only.

And suddenly, it all makes sense again. Her world is gently righted by this series of moments, and everything feels familiar in a new way. Benjamin Gross. Old and new and—

“Linchpin. You’re a linchpin.” She blurts it out without wanting to, and when he finally slows his laughter to look at her questioningly, she wants to hide her head inside the sink.

“I’m a what?” He says it while chuckling, but his brow is now furrowed in confusion.

For a second, Devi doesn’t really know whether or not to repeat herself, but then she decides that this grown up version of him deserves to know how needed and seen he is (if only because the boy he used to be never got to know). So, with a deep breath, she repeats herself.

“A linchpin. You know. A vital part of something, a piece that holds it all together.” She glances over at him, his expression one of the ones she hasn’t gotten familiar with yet. “You’re like that. For me. For my life. I think you always have been. Even when we were strangers.”

Silence settles over them and Devi fidgets with the sponge as her skin gets hot and itchy and uncomfortable.

“Devi.”

The sound of her name, her actual name shoots electricity up her spine. She looks over and meets his blue eyes.

“You’ll always matter to me. And you probably always have.”

He steps closer to her, and her pulse spikes because she’s certain that he’s going to kiss her right here in her mother’s kitchen, but then she feels the softness of his lips land on her temple. She lets out a simultaneously relieved and disappointed breath.

They weren’t ready for anything like that, but they will be someday. She feels it in her bones.

He leaves with a small, tender smile and a squeeze of her hand, and Devi feels a sense of rightness settle over her.

 

====

“I don’t want to say I told you so, but I really did tell you so.”

Eleanor takes an intentionally sassy sip of her coffee, and Devi’s eyes nearly get stuck in the back of her head because of how hard she rolls them.

“You didn’t tell me so, El. You told me I should confess my love for him through a voicemail. We’ve just been hanging out. We haven’t even kissed!”

“Wait, you haven’t kissed?!” Pooja and Fabiola practically shout in unison. “It’s been months!”

Devi blushes with righteous indignation. “For fuck’s sake guys, can we maybe not advertise my lack of a love life in this very public restaurant?” She huffs. “And to answer your question, no. We haven’t kissed.”

“Why not?” Pooja asks cautiously.

“I don’t know.” She struggles to find the right words. “It’s like we’re carefully weaving a tether that bridges the gap between us, and it’s just not finished yet. We were basically strangers for a long time, and we didn’t exactly end on the best terms before then.”

Eleanor, Pooja, and Fabiola all look at each other. Then, they start giggling and look at her with the happiest smiles she’s ever seen.

Devi makes a face. “Ugh. What?”

“This is the most in love any of us have ever seen you,” Fabiola says.

“Yep, I’m out.” And with that, Devi’s rushing out the door while trying to hold back laughter.

 

====

They’re eating takeout in his bedroom while his roommates host a poker night with their friends in the living room. She’s perched on his bed next to a sleeping Linus, and he’s sitting on his desk chair with his feet up on his mattress.

“Do you want the last egg roll?”

Ben gestures to the container that’s sitting on his nightstand. Devi wants to take it just so that he can’t have it, but she’s so full it almost hurts. She shakes her head.

“I think I might actually explode. I’ve never eaten so much Lo Mein in my life.”

Ben shrugs and reaches for it, taking half of it in one bite. She watches him eat and chuckles when she can tell that she’s making him uncomfortable. He swallows.

“I don’t know why you like watching me eat, David. It’s pretty weird.”

You’re pretty weird.” She sticks her tongue out, like an adult.

“Oh great, real mature.” He jokingly rolls his eyes as he stands to clean up their mess.

Devi watches him as he moves naturally around his room. It’s so different from the one he had when he was younger. For starters, it’s much smaller and doesn’t have floor to ceiling windows. But it’s also more subtle than that. With the exception of a few trophies and basketball memorabilia, his childhood bedroom had always looked like a display room in a furniture store, like it was curated to look a certain way.

This room, the one she’s in now, looks much more lived in. He has pictures of himself with his intramural dodgeball team at Yale, of his undergrad graduation, of him wearing a tux next to a sweet-looking girl at some fancy event. Her favorite is the picture of him and Linus that he keeps on his desk. (He’s sweaty from hiking, but he’s smiling brightly as Linus licks his cheek, and it makes her smile.) There are chew toys littering his floor and dog hairs covering his comforter, and there’s a bookshelf filled to brim with all sorts of books and stupid little keepsakes from moments in his life that she wasn’t around for. There’s a Yale hat that hangs from his doorknob and a Stanford Law sweatshirt that rests on the back of his chair and she knows that he has a Sherman Oaks tshirt hiding in his closet.

This room feels like his room, like he actually lives here, and she’s hesitant to leave it.

“Can I stay the night?” For the umpteenth time in her life, Devi’s mouth runs off before her brain has a chance to catch up.

He pauses in gathering their trash, but he doesn’t look at her. “Uh, I don’t know…”

“Just to sleep,” she adds. “I just—I don’t want to leave. I can sleep on the floor.”

He stays silent as he meets her gaze with a hesitant, curious look on his face. After studying her for a moment, he nods.

“Yeah. Okay. You can stay.”

- - -

She’s in a sleeping bag on the floor, cuddled up with Linus, and she’s remarkably happy. She’s been trying to sleep for the last hour, but she can’t seem to do it. There’s something electric running through her body, brought on by sharing this space with Ben. It feels right to know that he’ll be here when she wakes up (if she ever manages to fall asleep), even if she’s on the floor.

The sound of ruffling sheets gets her attention. She’s facing away from Ben’s bed, so she can’t see what he’s doing, but she imagines that he’s going to use the bathroom or get a drink or something. She tries to make it look like she’s peacefully asleep.

“Devi.”

Her breath catches in her throat and her pulse spikes. She turns in the sleeping bag, but it’s dark. She can’t see anything particularly well. She hears his sheets ruffling and sees the shape of him moving, though she’s not sure what he’s doing until he’s sitting next to her on the floor.

A moment passes.

“You frighten me,” he whispers, voice shaky.

“Why?”

“I, uh… ” A pause. “I hurt for a long time after what happened sophomore year. It was one of the biggest betrayals of my life. With my parents and the rest of the world, I was at least kind of used to it. But I never expected you to do anything genuinely cruel back then. I trusted you.”

Devi feels like crying, but she knows that would be unfair to him. He shouldn’t have to comfort her while he tells her how she hurt him. She swallows past the lump in her throat.

“I know,” she says. “I don’t think I was in a place to really understand it then, but that doesn’t really excuse what happened. For what it’s worth, I regret it. My relationship with Paxton was fine, good even, but it wasn’t worth losing you or hurting you.” She pauses for a long time. “I’m sorry, Ben. I really am. You deserved more.”

“Yeah, maybe.” He sighs. “But it doesn’t really matter now, does it? It’s over now. I’m just overthinking things.”

“Of course it matters,” she protests. “You matter. You always have.”

Devi sits up and blindly reaches for his hand in the dark. It’s a bit of a fumble, but when he weaves their fingers together, something inside of her settles. He bumps her shoulder with his.

“I always knew you were obsessed with me, David.”

She laughs. “Shut up, Ben.”

And then he’s suddenly standing up and pulling her with him, and she’s not sure what’s happening until he gently tugs on her hand as he lays back on his bed.

With a soft smile on her face that she’s certain he can’t see, Devi tucks herself into his side, nuzzling the spot between his neck and his shoulder and breathing him in.

His arms hold her softly, and almost possessively, and Devi falls asleep in a matter of minutes.

 

====

She’s lounging on her couch watching TV while Linus naps with his head in her lap, and he’s in her kitchen making them dinner. Devi had requested sloppy joes, and Ben had rolled his eyes in wordless response. Because he was a heathen, he was making something healthier and decidedly less sloppy and probably disgusting. Devi was sitting on the couch instead of helping him in protest. (It’s not lazy if it’s done in protest.)

She’s spent the last four nights sleeping in his arms, but he hasn’t kissed her yet. She has half a mind to do it herself, but the last time she did that, they were still in high school, and that whole mess didn’t really end well for either of them. So now, she’s leaving it to him. (She’s not nearly as patient as she tells herself she is, and she’s practically bursting out of her skin, but she’s trying.)

About half an hour into this weird movie about time travel that Devi can’t follow, Ben comes walking in bearing plates with food.

“What are you watching?”

He hands her a plate as he sits next to her, and Devi is struck with how naturally he’s slotted himself into her life and her space. She looks down at the food. It smells delicious. For some reason, this makes her unbelievably frustrated.

Fuck Ben Gross and his cooking abilities. Wasn’t he supposed to be useless since he had a housekeeper growing up? Why does he go through all this trouble only to never kiss her? She asked for sloppy joes but gets some delicious looking pasta instead, and it’s making her angry for a reason that she doesn’t want to examine.

“Ugh, are you actually good at cooking?” Devi groans. “What even is this?”

Ben laughs and sets his plate down on the coffee table. “This isn’t the first time you’ve eaten my food, David. It’s just mushroom chicken penne.” He nudges her with his elbow. “What’s the problem?”

“You’re the problem! Why are you good at cooking?” Devi messily shoves a forkful of pasta in her mouth and manages to get the creamy mushroom sauce all over her face. She frowns as she tastes it. “Of course. This is delicious. Like, what the hell Ben?”

Ben frowns in bewilderment at her tone of genuine irritation. “Uh, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say here…”

“You’re not ‘supposed’ to say anything! I just—I don’t get it!”

Instead of engaging with her strange argument, he hesitantly places her plate on the table and takes one of her hands in his. “Are you okay?”

This. This stupid fucking question. The one he’s been asking her since they were six years old. It breaks her.

“You know what? No, I’m not okay. I don’t fucking get it. I don’t get you. You should have hated me when you saw me again for the first time. Why were you nice to me then? Why didn’t you yell at me about your shoes? Why did you sit down with me in that bathroom? Why did you leave a glass of water by the door before you left? Why did you agree to make pumpkin pie with my family? Why do you remember all these stupid little things about me and my life?” At this point, she’s practically shouting and on the verge of crying, and Ben is staring at her with wide eyes and an open mouth. “And, god, why does it feel like I’ve been missing out on you my whole life?”

She hears Ben’s breathing stutter on that last one.

Devi looks up from their joined hands. “You’re just… you’re good to me, Ben. And you’re good for me. I just don’t think I’ve ever been that person for you.”

He squeezes her fingers with his. “Of course you have, Devi. You haven’t been someone who’s sat on the bathroom floor with me because I never needed that from you. Yes, you messed up in high school, but even then you were—I don’t know—a friend, I guess. You’ve always made my world feel less lonely.” He scratches the back of his neck. “When you ran into me at that party, I had been about to leave. I was surrounded by strangers, and all of them were stuffy in a way that I don’t like. You running into me was the best thing to happen that night, even if you ruined my shoes. That’s why I wasn’t mad. The rest of it is just because I care about you. I think it’s written into my bones at this point.”

Devi wipes her eyes and smiles. A minute passes, and he squeezes her hand before letting it go.

“So does this mean I get to pick what we watch?”

“Absolutely the fuck not, Gross.”

“But you just admitted you wished you were better to me.” He raises an eyebrow and smirks. “I think the best thing you could do right now is let me watch The Expanse while I eat this delicious pasta.”

“I’ve changed my mind, you’re actually the worst. We’re watching The Real Housewives, end of discussion.”

Ben chuckles, grabs his plate, and gets comfortable. “Fine, but only if we watch Beverly Hills.”

Devi rolls her eyes, but cues The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills anyway.

 

====

“So are you guys gonna get married or what?”

Devi jumps a foot in the air as she’s startled by Eleanor’s voice coming from behind her. She turns around and glares at her friend.

“What the hell, Eleanor?? You could have given me a heart attack.”

Eleanor winks at her, unbothered. “Not with all that healthy food Ben’s been making you eat.”

“El, please. Can we have one conversation where you’re not nagging me to do some cheesy romantic thing with Ben? I thought you didn’t even like him.”

“Of course I like him, stupid! He’s nice,” and then she leans in conspiratorially to whisper something. “And he’s actually kind of hot. I mean look at that bod.”

Devi pinches Eleanor’s arm.

“Ow!”

“Don’t talk about Ben like that.”

“Fine, but the sexual tension between you two is driving everyone crazy. Even your mother asked about you.”

Devi cringes. She doesn’t want to know that her mom perceives and has opinions on her sexual tension with Ben. (Because she certainly admits that it’s there. She’s been dangerously close to jumping him in public an alarming number of times.)

“Ugh, whatever. It’s not my fault! I already explained this to you. It’s all on Ben. Go yell at Ben!”

As Eleanor gets a mischievous look on her face, Devi feels a well of regret form in her stomach. She can’t take that back. Eleanor’s already plotting to do something dramatic.

She rushes to find Ben at this crowded banquet hall. (Why her mom decided to invite her and all her friends to her awards ceremony is beyond her.)

She sees him talking to some old woman by the bar and not so gracefully inserts herself.

“Hi Ben. Hi Ben’s friend. Can I borrow you for a second?”

“Sorry, Katherine,” Ben politely smiles at the older woman. “I’ll see you around. I’ll tell my mother you said hello.”

Then, Devi’s dragging him away towards the empty hallways that lead towards the bathrooms.

“What’s going on, Devi?”

“Do you want to get out of here?”

He looks at her like she’s confused. “This is your mother’s event. She hasn’t even made her little speech yet.”

“Whatever,” she waves her hands around. “I think Eleanor is plotting something and now I can’t trust her or Fabiola or Pooja.”

“Plotting what?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out.”

“Why not?”

Devi lets out a frustrated sigh. “I don’t know! I said something stupid and now I think she might want to do something with you or yell at you or make you sing a song or actually maybe make me sing a song, and anyway I really just don’t want to deal with it.”

Ben stares. “None of that made any sense. Why would any of them yell at me? Or make me sing a song?”

“I don’t know! I’m not them!”

He chuckles. “Okay, David. I still don’t think we should leave. This is important to your mom. You’d regret it if you weren’t here to support her.”

“… I know.”

“C’mon,” he wraps his arm around her, letting his hand rest possessively on her hip. (It makes her whole body burn.) “I’ll buy you a drink.”

“The drinks are free, Gross.”

She feels his laughter more than she hears it. “Yeah, well. It was still a cool line.”

- - -

Turns out, Eleanor has nothing planned. Devi keeps herself glued to Ben’s side all night for basically no reason. (Except for the fact that she enjoys being there, but that’s beside the point.)

It’s a unique form of torture. After hearing Eleanor mention Ben’s body, Devi can’t stop staring at him and noticing new things that she finds painfully attractive. Like his hands, good god, his hands. They’re artful. Surprisingly large, with strong fingers and veins that form pretty patterns just below his skin. And then there’s his back. His broad, muscled back. (Devi curses that this is a formal event and that Ben’s wearing a full suit because it prevents her from properly admiring his upper body.) And then there’s his beautiful ass and his cut waist, accentuated by the way his belt sits comfortably on his hips. (This is one of those moments where she wants to jump him in public and has to control herself.)

Every time he laughs, she watches the way his neck moves and the way his dimples form, and she very simply wants to lick him. It’s obscene.

(Devi curses Eleanor for her stupid comment, because now she’s hot and bothered and still at a freaking formal event for her mother.)

Devi barely pays attention through her mom’s speech. It’s short and it’s sufficiently charming, but Ben’s sitting next to her, and all she can focus on is his thigh pressed up against hers and the smell of his cologne wafting in her direction.

She might actually combust right here in the middle of this event in front of all these people.

Then, because life hates her, Ben leans over and whispers gently in her ear. “Are you okay?”

His lips tickle her skin and his breath sends shivers down her spine.

Yep. She’s combusting.

“Nope, nope. I gotta go. Like right now.”

And just like that she’s racing out of the hall and into one of those individual all gender bathrooms. She looks at herself in the mirror, sees how flushed she is, and splashes herself with water. Oof. Not the way she thought today would go.

She hears a knock at the door.

“Occupied.”

“Devi? It’s me.” Because of course it had to be him. “Are you okay?”

She groans. “Yes. Go away.”

“Did I do something?”

“No, you’ve been perfect all evening. Now please get lost.”

“Okay, but text me if you need me, yeah?”

“Fine, sure. Thanks, Gross.”

- - -

Half an hour passes before she finally decides that she’s cooled down enough to leave the bathroom. She gives herself one final look in the mirror, takes a deep breath, and walks out.

It’s quieted down quite a bit since she originally went in. The speeches were the final programmed part of the night, so while a few people remained to network and chat, most of them left to go home.

She looks through the thinned crowd until she finds her mother, and she walks over to give her a hug.

“I’m so proud of you, mom.”

“Thank you, kanna.” Her mom steps back and looks at her with a playful glint in her eye. “Where’s your man?”

Devi makes a face. “Not you too!”

“Well, it’s clear enough that he is. I don’t understand you two.”

“Good! It’s not for you to understand, anyway.”

Her mother gives her a disapproving hum. “He can’t wait around forever, Devi.”

“He’s not even the one that’s waiting this time! It’s me, okay? I’m waiting for him to do something, and I’m practically losing my mind while doing it.”

She smacks Devi on the back of the head. “Why in the world would you wait for that boy to do something?”

“Ow!” She pats down her ruffled hair. “I’ll have you know that I’m doing it this way because last time I did it myself, things went wrong. Like really, really wrong.”

“Look, Devi. Mistakes are only valuable if we learn from them. Whatever happened between you two isn’t destined to repeat itself unless you didn’t learn from the first time.”

She looks at her mother with a silent sort of appreciation. “Wow, mom. You’re kind of wise.”

Nalini frowns, but smiles. “I know. Now, get out of here.”

Devi leans in and kisses her mom on the cheek. “Thanks, amma. Love you. Congrats on the thing!”

- - -

“David? Where are you off to in such a rush?”

Devi whips around to find Ben toting a greasy paper bag full of what she is absolutely certain is fast food. She rushes up to him as the smell hits her nose.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“Animal style double-double, french fries, and a strawberry milkshake,” he says, an easy smile on his face. “Thought you could use a pick me up.”

And suddenly she’s reaching up and yanking him down and kissing him with a desperation that she couldn’t have expressed in words. He gasps into her mouth before wrapping his free arm around her waist, tugging her flush against his body.

He kisses her with a matching desperation and fervor, and when he gently bites at her lower lip, she can’t stop herself from whimpering and going weak against him. This only seems to fuel his passion, as he moans in response and begins running his free hand up and down her back, gripping her waist and tugging on her hips. She rests her hands on his shoulders and tugs on the hair at the base of his neck, and his whole body shivers. He breaks their kiss and rests his forehead against hers with his eyes closed.

“Devi.”

He’s breathing as heavily as she is.

“Ben.”

She feels his lips form a smile against her own.

“If I knew buying you In-N-Out was all it would take, I would have stopped cooking food ages ago.”

She laughs and kisses him again. “I love you.”

He lets out a soft, calm sigh. Like he’s finally finished something, like something is finally slotting into place.

“I love you, too.”

(They never really do make it out of the parking lot. As soon as they make it to his car, they’re all over each other, desperately trying to be as close as possible. He tears her dress and she pops a button off of his shirt and it’s all-consuming desire and love and shared history, and it flows freely between them. She leaves hickies on his neck and scratches all down his back, and he leaves light bruises on her hips. She’s at peace, and he feels the exact opposite of alone, and they’re both unbelievably happy.)

When it’s all said and done, they share the fast food, and it makes them both feel like teenagers. It’s oddly healing.

 

====

A knock on the door jars her from her moment of relative peace and quiet. She’s been hiding in this pantry for all of five minutes, and she has absolutely no desire to go back out there. So, naturally, she puts on her best English accent as she responds.

“This pantry’s occupied, mate.”

She hears a familiar laugh through the door. “Good god, David. Your English accent is atrocious. Now, let me in. I want to hide in there, too.”

“What do I get in return?”

“Is this a joke?”

“No. This pantry is a sacred place, and if I’m going to risk discovery by letting you in here, I need some form of payment.”

“I brought the champagne, and I brought the Doritos I packed for you.” Devi watches as the shadows of his feet move as close to the door as possible. “I’ll do that thing you like right here in this pantry.”

A pleasant heat spreads through her body, and she blushes.

When she opens the door, he smiles brightly at her, holding up his pilfered goods. He’s lost his suit coat and his black tie is loose and his sleeves are rolled up, and it’s all just so attractive that Devi has to fight herself not to jump him before he even makes it inside.

“So which will it be?” Ben smirks.

“Doritos and champagne. I haven’t been able to eat all day. Accosted left and right by my family members and then your family members, and then friends, and then more friends, and then a few strangers. Who knew weddings were so chaotic?”

Ben laughs. “Everyone. Everyone knew that.”

“Whatever, Gross.” She throws a Dorito at him. “I know this our wedding and all, but I really need it to be over. I just want to go home and wear sweatpants. I never want to see this dress again.”

“It’ll be over soon.” He opens the bottle of champagne with a corkscrew on his keychain (dork) and hands it to her. “Plus, this is the easy wedding. You know your family is planning an Indian wedding for us, right?”

She groans at the reminder. “Fuck you, Ben.”

“What!? What did I do?”

“You’re the one that got us into this mess.”

He stares at her, open-mouthed, as if trying to decide whether or not she’s joking, before he finally responds.

“Devi, that might be the dumbest thing you’ve ever said. And that’s a hard thing to achieve, given your track record.”

She swings the family size bag of Doritos and hits his chest. “You’re the one who proposed. Therefore, it is your fault.”

He frowns. “You practically blackmailed me into proposing.”

“Oh please. You know you were just dying to ask me. I just presented you with the possibility.”

He rolls his eyes. “I regret this already.”

“Hey!” She threateningly points a Dorito at his face. “We are in this til the end, you hear me? No regrets.”

He softens and pries the chip from her fingers, popping it into his mouth. Then, with a tender smile on his face, he pulls her flush against his side and nuzzles the crown of her head.

“I’m so madly in love with you, Devi. I’d be lucky to spend the rest of my life with you.”

She snuggles into him, inhaling his familiar sent, and takes one of his hands in hers. (It’s new and it’s old and it’s them, just them.)

“It’s always been you, Ben. It always will be.”