Kunal Sadaram untied his apron, smoothing it as he hung it up behind the door of the kitchens. The wall next to the door had neat rows of a hook-and-cubby system devised by Divya, the elder of his two younger sisters, to keep everyone’s belongings neat, tidy, and perfectly in line. It was a reflection of her life. As Kunal looked at his sparse cubby, he thought it was also a reflection of his own: organized but empty.
It wasn’t too fair to come down hard on himself for not fitting in. The small town of Harmony, Virginia, wasn’t exactly full of Indian-Americans. In fact, his family members were the only ones. That was part of the reason his father had first entertained the idea of moving to Harmony to open their restaurant, Naan Stop. “No competition!” Rajit had exclaimed, and for the most part it was true.
Naan Stop was the one place in Harmony to get authentic Indian food, run by the entire Sadaram family. Shanti, the youngest at twenty-four, had come up with the name during a family brainstorming session. Their parents, of course, were much more traditional and wanted to name it Bombay Bistro or Royal India Palace, but Shanti had been firm. “Do you want this place to sound like every other restaurant, or do you want it to stand out?” It didn’t matter it’d be the only one in town—the Sadarams wanted it to stand out. So with the full support of all four children, their parents had caved and gone with the pun.
The food was mostly prepared by Rajit and his wife Sunita, but more and more their children took on important tasks. Kunal was a host and server, often called into the back to put the finishing touches on for presentation. And Shanti always said Kunal made the best gulab out of anyone in the family. He was often called over to prepare those as well, especially for big occasions like Diwali, which was right around the corner.
It was nice having family around, but it was also the reason Kunal felt as empty as he did. With one sister married, his brother engaged, his youngest sister just starting a new relationship, it left Kunal the only single one. Worse than that, he was the eldest and should have been married first. Sunita chided him almost daily, threatening to set up an arranged marriage, to which Kunal often replied, “Amma, do you want me to date, or do you want me to work? I cannot do both in the same night.”
Sunita often retorted that strengthened her argument for arranged marriage. Kunal would stop arguing and get to work, because he knew if he kept talking he’d spill the real reason he was not dating and not marrying a young woman he’d met in school or out anywhere.
Sighing, Kunal stepped back out of the employee area to where Divya and Shanti were chatting, Divya pressing their baby sister about the still-new beau she’d been seeing. He couldn’t help feeling a stab of jealousy. It seemed so easy for them.
He pasted on a bright smile and swept himself into the conversation. “I don’t care what you say, Shanti, it’s not serious until we’ve all met him, not just Divya. Not until he’s met Mom and Dad.”
Shanti frowned and shoved Kunal, and he felt real force behind it, but Kunal didn’t budge. She was a scant few inches shorter than him, but he was broad. The hours he put in at the gym ensured that his arm muscles were corded and just the right amount of bulging, his overall build sturdy. What he lacked in height, he made up for in breadth, and he worked hard to look as good as he did.
“Shush, Kunal. You know if I bring him home, they expect a ring on my finger right after.”
“Or before,” Divya added. “But Kunal’s right. They won’t believe it’s serious until then. Look how many times Amit brought home a girl before he gave one a ring, huh?”
Amit poked his head out from behind the bar. “Slander and lies,” he called, levity in his tone.
“Oh,” Kunal countered. “I remember Gina, Monica, Elizabeth, and who was the pretty one with the unfortunate name?”
“Ivana,” Amit said sullenly.
Kunal grinned. “Amit. What was her whole name?”
Amit glared at his brother. “Ivana Hardick.”
“We’re lucky Mom and Dad didn’t catch onto that.” Shanti giggled.
“It’s not my fault her parents gave her that first name with that last name, okay? She was nice, she was just…”
“She’s no Angela,” Kunal murmured. It had been different when Amit brought Angela home—the expression in his eyes, the way he couldn’t stop talking about or looking at her. Kunal wanted that so much, but he was certain that he neither deserved it nor would get it.
That shut Amit up, and his angry glare turned into a beatific smile, just the way Kunal knew it would.
“Well,” Kunal continued, “I don’t know about you all, but I’m getting out of here. You all have a good night. I’ll see to you tomorrow.”
His siblings all chorused good night. Kunal slipped out, glad his parents were already upstairs in bed and not privy to the conversation. Not only would it have turned back on him, but he wasn’t sure they hadn’t understood Ivana’s name, and he had no desire to ever bring that back up in front of them to find out for sure.
He headed out into the cool night air. It was late summer and warm during the day in Harmony, but the town was close enough to the water that the cool ocean air lowered the temperatures at night. A light jacket or long sleeves was needed, and Kunal had elected for the latter.
Leaving Harmony to hit up one of the neighboring towns for bars and clubs was about the only way he’d meet someone, but he had no intention of making it a permanent thing. It was his MO now. Meet a guy, hook up, refuse to exchange numbers, and leave. If he kept it casual, it meant he never worried about getting attached. But deep inside, he knew this lifestyle couldn’t last. He’d either hurt someone unintentionally or he’d run into someone he already knew.
It was only a matter of time.
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