Acceptance by Ajay Tulsiani

Seated on the couch, with earbuds plugged in, and a laptop on her thighs, Pooja typed ‘Moving On’ into the search bar. She selected three scenic images that had a quote written in the center and pasted them in a document. Blue brings calmness while green signifies growth, so she made two borders using both the colors.

She opened the browser and played the next meditation music in her Playlist titled: Amazing Pooja. If only her college friends were here. One look at the title and they’d tease her for being so creative. She bobbed her head to one side and gave a flying kiss to the screen. 

Speaking of friends, it’s time to honor my duty, she thought as she picked up her mobile, paused to look at the wallpaper that had her graduation photo, then changed her Whatsapp profile photo to one that had her and Simran before calling Simran.

“Hello Pooja,” came Simran’s voice.

“Hi Simran. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.” Pooja pressed her back to the couch.

“It’s okay,” said Simran.

“God! You’re so strong.” Pooja shook her head. “But there is no need to feign composure in front of me. If you want, you can cry and just lighten yourself. From experience, I know how much it helps. I’m there to support you. We’re all there for you. Remember what I always say, we’re soul sisters and we will support each other no matter.”

“Okay,” said Simran.

“God, you sound so dry. I’m coming there right now to help you.”

“That’s not needed.”

“Of course, it’s needed. I insist. I’m not going to leave my friend alone during her hour of need. I remember how much I cried when I lost my father. God it was the most tragic moment of my life. My college friends supported me then, and I will support you now.” Pooja leaned toward the laptop and read a quote: “Accept the grief and let it go. Recall, acknowledge, accept, and release.”

“What?”

“It’s a technique for –” Pooja clicked on the quote. It took her to a website for PTSD treatment “—PTSD?”

“I don’t have PTSD.”

“I’m sorry…” She shook her head. “I just… I’m coming there. Don’t worry.” Pooja’s shoulders slumped and she grabbed her forehead. “I’ll come there in your hour of crisis.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.” Pooja’s fingers loosened around the mobile and it dropped on the floor. The sound caught her attention that the mobile might have broken, but the worry wasn’t enough to phase her out from the numbness that she had slipped into. I don’t have PTSD. Simran’s words echoed in her ears as Pooja turned to the laptop. The page for PTSD had a man grabbing his head with clouds around him. Each cloud had a symptom of PTSD.

“Of course, you don’t have PTSD,” said Pooja and closed the laptop. “Not until I give you one from myself.” She smacked her forehead. “Pooja Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

She wished she had thrown the mobile to the wall, caused an explosion, that would’ve vaporizeed her from this world. Out of Simran’s life. Out of every friend’s life on whom she has been imposing herself.

Sinking in the sand of misery, her only savior was her therapist where she could confess her relapse. She bent to pick up the mobile, but her thoughts raced to the counter argument.

You know what he’s going to say, you just end up wasting money. That’s all.

But I can’t control myself, she told herself and covered her face, nails scratching the cheeks as if wanting to pull off the mask and be real. I just want to show off and flaunt and…

As if given an electric shock, her body shivered and she rubbed her face, wiping the tears, then she ran her hand over her hair. 

“Whatever it is, I’ll do it later,” she said aloud. “Get a grip over yourself, Pooja. Your friend needs you now.” She got up and headed for a shower.

In a white T-shirt and blue jeans, she opened her purse and pulled out a paper. The title had bold black words: Handy Tips. She went through the points.

“Read the body language. If the other person is only replying with one-word answers, it means they’re not interested. Don’t insist on your ideas. Don’t compete with their mobile for attention, rather accept they are not in the mood to talk with you. Don’t argue even if you think they’re wrong. Don’t be their parent. Let them be.”

“Got it.” She put the paper back in the purse on the dashboard of her car as she drove to Simran’s house. No more amazing Pooja, she told herself, then read the paper: Let them be.

She stopped at a florist and asked for a potted plant.

“Which one?” asked the woman behind the counter.

“The one with the strongest roots. Not a parasite or a creeper that clings to others and sucks them of their energy.” She added softly. “Not like me.”

“What?”

“Basically, a self-sufficient plant,” she said looking at the woman’s eyes. “I want a self-sufficient plant. Not a burden on others.”

“We have a bonsai,” said the saleswoman pointing at a pot in the bench. The plant resembled a hill with plantation on only one tiny area. 

Pooja’s hand went to her trouser pocket. She patted the mobile and folded the palm, shutting the urge to click a selfie.

“It needs direct sunlight for five to six hours and needs to be watered every other day.”

Pooja touched the thick bulbous stem. “I’ll take it. Its strong roots will make sure it will never burden others.”

There were many people at Simran’s house. Simran’s sister, Rinky; Rinky’s elder son, along with her mother-in-law. Pooja knew most of them. It was a result of years of frequent visits and tagging along at Simran’s family functions. Pooja winced at the realization that she was never invited, nor did she ever receive any call if she missed an event.

“I have no ego in making the first call,” she had said once to a friend after a small tiff and two days of non-communication.

She had expected praise when she narrated the incident to the therapist. Instead, the therapist said, “Have you ever considered the possibility that maybe the friend doesn’t want to continue the friendship?”

“What do you mean?” Pooja had replied. “I’m the most cheerful person around. Anyone would be lucky to have me as a friend. I’m a harbinger of optimism. As cheerful as a butterfly, you can say.”

“More like as stupid as a donkey,” thought Pooja then looked at the bonsai plant she was holding. 

My drama can be dealt with later. Now I must address Simran. Her glance jumped off the shoulders of the guests in the house. Pooja and Simran’s common friends were missing in the house. Even I shouldn’t have come. Simran had said in the phone call that it’s not needed.

Simran took a step toward Rinky who gave a slight smile then raised her palm toward Pooja. Probably gesturing me to stay where I am, thought Pooja.

Simran was nowhere to be seen. Probably hiding in her room from me. Even if she were around, Pooja decided to not meet her. She tightened her grip on the pot, turned around, and returned home.

Two days later she met with her therapist.

Seated on a leather chair, hands resting on the arm rest, she pressed her feet to the floor as if anchoring herself. Soft piano music played in the room. 

“You should’ve discussed with your other friends before going,” said the therapist, seated on another leather chair behind the glass table between them. He wrote something in a book. 

Amazing Pooja playlist, thought Pooja and winced. During one of her therapy sessions, she had suggested replacing the piano music with her playlist. 

“There weren’t many urges to be the center of attention at her house. I mean there were a few but it’s not as bad as earlier.”

“That’s very good,” he replied. “I think you deserve a pat on the back for that.”

The words reminded Pooja of the time when she’d praise her cousins, friends, colleagues, neighbors, gym buddies for any achievement. Once her neighbor had joined the gym after weeks of insistence from Pooja, and Pooja made her a card with photos of sportswomen. The card had an empty square in one corner. 

“I want your photo to be here,” Pooja had said while giving the card to the neighbor. Below the empty square were three photos of Pooja in which she was climbing a mountain.

“It all feels so cringeworthy now.” Pooja intertwined her fingers and raised her feet to the chair. “I just hate it all. Want to fly to some country and start life afresh.” Memories of random events creeped around her. The time she wrote a goodbye letter to her teacher on the last day of school. When she organized a college protest about freedom for students to carry mobiles. 

“God I was so stupid. I just hate myself.”

“I don’t think your actions warrant self-hatred. Do you hate yourself for your attention-seeking behavior or are you just embarrassed?”

She looked up at him and nodded. “Embarrassed, I guess. I don’t know. Ashamed. Wish I hadn’t done that.” She sat straight. “I mean to still do such acts for attention.”

“Pooja, I’ve said this to you before. Everyone has emotional moments or does stuff for attention. It’s a basic human need, like food, clothing, and shelter. We also need emotional food. People look at cat pictures all the time. It’s perfectly okay to want this emotional food just as it’s okay to want a burger. We’re humans, we’re not robots.” He folded his hands to his chest. “But we have to grow out of it. You cannot demand for a burger at the office menu. Children weep when a candy is taken from them, but they grow out of it eventually.”

Pooja nodded. “I think I have grown out to a certain extent. Just wish I hadn’t done a lot of the things.”

“The people would’ve forgotten about already. And what you’ve done isn’t that bad. You didn’t click a selfie with her.”

Pooja nodded. “The urge to click one wasn’t there. I guess that’s some improvement.”

The therapist looked at his wristwatch. “We still have ten minutes left. But I think this wasn’t a relapse as such. You’ve made considerable progress over our sessions.”

“Thanks,” said Pooja. “Do you think I should call Simran and apologize for my earlier behavior where I suggested she’s got PTSD?”

The therapist shook his head. “She lost her father, Pooja. I don’t think she’d be bothered about it. Let her be. She probably doesn’t even remember it.”

“I guess so. I don’t have much else to say.”

“Do you want to schedule an appointment for the next week?”

Pooja nodded. “Let’s add some more gap that usual.” She booked an appointment for a session after three weeks then got up and left.

At home she placed the bonsai plant on the windowsill. Maybe even my roots will grow firm eventually, and I won’t have to lean on others for attention. She removed her profile photo from Whatsapp, clicked a photo of the bonsai, and put that as the wallpaper.

There was a persistent urge to call Simran and apologize. She went through her mobile and looked at the phone logs. Over all these years, it was always she who had called Simran. Never the other way around.

The therapist had said the urge to return to her earlier behavior would reduce with time. It didn’t. Three days later was her birthday. She expected a call or a message from Simran. It never came.

Ajay Tulsiani’s short stories have appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Literary Orphans Magazine, SpillWords Press, Bewildering Stories, Literary Heist Magazine, Spadina Literary Review Magazine, and Scarlett Leaf Review.