Someone I Chose by Ella Braeme



And then the bouquet hit the fan.

Like in a movie, suddenly everything became so slow that one could perceive many things at the same time. At first, laughter bubbled up in Neha. The bouquet toss ending in the large ceiling fan was funny, after all. The dismayed cries of the single ladies that had been fighting over the best spot to catch the flowers were funny, too. Neha hadn’t meant to be part of this stupid game. She had no intention at all to be the next bride, thank you very much.

The fan grabbed the bouquet and swirled it around a couple of times. An angry whooshing sounded from the ceiling. Whether it came from the aggressive fan, or the captured bouquet was impossible to make out. After a few tours around, centrifugal forces helped the flowers to come loose—and sent them Neha’s way. They surged towards her in big cartwheels, mocking her attempt to stand at the far side of the venue, trying to not partake in a ceremonial divination of who would marry next.

Oh, her parents would love this! They had been nagging her about getting married and starting a family for years, but, with her thirtieth birthday only months away, they had become veritable pests. The constant badgering was grinding on Neha’s nerves, and she was appalled at fate’s trick to send her the bouquet. Her feet felt like they were glued to the ground, and her spine was unyielding—she could neither move to the side nor duck away. The only thing she could do to avoid being hit in the face by the stems of two dozen roses was to catch them.

She stared at the flowers in her hands and let them drop to the ground. Her hands itched, and she wiped them on her bridesmaid’s gown.

Everybody was staring. Some laughed and cheered. Neha wished to vanish. She turned to the door, but before she even took a step, Shanae came running and wrapped her into a tight embrace. Who would have thought her best friend would toss her wedding bouquet that wretchedly?

Shanae whispered, “I’m sorry.” She rubbed Neha’s back.

Neha hated to see that mortified look on her friend’s face. Just because she abhorred the thought of getting married off didn’t mean she wanted to ruin Shanae’s wedding. “I’m fine.”

Shanae squinted at her. “The hell you are.” They had lived together as roommates long enough to know each other well.

“No, really, I’m fine. It’s just flowers, you know.” Neha smiled and hooked her arm into the bride’s. “Let’s get back to the party.” She took Shanae’s hand and pulled her to the dance floor. Together, they egged the guests on to start dancing again.

Neha even let Nathan, the best man, whirl her around the dance floor, but a little while later she sneaked out. The rain had lessened to a soft drizzle, and it wasn’t too bad to walk through the dunes for a few minutes. Neha walked towards the shore and breathed in the salty, fresh air. Her shoulders relaxed. The errant bouquet had been an unfortunate sling slip. No clairvoyance involved at all.

Just when she had managed to calm herself, her phone rang. Neha chuckled. Shanae’s insistence on gowns with pockets paid off. Her father’s photo looked at her, the one she had taken just recently. He had grown gray in the last few years and looked constantly tired.

“Hey, baba.”

“Where are you? Why are you not here?” His voice was overly calm. This meant he was furious.

“I am at Shanae’s wedding, remember?”

“I told you to refuse that invitation.”

“I will not miss my best friend’s wedding.”

“Your friend’s wedding you care about!”

“Yes, I do.” So they were arguing about her getting married again. Neha sighed quietly. She hoped her father had not heard it.

“We need you to do your share with the travel preparations.”

“My share? What does that even mean?” Neha stopped in her tracks. “You are going to Delhi, not me. And you are no invalids. You can make all the preparations yourself.”

Neha heard her parents squabble but couldn’t understand their conversation.

“Neha, darling.” Her mother sounded calm, too, and Neha knew she was trying to run interference. “I know how important Shanae’s wedding is to you, and I think it’s a good thing you went.”

Her father protested in the background, but Neha’s mother shushed him. “You’ll be back tomorrow?”

“Yeah, sure. I’ve got to work on Monday.”

“Good then, good.” Neha knew her mother was nodding right now. She always did that when she struggled with what to say. “We will talk tomorrow. Come for dinner.”

Neha rolled her eyes. “Yes, Ma.” She had hoped for an evening alone.

From the direction of the hotel, she heard voices coming nearer. Time to wrap the call up. “See you tomorrow.”

She heard a little shuffling on the phone, and then her father yelled into it, “And bring your passport!”

Neha was stunned. Her father never yelled. His anger was cold as ice.

“You heard me. We couldn’t find your passport, so you have to bring it.”

Neha had no clue what he was talking about. “You can’t find it. It’s at my place.”

“We’ve looked everywhere.”

“You’ve searched my apartment.” That wasn’t even a question. Neha was beyond disbelief. “You have no right to do such a thing. You have no business doing anything with my passport or any of my possessions.”

Her father huffed. “And who would take care of your visa? We will fly to Delhi next week. We. All of us.”

“Wait. Me, too?” This was the first thing Neha heard of it.

“Yes, of course, you, too. That’s the whole point of it, isn’t it?”

“The whole point of what?”

“Of meeting nice, eligible men to pick your fiancé from.”

“I will not pick a fiancé!”

“So I will.”

Neha simply hung up on him before she said things that might be unforgivable. She let out a loud growl and kicked a hassock of beach grass. “Oww.” She had misjudged the hardness of that hump of sand and grass and stubbed her toes in the tight shoes. Dropping to sit on the sand, she kicked her shoe off and hugged the bruised toes. She despised herself for the self-pity washing over her but could not help it. A low, long wail escaped her.

Being that poor Indian girl that would get married off to someone her parents chose—that was the role Neha never wanted. She’d been born in Atlanta, and before her, her parents had been, too. There was no need to pretend they were living in Delhi. And even there, an arranged marriage was more like match-making, not forcing someone to marry a stranger.

She got up and brushed herself off. That felt familiar. She had done this way too often, although most times it was a metaphor, not actual sand on her gown.

“Are you okay?” Nathan and Jay came running. They looked her up and down, trying to find what had made her cry. Neha guessed they were trained to look out for injuries, as they were both doctors.

As best man and maid of honor, Nathan and Neha had met several times about things wedding-related. Jay, she had met mere minutes before the ceremony. He was the only other Indian in this White and Black wedding.

“I’m good, really. I am,” Neha said. Even to her ears, that was unconvincing. The phone she still held in her hand played a short jingle to announce an incoming text. She looked down at it. It was from her father and read, “Bring passport for visa. You will get married next month. Quit stalling.”

With a scream, Neha tossed the phone over the dune. A splash sounded. Sighing, she said, “That wasn’t smart.”

“Not really,” Jay asked. “Was it worth it?”

“Probably not.” Neha started walking around the dune to find her phone. Maybe it could be salvaged. The men went with her. Neha flinched—they probably thought it wasn’t safe to leave her alone.

“What was this all about?” Nathan asked. And for whatever reason, Neha explained it all. Her being the only daughter and thus the only chance to have grandchildren. Her parents bound to a civilization where arranged marriages were the norm. Her bad luck in the dating department. And that no matter how successful she was as a lawyer, it would never be enough. She was hoping to make partner soon and knew not even this would appease her parents.

Nathan laughed incredulously. “Arranged marriage is not a thing. Not in the twenty-first century. Not in America.”

“Nathan, stop it,” Jay said. “You wouldn’t know. It’s way more common than most people think. Not for all Indian families, but for some of them.”

“Seriously? How many people do you know that have been married off by their parents?”

“Half a dozen? I didn’t count them. But if you want to, you can count me in. Next month my mother will get a visit from a distant cousin from Mumbai—she’ll bring a friend, too. Who happens to be female and eligible.”

Nathan just stared at his friend, open-mouthed. Neha asked, “Will you marry her?”

Jay shrugged and kicked some grass to the side to look for the phone.

“Don’t evade.” Nathan took him by the arm. “Will you get married to someone your mother picked?” He sounded shocked and appalled at the same time. Watching his reaction gave Neha the sense that her own feelings were valid, and she calmed.

“The last few times I simply refused. This time…” Jay shook Nathan’s hand off and bent to pick up the phone he had made out in a shallow puddle. “It’s getting harder every time.”

“Aren’t you scared?” Neha asked.

“Scared? No. It’s annoying, though.” Jay handed her the phone. They walked back in silence. Soon the lights of the ballroom guided them toward the hotel.

Neha let out a grunting laugh when she had a weird idea. “We should get married!” She pointed at Jay. “That way we’d have closed that chapter. No one could push fiancés our way, and we’d have chosen for ourselves.”

There was a peculiar look on Jay. His dark eyes had become even darker until Neha couldn’t tell where the pupil ended, or the iris began. He tilted his head and gazed at her intently. Finally, he said, “Let’s.”

Neha jerked a little. “You’re serious?”

“Weren’t you?”

Nathan exploded with laughter. “I know exactly whom to ask about an impromptu wedding.”

And so the first thing the following morning, Neha and Jay had an early breakfast in the tearoom of Nathan’s brother and signed a basic prenup that Neha insisted on.