Chapter 4

If Thursdays are Tej’s most beloved day of the week, Mondays fall on the far opposite end of the spectrum. 

Tahira has previously threatened to choke him out for complaining about Mondays when he doesn’t even have a standard nine-to-five to suffer through but Tej’s dislike goes beyond the simple evil of waking up early to start a boring workday. It’s the way the entire world seems to droop under the weight of Monday blues – baristas hungover, commuters gloomy and school kids whining. 

Back in New York, Tej would camp at cafes for hours through the day, people-watching while he worked on his manuscripts. Pretentious though it sounded, ideas luxuriated ever-present in those compact places with set behaviours and cycles, people swinging in and out through the doors every other minute. He did this so regularly at cafes all over the city that his friends eventually quit wandering to Zomato for cafe recommendations, instead interrogating him to find their day’s pick. 

Aside from the people-watching and the unpaid promotions he did for those cafes, though, Tej also rediscovered the unshakeable languor Mondays inspired. The people who came in on Monday mornings looked more reanimated zombies than office-going workers, barely even blinking when they ordered their coffee from equally-listless baristas. Once, Tej watched the same salaryman walk into a glass door twice. 

As if observing the eerie half-awake people wasn’t bad enough, Tej was also forced to suffer a suffocating lack of conversation. Nobody spoke to anyone beyond the bare bone words needed to convey an order and it invalidated the whole point of people-watching at these busy shops. 

Usually, he’d find a college-goer wailing into her heart-attack-inducing drink about the list of people she’d sacrifice for a good grade – that inspired a short story Tej’s still proud of – or a deliveryperson flirting with the cashier during a break – the dynamic became one of his readers’ favourites from the first novel of his series – or at least a group of friends flying loose in the absence of the mom friend – he doesn’t want to think about how well that fits into his current book. 

Mondays absolutely wiped these little pockets of life and cheer clean from his favourite camping spots. Of course he hated them. If Tej wanted to see the world as bleak and sepia-coloured, he’d simply start paying attention to the stories Darren Wentworth was turning in for the Writing Workshops. 

It’s little surprise, then, that it’s a Monday when his insides feel like they’ll turn to mush out of sheer anxiety.

The clock above his living room couch has been stuck at 11:05 for an excruciating half hour now. This is either a product of the dread settled low in his stomach or those cheap batteries he was gifted last year for Christmas (Tahira excels at gift-giving, clearly). 

Parked at the kitchen counter, Tej hopes it’s the former. If he’s actually been looking at a malfunctioning clock this whole time and it’s already 11:15, Arthur is about to call any  moment and he doesn’t even have a skeleton of an excuse ready. 

His phone trembles awake barely a second after the thought crosses his head and Tej starts violently. Putting it on vibrate means he can avoid any odd blips and rings through the day but the unpleasant whir his phone case makes against the marble of the countertop sufficiently compensates for any peace he could steal. 

On the bright side, it’s not his agent calling. 

On the relatively much dimmer side, it’s Tahira.

Didi🦕: yo dumbass

Didi🦕: lisa says you never called her

Of course he hadn’t. Tej feels a little confused his sister even had such high expectations of him in the first place. He’s worked pretty hard in life to ensure people think he’s hopelessly difficult.

Me: Can we do this later 

Me: I’m kinda going through something rn 

Didi🦕: did you delete another draft 

Me: No

Didi🦕: did you buy another ugly painting

Me: No

Me: Also you’re no longer allowed in my apartment if you’ll keep insulting my stuff 

Didi🦕: did you give another scammer your bank details

Me: We decided not to bring that up again

Didi🦕: we also decided you’d call lisa

If his sister ever wrote a self-help book, it would be called ‘How To Circle Everything Back To Your Point Till People Give In’. The sequel could be: ‘Plague Your Brother To The Point He Contemplates Faking His Death’. And if it did particularly well, like most things Tahira tries her hand at, they could finish off the series with ‘Time Your Lectures So You Catch People At Their Weakest!’.

His little spiel about book titles is interrupted with another impatient ding.

Didi🦕: JUST CALL HER

Didi🦕: she’s not even mad, tej, she’s literally just concerned

Me: Did she say that?

Me: Did she specifically say that she isn’t mad at me?

The typing bubble disappears. Tej knows, from experience, that Tahira doesn’t quit conversations so easily, she’s likely just trying to approach from another angle but the heaviness in his gut builds in the elongated pause between texts.

Two years ago, he’d have agreed that Lisa wasn’t the type to hold grudges or feel slighted by his slip-ups; hell, he wouldn’t even need Tahira to come tell him this. They only dated for a year and a half but he’s known Lisa since they were in college. Despite everything that happened, he knows she wouldn’t turn him away if he asked for her help with plotting and brainstorming the book.

After the stunt he pulled last year, though, Tej just doesn’t know if he could make himself ask for it.

Didi🦕: no she didn’t

Didi🦕: because I didn’t need to ask her whether she’s mad at you

Didi🦕: because I actually DO have a working brain and I don’t need to ask stupid questions

Me: I have things under control

Didi🦕: you literally just said you’re going through something

In a fucked up way, Tej misses the time last year when Tahira was too worried about him to do little else than tiptoe carefully during their conversations. Last year had brought more than its fair share of hardships for him, knocked him flat on his face, body aching and heart crumbled in tiny fragments, but the period of peace that followed when Tahira couldn’t push him to talk after the breakup seems like a glimmering reprieve in the midst of all that pain, now.

Tej wouldn’t wish that time back ever again, but it’s definitely hard to remember the why, confronted with his sister’s regular bullheadedness in the present moment.

He could either try to stall and risk her bugging him all the way till the end of the day or just get it over with. Tej has enough experience to know which option is better for his peace of mind.

Me: Arthur’s calling in a few. Don’t know what to tell him.

Trivial though it sounds, it’s true. So far, his agent has been exceptionally kind and understanding, bending over backwards to reassure Tej that he need not rush his brain for the new book but it’s coming up on a little over four months since the last one went out and he still has…nothing

It’s not for want of trying, obviously; he’s been sitting in front of the laptop like clockwork every morning for hours. He’s followed every last method his professors used to talk about in undergrad; writing during the early morning golden hour, letting his brain rest for a week before trying again, pushing out all the bad writing that comes without editing or censoring till the stream of words finally improves – and it’s all been useless.

For four months, Tej has done nothing apart from try every writing trick and tip his peers and faculty recommend and he still has no more than a pitiful outline for how the story should unfold in this book. If he could bring himself to read the previous books in his series, maybe there would be progress to be made but the very idea fills Tej with a tightness that crawls unchecked through his insides.

It’s a resort, his very last, but he hopes Arthur won’t push him on it today. The other hasn’t yet done anything to topple Tej from his comfort zone – not in the way Mehr used to – but there’s always a first time for these things. Tej knows fully well how agents can flip near deadlines when the stakes are high.

He should really work on having something to tell the guy.

Didi🦕: easy

Didi🦕: just say that you’re a dumbass who deleted whatever little you’d written of the new draft

Didi🦕: but also that you’re a bestselling dumbass so he shouldn’t yell at you too much

Me: Can’t you ease up on the name-calling?

Didi🦕: for one tiny promise, I’ll stop

Me: I’m not calling Lisa

Didi🦕: I’ve never met anyone who tests my patience like you

Didi🦕: and I work with grown adults who throw tantrums when their coffee isn’t the right colour

Me: Deserved

Didi🦕: shut up

Didi🦕: look I’ll make you an offer

Didi🦕: I’ll talk to arthur for you if you call lisa 

And maybe this is what pisses him off the most about Tahira’s tendency to push. She’s excellent at getting him to spill his beans and then immediately rushing into overhelpful elder sister mode. Tej can’t remember a time she hasn’t stepped up to fix things for him, no matter how much she initially insists he should learn to deal with his fuck up.

Part of it is brought on by the protectiveness a hopeless and lost Tej inspires and the rest of it is, at least according to him, the desire to make a lesson of everything, in true elder sibling fashion.

Safe to say, Tej hates the deal she’s suggesting.

It’s not even tempting, the way her offers to finish his homework used to be, back in school. His mood has only plummeted to something worse than before and it’s not even because she’s trying to use Lisa as a bargaining chip.

Me: No thanks, I’m good 

Me: Gonna go get ready

Me: I’ll ttyl

Didi🦕: uffffff

Didi🦕: don’t get angry I’m just trying to help baba

Me: Don’t you have an actual job? 

Me: One that’s not just supervising me pointlessly?  

Didi🦕: have you written anymore since that day?

The abrupt topic change doesn’t make Tej falter. He doesn’t want to answer, wants her to stew in the irate radio silence he could give her right now but their mother raised him to be the bigger person. Sort of.

Me: A little

That’s a lie.

Me: Just the start

That’s also a lie. But he’s not feeling very Big Person-y right now. 

Didi🦕: that’s fine the start is the most important bit

Didi🦕: just be frank with him and say it’s coming along

Didi🦕: he goes easy on you anyway

Didi🦕: oh and ask what deadlines the publisher’s looking at

Didi🦕: you’ll get an idea of when to start pulling it all together that way

The sincerity with which she’s trying to make subtle amends almost makes Tej feel bad for lying. 

No, he tells himself instantly. No feeling bad for Tahira.

Me: Consider working for the CIA 

Me: The way you draw information out of people has to find appreciation somewhere 

Didi🦕: can the appreciation be better than my baby brother’s tiny packet of rage

Me: I’m ONE centimetre shorter FUCK OFF

Didi🦕: telling Maa you swear and shit now

Didi🦕: good luck 

Me: I hope it takes you two hours to find the right coffee for your pickiest artist

Didi🦕: 🖕🖕🖕

He’s still grumbling about their height difference when Tej’s eyes fall on the tiny purple icon on his homescreen. His Instagram’s been untouched since the day before yesterday and the lack of any little numbers to indicate unread messages now isn’t as much of a relief as it usually used to be. No word from his new neighbour.

Not that he has time to care about that. The clock shows 11:15 already. 

“Show time,” he mutters sadly to the blank page on his diary where only five decorated words sit at the top: 

‘EXCUSE LIST FOR ARTHUR CALL’

*

Bizarrely, it’s pretty much an inverse situation that’s unfolding, half an hour later. 

“I’m not mad,” Tej reassures. “It’s fine, Arthur, really.”

“I’m still sorry,” the man on his screen insists. “I should’ve texted or something, at the very least.”

Tej’s eyebrows rise. “In your sleep? You have that talent?” 

Arthur snorts, fixing the stack of diaries and folders he has open around him. He hadn’t called at 11:15 or responded when Tej texted him at 11:30 and so eventually, Tej had just called the other himself. He’d figured the agent would be busy with something, stuck in a meeting maybe and they’d reschedule but Arthur had simply fallen asleep at some coffee shop while working. 

Of course Tej wasn’t mad. Mondays. They get everybody.

His agent sighs when he’s done arranging his papers. There’s a light frown around his fair, squarish face but not a strand of hair is out of place. It makes Tej’s own scruffy bedhead feel a little self-conscious. “I’ve honestly done more complicated things in my sleep, I’m sure.” 

“Like finding an author who can’t even write the first sentence?”

Arthur’s eye roll is good-natured but Tej can’t find it in him to squash the little roiling in his chest that has kicked up. He’s gone and broached the topic – just like he planned in his useless pre-call prep time – but there’s no definitive idea of where to go from here. He’s rehearsed some nonsense but no matter how good a writer you are, there’s really no pretty way to say ‘I don’t have the new book you’ve been waiting on for months now’.  

“Putting pressure on yourself to produce a book will change the relationship you have with writing,” Arthur says and even though it’s mild, Tej feels schooled, almost. “Besides, this is just a catch-up call to see if you’re doing better, Tej. Not to hound you for the story. I told you in the email, remember?”

Tej does remember, actually, but his anxiety is incredibly good at discarding information it can’t twist into something big and dark and lurking. “Right, sorry. I am doing better, though. So there’s that.”

“That’s great. That’s step one and it’s very important so just think of it as getting one inch closer to the goal, yeah?” 

He nods absently. Someone’s entered the cafe Arthur is sitting in and Tej watches them zombie-walk till they disappear from the frame, presumably to order their drink. It’s half past noon, Tej thinks for a second. Then he remembers how many times he barely even stumbled to his own kitchen before six pm for a meal last year and chastises himself for judging.

“What about Oliver?” Arthur is asking now. “Have you been talking to him?”

The innocent question sends another guilty sting through his chest. What is it with everyone today asking if Tej has spoken to people he’s embarrassed to face? The curse of Mondays, probably.

“Uh, no,” he manages to respond, eyes quickly flitting down to where his fingers have busied themselves doodling a flower on the blank page. “Haven’t spoken to him, no.”

There’s a pause for a few moments but Tej doesn’t want to look up and see what Arthur is thinking. He’s gone through this ritual before; people unsure if they can press him to talk about whatever’s bothering him or weakly wondering out loud if he’s sure he doesn’t want to talk things through with his therapist.

And look, the simple answer would be: of course he wants to talk about what’s bothering him, he’d love to be addressing his issues with his therapist, but if there’s one thing Tej is, it’s self-aware. There’s no way Oliver is going to welcome him back into his office with open arms after a whole year of radio silence.

“Well, it’s your discretion, really.” Arthur is smiling when he interrupts Tej’s train of thought. It doesn’t have any added edge of condescension or blatant displeasure about his obstinance and that’s more than Tej really expects from anyone else he still regularly talks to (only Tahira, technically, which sounds quite sad in retrospect) so he’s happy. He smiles at his agent and the rest of the call is spent on trivial questions.

There’s polite queries about his family, Tahira’s job, a couple of probes into whether Tej has kept his distance from social media apps (that one he has to avoid by faking a coughing fit but Arthur has thankfully moved on by the time he downs his water) and Tej’s nervousness ebbs.

The agent does ask if he’s been thinking about the outline of the story at which point Tej has to lie and say he has a tentative plan chalked out but there’s no enquiring about the details so he’s safe. The other has been asked by the publisher for a date by which they can expect a draft but Arthur ensures him that there’s no rush.

“That’s good to know,” Tej exhales. The tightness is unwinding a little now that his neck no longer feels trapped in a pillory. “Mehr used to, very politely, threaten to confiscate my decór one by one if I didn’t meet deadlines.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Arthur says, struggling to maintain a straight face. “Those paintings in your house are delightful.”

Tej grumbles. One day, he’ll find someone with artistic sense honed enough to appreciate his decór but till then, he’s fated to suffer the creatively challenged naysayers around him. 

Within a few more minutes, conversation is wrapping up. It’s later in the afternoon for Arthur so he needs to get going for lunch and Tej should probably make an attempt to clean up his ‘outline’. “Alright then. I’ll let you get back to it.”

“Staring blankly at my screen?” Tej asks wryly.

“Letting your ideas stew in your massive brain, I think you mean.” 

Tej sighs but he isn’t surprised at the response. It’s Arthur’s most defining characteristic, never allowing anybody to talk themselves down in front of him. Once upon a time, it would’ve terrified Tej, being subjected to this much faith and kindness but Tej went through the hardest hit in his career a few months ago and Arthur’s still here, believing and supporting him. He has no business questioning the other. 

If anything, it makes him even more determined to produce at least the rough draft of half a chapter today. Nodding at Arthur, he straightens up in his chair. “Thanks, Arthur. I…don’t know where I’d be without your patience.”

The other’s expression softens but he’s waving off the words before Tej even finishes. “It’s the least I owe you. Especially after everything that went down with the last book, I feel—”

“No,” Tej cuts him off firmly. He should’ve seen this coming. “Don’t say that. That was solely my decision, you have no reason to feel guilty about it. I’m focusing on the new book so you do the same, okay? No beating ourselves up for what’s already happened.”

Saying it is easier than following through but Tej knows that no amount of overthinking can fix the past. If it could magically remedy the mistake he made, the past few months should’ve ensured that things would be damn near perfect now – he’d still be in New York, adored by readers instead of working through the biggest writing block of his life. 

Since he’s not, though, all he can do is go on and make the best of whatever lies within his control now. The weight on his tongue dissolves when Arthur smiles and accepts his reassurances and then they’re both saying their goodbyes before the call disconnects.

*

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