The first time I made a friend on a dating app was back in 2019, a year before covid would make it the most popular way of finding love, friendship, and the various iterations of them online to stave away loneliness. His name was Mark (name changed ), an almost-but-not-quite-arrived actor and musician, one of the thousands New York spits out every day, before walking away, high on her cocktail of glitter, haste, and indifference. I had moved there in late 2018 for a master’s degree in journalism, a long-cherished dream, and was still getting used to a city faster—much faster—than languorous, sea-girdled Chennai, my hometown.
I probably shouldn't have even gone on a date. Or at least that is what any voice of reason—read best friend, mother, therapist—would have told me if I had asked. I was going through a break-up with my then-partner and was still grappling with my feelings about it. But Mark seemed attractive and kind and warm, and I was very lonely. Even better, his profile had pictures of the big bookshelves in his Harlem studio: too many books written by white men on it for my taste, but still books. (I'm a sucker for a man who reads.)
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We decided to meet at his subway stop; I missed it and arrived late. He was already there when I finally reached, leaning against the dirty white tiles, dressed in black, his face pallid under the harsh subway light. We introduced ourselves and then walked over to a nearby McDonald's, where we ordered coffee. Around us, raucous children jostled against our chairs and spilt soda on the stained linoleum floor. I don't remember what we talked about, but we became friends by the end of that conversation.
All through that winter, a memory constantly flitted across my mind: a production I had watched back in India called The Manganiyar Seduction, a magnificent musical production featuring 40-odd Rajasthani folk musicians, by theatre director Roysten Abel. In their home settings, these folk musicians sit in groups, their white kurtas and multi-hued tie-and-dye turbans contrasting starkly with the ochre sand, filling the vast, arid landscape of the Thar desert with their ethereal music. But on stage, they stayed within layered, red-draped lit boxes, the set reminiscent of the brothels of Amsterdam. Each musician played his part beautifully, but he never once met the eye of his neighbour.
New York, almost always, felt like that.
I had never been so lonely, so unmoored. School was overwhelming, not the coursework so much as the performative discussions that most classes revolved around—I suffer from mild glossophobia, also known as fear of public speaking. Most days, I returned from classes to an empty apartment, wracked with anxiety and an unshakeable sense of my own inadequacy. I spent long evenings marinating in a bathtub, reading Anne Sexton and Joan Didion, the bottoms of those books soaking up the scent of lavender and lemon.
And on the days the solitude became too much to handle, I hung out with Mark. They were strange, fluid encounters that contained many things—concern, friendship, passion, comfort, tenderness, conversation—but evaded an absolute label or definition. Or perhaps it was simply the way New York's dating scene worked: lonely people finding shelter for a bit, before moving on because no one has the time or space or money to make a real emotional investment.
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Looking back, I think that what tied us together the most was the unhappiness. Misery, as that old cliché goes, has always liked company; we found it in each other. “I’m too old for this life,” he would tell me, his nearly-50-year-old back aching from the long nights he worked as a bartender to support himself between acting gigs. His despair was as palpable as my own, an inexorable black dog, nudging his ankles and licking his calves, a stygian shadow. Strangely, I found it oddly comforting. Other people's happiness had begun to feel disconcerting back then; his bleakness, on the other hand, felt familiar and normalised my own despondency.
What I remember the most about him is his kindness. "Text me when you get home," he would tell me, something no one had asked me to do since I had left India. "Here, take a book," he said one day while I was leaving, giving me a copy of Henry Miller's Crazy Cock. My first (and last) New York winter was cold, harsh, and unrelenting; having him around helped.
Sometimes we talked—mostly about books and politics—and sometimes, there were long comfortable silences spent watching his pet turtle press against the glass panel of her terrarium. "I love her more than anything in the world," he had said over a fervent exchange we had when we first matched on OkCupid, following that declaration with a flurry of photographs of the animal. And often, there was music. I told him that I was obsessed with Leonard Cohen, that “Winter Lady” had become my song. So, he picked up his guitar and played the song for me, the notes drifting off the balcony and into the frigid night.
When Spring arrived and the tulips bloomed, the ex-boyfriend returned. "It was a misunderstanding," he said. "I meant to call, but stuff just happened." Or something along those lines, I forget the exact words.
"I'm back with him, and I want to make it work," I texted Mark. He wished me luck. Maybe he was a little hurt—I know I would have been—but his last message gave nothing away. “Look after yourself, kid,” he typed. I never saw him again.
As a little girl, I knew exactly how I was going to fall in love. I would meet the eyes of a handsome stranger across a stack of books in a library. He would ask me out to coffee, and we would talk for hours about books. And then, the inevitable Cupid's arrows and all that.
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I no longer believe in this sort of love, for one single perfect person who stays that way forever. We change too much throughout a lifetime. Making romantic love the centre of one's existence had begun to feel increasingly more futile over the years; all dreams and feelings funnelled into a single capricious human almost stultifying. Instead, I've begun to find meaning in the little moments of warmth and kindness, floating around in the air like parachuting dandelion seeds.
My ex-boyfriend and I jogged along for a few more months, buoyed by dreams and plans that didn't go anywhere. I left New York in the fall of 2019, considerably sadder than I was when I arrived. I left behind a lot—clothes, books, shoes, winterwear—things I had acquired over that year, stuff I no longer needed or simply could not carry back.
As I packed my bags, weighing and re-weighing them to ensure I didn't go over the weight requirement, I realised I had room for one last book. Crazy Cock came back with me to India.
Crushes and Exes is an occasional series that chronicles found, lost and elusive stories of love.
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