At first, he was a fairy tale. Later, an addiction. We met the old-fashioned way — on a Muslim dating app. I had swiped right. Because he had kind eyes, or because a random phrase from his profile resonated with me. Because he understood the difference between “your” and “you’re.”
Not because I thought he and I would ever meet in person. Not because I thought we had potential. Because we didn’t.
Our exchange began unoriginally, with him saying, “Hey, what’s up?” and me saying, “Hey, nothing much.”
I had no expectations. I was in New Jersey; he was in Massachusetts.
The next night he said, “Is it bad that I’m already planning my trip down from Boston?”
Cute, if a little premature. “You should probably vet me first. I could be dangerous.”
“Want to FaceTime?”
I did not. I had just gotten home from work. I hadn’t eaten. I had already washed off my makeup and changed into an oversized T-shirt and sweats. But I said, “Sure.”
I had recently recovered from a series of lectures from my mother on how I needed to focus on my personal life. She said I, at 30, was getting old. It was time to get married. And I agreed. I wanted to. I just hadn’t met the right guy. I was trying. “It’s hard out here,” I said.
My mother wasn’t interested in excuses. I had spent nearly the past decade focusing on my medical training, but the end of training was near, and I needed to reprioritize.
He was eating dinner when he called. For a few minutes, I tried to be agreeable and sweet. I nodded at everything he said. I thought I’d try to keep it short. But soon, I wasn’t tired at all. With each word he spoke, I was more mesmerized.
He was handsome, well-educated, successful. His voice had just the right amount of gravel. He made me shy but not nervous. Comfortable but not bored. And he seemed to adore me, almost instantly. From then on, I craved his adoration.
A pandemic afforded us an accelerated kind of intimacy. When we spoke over FaceTime, it was never for fewer than four hours. We ate together. Fell asleep together. Daydreamed together.
He told me about his father leaving when he was a child and his mother’s struggles. I told him about my history of disordered eating. He recited Urdu poetry and sent me cloyingly romantic Bollywood songs. I tried to convince him of the merits of T.S. Eliot. On Hemingway and Fitzgerald, we agreed. I hadn’t felt quite so much myself with anyone in a long time.
I wasn’t sure how this had happened. Or why he liked me. I didn’t think I was his type. His Instagram account was filled with comments from voluptuous women in carefully applied makeup, out in the world, being fun and outgoing and uninhibited.
I was flat chested with braces and didn’t own a single piece of lingerie. I chose to read novels on my days off, and still nicked myself every time I tried to shave my knees. I had never been in a real relationship, and I didn’t believe in premarital sex. Knowing all of this, he still looked at me like I was an undiscovered planet. And I believed that look.
Two weeks after we first met online, he drove down to see me. I took him to the only place in town that I knew had grilled cheese, his indulgence of choice. We ended up on the same side of the booth so we could watch the presidential election unfold on the television by the bar.
On the car ride back, he took my hand from my lap and pressed his thumb into the doughy part of my palm as if he were hollowing out a spot to plant a seed. He wove his fingers into mine, held my hand to his chest, dipped his chin, closed his eyes, pressed his lips to my knuckles.
I was afraid to move. I was afraid he would let go. I felt like I was holding his entire world in my small fist, and I wanted to keep holding him there for as long as I could.
But if the pandemic had afforded us an insulated dream world, it had also allowed for some smoke screens. Eventually, we fought. He was the only person I wasn’t afraid to get angry with, which felt empowering. He was flaky about making plans. Unreliable about returning phone calls. Inconsistent in his affection. Too mysterious for too long.
He said there were things he hadn’t told me but eventually would. I already had discovered his real age through a perfunctory Google search — 41 not 36. In truth, I had known before I knew. He was too full of anecdotes and advice, too successful, and a little too jaded to be 36. He wasn’t the first to lie on a dating app, and an 11-year age gap didn’t faze me, but I was afraid of what else was waiting to be uncovered.
I found what I was looking for in the archives of a Facebook page. I hadn’t gone there with the intention to investigate. It seemed only natural that after months of being with him, we should at least be friends on various social media platforms. But when I found his account and scrolled, I stepped on a crack in a glass floor and fell through — all the way to 2014.
A woman had tagged him in a picture of a child handing out water bottles at a mosque. He didn’t have any nieces. It struck me as a bit off. I clicked on the woman’s profile and scrolled to a post that read “People, mail out your damn RSVPs or stay home … yeah, it’s Bridezilla talking!” under which he had commented, “I’ve got your back girl!”
Another post read, “School, exams, wedding … stressed,” under which he had written, “Don’t worry, love … I am coming.” There were more. Him telling her he missed her that day or that she was cuter than some Bollywood actress. Him calling her “sweets.”
My heart sank deeper with each word.
I wanted to be livid. I wanted to want nothing to do with him ever again. But instead, I felt physically ill, with a kind of unshakable angst. The angst of being left alone on the first day at a new school. The despair of waiting for the results of an exam you know you’ve failed, except amplified to the point of desperation.
He had a child? And an ex-wife, or maybe a wife? Please, not a wife. Had it all been in my head? Had he been playing with me this whole time? Who was I to him anyway? I still wanted him to want me. To choose me. And I didn’t know why I wanted those things anymore.
He called a half-hour later. He was moving around his kitchen and rambling about something. I could hardly register a word. I nodded agreeably. I was mostly quiet. I am not good at pretending to be OK.
“What’s up with you?” he said.
“Were you married before?”
He stopped moving. “What? Why?”
“I found your Facebook page.”
“I was married, and then divorced.” He looked away, dipped his head into his hand, pushed back his long hair. “You know everything now,” he said with a sigh. And then his phone died. Or he hung up. Or the connection dropped. All I knew is that he was gone. I tried to call him back, again and again, until I realized that it might really be over.
He ignored every call and text for days. I felt like a diver who is constantly trying to come up for air but keeps getting sucked back down. How had someone who was no one to me in September become so utterly indispensable by January?
I had grown up willfully independent. Unwavering in my certainty that I could only depend upon myself, that I had everything within me that I would ever require. I knew I didn’t need him, but somehow the boundary between necessity and desire was dissolving. I wanted him because I needed to be this less inhibited, more liberated version of me, and I wasn’t sure how to do that without him.
A few weeks later, he called. Or I called and he finally picked up. Eventually, he apologized. Or I apologized and he said something sweet, and I nearly forgot what I wanted him to be sorry for. It was true — he was a divorcé and a dad. But, somewhere along the way, this had become my rendition of Prince Charming.
We talked for hours. It felt like finding home again after walking aimlessly for days. There was nothing left to hide. Maybe that’s all there is to hope for. Maybe that’s all love is. An attachment not contingent upon anything.
Not all love is meant to endure. Ours didn’t. But it is never entirely lost, though it may be carved into a finite moment in time. A quenched fire whose embers glow quietly within us.