Health & Family

Modern Love: A forbidden relationship, from the other side of the world

NEW YORK TIMES

On the day she and I met in a Chicago bar, her father had been threatened by terrorists and rescued by commandos in the Mumbai attacks halfway around the world. It was so loud at the bar that I didn’t catch any of this. We talked about Lady Gaga.

Lady Gaga wasn’t as well known back then and I had never heard of her, but I agreed she was the best. As I followed this new woman outside to smoke, my friends rolled their eyes at me and made the usual commentary about cradle robbing; at 31, I was nearly a decade older than she.

Around 6 a.m., a cab honked in front of my apartment on Chicago’s North Side, and she went home to India for several weeks, where the Mumbai terror attacks had left hundreds dead and many others traumatized. For me, that day began a two-year relationship for which I would move hundreds of miles.

She was a student and lived in a crumbling mansion on the South Side with a gaggle of overachieving fellow students who seemed to come from a futuristic, transnational and postracial world where everyone was studying to be an economist but also had never had a job or thought about money as a concrete object.

I impressed them with my beer pong skills and ability to tolerate drinks that cause long and malingering hangovers in people over the age of 27.

My girlfriend had more money than anyone I had ever met, but this was easier to overlook in Chicago, with its laid-back, Midwestern mood.

Her family, who either didn’t know or pretended not to know that she was gay, was constantly whisking her away on international trips and vacations. She would Skype me, looking miserable in a sari in front of cinematic backdrops.

Once, while buried in blankets during a blizzard, I watched as a dolphin leapt in the background while she complained that a relative had thrown a spoon at a servant for serving tea incorrectly.

My girlfriend’s family managed every aspect of her life. Shortly after her graduation, they decided she should move to New York, so she packed her bags.

Together at last

When I got to her apartment, she handed me a crème brûlee flavored cupcake and explained what had happened. I put the cupcake on my dashboard and left it there for the next six months, where it calcified and became a graveyard for cigarettes and other detritus - perhaps a metaphor, of some sort. It smelled horrible.

I visited my girlfriend often in New York until eventually I decided to move there. In one of the bigger and more anonymous cities in the world, we would have even less time together, and we would need to pretend to be straight during most of it. There were Indians everywhere, Indians who knew other Indians who knew her family.

When her parents visited, she told them I was an older friend from her billiards league. There is no way her mother fell for this, especially after she saw me play billiards.

At a restaurant in the meatpacking district, I had my first dinner with her parents. Things were going well. They liked my jokes and vegetarianism.

Her mother clasped my arm and leaned in. “You should come to my daughter’s wedding,” she said. “There will be monkeys.”

By the time of the monkey-wedding invite, I had been pretending to be straight, part-time, for more than a year. I had developed a fondness for dosas and a tolerance of strong spices. I was finally living in New York.

My girlfriend, it turned out, was not.

After dinner that night, as I returned to my rusty Volkswagen full of my belongings in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she remained with her parents for what I can only imagine was a chat about their family empire and shared future, a narrative that obviously did not include me.

My friends had prepared me for this day, the day her parents would tell her she had to move home. How else could something like this end?

Regrets?

As much as I have dreamed of paying off my student loans before I turn 60, I never wanted her wealth or what came with it. And I probably always understood that she would one day move back to India. Part of what made our relationship so compelling was the fact that it was always completely doomed, a reality that gave every tiny exchange an electric charge.

A few months later, after many tense negotiations and late nights spent smoking on the window ledge of my girlfriend’s co-op, I drove her to the airport so she could move home. That day she looked smaller and younger than I had ever seen her. Her eyes were red and almost swollen shut.

I was worried about what would happen to her. I was annoyed that she was leaving me alone in a city where I knew no one.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised, and I wasn’t. In no reality do two people from such wildly different backgrounds somehow come together and build a middle-class life together.

Even so, I didn’t regret any of it. Love often doesn’t arrive at the right time or in the right person. It makes us do ridiculous and stupid things. But without it, life is just a series of unremarkable events, one after the other.

Meghan Austin works in development at a nonprofit.

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