AT THE CENTER OF THE SKY
Had it not been for his Planet Romeo profile – which popped up again in January after being invisible for a few months – James might have completely slipped out of my memory. Seconds after I sent a Hello, his text message appeared on my phone. It went something like this: “Sorry I dropped the ball on this one. Got sick last fall so I went back to the US. I’m in town now. Still want to get coffee?”
A few days later, we dodged motorbikes while making our way through old Patan’s intricate alleys. Leaning against the museum’s brick wall, exchanging tidbits from our lives, we spent a couple of hours at the palace square. He was a student of Buddhism, enrolled in a non-degree course, eight years younger than me, somewhat acquainted with Kathmandu, easy to talk to. The winter sun sat at the center of the sky, warming our chilly bodies. Flocks of pigeons randomly flew from the museum’s roof to the Krishna temple. Throughout the conversation, I kept shifting my gaze, from the sky to the temples to his face. His hair was dark brown; his lips slightly cracked. He seemed okay with life in this city, despite the minimal hours of electric power, the dust and the traffic, the ongoing fuel shortage.
Before he headed back to Boudha for his 4 pm class, we made tentative plans; perhaps a hike in the near future. I walked back home feeling quite pleasant. It had been a proper date, an anomaly in Kathmandu, something I have gotten quite used to since returning from New York three years ago.
A week passed, then another one. But I did not feel the urge to text James, even though the temperature dramatically rose and the sky opened up, revealing snow-clad Langtang range in the distance. The hills beckoned; I grew restless. But I distracted myself with insignificant errands. Why was I hesitating with James? Let me go back a bit to provide some context.
My teenage fantasies were filled with Hindi film heroes. I imagined vacations with someone tall and strong like Akshay Kumar. Our wedding reception would include choreographed dance performances, just like in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.
But then I left Kathmandu to attend a small liberal arts college in Vermont, and after graduating, landed in New York City. My Indian-hero fantasies gradually got replaced by other alluring dreams that included other kinds of men. I was in New York after all. The possibilities were endless. Perhaps I would fall for an Italian from Astoria, or a Lebanese traveler, or a second generation Brazilian.
My first proper affair turned out to be with a French Canadian who had grown up in Maine. He worked in the advertising world. He was stylish. He was thirteen years older than me. Our five-month relationship was a heady, flashy ride infused with experimental cocktails and Chelsea dinners. But then, when he started planning for a temporary work transfer to Shanghai – he badly needed a break from the city – it became an excuse to break up. “I was hoping you would move with me,” he later confessed. But I was going through an altogether different phase. I was twenty-five, eager to be a New Yorker. I could not imagine leaving the city even for a few months.
My faith was intact. Romantic possibilities lurked everywhere within this grand city – along its numerous sidewalks, inside its cafes. So I plodded through the wintry months, diligently met up with friends at restaurants and bars, even though New York’s novelty was rapidly wearing off.
Life took bumpy, abstruse turns as I traversed through my late twenties. I started relying on Happy Hour Fridays to anaesthetize myself from the pain of a rigorous workweek. Whatever desire I had, I quelled with meaningless hookups now and then. The truth was that since I had not come out to my parents, I was quite insecure and confused about how to move forward. I dodged marriage questions during international phone calls with my mother. I was convinced that my parents would never understand my identity. Words and phrases would be of no use. It would only cause bewilderment. During those years, I lived as if an iron weight was tied to my legs and I kept sinking deeper into my New York life, burying myself with fear, self-pity and hopelessness. It did not help that I was getting increasingly burnt out at work, but legal regulations limited my options to take a break or explore. I struggled. I could not see a future for myself, whether in America or in Nepal. And so, it’s possible that the struggle interfered with my romantic pursuits.
Despite such anxiety, I did manage to cultivate a short, loving relationship with a young Cuban-American yogi. He helped me relax by suggesting various breathing techniques. I asked him to move in. In retrospect, I wonder whether our primary source of mutual attraction was the fact that we were both stuck in life. We saw ourselves as the others’ savior. We became interdependent. We talked about escaping from New York; we both wanted to be somewhere else. One day, he also declared that he was moving to Colorado. There was no hope for us.
I started seeing a counselor. I dragged myself to a small Manhattan office every Tuesday afternoon. I talked about my fears. It became clear that in order to emerge out of this darkness, I had to face my parents. So a month after I turned thirty, I flew to Kathmandu, determined. But I could not muster up the courage until the morning of my departure. Enthused by a friend’s email, I sat my parents down and somehow, managed to find the words. I started by saying that I am not attracted to women, the way most men are. That they should not expect me to get married. I even dropped the word “gay” into the conversation. My father was surprisingly calm. He did not threaten to cut me off. But the color drained from my mother’s face. Leaving my parents shocked and speechless was not an ideal scenario but I was too relieved for my own sake.
Months after returning to New York, I made the mistake of dating a friend. I was sick of being single. I did not have the energy to be alone anymore. But I was quite unprepared for what happened next. Despite eight years of work experiences, my immigration paperwork ran into trouble. So I made an abrupt decision to return to Nepal. I had had it with America.
The boyfriend followed – it had been a bad idea all along – and the relationship rapidly deteriorated and crashed. The family situation was still rocky. So I moved into a flat by myself. Thankfully, I was introduced to a circle of friends – mostly artists, writers, photographers – who inspired me with their creative work and alternative lifestyles. Mostly due to their tacit support, I was able to carve a space for myself in Kathmandu.
I threw a big party to celebrate my thirty-third birthday. By that point, most of my friends had moved past marriage. The invites I received were mostly for pasni parties. But it did not matter. Because after all those years of sinking, I had finally resurfaced. I had reached a point in life where I was able to recalibrate my expectations and take stock of my options in a realistic way. I felt at peace. I was quite content being on my own.
Which brings me back to James. It’s possible that I don’t want to go hiking with him because I am not ready to, quite yet, tear myself between two worlds again. But It’s also possible that due to whatever reason – difficult childhood, stern parents – I will always have trouble with romantic relationships. It’s possible that I am afraid to open up, to be intimate, to take risks.
It’s possible that various men will enter and leave my life following random rhythms and I will get used to transient pleasure and periodic companionship. That I will subconsciously follow the examples of so many other men who, instead of coupling and settling down, lived at the edge of society, questioning every norm.
But then, it’s also possible that I have become a casualty, a casualty of modernity, of our flat, globalized world. That somehow time passed while moving here and there, learning this and that. While considering my choices and making up my mind. It’s possible that I will grow old by myself.
It’s also possible that I will, one day, fall in love with a smart, suitable man. It’s possible that the man will be Indian, someone similar to the heroes from my teenage dreams. It’s also possible that he will be an American, or Indonesian, or a boy from Kazakhstan. It’s possible that whoever he is, he will convince me to leave Kathmandu and take me to a faraway coastal town where we will lead a quiet, content life.
It’s also possible that I will never leave Nepal, that there will be a time when I will share every detail of my New York days with my Nepali partner and our large extended families. It’s possible that together we will buy a farmhouse in the Terai and throw regular dinner parties during winter weekends.
“It’s possible that various men will enter and leave my life following random rhythms and I will get used to transient pleasure and periodic companionship. That I will subconsciously follow the examples of so many other men who, instead of coupling and settling down, lived at the edge of society, questioning every norm”