Friday, June 11, 2010

Pen Pals!!!

Dario and I met the summer of 96. I believe it was 96 because it was soon after that period everyone called the early nineties. When the local televisions boasted of only two channels. PTV, which was finally losing its boring monopoly and NTM - or was it STN - the cool new hip channel. NTM allowed us local teens a peek into an hour of cartoons (Ninja Turtles were all the rave) an hour of a sitcoms (censored kisses on Chico and the Man) and an hour before the news of a Western Drama (Magnum P.I, quickly became a serious crush). It was the moustache! Replaced my fascination for that thick patch above Jackie Shroff’s lips. So, with not much else to do besides reading Sweet Dreams and – secretly, sometimes Mills & Boons – we all waited every week for those hip shows on the cool new channel. Shows like MCC (Music Channel Chart) and Lollywood Top Ten. Back then, I probably also harbored a semi-crush on many band members that were named after solar-system planets. Seriously, there was a band called Fringe Benefits and no one batted an eyelid. How about the one called Jupiters? But I think those crushes were the fault of having nothing else to do. Neither Magnum P.I nor Jackie Shroff were attainable compared to members of Awaaz (my crush on those two quickly ended too when I saw them loitering around Jinnah Super one evening. One was shorter than I, the other had more make up than I.) So what else was there to do back then? Well of course, there were those lame dance parties where someone’s drawing room was turned into a discotheque after furniture was removed, carpets were rolled up and Mommy/Papa were shipped out of town. If songs like Mr. Vain, What is Love and No Limits don’t bring back memories for any of you readers, you probably don’t know about that time I am so eloquently harping about. For those of you who can’t get those annoying beats out of your heads now, you know exactly what it was like to be a teen in Pakistan in the mid-nineties. Don’t you?

Why yes!

So then, you probably also remember the controversy around allowing the internet in Pakistan. God forbid it would further corrupt the living room dancing, Mills & Boons reading, Pappasalis and Yummy 36 eating, Jackie Shroff/Magnum P.I. crushing youth of Pakistan. Bearded men – I like moustaches not beards just so you know - were afraid of totas being replaced by broadband pornography. They were also scared that boys and girls who only secretly talked on the phone before could now chat and email I love you, I love you’s to each other. Oh and of course they were scared that strangers thousands of miles apart could find a way to become friends. The way Dario and I did. I must admit though, in the beginning the words internet and email were as alien to me as brb and LOL. But back then, the bearded ones were smart. We were only allowed a twisted version of cyber-world called text-only. As in, no images allowed. Sounds as pathetic as censored Ninja Turtles and Tiny Toons. But that my young OC-watching friends of today was how we were raised and we still turned out normal. I know, I know some may argue that statement is still up for debate! But on those text-only internet days, I browsed and clicked, chatted and surfed while mornings quickly rolled into afternoons and then just as quickly into evenings. One day, on those morning-ish afternoons, I came across a website for email pen pals. Since I had not yet received a single email on my newly created yahoo address, I decided to give it a try. I thought it would be nice to have an email to respond to. Yes my dear youth of today, you may have your inbox flooded with spam for miraculous penis-enlarging pills and South African Heiresses looking for investors but back then, we were never lucky enough to get such offers. After browsing a few ads, one caught my eye. It was a request from an Arizona State University freshman called Dario. Ok fine, his pen-pal request was only mildly amusing but he described himself as 6-feet tall, African American, well-built, with a moustache (of course). Such a description definitely warranted a message! I immediately emailed him.

Dario and I began corresponding on a regular basis. He seemed like a nice guy; grew up in a small American town and confessed that before he came to ASU, he had never met anyone from Pakistan. I told him he wasn’t missing much. (Disclaimer: after 9-11 I have become more patriotic but back then I was a high-school rebel so humor me a little ok!) Once the beard patrol finally relented to allow images on the internet, he sent a few photographs of himself. I was instantly in love and picking out china, shaadi-halls and divorce lawyers for our inter-racial marriage. Hey, the man was hot! I was slightly offended when he did not ask for my picture in return but that’s ok…I understand…we had plenty of years ahead of us where he could fall in love with me and then learn Urdu and wear shalwar kurtas.

Just as quickly as our complicated pen-pal romance blossomed, it fizzled too. I found myself with a new crush on a tall Irish lad at ISI so my cyber-love affair with an African-American freshman understandably took a backseat. Besides, he was a terrible email flirt. I mean sure I needed some practice too but he was just horrible! So anyway, years rolled by. I lost some more weight, became slightly – emphasis on the word slightly – more attractive by my A-levels. Had a few more crushes and a few failed romances at UCI and forgot all about Dario. After my A’s I headed off to a small liberal arts college to “discover myself” and break free off the protective bubble I always lived in. I was a young, sheltered girl ready to see the world and live a crazy life of anonymity. I made my plans for college. Plans to shave my head and dye my hair electric blue (yes I now realize those are two mutually exclusive idiocies but I never claimed to be the brightest bulb either). My plans also included dropping out of college after my freshman year and running away with a soul-mate with dreadlocks (and a moustache) to live in a hippie commune. I would sell handmade postcards on the beach and direct eccentric skits for a living like the Cockettes of San Francisco circa 1970s. Needless to say, I did everything in college but tamer versions of my planned fantasies. Though I never became the Sinead-O-Connor of my campus, I did dye my hair blue at one point. (Advice: Always bleach your hair first. I had to find out the hard way.) I didn’t really run away to live in a commune with hippies either because…well…I like to think it was merely due to a lack of good-looking men in my small town who sported both dreadlocks and moustaches (a very important pre-requisite). Believe me I looked and nope there weren’t any. But I digress.

After I graduated, I moved to New York City and couch surfed while temping at odd administrative jobs. I finally found both a stable career and an apartment. My stable career: an assistant to an overpaid, overweight, advertising big-wig. My first apartment: a corner of a room in the Bronx. That corner is still just down the street from my present studio apartment and I miss it terribly. I digress again. Where were we? Why yes. So, it was one of those boring mundane days at the office job. I had just finished blogging, checking my boss’s messages, fending off the usual married perverts in a polite way (polite in case I needed another job or a raise) when I came across an email on a celebrity gossip website. Dario _____. (Blank is where his actual surname was.) I immediately emailed and asked him if he was in fact THE Dario from many years back. I got an email within minutes and he replied that he absolutely remembered the pen-pal from Pakistan he had six years ago. The way he made smiley faces at the end of his replies was still so dreamy. I also found out that he had graduated from ASU, two years before me and now lived….ready for it? New York City! Just like me. In fact, he too worked a boring, mundane job as an assistant just a few blocks away from my cubicle-infested building. We immediately decided to meet at a nearby deli for lunch.

In the beginning, it was awkward but what did we expect. We were mere strangers who had exchanged a few emails six years ago. During lunch, our conversation was very polite, peppered with questions about each other’s college majors, life in the city, Bronx (where I lived) and Brooklyn (where he dwelled), current jobs and future plans. He was still as handsome as ever but beefier from what I remembered. When he mentioned his ex and how he just broke up with HIM a few months ago, I realized why he had never really asked for my picture or been a good flirt for that matter. I trudged upon that topic carefully and cautiously because I did not want to offend him. I had plenty of gay friends in college so I knew better than to jump up and down and declare my love for Will & Grace when introduced to a homosexual man. We parted ways amicably and politely. We promised to stay in touch and agreed to do lunch again. We never saw each other for the next six months. The next time I ran into him was on the subway after work as we both headed home. I recognized the handsome face reading a paperback on the 6 train so I decided to say hi. The conversation this time was more fun. We shared some politically incorrect jokes to break the ice, pointed out good-looking men on the train to each other and talked about our weekends, both equally scandalous. This time when we parted ways, we made plans to hang out and meant it.

A few weeks later I was headed home around 10pm after a boring dinner with some old college friends when my phone rang. It was Dario and he was drunk (later I would realize that alcohol was the least of his vices). When I told him I was on my way home to take myself to bed, he urged me to change my mind.

“Step away from the subway and come join me at the bar.” He continued to chant and within minutes, I went from yawning on the underground platform to a dark, dimly lit bar in Chelsea. That night ended up being one of those crazy nights you laugh about at work the next day and then write about years later (which is exactly what I’m doing right now). A night where we danced with every stranger in the bar and I confessed my love to an Ethiopian cab driver who in hindsight wasn’t all that good-looking but he had a moustache. (Do you notice a pattern here?) Dario and I left the first bar and ended up in three different other bars. We had decided to bar-hop across town in search of Dario’s hookup. I had assumed he meant a one-night-stand but by the time we found his hookup, a large, busty, Latina lesbian who kept on eyeing me from head to toe, I realized his hookup was not a date for the night but merely his coke-dealer. Now I have lived on the wild side in college myself but drugs is something I never really indulged in. The occasional Tylenol every now and then to sooth a headache is the only pill-popping that I have ever done in my life. Still, who am I to judge (and if you are still reading, I assume you’re not the judging sort either.) I followed Dario around all night as his self-esteem got boost after boost from quick bumps of expensive white powder in back bathrooms. The night ended with the two of us giggling like giddy school girls in a McDonalds on Times Square and then took cabs back to our beds that awaited us for a few hours of sleep before alarm clocks would wake us up for work.

“Don’t worry sweetie” Dario would drone his words every morning after partying on a week night “All you have to do is show up!”

We became inseparable. Best friends! We had lunch together everyday at work where we people watched and played our favorite game of “if you could marry one guy on this street right now.” Luckily we had very different tastes in men, so we knew we would never fight over a man. During work, we entertained ourselves with instant messages and witty texts.

“Girl…remember that hot mess at the club last night” he would text.

“Girl…that poor soul was crying for a makeover.” I would text back.

Then there were happy hours after work. We would always promise ourselves a quick drink no longer than an hour, but each evening would end up on different dance floors and drug binged after parties until the wee hours of the morning. By daybreak, Dario and I would rehearse our voice mail messages to our bosses “Cough…cough…I wont be in till noon today…I think I have the flu.” The weekends we spent in all the over-priced yet mammoth dance clubs of New York like Roxy, Limelight and Exit. Dario knew a lot of people in the nightlife business. He knew every bouncer (we never had to wait in line behind a velvet rope as we sashayed straight to the entrance and I stuck my tongue out at the other girls freezing in their miniskirts). He also knew every bartender (I never ever paid for drinks). Once the clubs closed at sunrise, we would immediately be huddled in a cab with strangers on our way to some after party at a B-list celebrity’s loft in Manhattan. When we would finally stop our partying we would always end up crashing on each other’s couches. The next day, we would eat eggs and waffles at 8pm and joke about how we had not seen Sunday daylight for the past several months. Anything and everything was possible with Dario. The time we tricked two guys to buy us breakfast and then snuck out the back door or the time Dario dared me to throw a drink at Sherockya World (the fiercest drag queen in Queens). I did. Later, Sherockya chased me around the club with her Manolo Blahnik while Dario sat back and laughed. The drag queen and I eventually made peace once I promised to buy her a cheese-burger from Burger King. I think we may have even crashed at her apartment that night but those minor details are not really important here.

You see, partying came natural to Dario. It also helped that he was fueled by every drug known to man. At first I thought that cocaine was his only vice but soon I realized, he did not care what he shot up his nose or down his throat as long as it ensured a night crazier than the last. When Dario began using crystal meth, I did begin to show my concern. He immediately shunned me down. I realized that our friendship was based solely on fun nights of crazy partying that turned into mornings. That was it. Beyond that, I was never to preach or dispense any form of advice. I was to only laugh, giggle, pick fights with crazy drag queens and stumble home on subways at day-break with Dario next to me. I was to obediently follow my role as the good hag, nothing else.

Sometimes, I would sit and smile and think about our first ever email to each other in 96. How he talked about his freshman year classes and I went on about how much I hated my life. How I then dreamt of a chick-flick-ish, serendipitous romance between him and I. Serendipity, there was. Romance, not so much. Now, years later, we found each other in our own twisted version of a chick-flick. Dario had become more or less my soul-mate. Not the kind I could marry but lives are complicated. He was who I had settled with as the only man in my life. It did not matter though. If I ever stopped to think about such serious things, I was immediately whisked away to the fantasy world Dario and I had built around each other. Making memories that made us laugh. Always each other’s dates to work events, like the time we snuck out of a boring Christmas company party to go to a dingy bar where I spent all night dancing on a speaker in a sari. Men hovered around me and told me they loved me. Then, they slipped Dario their numbers. Sigh, refer to the earlier line I wrote about lives being complicated and all. Dario and I even took a vacation together. I had always wanted to visit South Beach. I once came very close to spending spring break there my senior year of college (had the bikini picked out and everything) but had to cancel plans at the last minute because a friend backed out due to insufficient funds and another ditched us for a cruise with a new – and much older, I should add - boyfriend. That relationship did not last more than a tan, which I would have had, had we gone to South Beach for spring break. Dario was convinced that the man of his dreams was an underwear model in Miami so we both immediately booked our tickets and headed off to South Beach for a week. It was the best week of our lives. We spent the days sleeping and tanning on the beach. (The men were divine) and our nights, dancing away in clubs like Opium and Twist (I was sober and he would always be on a crystal meth binge). We ate only one meal a day (a pizza slice and churros) and then recounted the night’s events the next morning. We had stayed at a co-educational hostel where I would usually come home alone after loosing Dario in a crowded club or an after-party. That was also a normal routine in our friendship. When the search for his next fix bordered on desperation, we would often part ways simply because a sober girl can rarely keep up with a party animal like Dario.

After we returned from South Beach, I did not hear from Dario for a few days. Once again, it was also normal for him to call me on his way to an after-party and then disappear for the next few days. Then, he would emerge with blood-shot eyes and smelly clothes. He would cry about how he couldn’t remember where he had spent the past week. He would wake up around strangers he never remembered meeting. Such a lifestyle was too risky even for me. When Dario got fired from his job he insisted that he had quit. I was pretty sure that he had gotten terminated for not showing up to work for days.

It was a similar after noon and I was walking home on a Sunday. I had called and left countless voicemails for Dario the past week and never heard back from him. Finally when my cell phone lit up with his number I frantically picked up.

“Dario! Where the hell are you?” I snapped.

“Hey girl…I don’t even know…I want to see you…what are you doing?” he slurred his words.

“Walking home from brunch. Have you found another job yet? You need to give those after parties up. They are dangerous.”

Dario immediately burst into tears and began to mumble on the phone about how horrible he felt. He had just woken up in a scary warehouse and wanted to see me. He felt dirty and exhausted.

We quickly made plans to meet outside his apartment building and I jumped on a train to Brooklyn. I waited at least an hour outside his building before he finally showed up. His shirt was ripped, he reeked of stale cigarettes fused with alcohol and amyl nitrate. His eyes and face were crimson and swollen. He continued to slur his words and spoke incoherently. What I did gather was that he had managed to loose not just his cell phone but also his house keys on the way. I also heard the word “hungry” quite a few times.

I took him back to my apartment and told him to shower. Once he got dressed in my Black BEBE shirt (he stretched it out, so I let him keep it) I took him down to a café and bought him lunch. He devoured the food within seconds and he informed me that he hadn’t eaten in days. Later, we walked back to my apartment so he could sleep on my couch for a few hours. It was evident that he had been up for a couple of days straight. I decided on taking a nap too and as we threw around cushions and lay our cheeks on our pillows, we began to talk. We used to call these our tail-end conversations. After nights of crazy partying would end we would both be too sleepy to make sense yet still exchanging a few words – which got increasingly unintelligible the more our eyes drooped. That day, we also exchanged a few words from my bed to his couch. I recall a “thanks” from him and probably a “Shut up” from me.

“Padash?” He whispered after a long bout of silence.


“I promise I’m going to get help.” His words still a whisper.

I stayed silent. Too afraid that any wrong choice of words from me may change his mind. And then just like that, he fell asleep and I lay there listening to his snores get louder. I woke up two hours later, ate left-over Chinese, watched the Golden Girls, read, showered and went back to sleep. Dario continued to sleep and snore the entire time. I don’t know when he woke up but I assume it was in the middle of the night, because when I woke up for work the next morning, the couch was empty. Dario had scribbled the word “Thanx” on a post-it and stuck it on my fridge. I left for work hoping he was serious about getting help in overcoming his addiction.

He did. Although our calls to each other were not as frequent, when we did talk, he told me he had enrolled in a Narcotics Anonymous program at a local church. We met for lunch one day and he told me he was still unemployed but was much happier. He had become strangely more religious and I wondered if it was because his twelve-step program was in a church. We never ever went to happy hour or clubbing again. He said it was against the rules of his program to be around things that could trigger his addiction. I understood and wanted to support him as much as I could. When we did hang out and try to do movie nights at my apartment or go to a play, we realized we were forcing ourselves. Neither of us knew how to act around each other when we weren’t soaked in strobe lights on a dance floor or surrounded by carefree, beautiful strangers at an after party. So naturally, we became more and more distant. He began to volunteer and help out at the church and I busied myself with new friends. I tried to reach out to him as much as I could but also wondered if all his excuses of ‘prior commitments’ were just a cautious way to stay away from me. As much as I hated the possibility that I too had become one of his avoided triggers from the past, if it meant helping him overcome his addictions, I was okay with that.

We met again one time after that. This time it was on Dario’s insistence. We had dinner at a Tex-Mex place close to my house and as we sat in awkward silence and made small talk, he informed me that he had tested positive for HIV. An awkward silence ensued. What does one say at such a point? I know I stared at him blankly. Forced back tears which were more from shock than anything else.

“How do you feel?” Was all I could muster. The minute I said the words I cursed myself. Was that the best I could do?

“I’m much better now” He smiled “Thanks for asking.”

I asked him when he found out and he told me it was soon after he had slept on my couch and left a thank you note on my fridge. I asked him if it was the reason he had distanced himself from me and he told me he had distanced himself from the world to deal with the diagnosis. Then he touched my hand and said “But for what it’s worth, you’re the only person from my past that I don’t want to loose.” Seriously, that was all that mattered. Tears poured down my cheeks as he hugged me. I didn’t eat much that day and neither did he. It tore me apart that I was probably somewhere around him when he contracted the virus. It scared me. I wondered if it was at those countless after parties where I had left him talking to a handsome man because I was too tired to stay. I wondered if it was someone he had met at South Beach. But his calm demeanor stated that he neither knew nor cared.

“That’s not what’s important my dear” he pulled my cheeks as if I were a little baby “I lived a very risky lifestyle. This was bound to happen.”

I blamed myself for a very long time after that. If only I had stayed at those parties a little longer. If only I had brought him home and put him to bed instead of allowing him to run around the streets of New York with strangers.

Two months later, I got an email from him. It was brief and to the point. It annoyed me because that’s what our relationship had now begun. He had emailed to inform me that he had accepted a job in Seattle and was leaving in a week. He wrote that he would always miss me and remember me fondly. At the end of his three-line email were the words

““PS: check out the email below, biotch =)”

I laughed through tears as I read his email at work. I read it again and again.

Underneath was that very first email that I had sent him. Years and years ago. 1996. A sheltered little naïve girl from Pakistan sending her very first email to a stranger asking to become pen pals. I was embarrassed at how hard I was trying to sound cool in my email. I wrote complete sentences with forced slang so he would agree to be my pen pal. It was one of the very first emails I received and was the only message in my yahoo inbox. Now, his email sat among a barrage of other emails – spam and legit – bringing back all those memories.

Now, almost four years since that day, I received an add request from him on facebook. As I surfed his pics and page, I learned how his life turned out. He is happily partnered with another handsome man and working for an AIDS non-profit in Seattle. My words to him on his wall.

“Girl! I better still be your one and only pen pal!”

His reply.

“Always, biotch!”

[1] Name has been changed to respect the individual’s privacy.

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