So then, you probably also remember the controversy around allowing the internet in
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
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
After I graduated, I moved to
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
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
“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
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
After we returned from
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
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
“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
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
““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
“Girl! I better still be your one and only pen pal!”
 Name has been changed to respect the individual’s privacy.