There is something about photos that instantly transform moments into memories. This is doubly so in the case of physical images. It is as though the moment of capture crystalizes some essence where it can no longer be seen as a part of your life but becomes something complete, something gone. I have this polaroid photo, tucked in the back of an old sketchbook. I initially kept it there to hide from prying eyes but over time it became a home of sorts. From time to time, I flip through all my sketchbooks to remember the person I was with each flip of the page. The presence of the photo often takes me by surprise – as if it were an unannounced visitor, welcome but unprepared for. I am caught off guard by the flood of memories.
It is a photo of me, a younger me, with a man next to me. We are sitting cross-legged in a park. On the horizon, I can see the Santiago skyline, nondescript in its modernity. The two figures are leaning on each other, slightly unnaturally but with matching expressions of contentment.
Four years ago shouldn’t feel like the lifetime it does, but I often struggle to remember moments from that time. My tried-and-tested method of repressing memories of pain had worked too effectively, leaving huge gaps of time – ripped pages in an already frayed book.
I was living with my mother in a foreign country. I was out of a job, barely spoke the language and had no friends. My conversations with the friends I had back home were strained as they all struggled to maintain normalcy in the hubbub of their own lives. I felt alone in a way that I had not for years. I had never thought of myself as a particularly social person, but in light of this particular level of isolation I began to crave conversation, contact of any sort.
Sex was easy; you didn’t need to speak much to arrange a hook up. “Activo/Passivo?” “Mi casa/Tu casa?” I enjoyed that for some time, but actions that didn’t stave away loneliness in Delhi did not have much of a chance doing so thousands of kilometers away from familiarity. It had occurred to me when I came to Santiago that there was a possibility that I could date someone.
It wasn’t as though dating was impossible in India but somehow it had never happened. It always seemed as though no one was interested, or I wasn’t. Whatever the reason, it always seemed easier to default to endless strings of hook-ups that were doomed from the start. There was a comfort in that I suppose. A dependable end of the line just around the corner preventing you from having to hope for something. Moving to an entirely new country as an adult, I was faced with possibilities and that in itself was frightening.
My initial attempts at meeting people were fairly fruitless. Either it went nowhere or it went straight to bed. Either way, it was over before it started. But eventually, the odds did win out and I was asked out on a proper date.
The man was only a few years older than I was. Younger than I usually went for but he seemed nice enough and that was more than I could ask for on most occasions. He told me to meet him at the Costanera Mall, which was a relief because I could actually navigate myself there without much hassle.
I found myself there half an hour early, pacing the busy halls of the building, pacing in a way that I hoped wasn’t nervous. In comparison to Delhi, Santiago seemed sparsely populated and it was a strange comfort to stand amongst people living their lives. I hadn’t been there for long before I saw him coming up the escalator.
I took the opportunity to examine him in as unobtrusive a manner as I could manage. He was as he looked on his profile – already a positive – dressed casually in a polo shirt and shorts, wearing almost stereotypically geeky glasses. It was the look of someone who seemed unbothered by the perspective of others.
As he reached the top of the stairs, we stood in front of each other awkwardly for a moment, unsure of how to proceed. We eventually settled on a hug. I tried to school my expression but I had the sinking feeling that I was failing to keep a smile at bay. It was all so exciting.
In my broken Spanish, I asked him what we should do now and, matching my grin, he told me to follow. We walked to the supermarket and he started picking out snacks. I wasn’t sure what he had in mind but I wasn’t opposed to snacks. Seeing as I still didn’t have a job or much money to my name, I tossed in a bag of chips into the cart and resolutely pretended I wasn’t hungry. He paid that no mind and slowly started piling on chips and drinks.
Something must have caught his eye because he walked away for a moment and left me to look through the aisles. I was half-heartedly glaring at some cookies when he abruptly returned and took my hand. He evidently wanted to pull me to another aisle but I was too surprised to mask it. I pulled my hand back. He looked taken aback for a moment but then grinned asking me “Tienes verguenza?”. Even with my limited Spanish I was able to understand that. “Are you embarrassed?”.
The truth is, I was. My years of insisting that I was confident in my sexuality felt stripped bare by the simple gesture. However, I was loathed to admit it so I adopted a posture of nonchalance and grabbed his hand in return. He laughed at that but didn’t let go. We continued to explore, all the while my hand burned with the unaccustomed warmth. No one turned our way, there were no disapproving looks. It was disorientingly normal.
We walked out of the mall to a nearby park, him having paid for everything, in spite of my half-hearted attempts to split the bill. He picked a spot in some shade and we sat for what was apparently an impromptu picnic. I wasn’t an expert on dates, but I couldn’t fault the idea either, so I gladly sat there.
Though conversation was difficult, we slowly managed to convey some details about each other. He was Venezuelan and had come to Chile to escape the political situation at the time. He was also recently out of a job, a fact he seemed fairly unbothered by. I had handled my own lack of employment with much less grace and I wasn’t even in danger of losing my visa as he was. He told me about his family back home. I felt strangely connected to him for that. We were both aliens in a sense.
As the day went on, I got increasingly invested in the conversation. I began to spin fantasies of what could be. Would we date? Was this going to be my first relationship? At some point, we started leaning on each other, one thing led to another and under the blistering sun in full public view he leaned down to kiss me. It was a lingering kiss, the kind I would see in movies and scoff at. It wiped my mind clean of any other thoughts. There were other couples there completely unaffected by the seismic shift that was happening within me. Late, as I was laying with my head on his lap, I looked at him and thought, well this is what love must feel like.
Earlier, I had noticed a woman walking around taking photos and presumed she was some local photographer honing her craft. At some point she had wandered closer, but being as involved as I was in other pursuits, I hadn’t noticed her. Her voice broke through the pleasant haze that surrounded me. I was too disoriented to make out what she was saying but she was smiling and pointing to her polaroid camera. I looked at my date questioningly and he talked to her in rapid Spanish. They seemed to come to some understanding because he pulled me up and told me she was going to take a photo of us.
At that point, any embarrassment was long gone and I happily posed with him. Apparently, there was some money involved in this transaction because he handed her a note as she passed the photo to him. As she walked away, she looked back and said that we made a cute couple. I agreed.
We both looked at the polaroid as it developed. We looked for all intents as purposes like a loving couple, perhaps a bit unsure of ourselves but eager nonetheless. He smiled and handed it to me “Para ti,” he said.
Soon after, the date ended. We parted ways reluctantly; I couldn’t get enough of the new found freedom to touch and was loathed to stop. Eventually, I headed home texting him about how much I had enjoyed our day together.
Over the next two weeks, we continued to talk. Once I locked myself out of the house and I sat on the curb almost in tears as I called him. He offered to come over to wait with me. It was one of the sweetest things anyone had offered to do for me. But, the weeks dragged on and the conversations tapered. I couldn’t say what happened but my defenses kicked in and I shied away from messages. It was as if the magic haze had dissipated and was slipping out of my clenched fingers.
Later, I tried to rekindle the spark but there was nothing there, not for either of us. It was as if the two people from that park only existed in the small rectangular memory that I kept in my sketchbook.
As sad as it may sound, I sometimes think back to that day as one of the happiest moments of my life. I had never felt so free and so appreciated as I did in that moment with him in the shade, a world apart from everything I knew. Four years have passed since that most cherished conversation with him. Two memorable weeks of conversation, and we never spoke again.