Sitting in a Midtown Manhattan coffee shop, it’s clear that I’m waiting for a date. I’ve overdressed. My iced latte is long gone. The screen on my phone is greasy from my sweaty, fidgety fingers. Every time the door opens, I look up expectantly.
Normally I’m never this nervous. But today isn’t normal for me. At nearly thirty years old, for the first time, I’m about to have a date with a man of my own race.
I’ve recently gone through a dry spell, followed by an OkCupid binge. This wasn’t a casual hunt. I was looking for ‘the one.’ I always am. My search results are filtered to guys within five miles of Manhattan, not religious or chain smokers, who enjoy travel and theatre. And, of course, are white.
I messaged white guys all day long with a decent rate of return. Some got as far as meeting friends, others disappeared the morning after. I’d mope for a bit, then get back on the site and start all over, searching for my Disney Prince Charming.
The Indian guy I am about to meet, Vivek, messaged me.
This isn’t uncommon. Many Indian men have reached out before with messages ranging from brief to obscene. Other brown men, Middle Eastern, Pakistani, Sri Lankan etc… have contacted me as well, all, I assume, hoping our similar skins would be an easy bridge to a lasting connection. Their messages were usually ignored and deleted, their profiles blocked.
Up until now, my dating history has been completely whitewashed. I have slept with men of all colors, including my own, but that was only physical curiosity. A relationship with another Indian man was never a consideration.
Vivek wrote eloquently, making reference to details he liked on my profile. He called me handsome and asked to “hang out sometime if you feel like it.”
Typically, this message would join the others in the trash folder but I replied to him. At that moment, I did indeed ‘feel like it.’
I was looking for a deeper connection. Many white exes of mine made little to no effort to understand my background. To some I was a fetish. They found me ‘exotic’ or ‘spicy.’ That was reason enough to leave them behind and give this a shot. Plus, after the parade of white guys I usually brought home, having an Indian boyfriend would totally floor my parents. They’d never see it coming. Such a good son.
I see him before he opens the door and stand up quickly. Vivek is well dressed and laughs easily. His smile is kind and his eyes soft brown. He looks a couple of years younger than me, maybe 26. As we hug awkwardly, like people do on all first dates, I feel his toned body.
“So great to finally meet you!” he beams.
“Likewise,” I reply, still nervous and unsmiling.
“You’re taller than I thought,” he laughs. “And your pictures don’t do you justice.” I blush, as much as someone of my skin tone can, and thank him. He asks politely if I’d like another coffee and I decline. As he waits for the barista I look at him curiously. This is surreal. Despite the fact that we appear fairly similar, he seems alien to me.
Earlier, I questioned my motives for agreeing to this date. Part of me felt I owed it to my race. I should feel pride in where I come from and who I am. Like so many other immigrants, I mask my ethnicity every day in a city that claims to be a boiling pot but values Western culture above all else. Being Indian does not only come down to our hot curries and silly song-and-dance movies. It’s an experience I cannot describe to a person of another race, just as I myself couldn’t understand being a woman, or straight. Or even white.
But sitting there, watching this brown-skinned guy walking back to me, my pep talk is forgotten. I feel uneasy. I’m scared of him. This date is going to be a disaster. And he has done nothing wrong.
My family and I moved to the United States from India when I was fifteen. During my childhood, I attended several private, sometimes Catholic, grade schools just for boys. We all wore uniforms and marched with military discipline to morning prayers and afternoon recess. I was that kid who preferred art class to sports and musicals to action films. Food was a comfort, so were books and the BBC. This resulted in a chubby, bespectacled fey boy with a grandiose vocabulary and few real friends. In short, a target.
At the time, homosexuality was considered a criminal offense in India. (It sadly still is.) The news occasionally reported on raids at private homes and underground bars, carting off these so-called ‘perverts’ to prison. I saw videos of men beaten in the streets for attempting activism or being caught having sex with each other in some alley. Gay men in Hindi films and TV were macabre caricatures, portrayed as molesters or flaming queens. They either ended up the butt of an offensive joke or dead. Lesbians and transgendered people were never mentioned or considered, rendered invisible.
Children were more accepting of someone of a different religion than of a ‘gay boy.’ That expression was the ‘faggot’ of its time, hurled down hallways at me and other equally sensitive students. At first, being a ‘gay boy’ simply meant you were girly or terrible at cricket or too close to your mother, all of which I was (and still am). As we aged, manliness was measured by success in getting a girl to kiss you. Or touch you down there.
‘Gay boys’ didn’t like girls. They liked something unthinkable. Something disgusting. We were bullied mercilessly, our lunches stolen and feet tripped. I should have sought comfort in befriending these other closeted boys. But instead I chose to join in on teasing and ostracizing them just to fit in. This eased my daily harassment and made my popularity rise. Surely one ‘gay boy’ wouldn’t pick on another? So I yelled names and pushed around anyone my supposed buddies deemed different. At the time, I thought that attacking one’s own was the only way to survive.
Here I am, years later, about to attack again.
“Aren’t you hot drinking that?” I ask, gesturing to Vivek’s Americano. My tone is anything but friendly.
“Not as hot as that sweater,” he giggles. I don’t appreciate the comeback. He continues. “I actually prefer iced tea but this is my first coffee of the day. I need it!”
I nod silently, my ears searching his voice for any twinge of an accent. It would be a perfect chance to mock him. I spent years dropping mine. People assume I was born here. He, disappointingly, doesn’t seem to have one either.
“So, are you out to your family?” I ask. Vivek twists his mouth, amused by my forwardness.
I don’t care. This is something else I could use against him. A perfect deal-breaker.
“Wow! Yeah, my mom and sister have known for years, everyone else is pretty cool about it.” He seems a little irritated now. Good. “How about you?”
“Of course! They’re very supportive. My whole family is. I’m very lucky.” I pause, annoyed that he shot the question back. Also annoyed he doesn’t have the usual closeted story.
He speaks some more about his coming out experience. It was somewhat similar to mine but I don’t bring that up. I am busy looking for another chance to call him out. After initially deeming him good-looking, I search his appearance for flaws. His skin is a little too dark. He hunches when he sits. His clothes fit nicely but look cheap. I scan for scars or odd birthmarks.
It takes me a moment to realize he has finished speaking.
“So…not your father then, right?” I am sure he hadn’t mentioned him. This gains me new ammunition. Probably some pathetic daddy issue. I got him now.
His eyes fall. “He…uh…passed some years back.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I say, shaking my head. And I am. Sorry I am challenging him. Sorry I am looking for problems so readily.
With white guys I never nitpick. I have dated men who weren’t out, had narrow world views or no jobs. Some I didn’t even find very attractive. But in men who are my ideal color, I dismiss these negatives and focus on the minor positives. Now my defenses are up against an Indian man who deigned to show interest in me. He doesn’t deserve this animosity. I promised to make an effort.
“So you were born here?” I ask, smiling for the first time, my tone calmer. Vivek perks up.
He was actually born in Gujarat and moved here at a younger age than I did. We speak of our Indian childhoods. His family is now in Boston. That’s where I attended college. He has relatives in France. I’m a Francophile. He cooks, I bake. He has his own apartment, so do I. We connect over pop culture, Broadway divas and Indian mothers. Occasionally he touches my knee or hand in an attempt to flirt. I let him.
On paper it is going great. A true connection. But throughout it all I find myself forcing attraction. My heartstrings just aren’t strumming. We are getting on like a dream. Just not my dream.
Growing up in India, gay men in Western media were the ideal. Confident and sassy on American TV. Sexy and free in Hollywood movies. Proud and insightful in books by out authors. Many found love. Some were happy. Nearly all of them white. That’s what I wanted. Those were the fantasies I chased in America. I kissed and fell in love with boys like the ones on screen – my way of fetishizing them back. They didn’t remind me of where I came from, but where I had arrived.
“I’ll be right back,” Vivek says as he heads for the restroom, smiling all the way. I sigh and rub my temples.
That fear from earlier doesn’t shake. Just the thought of us together makes me feel queasy. Like it is still forbidden. As if those thugs of my childhood thousands of miles away would hunt us down for being ‘gay boys’ together. We wouldn’t be safe.
And what will happen when he learns I was a bully too? He was probably bullied himself. What if I do it again? I almost did earlier, actually delighting in trying to pick him apart. Would I need to restrain myself around him forever? That wouldn’t be fair to either of us.
Over at the counter, a white barista with artfully shaved stubble looks at me. Or maybe just in my direction. I sit up, my pulse racing.
I smile at him, eager for his attention. He smiles back. I am ecstatic. A fire that had not once crackled on this date now blazes. Then he turns away to another customer. The moment passes. I feel stupid. Still chasing those fantasies. Even with a reality in front of me.
Vivek returns, all smiles again. I stand up before he had a chance to sit down.
I don’t recall now what I said to cut our date short but I do remember the look of disappointment on his face. I remember his attempt at a kiss, which I diverted to my cheek. I remember walking all thirty blocks home.
I stay off OkCupid for a month. When I log back on there are multiple messages from Vivek. They started casual, suggesting another meet-up. Then his tone got more desperate, almost pleading.
“I think we have something,” he wrote.
All I feel is guilt. I am too ashamed to apologize or make excuses. He’ll always think he did something wrong when the fault is really mine. I delete his messages and block his profile. Then I open my saved search filter of local white guys and begin scrolling.