The music faded away. The screen lights dimmed. The credits started to roll.
I hovered my fingers over the touchpad for a split second of indecision and then pressed replay. I was watching a much anticipated short film expanding the breadth of my universe through a song by my favorite artist. Watching it again was the audiovisual equivalent of injecting emotion straight into my veins. Pushing aside the discomfort some scenes drew from me, once it ended I pressed play again. And again.
Days passed. I watched it every day and took part in the online discourse about it. The knot that had appeared in my throat during the first viewing grew every time I read another deep dive analysis of it. Every person, every article expressed a discomfort, a feeling of ick that emerged as they watched the montage of a couple falling in love in the first three minutes, citing the age difference between the two as the reason behind that discomfort. I understood why they were saying it, but that wasn’t what had led to my mental disarray. In fact, for me, the opposite had been true. Those scenes felt aspirational at first watch, something I’d lay awake in bed coveting. The way he gazed deeply into her eyes. The way she didn’t hide from it, the way she said those overly familiar scary words about what he meant to her so easily. The way that I as a viewer could clearly see want in the make up of his face. The way the two of them were comfortable around each other–just the two of them being physically expressive and verbally intimate.
I’d never felt any of that and watching others have it unearthed the usually dormant but always present sense of longing within me. I’d been intimate with men but it had never looked like this. I’d never felt desired by someone both physically and emotionally the way I saw the girl desired in that movie, even if it all imploded in the end. At least she’d been there. Watching that unfold cut me open day after day, and I tried to understand what was going on within me.
That montage had exposed something I’d buried deep. I’d all but forgotten about it as I pursued romantic interests: I was hopelessly awkward and self conscious. I didn’t know how to let someone in, how to be intimate in a way that had nothing to do with physicality and everything to do with the simple act of allowing space for another person and letting them fill it. I’d always tried to cover up how inept I really felt while getting close to someone of the opposite sex by sabotaging my chances with them subconsciously before they got too close. Living by myself in the Covid years, isolated from people, feeling misunderstood by those who knew me, getting further away from people who were already far away, my world had gotten smaller. I felt I was getting worse at all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones, and I didn’t know how this could go on.
Amidst all this, my mind still unresolved, my feelings still in a disarray over what my future held and how I’d handle it, I left the country for my first trip in years. I wasn’t planning on anything happening in London–I was mainly swiping just for the ego boost on holiday–but this one guy’s messages indicated an active interest in meeting me. The first date, a hurried last minute meeting over coffee at a mall where I had to run an errand, didn’t tell me too much. I could have swapped it for any other first date with any other guy and not know the difference. I had my stories memorised to the point where I sounded like a broken record to myself. The days following we texted more and more, giving me a headiness I hadn’t expected. To my abject surprise, he wanted to see me again and soon, given my short time in the city.
We met for the second time in his part of town and within minutes of us sitting down at the restaurant he took my hands in his. This was new already. I’d never known how it felt to have interest expressed from the start of the date. All other times, the escalation had been almost sheepish, at the moment when conversation was starting to taper down, when you were getting ready to leave the restaurant and asking yourself, “what next?”
Looking back on it later, I knew it had to be premeditated, I knew these had to be tried and tested lines and tactics–the way he took my hand under the guise of seeing how much smaller than his it was and the way he told me he wanted to kiss me while looking deep into my eyes. But sitting there, all I could think about was how simple and perfect this was.
He wanted to know how it would feel to hold my hand, so he did it. I wanted to know how it would feel to touch the calluses he’d mentioned one time, so I ran my fingers up and down his. He wanted to show that he wanted this, so he gazed at me, his eyes only leaving my face periodically to look down at our hands intertwined. I wanted to know how it felt not to be scared by what was happening, how to avoid buckling down under the pressure of too many thoughts, so I met his gaze boldly, looking away only a couple of times to blush. I couldn’t answer him when he asked me what I was thinking. All I could think of was that I was overwhelmed by the nerve endings in my fingers and the fog now clouding my brain. Later I’d think back to the first scene in that short film, the one where she says she thinks she made him up inside her head.
I spent the next week finding myself in this bubble. I knew this wasn’t going to last. Neither of us was looking to move away from our home bases. We weren’t an intellectual match or a life direction match. But it didn’t seem to matter. I told him things I’d so far been too embarrassed to divulge to any other romantic partner. I trusted him to respect my boundaries, and he did. I stopped overthinking every message I sent to him. I knew I was only here for a short while, so I couldn’t waste it on wondering and second guessing. If I felt a certain way, I said it. I didn’t worry the way I normally would about what he’d think of me based on what I wanted to say. He’d told me he found me intriguing and wanted to make the most of the time we had, so I trusted that and didn’t think too much about whether this was too much. I asked him to meet again. And then another time. I let myself be comfortable in making the first move, not worried about scaring him off. I grew comfortable with silences and with talking to someone who thought I was witty and beautiful and wanted to coexist around both. I leaned into the comfort of being with someone. I allowed myself to be sarcastic and snippy in the moments I wasn’t okay with something he said or did. Every one of these felt like a moment of healing, a moment that gave me a sense of accomplishment for having had the courage to experience. I never expected us to last forever but I knew I’d been changed in the time we had.
Two weeks after returning home and two months after the video came out, I was reading a romance novel when the scene unfolding on the page had me take a sudden pause. The scene depicted two characters with latent chemistry going to dinner together. In the moment that made me stop, the male romantic interest was taking the female protagonist's hands in his own as he gazed deeply into her eyes. This time, I was pausing to smile. I now knew what it was all about. I now knew what that moment held and felt like. I wouldn’t be haunted by the lack of it anymore. I could now move ahead unhindered.
Nirmitee Mehta is a management consultant, idea machine, and writer from India, currently based in Singapore. She has lived in five countries for study and work, and has spent most of her adult life making life choices that scare and excite her in equal measure. She enjoys reading, food, and discussions about modern pop culture. She largely writes about intricacies of everyday life and emotions in what she calls ‘depressive essays about my feelings.’ She can usually be found at an artsy cafe, either concentrating to take a perfect Instagram photo of cake or in raptures over them playing a song by Taylor Swift.