(Note: This is my recollection of our intervention. I encourage you to read the beautiful words from Prem’s perspective and explore his other writings on his blog here).
“I think you forget that I’m a real person.”
“I mean, I am very good at saying all these honest vulnerable things about myself like they are facts, but behind the facts…I, I, feel all these things, too.”
I inhaled relief. And courage. After a week of deep empty talk I finally said something truly vulnerable.
“I don’t really understand it, but I feel like I have been trying to make you like me these last few days. I mean, I think you already like me, I know you do, you asked me to join you in Budapest…
Pause as my courage considers a retreat: should I really be saying this?
“But, I have just felt worse and worse each day. It’s like when I tell you these painful things we talk about it like an experiment, except the experiment is me. It is my life.”
I’m not entirely sure why I came to Budapest. I had met Prem in a sort of meet-cute moment in Mexico City at the famed Pujol. We both had early lunch reservations and were sat minutes a part in the relatively empty restaurant. My table was bathed in sunlight, the room itself felt more outside than inside, it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever eaten. Prem was seated at the taco bar opposite me. I noticed him right away, not because he was tall and attractive–though that was true too–but because he seemed to know the waitress at Pujol and was speaking Spanish with relative fluency. He was Indian and his language skills impressed me. As did his apparent ‘regular’ status. Our first interaction was over a picture. He asked me if he could photograph the space I was seated in revealing that he too owned a nice mirrorless camera. I decided I would ask him to join me. I also decided I would order a cocktail first.
My cocktail arrived. It was magic and smoke. Mezcal and other delicious things I’ve long forgotten made it playfully pink in color and more importantly quite possibly the best mixed drink I’d ever had. I noticed the stranger was drinking one too. My first course arrived, followed by another and a young Mexican wine to follow up my playfully pink drink. Every so often I thought about asking the stranger if he’d like to share the rest of his lunch with me.
I think it was after the mole madre course, probably the most famed dish to come out of Enrique Olvera’s kitchen, that I ran into the stranger outside the washroom. My moment had come, mid small talk, I said something to the extent of maybe this sounds strange but would you like to join me for the rest of your lunch? Prem’s memory tells the opposite story. He asked me. But I assure you my memory is the more astute member here. He said an easy yes and my magical lunch became more magical if not because of the food (I was honestly a little disappointed) then because of the newfound company and another glass of another very young Mexican wine.
One can’t be sure why I expected that our conversations would flow easily but I had and they did. Before I knew it I’d eaten not one but two desserts and was sipping on an espresso. Around us the daily life of the restaurant carried on as we dove deeper into sharing our own stories with one another. I began to wake up to the world around us and recognized the methodical movements of a service team preparing for the next shift–the dinner shift. I’d been there for over four hours, which is not entirely unusual at a nice restaurant but I’d been oblivious to the passing of so many minutes. I’m positive my interest in Prem was purely circumstantial and bound up in the delight of being able to talk for three hours about many things I hardly talk to anyone about, but nonetheless I was unprepared for the conversation to reach it’s fated conclusion. I also did not want it to be misconstrued as romantic. Had I mentioned my boyfriend yet? Surely, I must have but maybe not because there is still sometimes a part of me that feels a male and female can be curious about one another only if there is an opportunity for something beyond the physical and emotional limitations of friendship.
The details thereafter are a bit hazy, drinking a bottle of wine will have that effect even if it took four hours to do so. While I knew our time in Pujol was drawing to a close, I was not ready to give up the winding conversations we were having about our seemingly similar dissimilar lives. We walked back to our adjoining neighborhoods and it seemed this stranger was also not ready to give up our conversations. He asked if I wanted to get a drink. I said yes. I most definitely did not need a drink.
After our drink we walked a little more. I never wanted to eat again. Prem mentioned he might get tacos from Álvaro Obregón. As we meandered down the median walkway the fading light he suggested we travel together in the future. It was an obvious suggestion given our shared disposition towards taking in the foreign by spending your days like you indeed live there. It was both a completely normal and completely odd suggestion. But I said yes quickly. And just as quickly wondered how. I was in a relationship with someone I knew I would no longer marry but at one point believed I really would. He was just ending or in the process of ending a relationship of similar import, but I was uncertain which. It was a beautiful idea and maybe the idea in and of itself was enough.
We never saw each other again in Mexico. 6 months later I met him with wet hair that I tried to hide under the hood of my yellow pea coat on a cloudy morning beside the airport bus in the Jewish quarter of Budapest. We’d kept in touch sparingly via email or Facebook. He’d write asking if I happened to be traveling to Colorado in June? Or did I find myself in Mexico City again? Perhaps he could come to Montana in June. Another, simply asked: Are you ok? I imagine he’d read a recent Instagram post and read between the lines that my life was decidedly unsettled. I had broken up with my boyfriend and I was trying to renegotiate the world I lived in yet again. In September he told me his brother was getting married in Goa. I asked him if I could come to the wedding with him–I love Indian weddings. After sending the message, I realized one might think I was asking to be his date. I was being presumptuous. Maybe he already had a date. Was date the right word? In the end he told me presumption aside he would like me to be his date.
I did not go to India. But then Prem asked me to join him again. This time Budapest in November. I thought seriously about going. I said yes. Yes, because I was heartbroken about how running was turning out. Yes, because I wanted to do something spontaneous. And yes, because I was curious about this person who wrote to me every so often.
I arrived to Budapest before Prem. I settled into our rented flat–one we’d joke about being able to sleep a family of 15. I searched out good coffee and sourdough for us. We wrote a lot on messenger as his impending arrival grew closer. We talked about marriage–did either of us want it? (Not together). Children–did we want those too? (Also, not together). I was so excited to have these conversations face to face and continue to unpack the way I understood how the world works with someone also who seemed to think about it as intently as I. Unbeknownst to me, expectations were beginning to build. Of what I am not entirely sure. Maybe something romantic. Definitely of easy, real conversation, something I often feel lacking from my day to day life. It would be just like our day in Mexico City, but there would be multiples of it this time. And, I was excited to finally travel with someone. We’d find our daily coffee shop, I would order a mocha and Prem would get a flat white. We’d eat at a possibly too expensive meal together but the wine would be worth it. I’d be humbled alongside someone else who was a stranger to this city fumbling now and again to find the appropriate customs. Only donning the clear glasses of hindsight, I can also see I was at the tip of an emotional iceberg seeking someone to be my confessor.
Finally, Prem’s arrival date came. I went running early. I ran past the Danube in the early sunlight. Tendrils of sun were seeking passage down the streets of Pest. Back at the Airbnb I found everything to do but stretch and shower–the only things I needed to do. Still in my towel, I saw a message from Prem. He was just one bus stop away. As much as I did not at all think this was a romantic thing, I still felt the pressures of expected modern day male/female decorum. I wanted to look presentable if not pretty but I also did not want to make someone who has traveled through the night and is presumably quite tired wait outside in the cool November morning while I dried my hair and put on makeup. So as a 33 year old wizened to the unimportance of such trivialities long term I decided to throw on clothes and ignore my very wet hair.
I knew the minute I saw Prem there would be nothing romantic. I should have dried my hair–joking. I think I was a little more disappointed in that than I would care to admit especially because I’m not sure I even wanted or could handle that, but ego can be hard to tame. Even with romance cast aside I still expected to find the friend I had been writing to with growing delight. However, even that seemed to have been misplaced. At first, I kind of ignored it assuming it would dissipate like jet lag. It lingered. Our conversations grew deeper and I felt more alone. Sometimes, I would come back from my run and he would have gone for coffee already and I would be grateful to live out my morning alone. But then I’d find myself missing the company I had sought in Budapest and I’d hope all over again we could surpass this growing impasse and I’d message him to find out what coffee shop he was at. I was confused as to why this was going so wrong.
As the days stretched on towards my impending departure I fell in love with the city of Budapest, but I do so almost entirely alone. I do silly things like ride the Budapest Eye because it looks intriguing or drink terrible beer in a terrible bar because it kind of frightens me to be outside my own standard of comfort. Everyday we try again and fail to find connection behind our introspective proddings.
On my second to last night we found ourselves sitting in the same restaurant at the same table where we’d shared our first meal together in Budapest. We order the hummus again. For some reason, even though experience at this point had consistently taught me how it would go, I found myself opening up to Prem about something I had only shared with one other person at this point. If you have never made a habit of talking with strangers in your travels, you’ll find it is often much easier to tell them the things you so desperately want to tell your best friends, spouse, parents etc. At this point, though, Prem was less of a stranger and more of real person. We could tell people, “Tori and I went to Budapest together.” We had shared: photos, meals that were good and meals that were so-so, inside jokes about poorly salted cauliflower, and mild disagreements about how to store sourdough bread. As I told him this painful thing, a thing that is still painful as I write to you all these months later, I spoke my secret plainly as if it didn’t actually cut to the heart of some of my greatest pain. And he began to dissect my problem as if it was a project at a job. I can’t tell you how the rest of the meal went or what we talked about but something had shifted for me. I had had enough of this dance. I had had enough of the increasing emptiness I felt.
Taking the short walk home, I found myself saying, ‘I think you forget I am a real person.’ Finally, I had really gotten to the heart of the matter. Maybe this was one last olive branch before my impending departure. Maybe I was just a hurt girl. Or both. I realized that I had also been trying to impress this person and make them like me, even though I thought they already did. In Mexico City, I didn’t really care. Of course, he’d like me, because why wouldn’t he? And I didn’t even know he liked my striped dress. In Budapest, I sought a joint admiration that I had assumed was preexisting.
‘Tori, I think I am living a lukewarm life.’
Almost back to our apartment, we walked the multiple flights of stone steps with heaviness and ease. When we opened the doors, the stalemate of our friendship seemed to have passed. We sat on the floor of the entryway–the space that existed between our two rooms–and told the truth for the first time in days. I felt relief. I had not completely misjudged our connection and stupidly come to Budapest for a friendship that didn’t exist. For once the words we shared lacked formality and the heaviness of extensive analysis. We were both two messy people who had arrived with our own excess baggage and sitting on the old wood floor we finally saw into the struggles of the other. We embraced and went our separate ways into our giant bedrooms.
On my last day, as we walked to my favorite coffee shop where I would order the second cortado of my life, which just so happens to be my favorite ratio of milk to espresso an introduction I owe to Prem, we were once again talking deeply about some facet of being human and the crisis of human connection. Our own unique abilities to overanalyze were not disrupted by our intervention. I made a remark about how we would make terrible partners and should never date because of this affliction we both suffered from. He agreed.