Waiting inside Tasti D-Lite that afternoon in 2005, Divya looked nothing like a cult follower or an aging Hello Kitty devotee. In fact, her very normalcy was alarming, given that we’d met on Craigslist.
A decidedly trivial thing was to blame for our meeting. Just a few weeks prior, a cab ushered me across the Hudson River a liberated woman who, for the first time in her life, was about to live on her own. That’s when the trivial thing appeared. It nodded a solemn hello on the Manhattan side of the Lincoln Tunnel. It made itself comfortable in my cab loaded with two suitcases, a couple of overstuffed shopping bags, a printer, and a new twin-size sheet set. It squeezed through the closing elevator doors and slipped into my temporary studio apartment. That thing was silence.
“Alright,” I finally said to the silence. “What do you want?”
“Oh, nothing,” the silence indicated. “Nothing at all.”
“Really, is there something you’d like to say?”
“Nope, everything’s great. This overpriced dump you’re renting. All those years you’ve wasted on mending a relationship that couldn’t be fixed. It’s all just fine. And anyway, I’m silence, so I’m not even supposed to be talking.”
“But it is all fine,” I insisted. “Do you hear anyone yelling? Or complaining about how dull that party was on Saturday and how wouldn’t life be easier if people weren’t forced to do things and attend meaningless functions together? Nobody’s arguing about dirty dishes. Or throwing them. Come on, everything is terrific! Just check out these sheets I snagged on sale.”
“You’re the only one who’ll be sleeping on them, darling.”
“What do you want from me?” I implored.
But naturally, no answer came. The December snowflakes whirled outside and slivers of streetlights trembled in their midst. A neighbor dragged something upstairs. The fridge burped and rattled, and it was all quiet again. Uncomfortably, frightfully quiet.
But I was not alone. The tenant from whom I sublet this apartment for a month while he went on sabbatical left a giant flat screen TV behind. Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda would keep me company no matter the size of my sublet or my bedsheets.
My complete knockoff collection of Sex and the City was a gift from my father, who had bought it in China for $20 on a recent business trip. The timing couldn’t have been better.
“Here.” He shoved the DVD box in my hands. “Watch this and learn,” he said. “Charlotte dated all these sissies — reminds you of anyone? — and then look what happened to her.”
“What happened to her, Dad?”
“She married a sex machine of a man.”
“Can we talk about something else?”
“He was short and bald. A lawyer with a boring full-time job, a real mensch, though. Did Charlotte care?” he said.
“Nope. She didn’t, Dad.”
“Marry a short, bald lawyer and life will be okay.”
He went on to discuss the relative merits of benefits packages, vested stocks, and creative careers in the opposite sex.
But I had no intention of taking dating advice from family. There was no time to psychoanalyze Hollywood characters or wonder how Johnny flicking his booger at me in preschool had forever rewired my future relationships.
Instead, I zipped through the first three seasons of Sex and the City at full volume in two weeks. While obviously fictional, the show’s characters didn’t suffer from existential angst. Brunches and even breakup parties always made things okay for the leading ladies. Romantic interludes may have come and gone, but as long as they had each other, they didn’t have to weather certain unfortunate events alone.
My own social circle outside of HBO had shrunk considerably in recent months. Turned out, if you commute to work for four hours a day, work overtime in pursuit of some workaholic immigrant self-validation, and spend the rest of the waking hours fighting with your partner, your social life will retreat into a cave and die a quiet, unremarkable death.
Luckily, I grew up in a society where friendships came easy. After all, a classic children’s book in Russia is about a lonely alligator named Gene, who put out a “friends wanted” ad and soon befriended wonderful creatures, big and small.
Wasn’t there a way to find friends online, fast, on Craigslist? I took a deep breath and clicked on the “Strictly Platonic” link.
Divya’s ad stood out above the fold. A professional young woman, she complained about girlfriends recently disappearing in the loins of their lovers or giving up on New York to settle down with an office job in the same suburb as their parents and their orthodontist.
Divya was looking for female activity partners for the simple things: dancing, museums, shopping, bitching, brunch. The determination of her post suggested she was on a mission to assuage her own brand of loneliness. I replied.
Now, at Tasti D-Lite, Divya leapt up and embraced me. “It’s so lovely to meet you!” she said. Everything about her — from her long tresses to her glowing skin and the intent smile when she listened — exuded elegance. She pointed out a waifish young woman next to her. “This is Jasmine. She also responded to my ad. I know it’s a little weird to make friends online, but I am sure that we’ll all get along!”
“I’ve never met people online before,” Jasmine mumbled.
“Me neither,” I said and added something about an ex-boyfriend. So did the two women. Our strictly platonic intentions now official, we were ready to get down to business.
Divya led the conversation. She spoke about her graduate degree from a top university, about family back in India who never chastised her for being single and career-oriented. The only thing missing lately was girlfriends, she said — successful, drama-free girlfriends to fit her busy lifestyle. I dug into my ice cream and listened closer.
Jasmine, on the other hand, ended up on Craigslist because of a boyfriend who did not consider himself one, and she grew visibly sadder while enumerating the details of his negligence.
“Look, I know how hard it is to live in the city alone,” Divya said. “Forget about your exes. We are beautiful, ambitious, and intelligent. Let’s network, ladies! Tell you what: Next week, let’s get our crews together and check out this new Norwegian place!”
What was she doing on Craigslist? It would seem that socializing would be easier than getting a hair blowout for someone as savvy as Divya.
Still, I promised to be there and to bring friends. Lots of them. Nobody had to know about my recently anemic Rolodex and the deafening silence back home. I, too, could giggle effortlessly over salad Niçoise and lurid dating stories, and be completely, totally present.
So I made another acquaintance on Craigslist, an actress, just to keep the network growing.
“This guy I met last week texted me,” Divya shared her newest adventure when we met at Café Lalo for tea. “He texted, ‘Let’s see a movie. I’m pumped!’ Well, I texted, ‘Don’t get too pumped!”’
“Why shouldn’t he get too pumped?” I wanted to know.
“I don’t have time for this,” she explained. “He’s some actor — not in finance or anything. By the way,” Divya unwrapped a piece of chocolate on her saucer and bit, snapping the chocolate in in half, “How’s your dating life? And when are you going to introduce me to your crew? Come oo-oon!” she sang. “You do have other friends. Right?”
“Of course.” The tea scalded my throat. “I’m meeting new people all the time. Every time I’m out, there are all these people there. And I meet them.”
Divya looked at me for a few seconds, which indicated that she knew. She knew that since moving out, I preferred to sleep or eat takeout soup in front of the television after work, on weekends and everywhere in between, because it turned out that picking up someone’s dirty socks off the ground was, in fact, more rewarding than staring at the immaculate hardwood floors. That the sound of bickering meant the bond was still there, full of life and subsequently hope, as opposed to nothing at all. But perhaps she didn’t know. And she didn’t need to.
In the meantime, the consistency of several brunches and nights out with the Craigslist ladies was suggesting a blossoming friendship. Perhaps it was time to throw a fabulous breakup party of my own, purging silence once and for all.
The long-awaited evening had arrived. The Champagne was in the fridge and the appetizers that my salary sent right over to my credit card sizzled in the oven. The speakers murmured, as always.
Divya showed up first.
“Ooh, what a cute place! It’s perfect for a party!” she beamed, looking around. “Where is everybody else?”
“They’re coming. You’re the first one.” I poured her a glass of wine.
When Divya was done with her wine, I poured her another.
At last, the doorbell rang. It was my other Craigslist connection, and finally my real-life friend.
I introduced the guests. Divya worked in finance. Amy worked with famous actors. Katerina worked on a future best-seller.
As we ate the rubbery hors d’oeuvres, I put on an episode of Sex and the City in the background to break the ice, while the four women on the screen — Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte, the one who married a short, bald lawyer — dined at a new restaurant, their conversation both snarky and meaningful.
The episode ended.
It was time to talk again. We discussed the unusually cold December and oohed and aahed when the actress said she’d just come back from a set with Leonardo DiCaprio. Or someone like him.
But there is only so much to be said about the weather. Only so many compliments to be paid to someone’s eyebrow lady. So much of a bond to be had based on just one factor: the idea of a single New York woman. There are thousands of us at any given second: meticulously primped, extolling the power of self-improvement, caught in a tenuous balancing act between the perfect apartment along with the perfect job and the perfect romance, looking at each other from across the subway car, the latest novel in hand.
Still, perhaps by the end of the evening, we could have ended up best friends. Maybe we could have gone out bar-hopping until the wee hours of the morning or shared stories of loss and redemption. Maybe then, no one would feel alone.
But that’s when Divya chimed in. “So how do you all know each other?”
The actress glanced at me for a moment. “Actually,” she said, “We met on Craigslist.”
“Of course, sure!” Divya engineered a big smile.
“And how did you two meet?” the actress asked.
Divya kept smiling with the lower part of her face. “Oh, you know. Actually, about the same!”
“Funny, right? Craigslist!”
The apartment began to shrink. My unpacked suitcases towered in the corner, ready to move for the fourth time that year. I struggled for conversation topics — famous people I had had the fortune to meet. Sold-out events where I could bring lots of people. Nothing came to mind.
“The internet is a great place to make friends!” Divya finished her wine. The powerful shine of their lip gloss turned toward me, then. This party was coming to an end.
“Well, I got a busy few weeks I got to get ready for,” one woman said, getting up.
“Yeah, I got this networking event tomorrow and then a double date with the understudy in Phantom of the Opera,” the other one said. “Busy busy!”
There was shuffling by the door. People elbowed each other while stuffing their arms into their coats and avoiding eye contact. When the door behind the last woman closed, the apartment, with the lingering of perfume and the sting of the winter frost, was quiet again. The icy air blew the curtains into the room along with the rumbling of the traffic.
Slithering closer and closer, blanketing the room with its wings, silence descended. And in that silence, heavy and impenetrable, there was nothing left to do but listen to what it’s been trying to say all along.
I turned off the TV, turned off the music, and started to finally unpack. Out came the picture albums, the clothes saturated with the scent of the past, the magnets that once propped up photos on a shared fridge, the silly souvenirs with no context any longer, the boarding passes, all shining with a glossy, glorious finality as brightly as only the past can.
My Craigslist friendships would fizzle out. Divya and I would meet once more for coffee in a few weeks, only to realize we’d already given each other what we’d needed.
There would come a time to rebuild stone by stone, scrap by scrap; to seek laughter in the fertile rains and the inevitable cycle of the seasons. But as I listened to the silence of that empty apartment on the longest night of the year, for the first time, it sounded like home.
Masha Rumer’s essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Dow Jones Newswires, The Moscow Times, ScaryMommy.com, Kveller.com, SFWeekly.com, Volume 1 Brooklyn and others. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and blogs over at The Flying Yenta.
(Illustration via Rebecca Fong / Brit + Co. Photo via HBO/Getty)