“Almost Lovers”: The Ones Who Make Heartbreak Bearable

Love and Sex

“Almost Lovers”: The Ones Who Make Heartbreak Bearable

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

It all started when I was 18 and in a difficult long-distance relationship that was bound to fail. It was only a matter of time. So, like any regular millennial, I turned to the internet for comfort and stumbled upon a guy who I was acquainted with, but wasn’t friends with – had my circumstances not been desperate I wouldn’t have befriended him. With my absent boyfriend and growing loneliness, this guy and I developed a friendship. We were filling certain voids in each other’s lives.

It wasn’t supposed to mean much. But at that moment, it was everything.

I spent a lot of time talking to him from the comfort of my room, hiding behind my desktop screen. Eventually, we moved to phone calls. I taught him how to make khichdi, he taught me a bit about fashion. We had several exchanges of vulnerable moments without getting too intimate.

My 18-year-old self would not have admitted this, but we were a little more than friends, and a little less than lovers. Is there a word for that middle place, that nowhere, that all of us have revisited so many times?

The way I have come to understand life, loneliness is that disease we all are too susceptible to. We are lonely when we are with someone like I was. We are lonely when we don’t have anyone. Like I am. Our close friends do fill in that vacant space in a lot of ways. Physical intimacy aside, I am in an emotional relationship with all my close friends. And yet romantic relationships fill in certain blanks, they cater to certain needs.

I don’t think one can’t live without fulfilling these needs, but they provide temporary distractions, they spice up life, they make it fun. After all, didn’t Balzac say that “Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine”? These are the people who tell us that, they share that solitude with us, and tell us it’s fine to be miserable. And for a little while joy and misery coexist.

With love, all worries would vanish into thin air. But love, as it turned out, was a bit more difficult.

Soon after my second break-up, I found myself talking to a guy who was living in another city, who I knew through a friend, who again would not have been in my life had I not been in the place that I was. My second relationship left me stranded in a bad place. So, when I started talking to him, I started moving away from that place. We had little in common. We talked about each other’s professions, our love for cinema (which hardly ever matched), and told each other about friends and family.

The conversations sustained not because they were great, but because they were necessary.

Both of us were counting on the other person to refill the empty slots of our lives that were previously occupied by former lovers. The night calls that had suddenly stopped, the random, odd-hour texts that weren’t coming anymore had left behind a vacuum that required filling, even if temporarily, and this relationship which I knew would only be short-lived made it bearable.

All of us are conditioned to long for love. We’ve consumed too much popular culture to escape that all-consuming desire to love and be loved back. War, poverty, disease, oppression, no matter what our reality, we all long for love, we all long for tenderness. And I, particularly, am a big fan. But love is also rare. And love is also difficult.

As a child, I knew that when I grew up I’d find a job, be good at it, and I’d find love. And that would be it. With love, all searches would end. With love, all worries would vanish into thin air. But love, as it turned out, was a bit more difficult. Love was a smoke screen used to hide the mundanities of life. As many times I was in love as many times I was out of it.

It’s a beautiful experience nonetheless. But it is in the intermediary periods that hold my fancy. Perhaps because I am there. Perhaps because I know I will be here more often than I’d like to believe. Loneliness, I think attracts loneliness. I can’t fathom any other explanation as to why other kindred spirits would come and find me exactly in these times. But find they do.

Other than the people we fall in love with, there are the people we date, give fate a chance to find us the one we are looking for. Then there are the people who we might have a chance with, one-time encounters with. There are the hook-ups, the one, or two, or few night stands and then there are these people, these “almost lovers”, who see us emotionally naked.

One can have emotional affairs, as I’d like to call these, with any number of people. There have been times when I have had these with three people at a time. Each one checking a different box, each one satisfying a different desire. These encounters aren’t necessarily sexual or sensual in nature, but they can be. These relationships seldom come with the baggage of commitment, though they aren’t free from expectations.

When my third relationship ended, it perhaps was the most exhausting experience of my life. I had never been this emotionally drained, but it was a major step for me, so as miserable as I was, I was also deriving comfort from the thought that I’d done the right thing, the most difficult of things I’ve had to do all my life. If I could do this, I could do anything.

But this is the kind of denial we need for survival, and I was comfortable deluding myself into this false belief that things were fine. They weren’t. The thing about change is that everyone tells you how wonderful it is. And how you will be grateful for the change when it happens. But it’s not. I think we choose to forget the hardships we face while adjusting to change, especially when the end results are rewarding. But change is terrifying, change hurts, it breaks your spirit.

When you decide not to turn back, like I did – and like I do, every time I take a call – you must find yourself anchors so you sail smoothly. And I did. I found several people who I talked to, got emotionally vulnerable with, sometimes it was just for a day, sometimes for a few days, and once even for a few months.

I was reminiscing about one such guy with a friend a few days back, I told her I missed him, and I don’t have a reason to, but I like him. And all she said to me after hearing me out patiently was: “You don’t.” And she said nothing else, she didn’t need to.

I don’t, it’s true. I like him, yes, he’s a great guy. But I don’t like him the way one is supposed to like a lover, I like him like one likes the idea of what could have been. Likewise, I don’t miss him, I miss the intimacy I felt with him, I miss the conversations, a lot of which were also in my head, which were forced to stop because the real conversations had stopped. We talk still, but we also don’t talk. It is a relationship that has lived its complete life. Has served its purpose. It killed loneliness when it needed killing.

I have a few friends who often find themselves falling in love. From one lover to another, they travel without a waiting period, with no stops in their journey that ends in heartaches more often than I could handle. I wonder if the people they so often fall in love with are lovers or almost lovers?

Love is a dangerous word, and I try to not use it. Because it comes with the burden of expectations. And expectations aren’t external. They seldom are about what the other person wants but more about how we want to be, when in love. I, for instance, can’t help feeling guilty if I fall out of love too quickly. Can it even be love if it got over this quickly? Can love be as fleeting as happiness? Should it not stand the test of time, at least for more than a few months, more than a few sleepless nights? It should. Or so I believe.

Which is why whatever lies between two periods of love, is the pursuit of it, the desire for it, the longing for it, but not love itself. And these people we meet on this journey are our co-passengers. They all eventually leave, and brick by brick we find the strength for love, whenever it decides to re-enter our life.

These almost lovers, these could-have-beens, matter to me the way love does. Without them, we would be lonelier than what imagination permits. And I am grateful that I met each one of these almost lovers – without them, I’d have been a bitter, fallen person.

It is these almost lovers who save us from drowning. And for that reason, I dedicate this essay to them. And end with this wish. May all of us find love and lovers, whole and almost.