You meet Tal during your first winter in New York at one of those pretentious hit-or-miss Ivy League alumni parties at The Mondrian. You’re trying to make friends with this lawyer girl who’s looking for brunch buddies when he tries to butt in, but you take one look at him and he’s bald and you and Lawyergirl both make faces like no way and keep talking. Later, you end up hitting on this gorgeous Russian banker guy who turns out to be his wingman and ducks out of the picture as soon as he shows up, so that’s how you get sucked in. He’s all smiles and no hair and makes fun of you for using a calculator to figure out your tip. In the end, you give him your number partly because he asks but mostly because it’s been a while since the Ex-Boyfriend, and truth be told, it’s not like you have a whole lot going on.
It takes a while for you to get together, because first he’s in Florida visiting family then you’re in Hawaii visiting family but he calls you every other day, so by the time you meet up it’s like you kind of know each other already. You meet at a burger place near your apartment and talk about all the standard stuff, like work and family and partying in New York. He likes the West Village, wine bar central; you like Meatpacking, home of Kim Kardashian wannabes. His parents still live in Westchester, and he shows you pictures of their fox terriers, Lucky and Rainbow.
The second time you get together, he takes you to a movie that turns out to be kind of shitty, but that’s ok because he smells good and holds your hand the entire time and you almost forget that he has no hair. After the movie, he takes you to his favorite sushi place on the Upper East Side and then to his apartment where he shows you the framed pictures he took of lions and leopards on his last safari, and at that point he turns off the lights and kisses you, and you figure why not.
For date three, you spend the afternoon at the Met, and he cooks dinner, tilapia and asparagus and falafel and hummus. He’s replaced some of his African animal photos with newer ones from his recent trip to London, and after dinner you look at them and at the East River outside his window until he takes your hand and walks you into the bedroom. He takes his time undressing you, and by the time you’re naked he’s kissed you from your toes to the mole on your forehead and you’re warm and wet, and in the dark it doesn’t matter that he’s bald.
You get together almost every weekend for the next few weeks. By now you’re seeing two other guys you met online, and while Tal’s not half the Ex-Boyfriend you start thinking that maybe you can make something out of him. Like not a boyfriend but at least a regular. Something stable. But then, during the week, you get into an argument about what to eat for dinner, and the next morning you get a text from him: Hope you’re having a good day, we should cancel dinner, we argue too much, if you want to be friends, cool, if not then it was good meeting you, and that’s when your confidence starts to unravel. Of course we can be friends, you tell him, and you believe it when you say it, and from the sounds of it so does he.
There are a few false starts, like the time you invite him clubbing with your friends and end up in his bed and the time you go skiing and blow him in the chairlift, but after that you get serious. You limit your texts to once a week, and every month or so you get together for dinner or drinks; when the weather warms up you take walks in the Park. You tell him happy Passover and happy Fourth of July and ask about his parents and Lucky and Rainbow. And after a while, you start feeling like an old family acquaintance or a third cousin, somebody who’s nice and pleasant and always going to be around. At the Ivy alumni parties you now organize, you joke around with his wingman friend and pretend not to notice when he hits on other girls. You tell yourself that every number he gets is not just a point for him but a victory for your friendship; every time he scores, you buy yourself a drink. He tries too. Helps you with your taxes and shows you how to use a financial calculator and doesn’t try to make a move on you once.
Then a whole year goes by. You quit your job and start a new one, half the salary and half the hours. Two of your friends move to China, and four get married. You go to all their weddings. Tal quits his job and goes on a hiking tour around the world. I need a break, he says. On Facebook you see him scaling glaciers and waterfalls and hugging koalas and pandas and shit, and for some reason you realize that you can name pretty much all the girls your other friends banged, but with him you can’t name a single one. Not that you’re keeping score anymore. Between then and now you’ve probably banged and dumped like ten dudes, two of whom were bald, and he’s probably banged just as many girls.
When he comes back, you invite him to a concert in the Park, a Dvorak piano quartet program you’ve been wanting to hear. It’s nighttime, and even in the dark, you can see that he’s tan and happy and balder than ever. You find good seats, close to the front where you can hear without the microphones and the moon is right there. The air is warm and moist like a dream, and the music takes you to this mental zone where you don’t worry. You’re thinking about how lucky you are to be in New York on a night like this, to listen to this quartet at this time on this night, and that to hear a quartet on a summer night in New York is what people live for, the reason we work and stress and yell and cry. You’re concentrating on the music, and even though you’re sitting next to him, Tal’s the last thing on your mind, but when he slips his hand in yours, your vagina clenches and you stop breathing, and all you can think about is how perfect it is that he’s here. You don’t move for a while because you don’t want him to stop, and when you finally squeeze his hand back, you’re squeezing with your whole heart.
You force yourself to breathe and not sweat, you can barely hear the music, and when you start acting like a normal person again you realize how stupid you were in thinking that the whole distant cousin friends thing was going to work. That it was something you could control, like a prize or a salary, that came to you if you worked and watched and waited.
After the concert, people disperse, and you hold hands as you walk out of the Park. You’re dizzy with joy, and when he kisses your earlobe and jumps into the street to hail a cab, you still feel like an idiot.