When I was 26 I met an older man. He wasn’t just any older man fifteen years my senior. He was a musician. Who owned a nightclub. And had a cocaine problem, just fresh out of an open relationship with an even older partner. Who was married. How did I even get myself into this mess?
When I was 25 I decided I wanted to experience Far East. I’d just graduated from grad school and felt the need to spend my early career exploring this emerging market. A world-renowned publishing house had just opened offices in Mumbai and with a certain familial connection (a cousin knew the managing director), I was set up with a role at the house’s most revered fashion title.
The thought of working at this publisher’s offices in Asia was far cushier than the reality. When I got there I was staying with elderly relatives on my maternal side and took a smelly yet artfully decorated yellow cab to work everyday. The work was boring but easy and three weeks into my internship worlds collided. My aunt, a designer and top advertiser, was throwing a fete in association with the publication. Being a marketing activity, I was directly involved with the evening. I was thrilled at this prospect.
The week of the event, my cousin—the label’s creative director and CEO—came into town to oversee the event’s setup. He called me on an idle Tuesday and asked what I was doing. Truth be told, I found life outside work unexciting. I had one friend in the entire city of 30 million and she lived all the way out in the suburb of Bandra. I saw Kay* maybe once a week. So, long story short, I was doing nothing. He invited me for drinks with the editor-in-chief of the publication at the Four Season’s rooftop bar Aer.
She was the Editor-in-chief!
Because I wasn’t in editorial, I had no reason to have ever interacted with the editor before. She and I had the same name, which didn’t mean much as there were four other colleagues with my ubiquitous Indian name at the publisher’s office. When I eventually found them in the impossibly chic floodlit lounge, I noted my cousin had brought a friend. He was fairly non-descript and it would take me a few meetings to even remember his name. I was much more taken by the fact that I was seated next to my boss’s boss’s boss, a legend insofar as the global publishing industry is concerned.
As the night wore on, my cousin’s friend asked us to come check out his new-ish nightclub. The venue was state-of-the-art, a true marvel for India. He hosted us in the private lounge above the recording studios. I ordered my usual lychee martini (I was 26!) and charcuterie was served to the table. Small talk was made amongst all and the highlight of the evening was my editor ripping up a copy of a competitor magazine that was lying on one of the tables. She was horrified the next day about it and begged me not to tell anyone.
A few days later the event went off unceremoniously. My cousin’s friend, whose name I would later discover was Zed*, turned up to the party and said hello to me; I couldn’t quite place how I knew him. Was he the cute publisher of the group’s stylish men’s glossy? Was he one of my distant cousins or a friend of a friend? It took me a few minutes of making small talk with him to realize that he was our host from the other night. He took us back to the club for another fully catered evening, but this time with my aunt in tow. It was slightly less subdued than the prior evening, someone stole Rs. 5000 (£50) from my purse, a small fortune for what I was making at the magazine and the night ended with my cousin and I going for a nightcap at Zed’s palatial flat an affluent Mumbai neighbourhood.
My contact lenses began to sting as my cousin strummed one of Zed’s many guitars so I took them out. Zed offered me a pair of his glasses and the prescription was pretty close. I took them home with me and promised to return them in the coming days.
The next day was a Friday and as I left work in a cab, Zed called me to see what I was up to that night. As we chatted, the driver cut across six lanes of traffic outside Victoria Terminus at a red light. A cop witnessed the whole thing, pulled us over and fined the cabbie. I asked Zed: “What if he makes me pay the fine?” He laughed and said no way, don’t do it. I eventually made it home and Zed asked me to join him at the club that night. I told him that because I would be spending the night at Kay’s place in Bandra the following night that I would rather stay in. But another night for sure.
The following day over lunch in Bandra, Kay informed me we would be going to a gig at Zed’s club. Great, I thought. I’d let him know and maybe he could hook us up with a table. As it turns out he was at a day-drinking party in Alibaug (Mumbai’s answer to the Hamptons), but he’d try to make it back to the club that evening. I wasn’t counting on it, but went to the club anyway.
When we got there it was rammed. The DJ we came to see had quite the following and we were relegated to the farthest corner of the space. Around 11:30PM Zed and a friend of his turned up and bottles were ordered. It was going to be a really heavy night. Eventually Kay began to tire and told me I could stay on if I wanted. I could either cab back to hers or stay at Zed’s. Still unsure of his intentions, I asked him what he thought. He said definitely stay at his. (Shocking)
Kay left and Zed made his move. It was fast and at the back of the club. He just quickly kissed me in-front of all his B-people: bartenders, bouncers and busboys (SATC reference). It was not as embarrassing as I’m making it sound because at that time I was none-the-wiser. We went back to his place and innocently nothing happened.
As it would turn out, nothing would happen for a while. We were in this incredibly innocuous relationship that I didn’t fully understand. The next morning was Sunday and he took Kay and me for brunch at the club. It was quite an elaborate affair with a live band, full buffet spread and cucumber martinis by the pitcher. We were playing Jenga when we started talking politics. Off-hand he mentioned that the Indo-Pak war took place the year he was born. I made nothing of the comment, but when he got up to speak to the bartender Kay turned to me and hissed, “Do you have any idea how old he is?” “No, maybe 31 or 32?” “Coco, the Indo-Pak war took place in 1971.” I laughed uncomfortably. That’s almost 15 years on me. Fifteen years more experience than I have. I didn’t know if I was amused or shocked by this revelation. I pretended to be the former.
I brought up Zed’s age with him later. He said that had I been even two years younger I would have been too young. But 26 was a reasonable age without feeling like I was little more than jailbait.
The first week we were together involved innocent conversations over milkshakes at Café Leopold, tea at five-star hotels and walks in my family’s apartment block’s gardens because I could not feasibly go out every night. It was simple and sweet and possibly the most romantic period of my entire life. On the evenings I would arrive at his flat before him, he would have his household staff make me grilled cheese sandwiches. Kind of like an “after-school” snack. Like I was a 10-year-old. It was cute at the time but in retrospect it was incredibly creepy.
The next weekend he and some of his friends had plans to visit his family’s home in Pune. The drive was two and a half hours. We’d leave on a Friday night and get back Monday morning. I would meet his mother for the first time.
On arriving at their stately home—which frankly looked more like a lush hotel than a private residence—we were greeted by five dogs. His mother was waiting for us and didn’t seem to know I was the girlfriend, which calmed me. She directed each of us to our respective rooms followed by Zed redirecting me to his room. “I cannot sleep in your room when your mother has asked me to go elsewhere,” I protested. This fell on deaf ears.
That evening we all sat down to a dinner of Kauwsuey, a Burmese noodle dish that is as ubiquitous in India as Italian is everywhere else. His mother leaned over to me and asked what I did. “I’m an intern at [popular fashion magazine],” I replied rather proudly. I felt 6 years old. Except it all felt more awkward than cute. Later that evening she caught me and Zed kissing in the garden. I was horrified. He laughed it off. We were off to a great start.
Friends came and went that weekend. Zed and I became closer and our relationship stopped being so innocent. Which was good. Except IT wasn’t that good. I wasn’t sure why at this point, but soon all would reveal itself. When we got back to the city Zed and I continued to talk about our past. I told him about my last serious breakup that had taken place almost a year ago to the day. He told me about the relationship he was just getting out of. It was a bit unconventional. She was an older woman (by about 10 years), his business partner and was married. Her relationship was open and she had no intension of leaving her husband, his other business partner.
A feeling of dread coursed through me. He had baggage I was not equipped to handle. Our relationship carried on but I knew to be a little less trusting. He bolstered me by telling me that my presence in his life was “like a balm”. It seemed to make everything bad, good again. It was reassuring but I wasn’t convinced of anything.
A few weeks later he picked me up from my family’s apartment compound and seemed a little down. He told me he’d stayed up really late the night prior with his married ex and they’d talked the whole night. The shift was subtle but I could perceive it loud and clear. Something had changed that night. I reached over to hold his hand on his BMW’s stick shift and he pulled away. He was less into me and whatever was going on between us.
Over time he slowly stopped asking me to come out with him. He stopped calling or even taking my calls. It was like he was trying to suffocate whatever feelings I had left for him. I soon discovered the reason IT hadn’t been any good was because Zed had a cocaine dependency. The first time I saw it at his home he claimed to have not done it in years, but I began noticing after every night out it would somehow magically appear. At the wildest of parties guests wouldn’t even bother doing it in the bathroom. It would be done right on his granite coffee tables.
My worried friends began to admit they knew all along about his habit. And his past elicit relationship. Learning all of this was for the best. His household help was even stealing from me—a beautiful Theory dress and black corset went for a walk one evening—and I always felt judged every time I was over. Regardless of all of this, it was his going cold that ultimately pushed me away. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get that lovely person I’d met a few weeks earlier to return.
I gave up and began seeing an American with a background not unlike my own. For months I would receive coke fueled calls from Zed at all hours of the day and night. The strangest was perhaps at 10am on a weekday. He must have had a rough one the night prior, didn’t sleep and felt the need to reach out while I was at work. He wanted to see me immediately. I told him I couldn’t but would call when I left at 6. When I did, he didn’t pick up.
I found him exhausting and far too broken for me to fix. I left India not long after, never to hear from him again.
*Name has been changed for anonymity.