I met Alia on an app for moms called Peanut in January of 2020. I’d never had the chance to date online, and at first, I was paralyzed by the sight of each woman’s face, unsure of whether to swipe right or swipe left. But quickly, I became accustomed to that split second of judgment, that moment of trying to glean some sense of kindness and intellect from pictures of a total stranger. My loneliness was stronger than my self consciousness, and I messaged a few people every day in between diaper changes and feedings.
Alia was the only person with whom I managed to push past the pleasantries and have an actual conversation. When we finally met up in person, she thanked me for being vulnerable about the postpartum depression I experienced with my first child that I was wary of with my second. She had chosen not to breastfeed due to her own history of anxiety and depression.
We met for coffee in late February at a restaurant in the Upper West Side, a place I selected for its French bistro vibes and excellent light. My baby was at home with my mother, my son was at school, and I was alone in public for the first time in months. It had been over twenty years since I’d been on a blind date, and I was nervous. I arrived early, sitting at a table by the window like any other woman on a Tuesday, enjoying my book, my coffee, and the winter sun, the whole experience a novelty already.
Alia arrived wearing her baby nestled in a gray carrier, the curve of his head peeking over the top. She slid into the opposite seat, and we began the awkward dance of getting to know each other. I came to learn that she had migrated from Pakistan as a teenager with her family, settling in South Carolina where her parents still lived. I learned that she worked in finance, and that her husband was a lawyer. When she spoke of her in-laws in Pakistan, her body stiffened and her voice grew defensive; I could feel the tension as she described the expectations of the community.
While she talked, I noted the lovely shape of her eyebrows, and the fact that she was so slim just two months after her son’s birth. I could tell I was a few years older than her, and wondered if it showed in my skin. I felt a little embarrassed when she declined the pastries I had ordered to share. She explained that she’d had gestational diabetes and stopped eating sweets during her pregnancy.
The whole time I talked, summarizing the details of my own life – my South Asian heritage via Guyana, South America, my upbringing in New Jersey, my work life as a textile designer – I wondered if she was bored. I wondered if I seemed manic and sleep deprived, or interesting and normal. I wondered if this was working, if we would meet again, if this was a tiny cornerstone in what would one day be a friendship.
Alia and I met up in person one more time before Covid-19 became a global pandemic, and lockdown began in New York City. We met in the first week of March, in what should have been the end of my maternity leave. On a bright crisp day, we settled on a park bench on the grounds of the Museum of Natural History. I remember my daughter wore a knitted gray sweater with bear ears sewn onto the hood. As our babies batted their arms at the trees and squirrels, Alia and I tried to make sense of the virus, which was ominous, but still distant and unreal. We traded the little information we had, debating whether to cancel upcoming travel plans.
Alia and her family moved in with her parents down south after the city shut down. In the beginning, we called each other every few weeks to check in. We never had much to say, but I was always grateful to hear from her. “My friend from the app called!” I would tell my husband, a glimmer of excitement in the monotony.
I don’t know if Alia ever returned to New York City, if she still works in finance, had another baby, or got divorced. The pandemic severed our tiny strand of connection, but the truth is, there’s no guarantee our friendship would’ve stuck. We related as new moms, but that common experience could only take us so far. The world has changed dramatically since we both swiped right, and no doubt, we have too. My loner tendencies have taken over in the past two years. But perhaps one day, I will reopen the Peanut app and scroll the faces, hunting for that glimmer of connection.
Sumitra Mattai is a New York-based writer and textile designer. She holds a BFA in Textile Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. She explores themes of identity and culture in her work.
Her IG and Twitter handles are @sumitramattai, and her website is http://www.sumitramattai.com.