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L.A. Affairs: He stopped calling. So I turned to Instagram for answers

Illustration of the writer swiping at a large tinder screen, with her former boyfriend behind his profile with another woman.
(Alexandra Bowman / For The Times)

Why are we more willing to share our secrets with strangers or those who do not know us well?

Not quite a stranger, but my 78-year-old grandma on the other side of the globe in Russia was an unlikely recipient of the news that I was dating someone new. After all, T and I had been seeing each other for only about a month, and I have always been reluctant to tell my family about my not-so-romantic misadventures in Los Angeles.

Still, I typed up my response to her email asking me whether there was anyone special in my life: “I am, actually, seeing someone.” He runs his own internet business, speaks several languages and travels frequently among Africa, Europe and the United States — the latter being one of the many reasons I liked him.

We have been married for 12 years. But in spring 2020, under quarantine, and especially in the first weeks, we began talking to each other again just like in our beginning, only in person.

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“Belonging” is a strange concept and one I did not learn I was missing until I moved across the ocean to Los Angeles. My dad is from Russia, and my mom is from Mongolia, where I was born and raised. In Mongolia, my mixed race often caused confusion and curiosity. It was not uncommon for people to stare as I walked by.

Ironically, for the first time in my life, I “fit in” in a land thousands of miles from home within the diversity of Los Angeles. No one stared at me outright. It was often assumed I was either “American” or “Hawaiian” (the latter guess serving as a social commentary on the miseducation of Americans as a whole). When the curious learn that is incorrect, they begin to inquire, “But where are you from? You look so exotic!” as if I am a zoo animal.

The answer always leaves people scratching their heads, as they struggle to put me in a box but fail because they don’t have one readily available that fits my response. It happened again and again on dating apps.

Until I met T on Tinder.

Instead of the generic and uncreative “Hey, gorgeous,” or a version of the off-putting “What are you?” or the unimaginative “Wanna come over?” he asked: “What is the correct pronunciation of your name?”

That simple question was a breath of fresh air.

After 46 blind dates that were mostly disastrous, my expectations were not too high. I had survived so many evenings of challenging conversation, no attraction and boredom that I figured what was one more to add to the list. It would at least give me another funny story to share with my friends and family.

After agreeing on the time (6 p.m. Friday) and the place (he would pick me up), I nervously played out a million scenarios in my head for how the night would end up, ranging from murder to happily ever after.

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When he pulled up in front of my apartment building, he got out of his SUV and gave me a radiant smile and warm hug, before walking over to open the car door for me. My heart skipped a beat because, frankly, he was already more gentlemanly than 98% of Angelenos and transplants I have dated. Unlike the boys I was used to dating — posing in Machu Picchu and/or with their niece/nephew/roommate’s dog or cat in their Tinder photos — T was real and raw and refreshing. It took less than five minutes for our conversation to venture into the territory of serious topics such as French colonialism, immigrant rights and race relations.

Instead of wasting time with the dull niceties of “Where/what would you like to eat?” he confidently took me straight to his favorite coffee shop. He had the entire night planned, and let me tell you –— that was also refreshing. Coffee was followed by Thai food, which was followed by drinks at a bar in Hollywood. We conversed about seemingly everything under the sun until past 3 a.m. He finally drove me home; I invited him in, and we stayed up talking until past sunrise.

After he left, I could not fall asleep because he had moved into my brain.

This infatuation was one of a kind.

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I went to South America and brought back a North American souvenir — a guy who just happened to be good-looking, employed, travel savvy, available and local. Wait, was he a unicorn?

Perhaps it was the fact he was also a foreigner who had to build his life from scratch in Los Angeles. The lightness that comes from being able to skip the stereotypes and awkward conversations — Is Mongolia in Africa? Do you speak Chinese? — and delve into a shared knowledge of geopolitics was a turn-on.

It felt like belonging.

Maybe my attraction was fueled by what then felt like mind-reading capabilities, as he would verbalize my thoughts with psychic precision. His sharp intellect made me realize no one had ever turned me on the same way. Instead of handing out cheap compliments about my appearance, he would praise my mind. It didn’t hurt that he would text me answers to questions I did not even know I had: “Hey, I know I have been quiet, but don’t think I have forgotten you. Work has been super busy, but you are constantly on my mind. Dinner tomorrow?”

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One night we drove down Pacific Coast Highway and went to the Heroes Garden at Pepperdine University (my alma mater). It’s one of the highest points on campus and offers beautiful panoramic views of Malibu and the Pacific Ocean. That night — as we sat together, exchanging stories and observing the night sky — felt like something out of a movie scene. Surreal and tender. He hugged me tight and kissed me on my forehead. He told me about his past relationships, explaining why things didn’t work out and how I fit so well into his life. He pitched trips we should go on together, TED talks we could watch, protests and grassroots movements we could support.

It was the promise of a future that would never be.

Soon after that night, the near daily hangouts dropped off, and the texts and phone calls plummeted without any obvious cause. T’s excuse was that he was traveling extensively for work. Around the same time, I went home to Mongolia for a few weeks to help care for my other grandmother, who was recovering from surgery. T texted from Costa Rica that we’d meet again once we were both back in Los Angeles.

With more time on my hands, I turned to Instagram for clues. I found the woman who I suspected was his most recent ex. She’d posted numerous photos with T over the past few years, though none during the time I had been dating him. A few weeks later, the photos with T started popping up again. Did they get back together? Or perhaps they never really broke up?

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I never learned the truth because I never saw T again.

The last time I heard from him was months later, a casual text asking me how I was doing. I did not respond.

I have been in love, but I have never had such a deep, cerebral connection with someone who saw beyond labels and boxes and just saw me.

Frankly, I will not be sharing any romantic adventures with my grandmother any time soon.

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The author lives in Los Angeles and is on Instagram @nomad_portena.

Straight, gay, bisexual, transgender or nonbinary — L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for love in and around Los Angeles, and we want to hear your story. The story you tell has to be true, and you must allow your name to be published, We pay $300 for each essay we publish. Email us at LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here.


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