The Meet Cute IRL

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I’ve been wanting to watch “The Mindy Project” since I caught a handful of episodes during a long-haul flight to Europe a few years ago. Since then I’d watched the same cycle of episodes on various itineraries (American really likes sitcoms) — even though I’d almost memorized the dialogue and had come to recognize the singular quirks of Mindy Kaling’s titular character and the zippy energy of its storylines, for some reason once on terra firma I would forget about it and plunge back into the usual routine of keeping ’80s-era comedies in the background during my work hours.

That’s really just a fancy way of saying that I’m too cheap to pony up the small subscriber fee to Hulu, which owns the streaming rights.

Of course, the pandemic and stay-at-home orders have been really good at upending my strict budgetary guidelines. So now I’m in the waning hours of season 2, and the funny thing about streaming and bingeing a single show all at once is that it makes it easy to see the rough edges that, in the universe of sitcoms wouldn’t stand out if you were to spread out your viewing over weeks, months, and years.

For example: why does attractive, funny, articulate, and professionally and financially successful Mindy Lahiri, she of the active social life and enviable Manhattan apartment and office, seem to mostly date guys within a 50-foot radius of said apartment and/or office? Two of her colleagues. The divorce attorney whose office is on a different floor. The midwife whose office is on yet another floor.

She meets, falls in love with, and is even at one point engaged to other guys — and I’m sure there will be others outside of her borough as I continue to watch the remaining seasons — but it reminds me of one of the terrible flaws of “Friends”, and specifically Rachel Green’s character, who I otherwise adore but can’t help but wonder why the writers felt the need to make her get involved in some way with every single one of the guys in her innermost circle. Every. Single. One. Oh, and like Mindy they all live within shouting distance of her.

In Manhattan. New York City. A sprawling metropolis of 8 million people, presumably a big chunk of whom are smart, attractive, eligible men who don’t all live in Mindy’s or Rachel’s neighborhood.

And then I remember. Oh right. The Meet Cute. The perennial rom-com trope, the origins of which can be traced much further back than that moment when Harry met Sally. Remember when Rock met Doris over a party line and spent much of their romance on a split screen phone conversation? They Met Cute virtually before the Internet was a twinkle in the Defense Department’s spying eye.

It’s a trope, but one I appreciate. The romantic in me waits for that moment in every rom com movie — a lot of us rom com fans do. That’s when the movie starts earning the money we forked over for the price of admission, the popcorn we know will add pounds to our weigh-ins.

Writers agonize over Meet Cutes because out of sheer logic it can only happen once in a story, so it’d better be good.

Or does it? Can a story have multiple Meet Cutes and still retain scientific plausibility?

Apparently, yes. Hence, why Mindy and Rachel end up in multi-episode love story arcs with guys in their same zip+4 codes. When your Next Boyfriend is just an elevator ride away, the Meet Cute can happen several times in the same episode. Several times during which the romantic tension can ramp up before climaxing into the Final Meet Cute, when the protagonists finally, inexplicably decide, Hey, let’s have lunch and bump pelvises later. The universe must want us to since we keep running into each other, haha, it’s fate!

And we love it and sigh with fulfillment because although we know of no one to whom this has actually happened in real life, the mere possibility of it as dangled in front of us by these clever writers must mean there’s a chance, right?

And then I remember.

Once upon a time — the late ’90s, to be kinda exact — my then-boyfriend and I lived in Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia is no New York City, but as a historic Southern capital city and university town it had a decent population of just over 110,000.

One day I was at my dentist, checking out at the front desk, next to a man about my age who was also checking out and writing a check. (Young ‘uns, back then most folks wrote out checks for just about everything.)

I swear I wasn’t snooping. He was standing close enough that when I glanced over I happened to notice the address on his checkbook. He lived two doors down from me!

Oh, and he was adorable! I mean, I was firmly attached to my boyfriend, but I wasn’t blind.

I blurted out, “Hey, you’re my neighbor!” He was kind enough to overlook my awkward attempt at introductions and was gracious enough to remember me. Hard not to, since there were only four units on our floor.

After that I saw him only a couple more times around the building, and we’d nod and say hello, but shortly after that he moved away and then my boyfriend and I did as well.

I didn’t think of him again, though, until I had to. And I had to because a year or so later I was waiting for a flight back to Dallas to visit family when I happened to glance up while hanging out in the departure lounge at Columbia airport and saw him hurrying along right in front of me, a bulging black duffel bag slung over his shoulder. He was moving too fast for me to call out, and anyway, what would I have said? “Hey, neighbor” was no longer applicable, and I was too buried in my own thoughts and growing anguish over the slow deterioration of my relationship with the boyfriend to really care. Mystery Man — whose name I never actually learned — had vanished from my mind before my own flight was called for boarding.

Mystery Man made his final, inexplicable guest appearance in the story of my life about six months later. By then the boyfriend and I had irrevocably split, and I was left nursing some godawful wounds. The breakup was swift and — in hindsight — inevitable, but at the time it was unexpected. I needed to find a place to stay quickly, someplace familiar, so I went back to that original apartment complex and, by sheer coincidence, the only unit they had left was in the same building where the boyfriend and I had lived in two years before. It wasn’t my first choice, but at the time I didn’t think I had any, so I and my suitcase and CD player moved in.

I only stayed in that dark and mostly empty apartment for a month, after which I found a much better and more permanent place near my work. But in the last week of my tenure there, as I stepped out of my apartment one afternoon, I turned around and found Mystery Man exiting his apartment down the hall from mine. He was wearing dark scrubs and sported a hospital ID, and we both looked at each other and stopped, probably mirroring each other’s puzzled, confused expression.

We spoke for just a few minutes. He was rushing to work, and I needed to get somewhere urgently too, but we shared our quick stories. He had moved back to the building after a breakup. He remembered my boyfriend and nodded with understanding when I said I’d moved back in for the same reason. We extended “I’m sorry to hear that”-s and “It’s great to see a familiar face”-s, and then we had to rush off, goodbyes echoing in the narrow breezeway.

This is where the IRL Meet Cute diverges from the world of rom coms. I moved away a week later, and then nine months after that I moved back to Dallas. I never saw him again, and truth be told I rarely thought of him much either. My bruised and bloodied heart took months to heal, and there was no room for even the cutest of meets for a very long time. If his car were to crash into mine today, I wouldn’t recognize him.

But that’s the enduring charm of the Meet Cute, whether IRL or on the screen. Ultimately it’s not about the fulfillment of an initial promise but the idea of it, right? We have Meet Cutes all the time, sometimes during our best hair days and more often than not during our worst. We fall in love, we fall out of love, we feel hurt, we hurt others, we nurse bruised and bloodied hearts, we live happily ever after. But just as often, if not more so, we Meet Cute and there is no love to fall into or out of, no heart surrendered or broken or promised. Many times the Meet Cute is the story itself, with a beginning, middle, and end. And who’s to say that that’s any less romantic?

Photo by Rosie Ann from Pexels.