My brother and I spent an hour on the phone this morning; most of it was consumed by my descriptions of the man I've been seeing. He's passionate. Compassionate. Hardworking. Forthcoming with his feelings. Patient with mine. Funny. Positive. I had examples to back up each of these statements — that's why it took so long.
"I like the sound of this guy," my brother replied. "When do we get to meet him?
...some time after I do?
I gave this answer in my head, not out loud, because the truth felt embarrassing: I'm dating someone I've never met before. And when I say dating, I don't mean that we've had a few FaceTime chats and are calculating next moves. We are committed to one another. We call each other "baby."
I've been single for the past two years, and I've tended to keep a few plates spinning, so to speak. Three weeks into connecting with, let's call him Tom (he's definitely not named Tom!), I texted another man (plate two), explaining that I'd developed feelings for someone and that I thought it would be unfair to keep on flirting the way we had been. I surprised myself with this inclination to focus on one person, but when I ultimately reported my behavior to Tom — because he's made me feel safe to share any and all feelings (who knew?) — his response was, "Oh, I did that two weeks ago."
(For what it's worth, the other man's response: "Let those feelings flourish, girl! We’ll continue getting to know each other as friends." So, three cheers for directness, honesty, and taking care with people!)
Back to Tom: We work in adjacent industries and have mutual friends, so we had followed each other on Instagram for a while. I can't say, though, that his posts bubbled to the top of my feed often, nor do I know when, exactly, I started peeking more intentionally at his account, informing myself of his goings-on. I just know that he was gearing up to move from the town where he’d been living to New York City, where I happen to live, and, in between, he would be traveling around Europe for a week. Then, Covid-19 hit while he was abroad, and we started talking daily. The details are hazy; maybe it's because it was all so organic that I can't quite remember the day things leveled-up, or who was messaging who more often, or anything else I'd normally document and file away in my brain somewhere because I felt the need to be strategic. Instead, it just flowed, in a way I haven't experienced since perhaps the relationship in my late 20s that almost ended in marriage.
Eventually, Tom made it back to the States and has been at his father's house halfway across the country from me for the past month-and-a-half. We talk in the morning and at night and throughout the day. We've sent each other packages. We promote each other's work on social media. We've told our mutual friends about "us."
Is this nuts?
"I think it would be nuts to discount what you’ve found," my best friend told me. Non-pandemic dating life — profiles, algorithms, swipes, not to mention going places with strangers — is far more strange than anything I've described with Tom, she said. "We go to great, overly curated, overly conscious lengths for the chance at real connection. It's nice to see when things just happen in an unexpected and disarming way."
It is nice.
But also… nuts?
It took me days to write this because I kept getting distracted by Tom’s voice messages, which often contain his fantasies. We’re going to throw great dinner parties together, he said. We’ll make escabeche — ”cauliflower, carrots, onion, jalapeño, char them and hot-pickle!” — and package it in jars as take-home gifts for our guests. We’re going to take walks over the bridge and into Chinatown and eat dumplings. "I mean, damn, I can’t wait to just… go to CVS with you." We talk so much, it’s as if we can’t keep our hands off each other.
Which, of course, brings us to touch. Of course, we have not been able to touch one another.
Humans are hard-wired to be social. Touch, specifically, triggers part of the brain and releases oxytocin, known as the love hormone. Hugging reduces stress levels and, ultimately, helps us fight infection, even. How odd, that the thing that normally keeps us healthy is the thing that could hurt us right now.
Once it’s safe, I’ll touch Tom. Just thinking about it makes me as excited as a pre-teen gearing up for her first kiss. (Or, at least, I had been excited about my first kiss at that age.) But we’re grown-up. I know about his desires, his worries, his family history, both good and bad. I want to touch Tom because I want to thank him for sharing with me, and for being receptive to what I’ve shared with him. I want to touch Tom because I want to show him how I feel about him. I haven’t treated sex that way in a long time. (For the record, though, I also want to touch Tom because he’s sexy as hell.)
What’s happening in the world right now is overwhelmingly awful; I pray that we never go through something like this again. Perhaps the silver lining, for many of us who are privileged enough to be safe and at home, is that this has been a peculiar opportunity to take stock of our lives. I had forgotten that connection, that romance, could feel like this. Through this courtship — intense, accelerated, and yet devoid of physical touch — I’ve been reminded of a very human, very real way we deserve to be close with one another.
Another new thing for me — and for many of us, right now — is that I'm taking online fitness classes. One trainer I like, in particular, is a master at maintaining contact with her clients through Instagram, and I told her my main motivation for tightening up my body, which is the prospect of sharing it with Tom. "I fell in love tooooo," she responded. "It's just the best feeling. We are so lucky."
So, yes. I'm dating someone I've never met before — and I'm falling for him.
How can I trust this? Does falling for someone always feel a little unsafe, even when a global pandemic isn’t warping… everything?
I aired some of these concerns the other night — another thing Tom has made me feel safe to do. What if the chemistry actually isn’t there in person? What if, when we’re back to a more normal professional pace, we find that our schedules aren’t conducive to maintaining what we’ve built while inside this little bubble of ours?
“Possible,” he said, explaining that he understands my fears. "Not likely, in my opinion. And I just… Why would we deny ourselves something so wonderful, that happened so naturally?”
Well, shit. I'm out of reasons.
Listen to Julia Bainbridge talk more about what it's like to date during the pandemic on the Telescope podcast, here.