My family is from east Texas. They're a living version of the southern stereotypes, sitting on the front porch with a cold one, watching a tornado come through. They're infatuated with a local reporter, Pete Delkus, and keep each other briefed on the latest weather news in our group chat, constantly amping it up with emojis and warnings about "Pete's jacket coming off which means it's serious". If the sky so much as blinks like a thunderstorm is coming, my mom starts giggling about building fires and "hunkering down" for the rest of the day. This is to say that when my family started talking about COVID-19, I lightheartedly joined them in their manic excitement. When they started stockpiling groceries, I teased them all the way from my training conferences in the northeast. It wasn't until early March that I started to wonder if it might become bigger than the hype.
While my Texan family was living up to the state's reputation, I'd grown used to experiencing life in an unbalanced territory. I was about two months out of residential treatment, and still learning what it meant to choose to recover from anxiety and OCD every single day. I'd become fond of living here in this "in between" space, this pivotal point of life changing paths on me every day. I would be perpetually triggered, refusing to be shoved around by the obsessions and fears; adjusting and re-adjusting to what would be a new normal; a reality in which I would go and have a glass of wine with friends or impulsively try a new restaurant. A new normal in which the anxiety, electric in my stomach, became the baseline. It also helped to create new possibilities, like living more honestly to my own values, even when that felt new and risky. This allowed me to accept my evolving sexuality. I'd learned how to lean right in to the discomfort, embracing changes and uneven endings.
Early March brought accomplishments and deceptively cool, sunny days. My collaborator and I were focusing heavily on our newest project, as I was beginning to grow my caseload at work, and struggling through some relentless cold symptoms and a lingering cough. Over the prior few months, I had developed several goals and ideas about living a balanced life, which included trying new things and filling my leisure time with meaningful activities. After two years of isolation and burned bridges, dating sparked the curiosity and adventure in me that I wasn't sure would ever return.
I eventually grew desensitized from the mindless swiping of the latest dating application that I was using, so my interest was immediately piqued when I received a message from a girl who made a joke about asking me out right away to avoid horrible small talk. I'd recently changed the settings on my phone from open to men and women to women only, and the concept of my identity including "bi" was new for me, which I chose to lean into. I've almost exclusively dated men, and I'm notorious for staying in my comfort zone. I would often exchange niceties and introductions with girls that I matched with, but that existed in the non-committal dating application, safe from the pressures and stereotypes of the real world. Something about this conversation, though stuck with me. We bantered back and forth and quickly exchanged numbers. By the next morning, I'd secured a date at a local bar that night- a product of my eager nature. The bubbling excitement was enough for me to ignore the cold symptoms, insanely packed Tuesday schedule, and the fact that Mass had just declared a state of emergency.
I walked into the bar and found the back of her head immediately, swallowing wads of butterflies. My hands were bouncing and buzzing with nerves, so by the time I approached the bar, my voice was a bit off key and a couple of notches too loud. I casually smacked my hands down and leaned over the bar, exclaiming, "Hi!", and was rewarded instantly by her smile. I suddenly understood the meaning of the term, 'stunning'; I felt struck by her, immediately charmed and drinking in her every feature- radiant fair skin with freckles sprinkled delicately over her nose and cheeks; bright amber eyes and sharp smiles, playful and coy. Her hair sat waved over her shoulders, protesting her efforts of straightening it, beginning to curl up at the ends, framing her face. She spoke deftly and intentionally, drawing out and enunciating each syllable. While I sat shifting around on the bar stool and crumbling under the pressure of her undivided attention on me, she sat still and contemplative, providing only the relief of an occasional smirk playing on her lips.
I became quickly intoxicated- uncertain if from our prolonged eye contact or from my 1/2 glass of wine. We giggled about hypnosis and my flushing cheeks over tater tots and a horrible Nutella banana sandwich- something I was only willing to try a bite of because of the sense of normalcy and comfort that sat at the table with us. She found it adorable that I was such a lightweight, which lit my face up a special shade of red- a tradition that would come to define our relationship. People began responding to warnings about the contagion and the restaurant was emptying around us, which only served to enhance the intimacy woven into our conversation. She received the notification that her school would be sending students home indefinitely, which didn't seem to create any urgency for us at all. We continued to speak in codes and invitations, both learning the grammar of a new and secret language, which we found much more captivating.
We were far less concerned with the virus than almost everyone else in the city, strolling through the square, with the cool air punctuated by tiny droplets of icy rain and street lights glistening off of the wet pavement. By the time I reluctantly gave in to my body cues of fatigue and aches, I'd offered to drive her home, seen all of her favorite books, the paintings in her bedroom, and teased her about the dishes in her sink. The dread was growing, and I was eager to avoid the end of the night- a tired tradition of a forced goodbye kiss. As I stood on her porch, watching her in the doorway, aglow from the kitchen light shining behind her, her face betrayed her sudden and certain decision to move closer to me, and we became magnetic.
If you ask her now, she will grin and insist that she knew at this moment- in fact that she knew back at the restaurant that she was "done", or in "trouble" as she likes to say. Despite my cravings for independence, mostly defined by a life illustrated by young-20s in rom-coms, I think that there was a thread inside of me that knew too. It would be about 4 days until we saw each other again, especially as my cold worsened and kept me out of work for the next few days. By Friday morning, I was at the doctor's office, having suffered some nasty symptoms and fearful that I had been infected by the infamous COVID-19, and therefore had infected her as well. I sat in the waiting room wearing my medical mask and adjusting to the disgusted looks from others each time I coughed, before I sent her another message. We both sighed in relief when the doctor sent me home without an order to quarantine or a diagnosis, assuring me that I could return to work on the following Monday.
By the time we got back together on Saturday afternoon, the world had begun to quarantine and we were adjusting to the idea that we would be working from home for an entire week- a concept that seemed surreal then. As I approached the ice cream shop where we agreed to meet up, the doubt and the dread sank in. These sensations are old friends of mine- OCD is known as the 'doubting disease'. I felt certain that I was in well over my head. It felt so strange, driving in the stark daylight to meet a girl that I'd known only through the screen of illness and wine. Now, I would be arriving in a face mask, to protect myself and others from the nasty cough that I was still advertising, which only contributed to the odd sense of unfamiliarity. If you ask me now, I like to say that the moment that I arrived and saw her sitting there at an outdoor table waiting for me was the moment that I knew. She sat, blanketed by the sunshine and an oversized denim jacket, momentarily lost in her book. She looked up with a knowing smile, delicately but intentionally tucking her bookmark in and turned her attention to me.
We drank each other in through conversations emphasized by explorative questions and jarring bursts of unexpected laughter. I didn't know her well enough yet to understand her spontaneity and a sense of humor that would eventually charm everyone we came into contact with; or how deeply attuned she would become when I shared something heavy with her. Every small moment- a smile, eye contact, arms lightly brushing, a hair flip- felt foreign and awkward for me, as someone who was so used to the unspoken rules between men and women. I dove into the learning experience like it was a new project, or a puzzle to be solved.
By Monday, sliding into quarantine together felt eerily natural to us. We spoke about going separate ways and making the "practical" choice to reconnect after quarantine; something that neither of us wanted. We soon found ourselves denying the standard dating rules- an unintentional rebellion, born from a simple desire to follow this path and see where we land. We chose to stay together-which was a commitment of living with each other for two weeks, which was actually longer than the amount of time that we had even known each other.
Make no mistake in this- we have been painfully self aware for the entire unfolding story. There were a few words that we used to describe ourselves- stupid, smitten. Over exchanged glances with eyebrows raised, we would murmur with false and theatrical irritation about how ridiculous we were behaving and jokingly compare ourselves to lovestruck teenagers. Speaking in cliches and cheesy affection became our guilty pleasure which was something that we- two pridefully mature and painfully independent women- loved to disown. We would comfort each other by interrupting the hours of staring into each others' eyes, with the warm yellow lighting of my vanity mirror reflecting off of dark pupils, with scoffed statements like "We are so gross". We desperately hoped that making fun of ourselves would make us immune to the vulnerability of living as stereotypes.
In those first couple of weeks, we spent lots of time outside to break up the long work days. The memories are decorated with photographs of me, hair turned copper by the sunshine, smiling like I have a secret, and holding hands with the photographer just outside the frame; or photographs, blurred from the laughter, all dimples and squinted eyelids with cheek kisses. We found a spot hidden behind the adjacent apartment building practically designed for a secret hideaway. We lay on the sidewalk, watching the sun slowly cross the sky and dove into revealing conversations over night time ice cream dates. I grew deeply attached to this routine of passing misty mornings and slow afternoons with easy conversation and affectionate glances which led to escapes into rooms with curtains drawn and inevitable re-connections. We'd walk through the preppy neighborhoods of Boston, admiring the brownstones, or evaluating the mansions built decades before, talking through face masks and tugging on each others' hands to maintain the 6 foot social distancing rules. Looking around brought the sobering reminder of the worldwide pandemic. The usually bustling streets became quiet and empty. At first, it felt royal and indulgent- as if the entire globe pressed pause to allow us to fall in love. Then, it began to reek of hopelessness, and we watched the streets fill with more people who slept on the sidewalks, unable to quarantine comfortably in their own homes.
The entire nation was crumbling under the pressure of an aggressive virus, propped up by a faulty system which struggled to support it's citizens in the first place. With every new press conference, or announcement that we'd be quarantined for even longer than we expected, I continued to grow infatuated with the different versions of her. When she had her hair pulled back in a curly ponytail, wild and impossible to be contained with an elastic hairband; or when she sat in sweats with a play-station controller in her hand; every time she pulled her hood up around her neck, unaware of the habit; even when I noticed that her breaths had grown short and stunted as she concentrated on something; I got to know her in a new way.
It wasn't always this decadent romance. With melancholy adoration, I watched those same amber eyes fill with tears when her family interrogated her about her sexuality, desperate for the safety of tradition for their daughter, and swallowed my own internalized rejection as a privileged and personable girl, so used to being liked. My sensitive nature has been only exacerbated by the social distancing rules, so there were a few jokes gone awry. I've been trademarked before for my indecision and commitment phobias, which was fueled by the fast progression of our relationship. She tends to be more reactive than responsive and sometimes shuts down. I learned quickly that she can outwit me when she's trying, and that she doesn't often shy away from a challenge. She can be almost as stubborn as me, and she taught me the actual meaning of compromise- a lesson that I would've happily avoided. What presented one moment as furrowed brows and frustrated remarks, or exasperated sighs, would be the next minute replaced with understanding and confidence.
OCD is famous for rigidity and flaring up in uncertain times- a guarantee in a global pandemic. My symptoms are no different, and made the whole world appear a couple of shades wrong. The world had grown somber and quiet, reflecting the climbing death toll in Mass. Inexplicably, and despite the wave of grief sweeping the city, and despite the doubts and risks; right there, in the middle of the street, moments away from the very bar that I leaned too far over less than a month earlier, I decided to jump. When I usually talk about being "compelled" to do something, it's because there is a relentless, biting fear pushing me forward. In contrast, on this night, under streetlights, I looked at her face, decorated by the shadows of raindrops landed on the windshield, and I felt compelled in a new way; I felt compelled by a sense of warm knowing; an intuition. I wanted her the same way that she'd said that she wanted me so many times in the prior few days. I had avoided that conversation many times, shrugging off any feelings that I'd had as simply infatuation.
Humans have been studying the experience of "love" for centuries. Poets cannot use simple words to capture the sensations and scientists can't seem to pin down the neurology of it. It has never been very adaptive, and is certainly responsible for smearing our history with mistakes. If you go searching through all of the years, you'll find that love has this creative, insistent way of unfolding in the darkness. In the coldest and most hopeless of times, love burrows in, creating just the single spark of hope that keeps us asking for more.
Four days later, we sat on her sofa, whispering and murmuring to each other, my hands tracing the shadowed silhouette of her face. There's no way of knowing exactly how long we sat there; we learned to ignore the ticking of the clock or signals of dusk settling in. We'd both been choking on the same three words for several days; the same three words that felt like they ripped the curtains open on our socially isolated fairy tale, exposing our feelings for what they were- passionate and dangerous. By the time I heard those words brush her lips, it sounded almost laughable, and I knew that it was real. "I love you, Ali."
After five (unexpected) weeks of living and working in the same small spaces, we continue to get giggly and excited when one of us returns from the restroom or hangs up from a virtual meeting. I'm always trying to memorize every detail- the smell of her hair in the morning, or how her lips curve down when she's not smiling, creating a perpetual pout. I beg her to stop grinning at me when I'm working, because it's far too distracting, and she counters with goofy voice-over and narrating my cat. My car has seen many dance parties and rap battles. She often lets her hair go curly now and she's seen many of my rituals. I wake her in the mornings and warn her before I pull the curtains back, inviting the morning sun in to illuminate a new day, and she somehow always notices when my anxious hands have turned to scratching and pulls them into her lap.
Each day, I get a pang of anxiety, a sense of stress about a future that is so deeply uncertain and an urge to distance myself from her- this person who hooked me so fiercely and relentlessly in a matter of days. What's usually my sobered and curt opinions on relationships and monogamy has been replaced by candid photos and hours slipping away as we talk, tucked away from the rest of the panicked world; an idea that represents an oxymoron as I remain strangely calm. What's always been a shiver and disgust about the idea of marriage is now indulgent daydreams where my creative imagination thrives. When we talked about moving in together on Day 36, I waved it away with a laugh or two, criticizing our impulsive and lovestruck choices.
Today, the death toll is finally beginning to plateau in Boston, and countries overseas have begun cautiously reopening stores. The light at the end of the tunnel is starting to seem like a warm one, welcoming us back into society- a world that will never be the same; a world that also holds new and exciting possibilities. When we all return to the light, and start re-learning about life out from under the threat of an infectious virus, I will be a different version of myself. I've gone through changes much greater than simply staying home. I never once expected to fall in love with a girl in a mandatory quarantine, over the course of two weeks or less, in a way that's both so fast that we're stumbling to keep up and simultaneously so slowly that we are constantly asking for more of each other. I never once expected to fall in love with a girl with such audacity and boldness that each new challenge that we cross in life threatens a power struggle; a girl who's stubbornness and directness both comforts me and prompts me to reconsider all of the things that I thought that I knew before the virus struck.
The uncertainty of making the right choice, and the criticism of those around us create constant new question marks about our future. I often ask myself how our romance will play out in real time- will it exist differently than in social isolation? We found a sunny apartment in a neighborhood of Boston and we will move in on May 1st with the support of some of our closest friends. Regardless of any virus or quarantine lifestyle, love does not offer any guarantees. Luckily, I've become quite skilled at tolerating uncertainty and waiting for the risks to unfold.