“I’ve actually been known to do a cartwheel when I’m drunk.”
My eyebrows shot up as I looked dubiously at the even-tempered, middle-aged man I’d been dating for 13 months. In response to my disbelief, he showed me. And, well, it wasn’t a half-bad cartwheel.
I applauded his agility and added “drunk party tricks” to the list of things I should know about him ― but don’t, because we started dating in a pandemic and we’ve only experienced the pandemic version of each other’s lives.
Evan and I matched on Hinge in the early weeks of the pandemic. A raging virus, solo parenting in quarantine without a village to lean on, and two glasses of wine led me to break my self-imposed dating app hiatus. The plan was to find distraction. To find another single parent to commiserate with. To remember there was an entire world outside the four walls of my home and my children’s endless calls for “mom.”
We matched. We texted. I inelegantly informed him I was a young widow with two kids and waited to see if that would make him ghost. It didn’t.
Instead, after a few more days of texting and talking on the phone, he asked if I wanted to meet for a socially distanced walk. Neither of us had downloaded a dating app during a pandemic with the intention of meeting in person, but we both felt like what was between us was worth exploring ― was something we couldn’t risk letting fizzle.
We spent weeks walking back and forth on a bike path maintaining the 6-foot distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eventually we graduated to sitting 6 feet apart in my backyard and talking over glasses of wine.
Slowly, case numbers began to recede in my area but the truth about this pandemic became clear — the virus wasn’t going away any time soon. Social distancing wasn’t, either. If we were going to move this relationship in any kind of forward direction, we’d have to enter each other’s quarantine bubbles.
We entered each other’s quarantine bubbles with a goodbye hug after hanging out one night. Thanks to the pandemic, that simple act ― that brush of close contact ― took on what felt like the weight of a pre-pandemic couple’s choice to move in together. With that hug, we were now in this together, our fates linked. Or, if that’s too dramatic, then at the very least, our health was linked for the next two to 14 days (tests were still hard to come by at that time).
Thirteen months later, our pandemic relationship is sailing slowly and smoothly forward. We’ve discussed politics and death and divorce. We’ve talked in depth about hopes and dreams and regrets. He’s been privy to the way an episode of ”Ozark” can make all of my grief resurface. I’ve had a front-row seat to his struggle to find his footing as a divorced dad.
We entered each other’s quarantine bubbles with a goodbye hug after hanging out one night. Thanks to the pandemic, that simple act ― that brush of close contact ― took on what felt like the weight of a pre-pandemic couple’s choice to move in together.
At some point, we added our kids into the mix. They get along wonderfully.
If that all sounds like an episode of ”The Brady Brunch” and you want to roll your eyes a little, I get it.
But here’s the catch: It all happened in a bubble. To protect ourselves and our children from COVID-19, we’ve kept the rest of the world out.
We haven’t met each other’s friends. We’ve never been to a bar together. We’ve never sat in a movie theater, gone on vacation, or done many of the other things couples do during and after a year of dating. I didn’t even know about his stockpile of drunken party tricks until just a few days ago.
Neither of us knows anything about the other outside of the bubble we’ve created together.
I know him as an even-tempered, good father who likes gritty dramas and bourbon. He knows me as a scatter-brained solo mother who probably won’t understand pre-’90s pop culture references and likes to read the end of the book before the middle.
I don’t know him as the guy who does drunken cartwheels. He’s warned me that he’s the guy who likes to antagonize his friends to get a rise out of them, but I can’t square that with the man who patiently helped me fix my broken refrigerator.
Similarly, he hasn’t experienced how socially awkward I can be and how the morbid sense of humor that young widowhood left me with is both a blessing and a curse in social situations. I can probably tell you about his sixth grade shenanigans, but I have no idea how he acts in a room full of strangers. (After 13 months, I have a guess, but people frequently surprise me.)
Relationships are made of two parts — an interior part and an exterior. The interior part is the two people at the heart of the relationship. It’s their values and humor. It’s their chemistry. It’s them — in sweatpants on the couch with their armor ripped off while they enjoy spending time together.
The exterior part is how the couple functions as a unit when it comes to friends, family, social obligations, family obligations, children’s schedules, etc. Ideally, the interior part is what matters. Realistically, it’s not. In the best circumstances, both sides are balanced.
For 13 months, we’ve worked on the interior part — the part that is just us. For 13 months, we’ve barely brushed the surface of that exterior part — the part that is us interacting with the outside world.
Chances are that’s about to change.
I’d like to believe we’re nearing the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel (yay, science!). Evan and I are both vaccinated. Though our kids are not, with case numbers receding again and warm weather approaching, there’s a good chance this summer will look a lot more “normal” (whatever that means).
His parents will visit from out of town. My friends are asking to get together. Post-pandemic life is slowly taking shape. The walls of our pandemic bubble are slowly thinning.
That means our pandemic relationship is about to meet the real world. From what I remember about the real world, it’s loud and complicated and often cruel without any rhyme or reason (or that’s how it looked from my perch on the widow branch).
I can’t escape the worry that Evan and I won’t like each other outside of quarantine. He might think I’m too quiet. I might think he’s too antagonistic. His friends might not like me. Mine might not like him. As two busy working parents, we might not have that much time for each other. Once our kids return to their full, busy after-school schedules, once more real life comes in and we have less time for Netflix binges and late nights talking about everything over a bottle of wine, we might find it hard to keep that interior part strong enough to carry the weight of a wildly underdeveloped exterior part.
As if that’s not hard enough to sort through, there’s this: I’m a young widow and Evan is my first serious relationship since my husband, Matt, died.
For so long, I walked through life as Matt’s wife (and I loved being his wife, truly and completely). Then, I stumbled along as Matt’s widow. I don’t know how to be Evan’s girlfriend, or anyone’s girlfriend. (That’s aside from the fact that the word “girlfriend” feels too young and baggage-free for a 38-year-old brain cancer widow raising two kids.) I don’t know how to integrate a new man into the life I lived before the pandemic as a wife and then a widow.
I don’t know how we move forward. I don’t know what the answer is. I suspect this is an instance where there is no answer. We just dive in. We enter the real world. … We live a post-pandemic life and see if our pandemic relationship can withstand it.
During the pandemic, I didn’t have to confront how it might feel to invite a man I was dating to a family barbecue because there were no barbecues. I didn’t have to navigate introducing Evan to friends who’d known me only as Matt’s wife (or widow) because there were no events. I didn’t have to figure out how to correct folks who might believe Evan is Matt’s replacement and my grief is over because I’m dating someone new. That matters ― not because I want to be seen as a martyr for my widowhood, but because Matt’s legacy deserves better than being brushed aside.
Undoubtedly, creating a bubble and keeping out the world was a privilege not afforded to so many others. I’m truly grateful to have weathered the worst of this pandemic with Evan by my side.
But I don’t know how we move forward. I don’t know what the answer is. I suspect this is an instance where there is no answer. We just dive in. We enter the real world. We meet parents and friends. We go to restaurants and figure out if we laugh or cringe at the other’s behavior in public. We live a post-pandemic life and see if our pandemic relationship can withstand it.
Matt’s illness and death showed me that we can’t control this life. The pandemic reinforced that. Post-pandemic, the only thing I can think to do is give up trying to control what happens next and let it happen.
Maybe we find a balance, and it’s effortless — because after all, we made it through a pandemic together. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe I’ll introduce him to the world of being a spoiler lover. Maybe he’ll teach me how to do a cartwheel.
Or maybe rather than emerging from quarantine as Evan’s girlfriend or Matt’s widow, I’ll take a stab at emerging as Elaine — morbid sense of humor and all — and that will be enough for whatever comes my way. Our way.
Elaine Roth is a writer, mom, widow, and pilates instructor living on the East Cost with her two children and neurotic rescue dog. She writes about grief, life after loss, and parenting. Her work can be found on Scary Mommy and Modern Loss. Connect with her on Instagram at @thisyoungwidowlife.
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