Written in April 2020, in the thick of quarantine.
Here’s a message in a bottle from inside my quarantine, where I’m accompanied by the last remnants of a midday snack: a spotty ripe banana, a jar of Trader Joe’s no-stir peanut butter, and a spoon. This jar used to rest neglected inside my cabinet, awaiting its turn in the common cravings rotation. Once every moon or so, I would select this noble servant for its day of glory (e.g. a sauce for noodles or a glob for morning oats in lieu of almond butter). A standard-sized jar, it sat and sat, each scoop a minor erosion. And then I started dating this boy (or is he a man? Which one are you in your early twenties?) who reintroduced me to its wonders. It was our third date and he was coming over to make peanut sauce.
I came across his Hinge profile in early February. I hadn’t felt drawn to dating men in months; even then the intrigue quickly faded after two dates with an absolute idiot who wore the same outfit like a cartoon character. Thereafter, I spent the period from July to January in a hot pursuit of women: some from college, some from dating apps, and one longer undefined thing with a hometown crush. Some had personalities I didn’t gel with, others weren’t ready to be in a relationship with another woman. And then there was one who cancelled on me twice with lame excuses like “I just remembered I have to pick up my mom at the airport at the exact time we scheduled to meet!” If I couldn’t avoid awkward rejections altogether, then at least I shouldn’t limit myself to one side of my sexuality.
Open to dating guys again, when I saw a curly-haired fellow who advertised himself as a 6’4” lover of Carly Rae Jepsen, I think I said “hell yeah” out loud. From the first message I sent him, our banter was smooth and natural. And yet, my brain insisted on swirling around the big Q: “would I actually be attracted to him irl?” Was his hair short like in pictures 1 and 3 or longer like in 2 and 4? Was he the type who only wore t-shirts? Would some of those initial jokes land better when spiced up by actually being together? Could he be the kind of person I was looking for? Two nights before meeting, unable to fully swallow the sad discomfort of old dating flops, I fell into a panic attack so thick I began to question if I was attracted to men at all. I rescued myself by remembering to breathe and then watched a TED talk on how necessary vulnerability is. Could “being myself” to an audience of one, one who I want to like and like me, not feel like a performance? What if the stakes weren’t so high? What if I treated it like meeting a friend after work for drinks? Then I wouldn’t obsess over any sort of “wow” factor. I picked a straight-boy-friendly dive bar near my apartment—so near it would shock you to find out I got lost both on my way there and home. Cool, so I was horrible with directions and it was raining and I walked in feeling Bridget-Jones-level-flustered. But having actually listened to my own advice, I was calmed by how organically pleasant things were going. Our chemistry and wealth of shared interests was refreshing; I forgot my nerves and didn’t have to switch into the ever-exhausting “interviewing a disconnected stranger” mode. No, we asked each other questions like we actually wanted to know the answers.
Date #1 was pretty good; Date #2 was even better. There were small moments when I had to silence my inner saboteur from wondering if the following details were bad omens: occasional comments about not wanting to spend money on dates, his less-than-minty-fresh breath, being a year younger and only a few months out of college. No one will ever be perfect, I told myself, and besides, it’s better to dwell on the good stuff like how badly you want to touch the luscious dark curls on his head and how you open up to each other like this isn’t new.
Date #3 was peanut sauce night! We planned on cooking at mine and then going to see Uncut Gems and timing was everything. He was running late for this one and between battling a migraine and wondering if it was too soon to be playing house, I was in a slippery headspace. Everything was taking longer than I planned, and when we got to the theatre, Gems was s-o-l-d o-u-t! I oddly began to feel more calm. We returned to my apartment where Rosemary’s Baby was the soundtrack for the stuff of coming-of-age romance dreams, making out and talking about our feelings until 5 am and all that. His lips tasted like peanuts.
Our penultimate date was supposed to be an “Indie 2000s dance party” with a few of my friends. COVID-19’s shadow was growing more prevalent. I didn’t think it was smart to go out but a text reading “aw i was looking forward to seeing you” and a denial of my own anxious instincts convinced me. So the plan for us to convene at my apartment proceeded, and although he arrived looking like a hot French sailor he was acting like a total slug. He made an odd joke about infecting me when we kissed hello. “I actually don’t think I want to go out anymore, I’m pretty tired. I’ll just hang out until you guys leave.” Then as I’m slipping on my boots, he asks in a near-whisper if I had plans for the next night, which I did, because he felt we should talk about where this was going. “I’d rather just have that conversation now” was my “yes and” reply to this waking stress dream. At first, he couldn’t articulate if he wanted this to end altogether or if it was just “moving too fast.” A week before I joked that I was “obsessed with him.” At the time, he laughed; now, he was triggered. How was I supposed to prove I wasn’t like his “stalker ex” and then beg him to date me? All I wanted was to go dancing!
Why did this feel hauntingly familiar? Once again, my emotional availability was a testing site for someone else’s commitment issues. Although we had both fueled a mutual “I can’t get enough of you” feeling, I was on trial for it. Your honor, was I wrong to have a rejuvenated interest in our commonalities, to listen to songs that reminded me of him, to be persuaded by his argument on why peanut butter was the best snack? I felt betrayed by my instinct to trust him.
Let the record show that I managed to say everything I normally would’ve thought about later, and it went something like this: “there is no certainty in anything. And especially this, which is terrifying. But no one ever got anywhere without suspending fear. You don’t think it scares me to open up to someone new? I was taking cues from you sharing intimate details about your family and past heartbreaks, kissing my hand, and telling me you love the sound of my voice. Didn’t you say you were ready to fall in love? I leaned into this because I thought it was mutual. Really, what is the worst that could happen? We’re not getting married! At its core, this is simple: do you want to date me or not?” L'esprit d'escalier be damned! “I need more of a gradual unfolding than a sudden dive into a relationship” was his closing statement on the matter. Okay, I could do that. What started out as the conversational equivalent of trying to pull out a child’s loose tooth concluded under the guise of mutual understanding and tenderness. Then we ate some Oreos with peanut butter.
A day before I saw him for the last time, he texted me that he was leaving Brooklyn until real life resumed but he “definitely still wanted to hang out” before his retreat. I was sure this was the end. That night I tried to grocery shop, and you would’ve thought the world was ending too. I called my mom in a wild panic that my life was crashing down around me. “He’s insanely immature if he breaks up with you because of coronavirus.” We met at a restaurant for dinner; the boy who once chastised me that I was neurotic to be worried about the pandemic walked in wearing medical gloves. He said he was too nervous about getting sick to kiss me. After letting the conversation warm up, I raised that even though he was leaving, I wanted to stay in touch and pick this up when life resumed. He widened his eyes and sighed. “I hope we both find what we’re looking for” is the last thing he ever said to me.
That was Friday the 13th. Come Monday, everything in the New York Metro area was closed. Wednesday was my twenty-fourth birthday. At the outset of these converging events, I was steeped in self-pity, tasked with the most painfully conscious moving-on process of my young life. While my physical self would be confined to the one pink and three white walls of my apartment, my mind would be freer than ever to roam the valley of missed opportunity. In a time before COVID-19, I mourned the demise of relationships in sweaty 80s dance clubs with gin and crowds of friends and strangers. I would re-download all my beloved dating apps and let the promise of possibility remind me that the world is filled with nothing more than people who may or may not be right for me. Pushing disappointment away was easier then. Now, the rhetorical “worst thing” had happened to our budding relationship; could I handle the pain I once told myself not to fear?
With nowhere to go, I paid daily visits to the memories-turned-monuments inside my head, placing offerings there and hoping he was doing the same. I could distract myself with the stack of “to-read” books accumulated on my dresser or Animal Crossing gardening or non-virtual gardening with real dirt, but instead I let reminders of him be the distractions themselves. One afternoon, staring into space in my backyard, I realized dwelling on this break-up was a coping mechanism. To have a conflict as ordinary as a bruised heart blanketed me in normalcy. There is no normalcy now, only quarantine and a growing death toll transmitted from the outside. But, as more days grow the distance between us, I’m finding respite in the solitude of my thoughts. I’ve had the time to reimagine him as average and our memories together as certainly attainable with a future other, then let it all fade into the oblivion of the before-times. I will admit that in a low moment I reread our initial Hinge conversation, looking for something I had maybe misunderstood as real feelings. And you know what? It was still as sweet as I remembered.
I ate the last of the original peanut butter jar this afternoon. No matter how much I scraped, zebra stripes persistly clung to the plastic sides of the jar. Since the break-up, I’ve revisited that jar twice before its demise: first to compose the world’s best peanut sauce and today for its last grand use alongside a worthy banana. Remembering how he double-dipped his spoon, I became determined to rid myself of our last lingering momento. And now, the jar has yielded all it can. I can’t waste my entire quarantine frustrated with him and any “failure” to expend all our potential energy; I’m tired of sitting around with a basically-empty jar. I put the spoon in the sink, wiped any remaining butter from the jar with a sponge, and tossed it in with the recycling.