In the second year of widowhood, I became friends with a group of young widows. We called ourselves “The Glamorous Cabal of Widows” or “The Cabal” for short. Not everyone was dating yet, but when one of us went out on a date, we always texted the group. There was usually someone around to provide support, or in some cases, humor. We compared dating to root canals and war and everything else that we could think of that was bad. Fuck him, was a common reply to a date that went poorly. My other friends who heard about the Cabal only said, “I wouldn’t mess with any of you,” which made me laugh.
One evening not long after we all became friends, I was sitting near the fountain at Dupont Circle, waiting for a man I’d met at the rock climbing gym when I nervously texted the Cabal. Was this a bad idea? What did I even know about this guy? The replies were swift. Maybe just give it a try? Have an escape plan? Lie and blame it on the Cabal if things went awry? (You always need a plan if things go awry, someone texted.)
I’d initially met this guy because Claire had been trying out for the intro climbing team, and Austin was bouldering by himself. I’d been sitting with Tommy, who’d stolen my phone to play games. The gym was filled with shirtless men and it was a fun exercise to just take a look around.
After a few minutes of this, I’d noticed a man who was working out at the station adjacent to my seat. He was strong and his long, blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail. He’d looked to be about my age. We’d started chatting, first about what he was doing and then about rock climbing. He’d had a self-assuredness that I found alluring, though it was hard to get a real sense of him other than that I liked his vibe. Whatever that meant anymore.
At the end of the conversation, he’d asked me to come visit the farm where he did permaculture. What was permaculture? I pretended I knew what he was talking about but really I didn’t have a clue what it was and had to Google it later. I didn’t have anywhere to write down his contact info, so I opened up the book I’d been reading to Tommy and gave it to him. He’d written his number right next to the title “Ninjago” and then introduced himself to my boys. I’d thought, Well, that’s cute.
Now we were meeting again after a series of emails in which I’d learned that he didn’t want to go out to dinner, and he didn’t drink. I was skeptical—those were two things I certainly enjoyed. Instead, he’d wanted to meet in a park and make me tea. Alarm bells had gone off in my head. It could be amazingly romantic and such a great story to tell our friends someday, or it could be the beginning of a terrible made-for-TV-movie. “How about meeting in Dupont Circle?” I’d suggested, and he’d thought it was a great idea.
I was there early, looking for a good spot on the grass. There were people everywhere, working and reading and hanging out, and I sat down next to a man who seemed to be using the park as his regular napping spot. The man had a shirt on that said, “king weed growers” and he was snoring slightly. I put on Taylor Swift’s new album Lover and texted the Cabal again. I’m not optimistic. Decided that, at minimum, I can act like a journalist and see what interesting things I can learn. I’m sitting next to a sleeping stranger and listening to Taylor Swift, just to try and set the mood.
The flood of texts quickly came in and soon I was laughing. What did I think this guy was going to be like? Was he going to show up wearing shoes? Use the word “nonconformist”? Should I try and work Monsanto into the conversation and see if it provoked a reaction?
My widow friend Kate was getting off work soon, just a few blocks away. She told us she’d try and walk by, just to see if everything was okay. I encouraged her—as did the rest of the group.
I was laughing when my date walked up. “You look happy,” he said.
I gave him a hug, and we stood awkwardly talking for a bit before we sat in the grass. He pulled out a camping stove and lit it. I smiled, and thought of my friends. If they could see me now! But hey, I figured, it takes guts to do something like that in the middle of the damn city. I waited while he set out the teacups and gave me a selection of tea.
We chatted. He explained that he didn’t drink because he was training to do more advanced rock climbs. “But I regularly use psilocybin,” he told me.
I’d read Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, which talked about how psychedelic mushrooms could be used to treat PTSD and for end-of-life care, so I was intrigued. He was animated as he talked about it. “I grow my own, so I know what’s in them,” he said. “It’s a spiritual experience, really.”
I’m being open-minded, I kept saying to myself as the doubts crept in. Silently, in the back of my mind, my radar was going off: This is not your kind of guy, Marjorie.
But we kept talking. I told him about the traveling I’d done in the past, and he seemed minimally interested. Then, slowly, things started to go off the rails. He didn’t think libraries were important, as anything you needed to read you could read on the internet. He thought “science” didn’t always have the answers (and yes, he hung “science” in air quotes). He told me this really long story about how historians didn’t really know when civilization started, because it probably actually started before the first Ice Age, when prehistoric humans hid in underground cities while they waited for the Ice Age to pass, and then waited again for the sun to scorch the surface of the earth. There wasn’t just one prehistoric city, in fact, but many all over the world. He looked forward to finding them.
I was trying my damndest not to openly laugh. I knew Kate was around at that point, and I imagined her watching the two of us from across the park, seeing us politely sitting on a blanket drinking tea. Maybe she was texting the others that I looked happy? Was I too far away for her to see the skepticism on my face, or the way I was pursing my lips to stifle my real emotions? I hoped she was updating the Cabal. I imagined the text thread that was going to ensue once the date was over.
Eventually, using my kids as cover, I said I had to get home for dinner. He wanted to see me again. I evaded, and pretended that I wasn’t super ready to date yet. At least being a widow was good for something.
As I walked home that evening, I noticed that I had dozens of missed messages on my phone. Kate had taken photos and documented the date for our widow group. Before Shawn died, I hadn’t had many single friends. My married friends had been supporting me in all kinds of ways, including listening kindly to my stories about dating. But the Cabal was intensely interested in every aspect of the date, and once I made it clear that I never wanted to see this guy again due to his somewhat extreme beliefs, everyone made sure to support me. The texts were amazing and I laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face: Ah, the closet neo-Atlantian, hiding behind a cute exterior. They don’t always come with warning signs. I skipped down the street, still listening to Taylor Swift.