It was the early days of the pandemic. And I was falling hard.
Chris and I were just texting, I reminded myself. A series of texts didn’t mean true love. Maybe he didn’t want more. But then, we started to talk on the phone. It was innocent at first, just a catch-up to touch base during such a strange time, a simple “hello” that turned into a three-hour conversation during which my kids got way too much screen time and I missed their bedtime by an hour. That same night, he asked how I was feeling about dating and relationships at that point in my life. “I want to date you!” I wanted to say, but instead I told him about who I didn’t want to be: someone who settled. I told him about a widow that I knew, one whose husband had died decades prior when she was a young mother. She had eventually remarried, but when we spoke about her life, she told me that it was her first husband whom she regarded as her soulmate. “I’m not doing that,” I said. “If I get remarried, it will be because I’ve found another person that’s the real deal.”
“Good,” he said. It didn’t mean anything at that point, not really. But I wanted him to know that I wasn’t looking for a relationship bandaid, at least not anymore.
I’d been sitting on my dad’s bed during our first call, and after we hung up, I stayed there, looking at the pictures still up on the dresser. My eyes rested on the black-and-white photo of my parents in their mid-20s. In the photo, my dad leaned his cheek next to my mom’s temple, a slight smile on each of their faces. My dad’s hair was already streaked with gray, even then, but both of them looked really young staring into the camera. Still, that wasn’t why I kept looking at the photo, examining the bits of white in the centers of their eyes, the glint that showed up even in a photo without color. My dad had this exact photo framed in his room at home in Oregon, too, and it was one I’d seen many times as a child. It was his favorite picture of the two of them, and when I asked him about it, he always said, “Your mother looks pretty in it, doesn’t she?”
Still, I don’t think he liked that photo just because of how beautiful my mom looked. He liked it for the emotion you could see on her face—and on his. Right then, I could see the spark between them more than ever before.
As I stood up to leave the room, I knew one thing. Chris was going to call back. And when he did—the next day and the day after that and the day after that—a new feeling consumed me. I felt light and full and good in a way that had become almost totally foreign to me. We talked about everything, from our families to our past relationships, and I told him more about what the past few years had been like for me. I often laid in bed when the night got late, staring at the white ceiling and thinking how beautiful it looked in its simplicity. I knew, in the back of my head, that the blankness of the ceiling had once made me feel a deep kind of grief—one triggered, I suppose, because back then I was laying in bed without Shawn. It was a funny thing for a ceiling to do, and yet, after a week of phone conversations with Chris passed, and then another, I realized I didn’t have that feeling anymore. In fact, I grew to love staring up at that ceiling as I heard the hum of Chris’s voice in my ear.
In many ways our new romance resembled a seventh grade relationship, full of late-night discussions on the phone. It could only happen that way because we were quarantined hundreds of miles apart. This meant that we ended up talking about all the things that mattered to us even though we’d never laid a finger on each other. I told him that I often sang in my kitchen and that I was learning to make pizza from scratch. He told me more about how he loved to cycle and why he wanted a dog. I told him about Claire’s birth and about holding her for the first time in the early hours of the morning as the sun peeked through the windows, and feeling like all was right with the world. He told me about his 21st birthday in Chile, hiking alone in the Andes and imagining his future.
I counted on hearing his voice every night. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I saw his name on the screen of my phone and hearing his voice made my legs feel like butter. I knew this feeling. It wasn’t simply a crush anymore.
I could feel it in his voice too, even if we weren’t saying it all out loud. Somewhere in these conversations, I mentioned that Becky seemed excited but also a tiny bit worried about our budding relationship. “I think she’s nervous that things might not work out between us. I told her we were adults.”
Chris laughed, and then his voice dropped a bit as he said, “Well, yes, we are adults, but also, I really fucking like you a whole shit ton.”
I thought about him constantly, even as I worried about how to keep my kids safe and how to keep my teaching job and how to make sure Tommy was practicing counting to 100. In every in-between moment, Chris was on my mind. Had this once been how it was with Shawn? I wasn’t sure. Maybe falling in love in my 40s was going to be different than falling in love in my 20s.
We talked about nothing and we talked about everything that really mattered in the world. We talked about the people we loved the most and the people who we’d lost. Eventually, I told him more about losing Shawn, about early widowhood, about the messy parts that I didn’t yet have the courage to say out loud to most other people. I told him I admired how Shawn left this world: without regrets. “If I knew I was going to die soon,” I said, “I don’t think I’d change much about my life. Covid has made me focus inward, reconnect with my kids and the people who really matter to me. I would just do more of what I am already doing.”
He hummed in agreement.
“If I was dying, I would want you to come to DC, of course,” I said. “But also, I wouldn’t want you to come because I know it would be terrible for you. You would hurt.”
“And I would come anyway,” he said.
Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey.