Image Credit: Sebastian Staines
Fear: a combination of worries stemming from past experiences, often sitting adjacent to a can of kerosene. Fear tells you to stay away from the fire. Fear white knuckles familiar, tells you to hold the hand of the one you’re falling in love with even though your gut says he’s not for you. Fear says, take an extra pill of melatonin at night, ward off the dreams that feel too real, the ones that smell of kerosene.
“What are you afraid of?”
That’s the question I actually want to ask on my first date seven months into the pandemic as Northern California’s fires fill the air with smoke. We meet at a trailhead with picnic benches in Richmond—the halfway point from his farm in Sebastopol and my apartment in Oakland. The barbeque pits are covered with plastic, discouraging gatherings. There’s a path up ahead likely leading to an ocean view I’m longing to see, but I’m six weeks out of knee surgery and can’t quite walk right yet. I try to hide my limp as I walk towards him, try not to think about the large black brace my leg is bound in. His tightly curled hair I’ve seen on his dating profile is pulled back into a small bun on top of his head, likely a consequence of pandemic life sans hair salons. We take off our masks before we reach each other. His warm smile comes with roots along his eyes, a symptom of age and laughter I’ve grown to love. He cracks open the beer I brought and I plop his homegrown tomato onto my tongue.
I don’t care as much about what he does for work like I did with the former scientist I recently dated or what his favorite country traveled is as much as I care about his fear. I want to know what’s shaken him during these times. What realizations left him wide awake in a cold sweat or in clarifying tears? Does he like who he’s been in these difficult moments? When we return to ‘normal’ will he reroute from where he started? Who does he hope to be?
But that’s not the kind of thing you ask on a first date when you first meet. Or maybe it is now. Maybe because nearly everything around us has changed, the norms of small talk have changed too.
When the pandemic started, I felt fortunate to be three months into a relationship with the former scientist—an attractive, smart, Colombian man who loved the idea of an apocalypse and read Navy Seal survival books for fun before masks in public were even a thing. I felt fortunate that after nearly two years of being single following a decade-long relationship, I had finally found someone I wanted to spend every weekend with and didn’t feel claustrophobic by. Don’t get me wrong, there were growing pains. We already passed the stage of me resisting giving up the singledom routines I held dear – the Saturday and Sunday morning to afternoons I spent solo, writing in my home. The Saturday hikes that felt more compulsory than pleasure. The weeknights I only wanted to spend at my house so I could wake, do yoga, write before work, maintain the balance I’d worked so hard to achieve. But he kept nudging me with these comments, telling me in a relationship not everything would be on my time, there had to be a willingness to turn I into we. It was direct but true. So, each week I slowly tried to open up to an us, to the new. And after a couple months, I realized I didn’t need the things I clung to as much as I thought I did. I loved them, sure. But need was a different thing.
Now we traded weekends staying confined to our apartments for days away in my adventure-mobile camping alongside creamy blue lakes. I made dinners and he washed dishes – a trade I tried to negotiate with my ex for years. I discovered I could love sex again; I could laugh during and after it. My body could feel light, learning to let go of the stories it held about itself.
But we spent more time than I would’ve liked in bed and watched far too many movies. There were many days I felt like a dog trapped indoors with an owner who despised the obligatory daily walk. I tried to hide my longing for the open sky because it felt nice, hearing his heartbeat beneath his warm chest. It’s fine, I told myself. I have someone. I have cuddles, conversation, and company. I had this new feeling of merging with someone that I hadn’t felt in years. We were in unprecedented times, but I wasn’t alone.
The few evenings I did spend alone my mind randomly drifted to the single people I knew—my friend who just moved a month before the pandemic or my grandpa who now wasn’t allowed to leave his home. I imagined them holed up in isolation on their own, no partner to drink mimosas with on Saturday afternoons or play Uno in Alamo Square. No one else to taste the endless banana bread or homemade cookies they made on Sundays. No one to calm them when the mind wandered too far, wondering what if this never ends, what if this never ends?
Yet while there were countless good days there were enough gut-twisting moments that left me in pause. If you’re dating, you’re familiar with them. The ones where you see how the person is when they’re mad, no longer cloaking their reactions with ‘nice to meet you’ courtesy. The language they default to not once, twice, but every time. The “I’m not your therapist” that slips out when talking through something difficult. You see that would be your normal and you have to decide if you’re okay with that. Then, there were smaller things. The mornings where he wanted to watch cartoons and I hate nothing more than knowing the sun is up on a Saturday, the sky is blue and I’m stuck inside with the drapes drawn.
Those, along with others, brought on these clear-eyed moments. They usually arrived after sex when my guard dropped and breath cleared. I’d look at myself in the bathroom mirror, eyes wide and unafraid and without thinking my reflection shook its head ever so slightly. A whisper creaked out as the water poured from the faucet. I’m sorry, honey. He’s just not your person. Deep down, as much as I loved how different he was from anyone I’d dated, his ambition, his love for traveling, his ability to seamlessly move from country to country, his confidence, his adaptability, I knew he was great but he wasn’t for me. I knew this when he only posted photos of himself in these beautiful places I’d taken him to again and again. I knew this but I didn’t ruminate into the next steps because that would mean I’d be alone in a pandemic. And for some reason, nothing felt more terrifying. So, when he tried to end things one stressful day, I resisted. I encouraged us to talk it through.
Three more months pass. I decide it’s time for him to meet one of my friends. Since my best friend lives seven hours away and I feared he’d say something that might offend my other dear friend, I choose a girlfriend from college I’ve known for twelve years. She’s as loyal as they come, easy to get along with, and honest enough to point out red flags but isn’t too critical. He and I had gotten in an argument earlier that day. Anxious about the evening, I needed more time for myself than I expected. We hadn’t picked a time for me to pick me up, just said he’d come over for dinner to meet my friend. He assumed we’d spend the afternoon together like we usually did but I said I’d pick him up at 4 p.m. instead, which seemed inconsiderate to him because he could’ve made plans but blocked it out for me. He said he needed some time to mellow out, which unnerved me given the importance of the evening. But he showed up calm, kind and fine.
When my friend arrives, I serve stuffed zucchini then bring out Bananagrams and wine so we have something to do other than awkwardly acknowledge this quiet game of peer approval. They had little trouble holding a conversation about her three months traveling across Eastern Europe and his recent summer roaming Spain, Portugal and Hawaii. But she makes a joke about drug cartels in Colombia and he doesn’t laugh. Looking back, I should’ve said something but wouldn’t know until later how much that offended him. I thought, overall, they hit it off but things go south when she leaves. I immediately see the dead end up ahead. But I feel closer to love than I’ve felt in years and right now, love feels comforting and the world outside looks grim. So, we stay a few more days until neither of us can stay anymore.
We break up on a Wednesday during my lunch break in between meetings. I tell my colleagues my Internet is spotty so I’m staying off camera. I cry uncontrollably five minutes before I present to my team. I feel that all-consuming heartbreak again.
Five days before this I injure my knee badly. So now, I’m sitting in my room with a swollen limb unable to escape to the trails or mountains like I usually do, unable to return to that balancing routine I held dear. I’m forced to sit with myself in this quiet, exploding pain. And it’s there I’m facing the very thing I needed to face—the reality of having no iron in the fire for the first time in years. No one to comfort me during deep uncertainty—the sobering reality of being alone.
It’s worth noting I’ve been minorly obsessed with dating for the last year. When I broke up with the person I spent a third of my life with, I felt off track to say the least. 30 and single alongside 30-year-old friends married with kids left me uneasy. Sure, comparison suffocates happiness but I told myself there’s still time for me to reroute. There’s still time to meet someone by the time I’m 33, 34, have kids by the time I’m 36. I tried not to think about the math too long because the timespan felt claustrophobic, but the weekly dates make me feel like things were in motion. Then again, I bet hamsters on a wheel probably feel like they’re heading somewhere, too.
A few weeks after the breakup and five months into the pandemic I’m sitting across from the best friend who lives in seven hours away and has seen through every intimate ending and beginning for the last 10 years. We sit on an outdoor patio in San Diego at the first restaurant we’ve been to since the virus hit California. The hostess takes our temperature. We wear our masks until we walk outside and order cocktails that aren’t made in our kitchens. We laugh and sip and order another round. Everything feels softer in these seats. My recently-injured knee has now become something I need to have surgery on—an ACL reconstruction that will have me out from my normal active self for nearly a year. I’m trying not to think about it but find it difficult to not see it in the periphery of everything. As I sip to the halfway mark of my second cocktail, I make a joke that’s not a joke.
“I should probably start dating someone quick to help me out after surgery.” I expect a laugh but because she’s my best friend, she doesn’t even smile. She puts down her drink and looks at me firmly.
“You don’t need to be dating someone to be taken care of. You have your people. You have me. I’ll drive up. You have your friends, your family. We’ll take care of you. You don’t have to do this alone.”
My eyes well up and slip down the edges of my glass.
“I know. I know,” I say but I don’t truly know. I’ve never leaned on my friends and family like that as an adult. As I slurp the liquid around the ice, I realize this is the first time I’ve gone through a crisis without the option of having a partner there. My ex circled every calamity I’d hit from 16 to 30. Sure, I’d undoubtedly overcame difficulties alone – my parents’ divorce and an eating disorder to name two. But for the most part, I chose to be alone during those times and if I needed my ex, he was usually there.
They say the things you’re most scared of are the things you need to do. As my best friend and I sat there on that outdoor patio sipping our cocktails and sharing a brownie a la mode, I left the scene for a second. I zoomed out and saw the dots slowly stacking into a line. I saw the new love I let in, grown with and was learning how to gracefully let go of. I saw the injury that made it impossible to run and distract the way I normally would. I saw the impending circumstance that’ll force me to ask for help in ways I never would have – the opportunity to strengthen my real circle instead of constantly lean on romantic loves.
After dinner, we walked to the pier. The new moon left us in pitch dark. The coastal air caressed our legs as we pulled our sweaters a touch closer to our skin. The waves crashed melodically. We stood there quietly, leaning into the rail, water whitewashing over our own thoughts. I need this, I thought – to be single in a time I wished I was paired, to prove to myself I can go through difficult times and be more than okay.
The week before surgery I sit on my own patio with an essay written by Shani Silver titled, What if we never get married? My throat collapses into my stomach just thinking about the possibility of the question, but I read on. I read on and at the end of the essay allow myself to go there – to imagine the answer to that question, to be a woman who never gets married. In my mind, I paint a life absent of partnership or wedding rings. I let myself imagine a future where I don’t find my person like the Disney movies told me I would, where I’m not in love with someone I stumbled into at a grocery store, where as far as society is concerned, I’m alone.
When I think of my worst fear I don’t necessarily think about giant spiders or jumping off cliffs, but of being 35 and single. 42 and single. 47 and single. I feel acid rising up my throat at the mere thought. The fear of not reaching this life milestone roots deeper than my fingers can trace. But I stay there; I follow the thread.
Well, I think to myself, If I was still single down the road, I’d definitely still want at least one kid. Adoption or invitro would happen before 40. I imagine my little girl alongside me. The one I always wanted to raise into a badass, jiu-jitsu-rolling, knot-tying, question-asking little feminist. I imagine my career fully remote as I always hoped it’d be allowing us to spend the summers teaching her about different places firsthand through multi-week road trips and adventures abroad. We’d focus on a theme and a language and immerse ourselves into the new together, volunteering on farms in Latin America or exploring the countryside of Southeast Asia. She’d see the beauty of different languages and cultures. She’d connect with smiles when she lacked translation. She’d learn about undiscussed history in ways her textbooks couldn’t touch. And before she hit puberty, she’d already have soaked up countless subtle commentary on self-love and self-soothing in hopes they’d be woven into the seams of her being. And sure, I’d be doing it alone. Sure, finances may be tight at times. Sure, it’d be difficult but there’d be no one there to call my ideas crazy. To ask when I’m going to settle down into that white picket fence I never wanted. It’d be me and my little one, learning and growing together.
While I’m out there, dreaming of this quite possible future, a smile crescents up my cheeks ever so slightly. It catches me off guard. My chest feels soft and light. I see the open dirt road and for the first time in a long time I feel like I no longer need to shape it but just relax and trust it.
It’s been two months since knee surgery, two months of being single and seven months since the coronavirus shelter in place began. A series of wildfires have lit up California, making August a month filled with smoke, forcing my mom to evacuate her home. Don’t worry, she’s fine. The house is fine. Nothing is completely fine but everything is at the same time because 2020 has been a crash course in gratitude and resilience – a reminder how swiftly things can change, that things can always get better and worse.
It’s also shown that this time I deeply feared, this period of momentary disability and solitude have brought days and days of surprises. It’s brought a week of letting myself be mothered for the first time in over a decade, creating closure I longed for. It’s brought a slice of pizza from my neighbor the first night I arrived back home, a bag of peaches from the man upstairs, and more comfortable crutches from the poet on the corner. Friend after friend has arrived with groceries and meals in hand. My dad came to hang things I couldn’t do alone. My dear friend brought popsicles and watered my hanging plants. My sister checked in almost daily, asking how her favorite patient was doing. I am single. I’m physically the most tender I’ve been in fifteen years since I last had this same surgery but not for a single second has my soul felt alone.
The energy that fuels the hamster wheel spins us strong. It tells us single folks aren’t as valuable as those partnered; we’re half-formed, partially missing. It tells us the quiet nights will ache. It blows fear into our ears as the life we’re living and the one our teen selves imagined contrast into split screens. But here, in this strange period of life where masks dangle from key rings, smoke hangs in the air, and my 32-year-old self walks with a tiger-print cane, my head wakes clear. My chest rests calm. My heart feels happy, quietly happy. I have no iron in the fire. I’m not actively dating anyone. It’s just me and the loving people I’m endlessly grateful for. I’m 32 and single. I’m single and hardly alone. I’m solo and finally seeing what it feels like to not reach for but be my own home.
Kimberly Gomes is an Oakland-based writer and visual storyteller. Her chapbook of poetry, Love Notes to the Body, was published in 2019 by Dancing Girl Press. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, where she wrote her first novel, A Road of Her Own. Her poetry and prose have been featured in publications such as Rogue Agent, PEN Center USA’s Only Light Can Do That, Sunset Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Learn more at www.kimberly-gomes.com.