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As COVID-19 descended on the world, a friend who works at the San Diego Zoo read me a piece about bears over a video call.
“When it is time for hibernation, a bear can finally relax,” the piece read. “All of the stress of finding food, territory, and a mate disappears. The bears believe they have done enough and trust in themselves.”
That passage was meant to be comforting for anyone who was feeling caged in or scared by all the uncertainty. But my friend read it to me for a different reason.
It was Saint Patrick’s Day and the doors slamming shut throughout the West had yet to reach Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates where I live and work. Earlier that day, I’d made a date for the evening with a high school math teacher I’d matched with on Bumble.
“Let’s just go out now before we have to pass each other at a distance on the sidewalk, LOL,” I typed.
It had felt like I was the one delaying our first “in real life” meeting. In 10 or so days of chatting, George had asked about catching up for a drink and made some noise about preparing me his speciality—fajitas. He’d sent me a few too many head-on-his-pillow, gazing-into-the-phone images, one of his bare torso, and another shot from above of his swimming trunks (blech), but I let it slide. It wasn’t a d*ck pic, I reasoned. He was nice and respectful, otherwise. And it’s tough out there, right ladies?
So, George and I had agreed to go to a pub near my house that night. “Somewhere chill, somewhere you’ll feel comfortable,” he’d typed. He offered to pick me up at a coffee shop near my house. We decided when and I went back to work.
At 8 p.m. I sent a Whatsapp message that I was outside the coffee shop. Two little grey check marks appeared by that message and they never turned blue. Ten, 15, 30 minutes had passed, and I sunk further down into one of those brown wicker outdoor chairs that are the same at Starbucks all over the world.
As I stared at my blank phone, the weight of a lifetime of romantic disappointments began to descend, coagulated around a guy who was too dim—maybe careless or cowardly—to realize it’s more kind to make up an excuse for someone you’ve never met, than to leave her waiting and wondering on a stupid brown wicker chair as a pandemic descends.
I felt tears fill my eyes and looked down, then up. Just then, a gentleman sitting at a table across from me caught my eye and smiled kindly. I smiled back, grateful to connect with another human in a tough moment.
“Screw this,” I thought, grabbing my purse.
Like almost all bars in the United Arab Emirates, the pub where George and I were supposed to go is located inside a hotel, and it was sad there, especially for Saint Patrick’s Day. No stools around the bar, a woman who seemed like she might be a working girl, just a few tables of middle-aged men: military contractors and oil and gas workers—the kind who sport dad jeans and goatees, which Abu Dhabi is full of.
I was a few weeks away from turning 50 and I knew they weren’t much older than I am, but they seemed like it.
We were all seated at tables wide distances from each other. I ordered a pint of Guinness (there would be three more), video-called my brother and my San Diego Zoo friend, wrote in my journal, and periodically checked to see if George had read my messages—that he had not, caused my indignity to grow louder as time passed.
I ate a whole bowl of free peanuts—murder on my digestive system—but bloating was no longer a concern. I spotted one of the men leaving with the woman who seemed like she could be a working girl. Good for him, I thought. She’ll always Whatsapp him back. Eventually I went home to sleep, quite soundly actually, and faced up to this pandemic business the way everyone else has: the best we know how.
My life has been adventurous and rich in friends, travel, laughter, and even big love. I had two long relationships in my teens and 20s, and in my 40s there were three different partners—all hard times at the end, but each in their own way well worth it.
I’ve had a lot of time to work on myself while single, but nothing has helped me grow into a better person than all the men I’ve loved so far.
Yet, it was never the right person at the right time, and that leaves a lot of dating, a lot of days and hours and years on my own, and a whole lot of disappointment. On that day, staring down a landmark birthday that clearly wasn’t going to be the celebration I had planned, staring down a pandemic, I felt every one of those past goodbyes and rejections.
It’s a deep ache in a place not a lot of people get to experience. So many bachelorettes, weddings, baby showers and christenings—I can’t even count. So much time spent second-guessing, wondering why everyone else seems to be able to find that lasting thing, and I cannot.
The last person I dated was a handsome Palestinian engineer, 18 years my junior. He stopped me in a mall in January and told me I had beautiful eyes. There was a second where I almost didn’t give him my phone number, because he was a stranger, yes, and so young it seemed ridiculous; but mostly because things were on such an even keel for me, at the time, I didn’t want the uncertainty.
However, cautious has never been my style, and he was adorable and persuasive and so, so much fun. And even in the discomfort that ensued when it was over, I was glad—as I always am—that I said yes.
Once the pandemic descended, curfews, and “stay at home” orders, it was tempting to panic about what it would mean for the rest of my life.
Dating is hard enough, when you can actually do it. Would COVID-19 mean the end of love for people like me? I have to believe that’s not going to be true. I still have so much hope.
I love the bear story because it reminded me at the most important time that there’s no shame in wanting to find a partner.
In my belief, it’s possible that I will, even after all this time, even at my age. Looking for love is just what we do—bears and people. And it reminded me that while now might not be the season for a new love, seasons don’t last forever. And it’s more than okay to rest—in fact, it’s absolutely necessary.
The day after George ghosted me, I sent him one last message, “At this point I’m just hoping you are okay and that you stood me up last night.” He didn’t read that one either.
Soon, I deleted his number and my Bumble account, too. No one’s Bumbling these days, anyway. And for once, for now, I’m not looking for a mate.