Over the past year, some of us have had to learn how to be alone; others have had to learn not everyone is comfortable with the same levels of risk. One of the biggest casualties of that pandemic-specific combination? The loss of deeply intimate, memory-making, relationship-defining meals. Journalist Arielle Dollinger discusses the importance of being in those meals while you can be…and how when the world comes to a screeching halt, you’ve got nothing but time to reflect on the ones where you weren’t.
He insisted I take the leftovers, including his fries. We’d eaten our fill of the best crispy Brussels sprouts and honey-soaked, heavily salted cornbread we’d ever had, but the next day I would eat the rest alone.
When we’d finished our meals, the waitress asked whether we were interested in dessert. He looked at me and said, “I promised you ice cream.” We drove his orange car to Carvel
Before we were dating, we were workout buddies. He went with me to a barre class, stretched confidently as middle-aged women ogled at him, and a few days later, he came to my regular boxing gym. After boxing, we went for omelettes and I told myself he was only paying to be polite.
It took me too long to feel like I deserved the care with which he treated me. When we finally went to dinner and he saw me in a dress with my hair down, he started calling the time we spent together “dating.” I asked him not to—that word made me anxious and I can’t eat when I’m anxious.
And yet, I was able to eat with him. The anxiety I felt leading up to our dinners dissipated once he was there with me. I felt protected by him in a way that didn’t diminish my ability to protect myself, and he was kind and open to a degree that made me wonder why I’d ever accepted less from anybody else.
We’d been dating for one month before a global pandemic meant we could no longer eat together. Eating together, to me, seemed unimportant at the onset of the pandemic. But I’d underestimated the power of food as a bonding agent, a comfort tool, an unofficial love language all its own.
When I think now about the memories we were able to make together early on, I realize that many of them involve food. The February morning we filled out paper order slips for our omelettes and discovered a shared disdain for mushrooms and olives. The night we split Brussels sprouts dressed with honey, almonds, Tabasco, mint, Greek yogurt, sea salt. I’ve since become a takeout regular at that restaurant, but I still can’t bring myself to order those Brussels sprouts without him.
One night, pre-COVID, I asked that we get takeout and watch a movie instead of going out. I wanted an opportunity for each of us to calm down and stop trying so hard to be whatever it was we thought we should be.
A few minutes before I was ready to leave my house, he called to ask whether we could just go to a restaurant and then watch a movie at his place. What I wanted to say was “no, we had a plan,” but he was just trying to take me out to dinner, so I said it was fine and tried to swallow my frustration.
We tried two restaurants that had wait times we felt were too long, so we decided to order takeout and revert to the original plan. Secretly, I was relieved. We brought the food to the house and found that the restaurant had made me a black bean burger instead of its sweet potato, quinoa, and kale counterpart. He asked earnestly whether he could get me something else. We could order something in, he could make me pancakes. To be polite, I told him that I was fine—he did not have to make me pancakes.
For the first couple of months of the pandemic, out of concern for our families and ourselves, we saw each other only via FaceTime. Then we began occasionally seeing each other outdoors and from distances that averaged 15 feet. In some ways, it was easier to spend time together virtually than it was to meet up masked and distanced. Seeing him in person was like looking at him through glass. Separated by an invisible barrier, to stand in front of each other was to be reminded of all of the things we couldn’t do.
On my 28th birthday in May, he brought me goji- and raspberry-flavored Brookside chocolates, saying they were best when stored in the refrigerator and eaten cold. We sat 12 feet from each other in my backyard, his yellow surgical mask bringing out the blue in his eyes, and
we talked until dark. Maybe I should have told him when I had the chance, but that night was the night I was sure about him. What should have been a lackluster birthday amid global chaos was my favorite yet.
I’m not one for chocolate, but those candies became a comfort food of mine. Eating them made me feel closer to him somehow and I restocked each time the bag ran out until we broke up and I couldn’t look at them anymore.
Just before his birthday in June, we met at a park to kick around a soccer ball. He was excitable and playful and in his element. When he got hungry and decided to order a grilled cheese and a churro from a nearby food truck, I realized I just wasn’t comfortable doing the same. I sat with him on a metal bench and, as he ate, I wondered whether the distance between us was quite six feet. I thought about asking him to move farther away from me, deciding against it because of the way that would make him feel. It was a strange feeling, to want nothing more than to be close to him and to have to push him farther away.
The following week, we played tennis. He was shirtless and tan, his teeth stunningly white. He reminded me to take water breaks and I felt so thoroughly seen by this person who couldn’t even come over to my side of the net. From the tennis court, we walked toward the water to talk from opposing benches. Every so often, he would lift his mask just slightly to eat a few Bunny Grahams. When it was time to eat dinner, we each went home.
It was about a week later that we broke up for complicating factors made insurmountable by COVID-19. We spent three hours on the phone that day deciding to end a relationship I didn’t fully want out of. I was emotionally exhausted and hungry. I had eaten almost nothing that day until my sister DoorDash-ed Chick-fil-A for me. (Grilled nuggets, kale crunch side, waffle fries.)
In the months that followed, I would reach out a couple of times in an effort to reconnect. In October, he would tell me that he was seeing someone else. Several weeks later, on a day when he hadn’t yet crossed my mind, I would come across his profile on Bumble. The prompt read: “I guarantee you that…” to which he filled in: “…you’ve never had pancakes as good as mine.”
Had I known the way the world was about to change—had I known the way it would change our relationship—I would have let him call our dates what they were. I would have put my arm around him when he put his around me at the Italian restaurant, instead of just standing there letting him hold me but not holding him back. I would have let him make me the pancakes.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io