Third first date

Dear Willow:

Two weekends ago, I ate at a restaurant for the first time in almost four months.

It was glorious.

We went to a lovely little place in Oak Park, and they sat us at a small table on the sidewalk, a car door immediately to my right and people strolling by with their dogs immediately to my left. The table was still wet from a short downpour half an hour before.

The food was delicious, and someone else made it and someone else cleaned up. There was Sauvignon Blanc sparkling in sunlit glasses, and a nice breeze ruffling the paper menu.

It was glorious.

And it was weird.

The tables were spaced as far apart as possible, so for once, I didn’t feel like I was on top of the family closest to us. The staff was universally in masks. Practically speaking, it was a little hard to hear the specials, and it was a jarring visual reminder that this simple activity—dining out—might actually be dangerous.

Until that evening, I also had no idea how much I enjoy interactions with servers, the subtle almost-flirtations that you have to master when your income relies on tips from strangers. Each server’s style is unique to them, and I find it a fascinating (and fun) improvisation. I was a server briefly years ago, and it was these customer connections that made an exhausting job not only bearable, but exciting.

You just can’t make those same connections with a mask over your face.

We were at the restaurant because I had met someone online two months before, and this was our third first date. And if you’re going to date responsibly during COVID, you’re probably going to have three first dates.

The first first date takes place on Zoom, or FaceTime, or another app of your choosing. Even when you’re meeting in person, first moments of first dates are often awkward, as you sort out new dynamics, figure out how interested you think you are, find a topic of conversation. When you’re trying to do this via a screen, it’s much MUCH harder to get a sense of who this new person might be.

Zoom—even when the person is awesome—is exhausting. I’ve never been so self-conscious. Everything seemed magnified, because I could see always see myself. The random hairs that were straying all over the place. The weird spot on my nose. The angle of my chin that made my cheekbones stand out. How I didn’t seem to be breathing enough and blinking way too much.

See? Self-conscious.

I was not exactly glad when it was over, because it went really well, but I confess, there was a small sense of relief.

Our second first date was a socially-distanced getting-to-know-you. After two months of surprisingly great chats via screen, we decided we needed to meet IRL (“in real life”). Up till then, we’d only ever seen each other’s faces. We didn’t really know how the other person looked or moved. What if something that was working great online didn’t work at all in person? What if one of us smelled like soup?

We chose to do a hike because, as you know, I like nature walks, and they’re something to do. Plus, I was going to visit my mom for the first time since Christmas the next week, so we weren’t taking any chances. We drove separately, hiked for a couple of hours, and then had a picnic sitting at opposite corners of a large blanket.

Forget about your usual first-date get-up. We were dressed in grubbies because it had rained the day before and the trail was going to be muddy. I must have gone through five outfits, trying to figure out which one would be comfortable enough for a long(ish) hike, but would still be at least somewhat flattering. Not easy. I wore mascara, which turned out to be a mistake, because as I sweated, dark lines streaked under my eyes. I didn’t know this until I got home, thank god.

We had just finished eating when a storm moved in, so we packed up in a hurry and headed to our cars. We touched hands briefly in the parking lot while thunder rumbled around us.

Electricity was literally in the air. (I know, that was terrible, but I’m not sorry.)

A month later, we had our third first date. This one was a “proper” date, the pre-COVID getting-to-know-you routine of getting a little dressed up, going out someplace, having some food and a drink or two. You know…normal. But here we were, three months into our relationship, on an official date for the very first time, seated outside that little restaurant in Oak Park.

Each one of those three first dates felt like an important step, when a virus means that meeting someone outside your pod of chosen people increases the danger.

Which brings me back to eating at restaurants. By my house in the city, they’re closing part of Balmoral Avenue to cars and opening it up for the restaurants on that block to set up outside dining. And if the establishment has walls that are at least 50% openable window, diners are welcome inside, with spacing restrictions and mask requirements in place.

And so, in honor of a friend’s birthday, last weekend I found myself eating INSIDE A RESTAURANT. I was seated right next to a huge window, so I really might as well have been outside.

And yet.

I was entirely anxious, the whole time. I should wear my mask. Should I wear my mask? Is anyone else wearing theirs? Man, these tater tots are good. This feels dangerous. How can this feel so dangerous?

This time, the experience was not glorious. It did not feel like a return to anything like normal, and frankly, I discovered that day that I’m not ready for a return to normal.

I’ve heard people compare the re-opening to that awful beach scene from Jaws. I certainly felt like Martin Brody, hoping that my fears are wrong but not able to relax. It’s especially creepy how normal everything should feel but doesn’t.

One of my friends compared COVID to a game of Russian Roulette, but there may not be a round in the chamber at all. And if there is, it could be a bullet, or it could be a hammer, or a cream pie, or a squirt of water. Or it could be a squirt of water that two weeks later turns into a bullet.

So, no. I won’t be going inside a restaurant again for quite a while.

It just means I’ll just have to get more creative with our fourth first date.


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