Maya Shanbhag Lang is the author of the memoir “What We Carry,” which hit shelves April 28.
I met him in January, at the start of the new year.
We had been talking for a couple of weeks: messaging, texting, then an hour-long first phone call that sped by in a heart-skipping blur. That call threw me into a panic.
I had been separated for more than a year at that point, my marriage having abruptly dissolved. I spent that time gathering myself back up, focusing on my career, my daughter, my friendships — and, for the first time in ages, on me. After a lot of emotional work, I finally reached a place of feeling healthy and independent.
I wasn’t sure if I was ready to date, if I wanted to open myself up. I was happy on my own. As a safeguard, I decided to be mercilessly picky. I made a list of criteria so long I figured no one could possibly live up to it. I joined OkCupid, perhaps the most old-fashioned of dating platforms, and the only one I tried, wanting to dip just a toe into the dating waters.
A few days later, I came across his profile. His picture was absurdly handsome. In his messages, he was attentive and self-assured. His voice on the phone was warm. He sounded thoughtful and kind, this divorced dad of two little girls. He sounded too good to be true.
Cut to our first date, lunch at a bistro in the West Village. The minute he walked in, I felt something in me stir. He was just as handsome as his profile picture. As we talked (no wine, just water, lunch on a weekday in the bright light of day), I realized the thing stirring in me was butterflies, the sort I’d heard about in books but didn’t think existed. In my past relationships, I had always sought safety, not wanting to face risk.
Our lunch lasted two hours.
At 40, he was a year younger than I am. A former college athlete, he’d been a jock while I was a nerd. My teenage self was spooked. I worried he couldn’t be real — that something had to be wrong.
But as we saw each other over the coming weeks, winter opening up to spring, I relaxed. Our time together was like that first lunch. This wasn’t a romance of empty gestures, dependent on soft lighting and wine. This was two people seeing each other in the bright light of day.
We prided ourselves on our independence, our careers, our daughters, our separate lives. The weeks passed in a happy blur. I kept my priorities in order, all the while relishing — stunned by — the idea of a relationship that didn’t involve sacrifice. We could be together while also valuing our time apart.
Then the pandemic began. It felt like a cosmic joke, mocking my grand theories about being together and apart.
When it became clear we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a while because of New York’s stay-at-home order, he told me he was sorry we had been interrupted. “We haven’t been interrupted!” I protested hotly.
I last saw him in person in early March. Soon, our time apart will exceed our time together. I’m not quite sure what this means, except that those first months of getting to know one another feel so full, brimming over with happiness, that I am convinced they count for more.
I continue to reflect on what it means to be together while apart. I wonder what those terms, together and apart, imply about proximity and intimacy. Married friends have confessed feeling distant from their spouses as they shelter in place. I’ve heard about people in early relationships who decided to self-quarantine together, their romance accelerated by the pandemic.
I am in neither of those camps. Truthfully, I don’t really know where he and I are. Although we are technically dating, together in the broadest sense, we are of course not actually dating or together at all.
I would like to think of our bond as deepening, not in a way I would have chosen, but in a way that makes this time instructive. I have learned who he is in a crisis: a pragmatist who makes the most of his situation. I have seen him be generous and thoughtful. I have also seen him be restless and grumpy. This is knowledge I wouldn’t have otherwise. It makes me smile.
There is a different intimacy to this time. I love the way his voice softens when he talks about cooking a beautiful meal, the way he thinks to ask about my mother, that we still connect emotionally and mentally. We are apart, yet together.
I have days when I feel blue, morose that the heady joys of falling in love were plucked away just as I was finally experiencing them. At 41, butterflies are wondrous. I want them back. I want him back. But then I remember that my sadness is one half of the picture. I am grateful to have someone I miss.
“We’re lucky,” I told him on the phone the other day.
I could hear him smile. “What makes you say that?” he asked.
“We’re lucky to have met each other when we did,” I replied. “And that we made so many good memories to look back on now.”
This, I think, is my ideal definition of being together, when there are sparks of real gratitude, not the forced kind. I don’t have to remind myself to feel it.
I have no idea what the future holds for us — but, then again, I never knew, never would have known. The uncertainty is just made more plain.
Whether people are together or apart, uncertainty is always present.
Yet here I am. I have experienced outcomes I felt certain would never come to pass. I am better for them. Without risk, there are no butterflies.
And so I do my best to take this time apart one day at a time, one moment at a time. It is not suspended time or interrupted time or non-time. It is just time of a different texture and feel.
There is mystery in the unknown, in all that might come to pass. Sometimes we see only terror because our minds fill in the blanks in unpleasant ways. But if we can just relax and let go of our fear, we find gifts. In the unknown, we encounter life more deeply, not as imagined, not as expected, but as we never would have thought to picture it, and this surprise, this mystery, exceeds the limits of our imaginations.