Illustrations by SanQian
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My husband moves mechanically through airport security screenings. Pockets empty. Shoes off. Laptop placed in a separate bin — all in a series of swift, precise movements.
But for as many times as I’ve gone through the motions, I still always find myself in an awkward dance, bouncing on one foot as I try to remove my shoes. My camera swinging dangerously at the crook of my arm. The contents of my backpack strewn about.
After a year of no flights, when we arrived at Reagan National Airport two weeks ago to board our plane to Tallahassee, I wondered how my travel anxiety might manifest this time.
It was the eve of Memorial Day weekend, and a record number of Americans were returning to air travel since the pandemic began. But aside from a few fumbles, our big return to the skies was uneventful.
It wasn’t until we landed in Tallahassee that I felt a glimmer of something more familiar. As we piloted our rental car down a long, dark road, we nodded along to Southern rap and marveled at the supermoon illuminating the sky. I hadn’t noticed it in D.C.
Now that we were back in the South, where both my husband and I grew up, a wave of longing and nostalgia kept sweeping over me. I felt it as we pulled up to the driveway of our family’s home and watched the lights flicker on inside. As my husband peered over the wooden fence to greet his grandmother sitting on the porch. As a large pan of fried chicken glowed in the oven. As a chorus of cicadas, crickets and frogs serenaded us to sleep each night.
For many in America, the return to normal is less about relaxed guidelines, vaccination milestones and record holiday travel. Instead, as Lily readers told us, it’s charted by moments both big and small: reuniting with loved ones, going to the movies, hugging a friend, sitting at a coffee shop.
Here are a few of those experiences women shared with us.
Over the past year, people have often grumbled that online dating during the pandemic is impossible. But Hannah White looks at it differently. Almost immediately, she said, it gives her a sense of where someone’s priorities lie.
“I’m seeing really big things about who a person is,” said White, a 26-year-old living in Chicago. She’s found that the first questions can reveal telling qualities about a dating match, citing “do you want to go inside to a restaurant?” or “you want to come over to my apartment?” as red flags.
Then she met Alex Wright on Bumble last September. “We bonded over our love of therapy, social issues and food, and were largely doing or not doing the same things in terms of covid precautions,” White said. “It made dating him feel low pressure because I knew he respected how I was making choices.”
While the first few months of their relationship were mostly confined to park walks and FaceTime, White said it helped them build a solid foundation of communication: “We just talked a lot.”
White works as a sexual violence prevention educator in public high schools, so for her, “someone who is easily able to be on board with a lot of my work and what I’m interacting with daily is incredibly important to me.”
She was also spending a lot of time with her parents and wanted to make sure Wright’s priorities about the pandemic aligned with hers. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to go inside with you unless we’re serious about this,’ ” she said.
That turned out to be the case. Less than two months later, Wright arrived at White’s parents’ home to have Thanksgiving dinner with them. “He’s from Seattle, so he was not going home,” White said. “It was a cold day, but we had Thanksgiving in the garage with the garage door open. … It was very sweet.”
In April, when White and Wright finally went on their first real date — dinner at a Chicago beer garden, where they enjoyed mussels and local brews — they found themselves observing how the other interacts in social settings. At one point, they both remarked, “if you’re rude to servers, we’re breaking up.”
The couple also reflected on their relationship in the months leading up to their first date. “We talked about all the funny things that we have done together prior to doing something normal like that,” White said. “Like, we’ve been to a protest together, but we’ve never had a drink together.”
Since that dinner, the two have been to a White Sox game and have plans for more dates in the summer. “It’s fun to sort of feel like now we’re dating again, doing the normal things of going out to dinner on patios and going out for a drink or meeting up with friends and reintegrating our lives,” White said. “It’s exciting again.”
Freshly inscribed on Tina Hayes-Siltzer’s inner right ankle is a scowling cloud. It hovers amid a bed of stars with an expression that seems to be egging, by Hayes-Siltzer’s interpretation, “You want some of me?”
At 58, it’s her first tattoo, and it’s doubly special because she was joined by her mom and sister, whom she hadn’t seen in over eight months. Together in the tattoo shop in Colorado Springs, they comforted each other, exchanged nervous laughter and held hands as each woman was inked with her own sassy cloud.
That April day is a memory that celebrates so much, said Hayes-Siltzer’s sister Tricia Elliot: The end of a dark and isolating period and the special bond the three women share, now sealed with ink. “It’s also about how strong we are as women,” Elliot said.
From the female artist who designed her cloud to the woman-owned parlor she chose for her tattoo, Hayes-Siltzer said the whole experience was a feminist act against double standards about how women’s bodies should look. “I grew up in a culture where tattoos are ‘trashy,’ ” she said. “So for me, it was just part of smashing the patriarchy, one more step of being unladylike.”
Even the visible location of Hayes-Siltzer’s tattoo makes a statement: a reclaiming of her space. “It was like call me what you want, but my body, my space,” she said. “I'm going to do this and it's going to be visible.”
Just decades ago, it was a different story for her mother. As a fifth-grade schoolteacher during the 1980s and 1990s, Sharon Dykes-Modlens had to hide all of her tattoos. “She would have been fired if they had seen those,” Hayes-Siltzer said.
Now, at 79, Dykes-Modlens said she was thrilled to have shared this experience with her daughters, which she views as an act of remembrance. “We are branded for life,” she said. “They’ll have a piece of me when I’m gone.”
When Hafsa Shorish and her family drove up to the Los Angeles airport in March, protocols wouldn’t allow her daughter, 3-year-old Nafeesa Omer Khan, to get out of the car to properly greet her grandparents when they arrived from Pakistan.
But the expression on her face when her mom opened the door to their SUV said it all. “She was really excited to see them,” said Shorish, 31. As they drove back home, “she kept saying, ‘Are they really here?’ ”
The last time they were all together was in December 2019, when Shorish’s family flew to Pakistan. At the time, her parents were hoping to reunite with them in the United States later in 2020. They had no idea that the pandemic would delay those plans for more than a year.
For Shorish’s family and many others, it was a period of great loneliness, uncertainty and anxiety. “We became total homebodies,” she said. “We strictly followed all the protocols, like we didn’t go out, we used to order online, everything — even our groceries.”
The year was really tough for Nafeesa, Shorish said. “Before this pandemic, we used to take her to the park, almost three, four times a week,” she said. Now at home, “we used to just play with Play-Doh and all those things. And then my parents came along.”
Once they arrived in California, Nafeesa was happy and more energetic, according to her mom.
“We went to the mall, we went to eat out, we went to the beach” said Shorish. “It felt like a breath of fresh air going to a beach with your family, like a normal family life.”
The pandemic has given us ample time to dream about our first big vacation plans after lockdown, fantasizing about drinks with cocktail umbrellas and exotic, far-off destinations we hadn’t considered before.
But for Yadira Nadal and her partner, Jose Rodriguez, it was a no-brainer: The moment they were fully vaccinated, they booked a flight to Puerto Rico. “We were very anxious to come to the island,” said Nadal, 45.
Since it reopened to visitors last September, Puerto Rico has been a popular pandemic-era destination for Americans from the mainland. But the island still requires travelers to follow a few precautions to visit. When Nadal and Rodriguez arrived on May 20, they had to provide a negative test result.
Nadal said Puerto Rico’s guidelines have made her feel safe traveling on the island. “I think they started doing a better job than the U.S.,” she said. “They started protocols early on.”
Nadal and Rodriguez spent their first few days in Rio Grande, where they swam, took long beach strolls and enjoyed local delicacies like mofongo de yuca. “We stayed at an Airbnb in the northeast where there’s a pristine beach with few people,” Nadal said. Then they headed to San Juan and reunited with family and friends they hadn’t seen in over a year.
“The hugs lasted forever,” said Nadal. “We touch, we hug, we kiss — that’s what we do. And not being able to do that, it has been tough.”
Nadal said returning to Puerto Rico and reconnecting with her friends has been wonderful, and the food and culture there has further enriched her trip. During her last few days, Nadal’s friends took her to Jungle Bird, where they were served by award-winning chef Paxx Caraballo Moll. “Another friend took me to a relatively new restaurant in Ocean Park called Bottega and it was also very good,” said Nadal. “We had coconut rice with fresh-caught snapper.”
One of Nadal’s must-see attractions every time she visits is Old San Juan. “We spent a few hours walking the cobble stones streets and absorbing the energy of the place.”
While she isn’t entirely comfortable with returning to other normal activities in the United States just yet, Nadal said she’s getting there “little by little.” The trip to Puerto Rico was a start, she said. “I think this was a huge step, getting into a plane and flying. So we have more trips planned already.”