I was completely frozen in the middle of the staircase in Union Station. I could see Nathan,* but he couldn’t see me. He had just emerged from the revolving doors, his hair adorably rumpled by the wind and his eyes searching the train station for me.
I can’t do this, I realized, panicking. I had never done anything like this, and I felt like I had to get back on the train immediately. I wasn’t lost, but I might as well have been. I was about to head back down the stairs when—
Too late. There he was.
Here was a guy I had seen in front of me many times, but always through a screen. Maybe I should explain: Nathan and I do not have the typical “boy-meets-girl” relationship, but we also don’t have the typical “boy-meets-girl-online” one either.
In October, Nathan and I met on Hinge, which was a complete anomaly for me, because I didn’t feel compelled to use dating apps (even before the pandemic). One walk through the raging hormone gallery that is Tinder was enough to steer me off for the rest of time. I honestly didn’t feel like hooking up in the middle of a global pandemic.
I had only been on the more-dating-oriented Hinge for a month when Nathan’s picture appeared in my lineup. Even though I had sworn off blondes (that’s another story), he was genuinely attractive, and I found myself caught up in his kind eyes and gentle smile. The rest of the profile was equally promising: he liked cooking, hockey, and was a self-professed Disney fan.
Nathan was the eighth person that I went for a ‘virtual cocktail’ with, which is the 2020 way of saying we did a video call together. At this point, I had sat through strip club stories, political arguments, and rehashes of fraternity adventures. I was prepared for whatever would happen. And yet, Nathan and I hit it off surprisingly well. He was kind, smart, and genuinely invested in what I had to say. He admitted that he had never tried video-dating before either, so this was a new experience for him during this pandemic as well.
After two calls, Nathan and I spoke to each other every day. We video-chatted on weekends, held watch parties to show our favorite movies, and made playlists to share our music. We even ordered dinner for each other—he treated me to sushi, and I ordered him a black bean bowl from his choice of restaurant. The fact that we pretty much had to be casual from the beginning made it easier to have fun and relax while not being physically together.
However, my cynicism was trying to invite itself in. I didn’t think that things would pan out. It had nothing to do with Nathan himself, but the circumstances surrounding us: we live in different cities (same state), and I live with my parents, one of whom has mild asthma, so meeting in person was off the table for a while. I don’t know much about statistics, but the odds of anything successful happening seemed one in ten million.
I had never experienced any kind of relationship like this in my life. I couldn’t ask my friends, “Hey, what do you when you’ve met a guy online and you want to meet in person, but there is a pandemic and you’ve never had this happen to you before?” No one I knew had had this type of relationship or experience. I was as new to this as millions of other people were. But the truth was, I liked Nathan a lot, and I didn’t want something like distance or an entirely on-screen relationship to end what we had.
It was strange because even though we had discussed meeting in person many times, I never thought it would actually happen. I kept expecting one of us to cancel or him to ghost me—surely something would stop us from actually meeting each other. When that Saturday rolled around, and I was in the train en route to Chicago, the realization began to take over: there would be no computers, no headsets, no broadcasting from the comfort of my home. I was going to meet him in person. I had no other experience to compare this to, so I was assuming something would go wrong.
And so I stood in Union Station, looking up at Nathan. If he was as nervous as I was, he definitely didn’t show it. Instead, he smiled and hugged me. We left the station and began our walk down Wabash Avenue together, both of us chatting enthusiastically while the snow drifted down.
On that walk, it occurred to me that this entire pandemic dating experience has no rules, so having no expectations is the way to go. You can rely on your past experiences to carry you through “unprecedented times,” or you can move forward, confused and not sure how things will go, but hopeful that they will go well. I had been convinced that the transition from video to in-person meant everything would go dramatically wrong—but it turns out to have been a wonderful surprise.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures, so take a chance on the unknown.
*Nathan’s name has been changed