I met my quarantine boyfriend in early March, right before everything went down in New York City. Or possibly I met him years earlier when our children attended the same preschool, where they enjoyed playing near but not quite with each other, as toddlers do.
Sometimes I lingered at pickup with his then-wife so the children could wrap up their business. She and I talked a little, and I learned that, like me, she married late in life, had a child almost immediately, and was trying to navigate a well-established career without going back to the office full time.
“What does your husband do?” I asked.
“He’s a touring musician,” she said proudly.
I had dated my share of musicians in my younger days and was grateful for my solid 9-to-5 spouse, but I nodded and smiled.
Two years later I ran into her again at swim class, where her child paddled nicely in the deep end while mine remained planted on the top step of the ladder, clutching the railing with both hands. She offered supportive words as I mused aloud about how much money I was losing per minute.
I have a dim memory of my quarantine boyfriend lingering nearby in a black jacket, but that may be apocryphal. I don’t recall being formally introduced, but several years and two failed marriages later, I was idly swiping left when I happened upon him. I recognized the name and his face wasn’t entirely unfamiliar, so I paused to study his profile. He seemed sharp and funny, so I sent a message.
Our first date was at a coffee shop and lasted less than an hour. He and I talked a lot and had trouble sustaining eye contact. When I reported this to my friend Rachel, she blamed nerves and suggested I give him another chance.
He texted the next day, asking if we should get together again. We met for a drink, and this time he was more relaxed. He told interesting stories and made me laugh, and at my apartment he gazed at me. When the silence grew a little too long, I leaned in.
“It’s getting late,” I said. “I don’t want to keep you. But I kind of want to keep you.”
He blushed, and within minutes we were kissing.
Scant but consistent texting transpired over the weekend as he entertained his child and I prepared for a trip out west. People in New York were starting to get sick, but everything was still status quo. When my plane landed, I turned on my phone to find him checking in, even though it was 1 a.m. his time.
“Did you have a good day?” I typed.
“Not really,” he replied. “But we don’t have to talk about that right now.”
His split was less than a year old, and he was still hurt and bewildered. He still used “we.” And he was very angry.
Over the course of the week, we texted a lot. There were sexy texts and funny texts and exchange-of-information texts. On my second night, he was upset with his ex-wife and asked if he could call me. We talked for nearly an hour, and I offered what counsel I could, most of which took the form of, “It won’t always be like this.”
The next day he thanked me for listening and said I was easy to talk to.
We texted, talked, traded stories of our children. His went to Boston to flee the virus, and I returned home a little early with mine. I saw my quarantine boyfriend right away. We were heady from all our speculative texting, but real life, as always, was more awkward.
Afterward we lay quietly, then he said, “Let’s go do something.” We spent the next seven hours walking and talking and eating a lovely Italian meal.
And then the city shut down, and my quarantine boyfriend lost everything.
It started when his ex-wife announced that she was staying in Boston until she felt it was safe to return. He was frantic to see his child, but there was nothing to be done; his divorce lawyer said no judge would rule in favor of returning to the epicenter. Then all his recording work was postponed, his spring and summer gigs were canceled, and a major fall tour seemed dubious. Like so many other working musicians, he suddenly found himself with an abundance of time and no income or prospects for earning.
Beyond that, my quarantine boyfriend was no longer allowed to visit his mother, and her health began to falter. A longtime colleague of his ran a fever and was admitted to the hospital. My quarantine boyfriend made grim predictions about losing his mother and his bandmate at the same time. He struggled to occupy himself. He watched his savings dwindle and worried about losing his apartment. He longed to see his child and fought with his former wife.
As a result of all this, my boyfriend was not well equipped to be a boyfriend. He was overwhelmed and fearful. But I had a small safe circle that included my child, my ex and my quarantine boyfriend, and twice a week, being as careful as possible, I went to his house, where we sat knee to knee at the kitchen table, eating and drinking. He mostly talked, and I mostly listened.
A few weeks into it, on a particularly miserable afternoon, he told me he was aware of his limitations and sorry he couldn’t be more emotionally available. He said under normal conditions he would be moving toward a relationship, but he couldn’t allow himself to do so when everything was so fraught and uncertain.
“If this were real life, I would say we were dating,” I said. “You’re not my boyfriend.”
“So we’re dating,” I said. “Let’s see what happens. It doesn’t have to be so dramatic.”
Inwardly, I was less sanguine, possibly even hurt. If this were real life, I would have ended it, or at least started looking for someone else. But I decided to try something new: I would be patient and see what happened. If the times were unprecedented, I would be too.
My quarantine boyfriend and I are very different. He spends his money on quality goods, and I am content with a mash-up of antiques and particleboard. He craves fine food and drink, while Goldfish crackers are a mainstay of my diet. His home is full of muted tones and white dishware, and mine is a dizzying mix of colors and patterns. He watches television, and I ceded mine in the divorce and didn’t buy a new one. I stopped drinking nearly seven years ago, and he enjoys a cocktail or two every night.
But we make each other laugh. He plays me music and I loan him books. I offer cooking tips and bought him a decent pair of kitchen shears, and he puts out snacks and pours me glass after glass of flavored Perrier. We are both firm but loving parents. We kiss a lot, and he cups my face when we do. He tells me he is grateful he met me, he likes me very much, and I make him happy.
Despite his insistence that he has little to give, my quarantine boyfriend and I are growing attached. Although nothing has changed, he is settling into his unwanted circumstances. His anxiety is easing. I go to his house about twice a week and we sit knee to knee at the kitchen table. We eat, drink, talk, listen. We kiss across the table, and I feel it in my stomach. Later, he plays a few chords while I watch his hands. We hold each other’s eyes and smile. We are starting to love each other.
Tomorrow is not promised, and I have no idea what it will bring. I never did, but the pandemic has stripped away any remaining illusions of control or stability. My quarantine boyfriend and I may not last much longer, or we may part when we are allowed into the world at large.
Logistics could intervene if our work and parenting schedules do not dovetail, but perhaps he will be my boyfriend beyond this crisis. Maybe he and I can be companions for the duration, whatever that may be. There’s a lot to be said for shared food and drink, kisses and company, sympathy and laughter.
I want my quarantine boyfriend to have his life back, or to be able to start it anew. It’s getting late. I don’t want to keep him. But I kind of want to keep him.