After over a year of lockdown, it was as though everybody had burst from hibernation, eager for the sun, the mild weather, and the sight of other people taking it all in—talking, laughing, teeming with life. Every square meter of grass, a picnicker. Every bench, crammed. It’d been a long winter. It felt like the first day of spring in ten years.

Four months into quarantine, I became open to meeting someone on a dating app. After a few too many pandemic–themed one–liners that made me regret my decision, I came across a guy with big, bushy eyebrows. Polite, attentive, and serious, he had graduated a few years ago. His profile was classy, mentioning books and cooking. He had an unusual name, which left me wondering where he might be from.

Once we got to talking, the conversation was slow and almost overly formal. I found myself glossing over messages.

But a week later, while preparing for an upcoming internship, I remembered how he'd mentioned that he'd majored in economics. From the little that we’d talked, he seemed thorough and knowledgeable, and something told me to reach out and see what I could learn from him. I asked if he could explain a couple of concepts to me and share any books or mailing lists.

He sent me a string of voice notes, explanations, and links. “You're 19 and getting men to do things for you,” he said. “You’re dangerous.”

I smiled to myself. That’s when I knew I would talk with him.

He was originally from the Balkans and was in high school when his family emigrated from Albania. He told me that he couldn’t speak English at the time. The girls in his class giggled and called him Viktor after Viktor Krum, the Bulgarian quidditch player from Harry Potter. The boys preferred to call him Drago, the Soviet boxer from Rocky IV. Nobody bothered to learn his name.

Listening, I couldn’t help but think of my own brother when my family immigrated to New York. I wasn’t born yet, but I imagined him, a wide–eyed 7–year–old, equipped with only Bulgarian in an American classroom.

“I’m so sorry,” I told him.

“Oh, that’s alright,” he said. He started laughing. “I couldn’t understand them anyway.”

I quickly discovered that we had a lot more in common than just our cultural backgrounds. He spoke Spanish too, and he would tell me his stories from Costa Rica in exchange for mine from Guatemala. We’d share blues and soul playlists only to find that we were already listening to the same artists anyway—the ones we were sure nobody else knew about.

Across politics, history, and philosophy, we asked similar questions and answered them in similar ways. We’d quote the same movies, make the same jokes, and borderline finish each other’s sentences. The things I always had to explain to other people—my family’s immigrant idiosyncrasies, my gripes with my generation, my favorite Joseph Campbell interviews, Pablo Neruda poems, Rumi quotes, Nina Simone songs—he needed no introduction to any of it. I felt like I had finally met someone who understood me as I was, without translation. He’d joke that we were basically the same person, but that I was “a younger, prettier” version of him. I’d laugh but not disagree.

What really impressed me was that he was, without a doubt, the most well–read person I’d ever met. Name any book, and he’d probably read it. As a girl who’d grown tired of the intellectual cliches that are recycled by most college students, I finally felt like I'd met someone I could really talk to—a guy who could tell me something I didn’t already know. And do it all the time.

Suddenly, my lockdown was full of new books, art, music, revelations, and late–night FaceTime calls.

Over a month later, as I approached the Wanamaker Building right by City Hall, I saw a masked man standing in the distance. He gave me a wave, and I knew I was in the right place.

Nervously smiling under my mask, as I came closer, I realized "three fundamental truths at the exact same time": He wasn’t as tall as he’d said, he had an unattractive walk, and his cologne was ruthlessly threatening to give me a migraine.

It was my first time leaving the house in over five months, and I had five seconds to process that the same person I had found such solace and connection in for the past few weeks was the same man standing in front of me. And that same man in front of me was someone I didn’t feel drawn to whatsoever.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t handsome—he was. It wasn’t that he didn’t look like I expected him to—he did. With the conversation dragging on even worse than when we had first matched, the chemistry just didn’t render in person. 

Chirping trivialities at each other, we crossed the street and started the painful journey to The Franklin Fountain ice cream shop in Old City. I realized that I was very likely missing the charm he'd probably imagined in me. I was grateful to be wearing a mask, so I didn’t have to hide behind a smile instead.

Ice cream in hand, we arrived at Independence Square, found a corner in the shade, and sat down on opposite ends of a bench.

Now that there was distance between us, I didn’t notice his height or walk or cologne anymore. As we sat back and slipped into conversation, the thick layer of anxious small talk gradually melted away, and I slowly recognized the same guy that I’d spent weeks getting to know. Bit by bit, we loosened up, and soon, we were totally at ease.

I enthusiastically painted caricatures of my siblings, my parents, and my best friends. He told me about his friends from childhood and the town he grew up in along the coast, and how they all made it a tradition to swim across the sea to Corfu every summer. He pulled out his phone and showed me ancient Greek temples standing against red, violet, and orange island sunsets, and I wistfully told him how I wished I could have grown up in as beautiful of a place. He assured me that it wasn’t all a fairy tale. There was a war when he grew up, and it turned his city into a war zone. He admitted that he wouldn’t have minded growing up like me, in boring suburban New Jersey, instead.

With a bittersweet smile, I told him it reminded me of the proverb, “May you live in interesting times”—and how it was actually a curse. He laughed and revealed that he was just about to say the same thing. 

Watching the masked parkgoers passing us by, I couldn’t help but think that we were certainly living in interesting times. Having never left my house since the onset of the pandemic, I’d gotten used to the blur of my room—quite literally. It’d been months since I had any occasion to put on my contacts.

But sitting on that bench with a stranger I knew too well—seeing the leaves on the trees rustle and ripple, the sun spilling across the park, and the people strolling by with their dogs (with us laughing to ourselves about the resemblance between pets and owners)—I saw things in perfect clarity for the first time in a long time.

Eventually, as the sun began to set, we figured we should head back. The moment we got up from the bench, though, I was reminded again of his bad posture and piercing cologne, and he felt like a stranger again. I kept my distance, looking up at the city buildings. He was rigid and quiet, too.

When we reached the intersection, we wished each other a safe ride back home and parted ways. I went back inside my car, dumping my mask in a plastic bag and drenching my hands with hand sanitizer. 

I sat in the front seat, buzzing from the high of leaving my house for the first time in months.

The next night, he sent me a message saying that he had thought about it all day, and he realized he was “looking for something different.” 

Although saddened, I was relieved that I completely agreed.

We wished each other the best and agreed to meet up again and catch up when all of this was over.

“He was my soulmate,” I told my friends, laughing. “Until we met.”

I later wondered if the isolation of the pandemic allowed for too much imagination to get in the way of reality. I wondered if any of this would've happened had we first met in person. We wouldn't have exchanged any songs, books, or quotes—that uncomfortable tension would've ended our correspondence from the start.

But while I was walking down Locust, looking around at everybody sharing space under the sun for the first time in a year, I realized it didn’t matter.

In times fraught with worry, distance, and control, we should welcome serendipity whenever it looks our way. Even if it’s not like we imagined. Even if it’s as brief as an evening on a park bench.


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