The Dating Dilemma

My last first kiss occurred nine months ago, mid-conversation, unexpected but direct. He leaned over as he stood to go to the bar, and our mouths met briefly. It was a polite kiss, assuming nothing but suggesting everything. It lasted forever but was over as soon as it began, asking a question to which the answer was yes: more, please. First kisses can be messy and awkward, the touching of teeth or the push of a tongue in a clumsy way evidencing the infantile excitement of the vulnerability that happens when you put your feelings into the hands of another. Ours was a soundless secret between two bodies, a sweet mix of warm air and the chips I stopped to buy that made me a few minutes late. I didn’t feel the earth move beneath me but there was a small shift in the gravity between us, setting our paths toward each other on a course for collision. At the end of the evening goodbyes were said with lips that smiled an unspoken promise that they would touch again, as they did upon each occasion until they met for the last time.

Since then, intimate acts have had to adapt. Over the last six months I’ve experienced something subtle, like the touch of two palms or the tucking of hair behind my ear, turn into a grasping of hands around the body of a phone, a desperate willing to merge into the surroundings at the other end of the video that remained intangible until travel permitted. What was once the softness of a lover’s whisper against my skin became an interruption of jarring Internet lag and background noise. The delicacy of lifting a stray eyelash from a face was a mouth frozen, mid-word, on screen, or a pixelated kiss shared across webcam.

Fantasy underpinned my waking hours, loneliness precluded by the dream of a reunion, memories preserved by a mind that rethought them endlessly. Lost in the illusion, the relationship disintegrated before it found space to grow; fruits picked before they had ripened, flowers pulled up mistaken for weeds. I tended to the produce in my garden and with each handful of sugared blackberries I picked, another soured the landscape that stretched between us. We were separated by 400 miles of miscommunication with the excess time to overthink the magnetism to which we were once tied so strongly. I still see his face in my head as I turn corners, remembering what it was like to walk down city streets hand in hand.

***

Now, it’s September and as my date stands to go to the bathroom, he puts on his mask obligingly and turns away from our table. Harrison does not lean over to kiss me; our skin does not touch all evening. We sit across from each other in a dimly lit pub in Waterloo, along a side street by the railway bridge, and I imagine reaching across the table to hold his hand. I look into his eyes and allow myself to float in the temporary distraction of his smile. We talk about our lives and find comforting similarity in the discovery that neither of us felt like they were where they should be. Our preoccupation with the world intersected at so many points I could have sat with him all night, if it wasn’t for the claw of feelings from the past that threatened to drown me as I tread water.

A drawing of the interior of the Imperial War Museum, as seen from a higher floor. The view looks down on 3 planes and a torpedo which hang from strings from the ceiling, with figures on the ground floor looking up. The visitors wear masks. One is dressed in a red shirt.
The Imperial War Museum

A few hours earlier I stood on the landing of the fourth floor of the Imperial War Museum, overlooking the landscape of flying machines below, wondering if he had actually gone to the bathroom or if he was instead making his escape to the front door. I peered over the edge, sifting through the drift of people below to see if his red shirt was amongst them. Deciding it wouldn’t be the worst outcome if he didn’t come back, I turned my attention away from the distant figures, neatly assembled on the floor like pieces in a board-game. I imagined myself jumping from the side of the balcony, landing in one of the planes which hung from the ceiling, starting the engine and piloting myself away from the unexploded confusion I felt inside. The vision was cut short as he tapped me on the shoulder, brows raised in anticipation, and we continued through the remainder of the exhibition as we had before.

I feel Harrison’s fingers in my hair as he carefully extracts a leaf that has blown there in the wind, and my body shivers for the kinds of closeness I’ve longed for but haven’t felt. He borders six feet; I stand at five foot three. His slender frame bends towards me like the branches of a tree, craning to hear my voice from behind a mask. He puts a hand on my back as we steer away from the other bodies in the narrow passageways of the museum. I recoil slightly, navigating around the tanks and aeroplanes as our individual trajectories continued to cross. How do we create and maintain acts of intimacy without physical touch? I didn’t feel myself drawn to him in the hypnotic way I itched to be pulled by; attraction disfigured by the shadow of social distancing that followed behind us like a chaperone.

I started to forget his face the moment we said goodbye. My memory filled in the gaps so that as I thought about him when I got home it was through the hazy lens of alcohol; remembering shared looks and small moments of conversation, the warmth of his arms as they wrapped around me in a masked farewell. It would have been easy to suggest we meet again, to learn his last name and the complexities that made up his person. To allow passing time to blur the uncertainty, imagining a connection invented with the same insistence as my lockdown fantasies. But so much has changed since that last first kiss.

***

I send the text as the changing leaves of Autumn fall to the ground. A dull panic sets in as I feel the potential seeping away; he was kind, attractive, interesting, but… It’s a hungover Sunday and a grey sky drifts outside my bedroom window, a reminder that I’m not ready to follow the seasons. I want to pick the leaves up, glue them back onto their branches. I think I’m mourning the loss of familiarity that comes with learning the depths of a new body. Although I look over moments of the past with fondness, I miss the intoxication, the feeling of spaces merging, the comfort of physical presence and belonging to someone with complete ease. I long for something new but moving forward with these interruptions to intimacy has dampened the hunger. I struggle to feel satiated without it, but my taste for it has turned stale.

Endings and beginnings overlap the present and past with the fantasy of future, and I’m confused by the complexity of crossing threads. My phone screen lights up as Harrison responds to the message; he feels the same way but is glad we met up for a date in a return to some semblance of normality. The dating dilemma is a puzzle that as of yet I haven’t managed to solve, but maybe right now I don’t need to.

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