How to love in a pandemic

THE UNGENTLEWOMAN - Gabbie Tatad - The Philippine Star
How to love in a pandemic

We’d been dating for over two years, much closer to three. K and I met online, in a forum where the coding-challenged could get an assist. He was a Chicago native starting out as a developer, and we gently flirted while he helped me with a fledgling recipe blog. He wasn’t single, so we stayed “friends.” I told him about men who came and went: a Malaysian I regret introducing to my family, an Englishman who called me 50 times in a single day after we’d broken up, an American narcissist who gaslit me for amusement. K patiently listened to all of it, until one day out of the blue, he told me he loved me. “I always have, but especially now,” he said.

When K and I transitioned out of friendship, it felt like the heavens parted. He was so kind and giving of himself, someone who’d drive for hours to go see my family in another state without ever making a fuss. He loved when I fell asleep on the drive, because it meant I felt safe enough with him to doze off in transit. His family was warm, kind, welcoming, and so beautifully normal in ways I’d always wanted. He was ambitious, working all hours on his tech startup. He was already a homeowner in his late 20s, and responsible with how he spent his money. He was musically inclined, and once wrote me a piano instrumental for my birthday (I cried throughout the first pass and he had to play it twice). He loved pizza as much as I do, and never begrudged me a pineapple topping. He looked at me like I was magic. I genuinely thought we were unbreakable.

Roughly three years later, K looked at me through my computer screen. Tears streamed down his face. As suddenly as he’d said he loved me, he said, “I think this is it.”

The Breakup

The most difficult part for us had always been distance. We communicated, because it was all we could really do. We couldn’t hold each other’s hands or hug each other at the end of a bad day, but we could talk. So we talked about everything: past loves, weird childhood traumas, what we loved about our parents and what we didn’t want to emulate from their relationships, personal ambitions you don’t really share in non-intimate spaces, places we would go if we were physically together.

But since March, the entire communication dynamic shifted. I could tell the pandemic was taking a significant toll on his mental well-being. The little cracks that had existed between us rapidly turned into gaping craters. I struggled to get through to him. We were arguing every other day, in escalating fashion. I don’t normally yell, but I felt like he didn’t hear anything I was saying, so I said it louder. And louder. And louder. Every time we’d argue, he’d promise it would be better, that it’d be okay. But all he’d do was withdraw from me even more, and the only thing it would be, for me, was lonely. I told myself it was growing pains.

He became a whole other person I didn’t recognize. He didn’t want anyone’s help, least of all mine. When he managed to call me, he wasn’t really there. I put a happy smile on my face anyway, regardless of how I felt. I sat there, smiling, while I shrank myself to fit into the spaces he’d let me occupy, even while I watched him come apart. After one particularly difficult argument, I asked if he still had it in him to be with me. I couldn’t decide for him, but I felt like he was already out the door. He responded by breaking up with me and immediately cutting off all communication.

I didn’t eat or sleep for two weeks. I didn’t shed any tears, not until Taylor Swift released Folklore. “It’s another day waking up alone, but we were something, don’t you think so?” she sang. “And if my wishes came true, it would’ve been you…” I immediately wept. I hadn’t said it aloud, but I’d gotten the distinct feeling, given some clear signals, that K and I would be engaged before the year ended. I rearranged my life because I knew that when the time came, it made more sense for both of our careers if I moved for him. I made no long-term commitments, trying to stay as untethered as possible. In the hollow of TSwift’s indoor voice, I became very clearly aware of what had died. So I wept — for the loss of that life, for the space I’d made only to come up empty, and for all of myself that I’d cut down so that we could fit together.

Three weeks passed. I sent a message asking him if he was okay, because I wasn’t. He said he wasn’t either, that he spent nights staring at the ceiling, thinking. He briefly talked about us in the past tense, then didn’t want to talk any further.

It really was over, and the three years I’d given to this person were gone.

To the apps

I felt like I had two very distinct choices. The first was obvious: I could do the gratuitous falling apart at the seams, waste away, close up shop permanently, and resign myself to a lonely existence. But the truth is, as much as I grieved the loss of K and our future I’d been working so hard to build, I felt like mourning was the status quo. He’d turned into a stranger at a time when we needed each other the most, when nothing else we knew was as it had been. I had lived in a state of grief for months; I had been alone for months. To quote one Miss Grande, I felt like I had no tears left to cry. So instead I chose door number two: I rallied.

Like a good soldier, I created a playlist and swapped TSwift for Beyoncé and Dua Lipa. Yes, ladies, IDGAF indeed. I ain’t sorry; no, no, hell no. I embarked on a thirst trap journey, warning siblings and good friends to take my upcoming selfies with a grain of salt. I wondered what my limits would be as I downloaded Tinder and Bumble. I decided on my first cardinal rule: basta cute, swipe right, then bahala na.

For the first time in years, I had no idea what I wanted from a man. I took a good look at all my options within swiping distance, and tried them all on like curious items of clothing in a shop. I let the handsome M call me, who in his Irish lilt said I was too beautiful for my own good. There was the American D, who was the kind of fun you’d hop into a convertible to make bad decisions with. There was A, who was an almost unreal kind of hot, and frequently asked if Filipino boys knew how to handle a girl like me. (The answer is no.) There they all were — Italian, Swiss, Scottish, English, Egyptian, all the colors of the rainbow. As they stacked up, I found what I already knew to be true: that most men are reliably inconsistent and eventually dull.

L, though, feels different. He’s a Filipino-American who spends his time between here and the US, but elected not to rush back here while travel is questionable. The first time we spoke, it felt both fresh and utterly familiar. The ease of not having to translate or explain local context was wonderful, apart from the fact that we hit it off seamlessly and laughed for hours. Seconds after we hung up, L sent a text: “I hate that you’re there and I’m here. I didn’t know I’d find someone like you.” He sends videos of him making food he knows I love, and frequently says he can’t wait to see me. I sense him gauging my attraction when he asks if I miss him, which is often. I answer as honestly as I can, admitting he’s crossed my mind and that I’m genuinely fond of him. It’s not what he wants to hear. I don’t tell him that I’ve equated missing love for so long, and so it’s hard for me to just come out and say it.

Sifting through the swipes, I uncovered some significant things: standards I’d sacrificed too quickly, how I need to feel in a relationship, and who I am without one. Parts of me woke up, parts that had been dormant for far too long. The part of me that loves to flirt without an end goal in mind. The greater part of me that isn’t fueled by romantic love, that’s thirsty for more than another person’s attraction. The part of me that always wanted more for myself.

I put down roots and started a job that, while it perfectly matches my skill set, I’ve never actually done. It’s a 9 to 5 position, something I’ve never taken on before, that mixes creative inclination with a heavy dose of logistical consideration and people skills. After 12 years of writing professionally, I’d begun to feel suffocated, and I wanted so badly to tear down the walls around me. So I dove into something completely unfamiliar, and I’ve been caught in this exciting process of learning and failing and being corrected and being entirely new. It makes me come alive, seeing what else I can do and what other paths might open up for me. More than anything, it just feels good to do something different and challenging just for me, to be tethered to something other than a man.

Return of the K

“I have to live with the choices I made, as much as I wish I could go back and make them differently,” said K. “I know I can never take it away completely. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try. Because that’s the only real way to show you I understand the consequences of my choices and the impact they had on you, someone who loved me and someone who I knew deep down in my heart I was going to spend the rest of my life with.”

He had finally started seeing a therapist, and he came to me months later, filled with apologies. The initial contact was understandably volatile on my end, but the succeeding conversation was enlightening. He acknowledged his shortcomings. He’d read our entire text thread from the last three years — all 80,000 messages — and said he saw how I took literally every opportunity to be there for him. He realized what I’d been asking for at the end was not for it all to be over, but for us to stop hurting each other.

When I got the job, he sent over flowers, which he’d never done before. It was a massive bouquet with sunflowers, lots of greens, and beautiful purples thrown in. He said he chose it because it was bright, and he knew it would make me smile. He told me how he had to figure out what barangay I belonged to so it could ship to the right address. “For all my talk of ‘should haves,’ this is one thing I knew I could do for you, today.”

We’ve spoken more frequently and as honestly as we can about our relationship. The things that hurt us both, how each of us perceived what the other did, what we actually meant when we did those things, and how what he was going through clouded his entire perception of both himself and what we were to each other. He looks at me the way he used to, and while he feels familiar to me again, I’m not quite the same person I was when he left.

Though he’s made improvements for himself, I’m unsure if K and I have a future together. I don’t know if things with L will take off. What I do know is that I like how different I’ve become, and the person I discovered when I did what I had to so I wouldn’t fall apart.

Funnily enough, the person I found I want to be with most is myself. The un-shrunken version, the unapologetic version, the challenged and driven version, the version I love when I look in the mirror because she is most me.

I don’t know how the rest of this story will pan out, but what I do know is that the breaking of my heart allowed me to come back home to me. More than any romantic conclusion, that’s the great love I needed to find, and she’s the one I intend on keeping.


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