When social distancing has become the social norm, how does a first date even work?
- by Layth Sihan
- photos by Ellis Anderson
You can hear Layth read the piece:
March 18, 2020
two days after New Orleans shut down all bars and restaurants
The first thing you notice about tonight are the numbers.
It’s the middle half of the beginning of COVID-19, a pandemic that experts predict will take hundreds of thousands of lives and put unparalleled stress on hospitals and health professionals - if humanity doesn’t stay away from each other by means of social distancing and safe isolation.
That process is called flattening the curve. Flattening the curve is a reference to the high upswing of the line curve on graphs charting the numbers of those with COVID-19. The line flattens considerably if we stay away from each other.
It’s an argument with yourself if meeting a new person for a date is really the right thing to do tonight. You’ve been staving off the loneliness, boredom, and occasional anxiety of isolation with long solo walks and trips to the grocery store where you wear latex gloves as you drop cans of peas into your cart. Not something you would normally buy, but lately you’ve got your eye on non-perishables.
You need the company, just to feel a little less like a character in a Soderberg film, but you wonder what you two will look like. Closeness and shared space at the very least have to be projected, but maybe tonight that would just make you and your date look clueless or at the worst absolutely irresponsible. You go anyway.
She’s agreed to meet you on the river for a bottle of wine that you’re bringing along. It’s a one on one encounter you tell yourself. You won’t be in a bar. They’re all closed. You’ll be in plain air, talking one on one. You’ll have the river to look at.
And besides, nobody else will be around to judge or, you know, get you sick. Except for her, but it’s a risk you’re willing to take. You’re still well out of the danger zone for the disease age wise. If you got it, you could probably fight it off in a week or less, and then be immune, invincible. That’s what you tell yourself, and it may be true.
And by the looks of things maybe all of what you consider your adult concern is overkill, concern bordering on policing. The numbers of folks hanging by the river are normal levels. People are sitting in smaller groups, but still they’re out. They’re there: drinking, chatting, whatever, mostly just being not isolated.
She tells you to meet her at the JAX brewery on Decatur. You’re sitting on a ledge overlooking the river when she texts. Your headphones are in, and in a way you’ve always understood how important it is to keep your head space yours when you’re around others, strangers. But that sense of boundaries, of personal space, never extended much to physical space, and now it has.
The wind from the Mississippi is giving the night a pronounced chill. It’s the beginning of spring in New Orleans so it feels sort of out of season, but it’s also spring in New Orleans so there are long stretches when you’re not really sure what the hell the weather is like. You brought a jacket. Before COVID, you would have said, I don’t want to catch a cold.
You meet her at the brewery. You don’t hug, and it’s understood that you won’t. That absence of a hug signals that you’re meeting each other for the first time. It’s funny. Before COVID-19, that was often what a hug before a date began meant. It meant you were meeting for the first time.
You pour out the wine in two paper cups you brought with you. Normally, you would have ducked into a bar and grabbed two plastic to go cups from the bartender. She likes the wine, and she, like you, seems happy to have someone to talk to, something to do, somewhere to go.
She tells you about her life before moving to New Orleans. You tell her about yours. The two of you had taken a seat by the aquarium when you walked over from the brewery. The tall suspension of the Crescent City Connection is in view. You notice the traffic stream across it. You wonder where those people are going tonight.
As you talk, you realize you’re surrounded by silence. Maybe that’s because the people who are out are more interested in a chat, in taking full advantage of their time out, and they’re really listening, and when people speak, they speak at a low volume so no one will mistake them for being out out, just out.
The two of you, you and your date, share that silence. Your conversation isn’t dry or anything. The talk between the two of you hasn’t really died down since you two opened the wine, took in the CCC and the river, but the date is a silent one.
After a while, you leave the river, and you sit on a stoop in the French Quarter for a while, and you keep talking. A homeless man on a bicycle stops and asks for the last of your wine. He’s wearing Mardi Gras throws, has a bag of them. “It’s yours if you don’t mind drinking after me,” you tell him, and he tells you he doesn’t mind, and you give him your cup. He rides off.
Neither of you feel terrible about spreading germs like this, but maybe you should. Maybe that was the line that really shouldn’t have been crossed. When the date ends, the two of you swap numbers and agree to keep in touch.
You realize on your way back home, a bottle of wine emptied, isolation slightly trespassed in a way that felt necessary, that you’re going to be alone again. On your way to that isolation, you know that if you saw somebody else out, you wouldn’t hold it against them as long as they meant it. You would have totally understood what it feels like to be energized by the emptiness of the world, however impossible that sounded before COVID-19.
But it’s true. The emptier the world, the more meaningful every little exchange starts to feel.
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Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Social Distance Dining