Tagged Love (Emotion)

Modern Love: My Unlikely Pandemic Dream Partner

Modern Love

My Unlikely Pandemic Dream Partner

We loathed each other quietly, until we made space for grief and good food.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Jan. 22, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

Last March, before my mother flew from Washington, D.C., to visit me in New Orleans, we negotiated how long she should stay. I was having knee surgery after massively tearing my meniscus and A.C.L. during a Mardi Gras parade, and she offered to help me recover.

She wanted to stay for seven days. I said five days was the most I could handle. In the end, she stayed for 53.

That’s because the pandemic arrived, along with a citywide stay-at-home order. And this dullness set in. We ate in dullness. We watched movies in dullness, learning to alternate between my mother’s desire for old films about war and immigration, and my desire for reality dating shows that she found disgusting. We loathed each other quietly, not yet understanding how to change the dynamic we had built over 38 years.

Like many Americans her age, my mother didn’t take the pandemic seriously at first. It was a team effort for my siblings (in Los Angeles) and me to get her to wear a mask and stay home. I would find foods in the house like ice cream or braided anise-seed cheese, evidence of her escapes to Baskin Robbins and the local Palestinian grocer.

At first, I balked at her sadness and the collapse of my adult autonomy. My mother had replaced my first caregiver, Abby, a friend and healer from New England, who tended to me like a child before and after surgery.

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My mother wasn’t bright-eyed like Abby — yet. Her eyes were heavy. My father had died suddenly only a few months earlier, and she carried a broken heart from room to room like a backpack. I felt bad for needing her and guilty about all the work she had to do to care for me. She already had so much on her plate.

When I bathed for the first time after surgery, I grew faint at the sight of my stitches and started yelling. I expected my mother to zone out, but she rushed in with a stool for my knee and sat down at the foot of the tub, iced coffee in hand. Seeing her there, sitting with me, naked on a trash-bag covered chair, as if it were normal, I began to notice and appreciate how much she loved me.

I was struck by her simple acts of devotion. I had to trust her to lift my leg and help me from bed to crutches to the bathroom, every single time. I had to depend on her to carry my things from room to room, to find my clothes, to feed me. She made eggs and toast and matzo brei, learned how I liked my tea, made my bed and washed my clothes.

I hadn’t let anyone this close to me in years. She was becoming my dream partner.

A food writer, my mother went in cycles testing recipes. She cooked Dutch baby pancakes for a week, was strangely exuberant about her warm homemade hummus another, and made and remade several versions of Iraqi Jewish mujadara, a dish served to mourners, made with lentils, caramelized onions, and rice or bulgur.

I hate cooking for myself. She signed us up for the local C.S.A., ripe with local artichokes and peaches galore. We had fodder for trades.

And then came the emissaries. Josh, who lived behind me, showed up with strawberry jam from Ponchatoula, La. He was so sweet, leaving it 10 feet from where I was sitting on the porch. There was a caveat: “Would you mind,” he said, “if I went into your backyard? My chicken has flown into your loquat tree.”

This was the start of a lot of chicken escapes, and a lot of trading. We gave Josh and his boyfriend, Michael, cake and bread; they dropped off curry and let my mother pick their mulberries.

This was also the start of my mother and me falling in love. She came alive when the neighborhood did, leaving my father in the grave and joining the living as she harvested the mulberries down the street, meeting the neighbors who peeked their heads out the window to speak with her while she picked. She made dried mulberries, mulberry cake, mulberry muffins and mulberry jam. She loved mulberries like they were cocktails. I marveled at her.

Our neighbor, Annie, began coming by to harvest our kumquats and lemons with her two sons. She made us cookies and left them on our porch every week. We left her chili, stew and homemade challah.

Virginia appeared soon thereafter, from across the street. She and my mother began talking at the fence, and that bridged more trades. Virginia brought us ketchup, made us our first masks and then showed my mother her sacred Mardi Gras craft room, where the shoes for the Krewe of Muses were gilded in a den of glitter. She taught my mother about possums and brought us our own flat of Ponchatoula strawberries. We left a portion of smoked leg of lamb in her mailbox when Alon Shaya, a local chef, dropped one off.

The dullness of quarantine gave way to a socially distanced affair, evening dates and all. My mother’s eyes lit up as she shared stories of the day’s encounters over the dinner she made or the sinfully delicious food we ordered from local restaurants. I began to loosen, to lean into the care I felt so guilty for receiving, the three meals a day cooked by my mother, the needing someone, that letting go of an almost too fierce independence I had built over the years.

My mother glowed. She was taking long masked walks alone and exploring New Orleans by foot, discovering the hidden Jewish names in so many graveyards, the horrific confederate statues and the unreal beauty of City Park.

We eventually started processing our grief, finding space that is so hard to find when two people are grieving simultaneously. Sometimes it was in the middle of the night, like when I heard the screeching of a cat (either dying or mating) and woke her, scared. Or the time our neighbor’s chicken squawked its last breath when a hawk stole it from their yard, took it to my roof, killed it and dropped it outside my window.

Quarantine for us was not boring.

We started to learn that we were grieving two different men. Hers was the husband she met in the 1970s, a partner and friend who went to movies with her and around the world, who emotionally supported her, slept beside her, made space for her career.

And I was grieving the loss of my father, someone a bit more distant, who was mine for only 38 years, and who I ached to have with us on the sofa, laughing at bad TV, enraptured by old movies.

We ordered new clothes for her, as she had packed for only five days and needed things to wear for nearly two months. We started holding hands while watching our strange selection of movies: “Goodbye, Columbus,” “Baby Boom” and “Force Majeure,” or the delight of “My Brilliant Friend,” our companion for a whole week.

This touch between us felt like pulling up from the void. It felt like splicing open hell to have a quiet picnic.

We found a rhythm, her two-hour walks while I taught my Tulane students on Zoom, followed by lunch together and a review of my curriculum. On Sundays, a friend would take her for a bike ride, and later we would put on masks and drive through the empty French Quarter to the Bywater, where we waved to friends from a distance and got cocktails to go.

We had found our way.

When she perked back up, refilled with color and life, I helped her do her makeup and clothes for her Zoom seminars, and we sat at dawn, me in bed, her in the window seat, and talked about loss. But not both of ours at once. We learned how to weave in mulberries and chickens and fresh-picked flowers, how to bake and breathe and listen to the lives we were living, how important it was to be full in order to finally make space to speak of our emptiness.

By May, I was walking again. She started making muffins and stews for me, stocking my freezer. And then one Monday, she put on rubber kitchen gloves and a mask and went to the very empty airport to return home.

We had made it through 53 days of coronavirus quarantine. My father was still gone. Her husband was still gone. He wasn’t coming back. And in his absence, with no one else around, my mother and I fell in love with caring for one another.

Merissa Nathan Gerson is the author of “Forget Prayers, Bring Cake,” forthcoming from Mandala Publishing in July 2021. She lives in New Orleans.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: Lockdown Was Our Breaking Point

Modern Love

Lockdown Was Our Breaking Point

We needed to marry for our relationship to survive. But “le confinement” was too much.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Jan. 15, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

Our two-year-old marriage was already struggling before the pandemic sent France into lockdown. Now here we were, stuck in our Paris apartment with my two teenage sons. “Le confinement,” as the French lyrically call it.

My husband, two decades younger than me, sought refuge from all the forced togetherness by barricading himself in the guest room, shoving the heavy sofa bed — normally used by my ex-husband when he comes to visit his sons — against the door.

I hated sleeping apart but rationalized our growing distance by telling myself that his snoring and my tossing made it difficult for us to get a good night’s rest. (Never mind that those things hadn’t been issues before.)

Besides, what couple doesn’t need space from time to time? Especially when the French government permitted only one hour of outside exercise per day, within one kilometer of home. To leave the house, we had to fill out a form and carry ID. Police were checking paperwork and issuing fines.

This was the flip side of having fallen madly in love with a man born the year I finished college. In the early days of our courtship, in Cairo, I was so caught up in the post-divorce, risk-laden thrill of stealing illicit kisses on poorly lit street corners — public displays of affection can land you in jail in Egypt — that I scarcely noticed the age difference.

Love may be blind, but lust is both blind and idiotic.

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As a mother, I had often felt the need to choose between the demands of parenthood and my sexual desires. That duality became even more stark when I met my second husband, who helped me rediscover the sensuality lying dormant during the 20 years I was married to the father of my children.

When I started letting him spend the night in the Cairo villa I shared with my sons, I was choosing the erotic version of myself over the maternal version. The boys must have thought I had been body snatched.

They would have been right. Sexual empowerment reanimated me. When my new lover and I met, he was exactly the same age I had been when I first got married. Choosing him felt like both a do-over and an escape from the invisibility of midlife. Not only did he see me as desirable, but our being together suddenly made me a source of envy. Women his age who admired his good looks would try to figure out our relationship. It was exactly the kind of validation I craved after a marriage in which the erotic flame had been doused long before we ended it.

I liked that our May-September romance was unconventional. Bucking the norms I had hewed to out of a sense of duty felt as validating as it did challenging.

My husband had to confront the alienation of his Tunisian family, who refused to acknowledge my existence, even after our wedding. Yes, we had fallen deeply in love, but choosing to marry was also an act of rebellion for each of us, a rejection of what society and friends and family expected. It felt like setting out into uncharted territory. It was exhilarating.

But marriage was also a necessity for our relationship’s survival. When I moved to Paris with my sons, my lover’s Tunisian passport made it nearly impossible for him to spend time with me here. We fixed our problem by flying to California and tying the knot.

Alas, thrill-seeking and passion can only take a marriage so far and, now that we were living as a family, reality had set in. Gone was the Middle Eastern backdrop, the inexpensive four-bedroom house with the verdant garden. The City of Lights is as romantic as ever, but Paris, for me, represented a return to the responsibilities of adult life with its endless loads of laundry and the drudgery of putting dinner on the table every night.

Since my husband’s arrival, I had been bumping up against the uncomfortable understanding that the way I wanted to live as a woman in my 50s was starkly different from how he thought life in his late 20s should look. My middle-aged friends bored him. My insistence on living in a clean and orderly house was, to him, senseless. And the hours he lost to Facebook, to watching European football, seemed pointless to me.

We sought out couples’ therapy, twice, but were no more able to communicate past our language and cultural barriers than we had been before. We still didn’t have the tools to address the imbalance of power that resulted from his being dependent on me for financial and visa support. He resented being reliant on me and, truthfully, I resented it too. I wanted an equal partner, someone I could depend on, someone who would share the load.

As wonderful a diversion as our love had been, I simply could not turn back the clock and be a suitable spouse to someone as young as my husband. I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t matured over the previous 22 years. I couldn’t unlearn what experience had taught me, nor did I want to. I love being 54. Falling in love with a younger man had rejuvenated me. I looked and felt better than ever. But surface is no substitute for depth.

As the days wore on, my husband’s self-isolation grew to feel less benign. Before long, we were not engaging in even monosyllabic exchanges. His main form of communication became the missives he left on strategically placed Post-it notes. I might wake up in the morning to find “I scrubbed this” on a pot that wasn’t getting clean or return from my run and discover “please refill after use” on the Brita pitcher.

I could hear the thump, thump of the weights he lifted for hours, but I hardly ever saw him. I never knew when he might burst out of the guest room to cook himself a meal or zip out to the grocery store.

Mostly, I wanted to protect my boys from seeing my pain. I felt guilty enough for letting them watch me fall to pieces when my marriage to their father collapsed, and here I was, forcing them into front-row seats to witness the failure of yet another relationship.

One day, when sifting through the cupboard and trying to find something he could eat that hadn’t been claimed by a Post-it with my husband’s initials, my 19-year-old turned to me in exasperation. “I can’t take it anymore,” he said.

I broke through the couch barricade to the guest room and told my husband we needed to talk. We were over, I said. We couldn’t go on like this. We were all suffering too much. And then, with nothing to lose, we allowed ourselves to say all the things we hadn’t been able to.

He told me how overwhelming the previous few years had been. Between estrangement from his family, fruitless job hunting, living in the land of his country’s former colonizer, the pressures of sharing a house with me and my teenagers, and never speaking his native Tunisian, he hadn’t been able to let his guard down for a minute. He loved me, but he had never wanted to be a stepfather.

For him, “le confinement” had allowed him to catch his breath. He hadn’t been stewing in anger in the spare room, as I had thought. Solitude had been a respite.

I heard his anguish. I felt his suffering. I managed to move past my anger and disappointment at my feelings of failure and having been failed. For a beautiful moment, we each saw the other. The love that we shared in that room briefly eclipsed the pain we had inflicted on one another. We vowed to do better.

I think, even then, we knew the futility of our promises. Confinement had both locked us down and birthed an unavoidable truth: We loved each other, but love wasn’t enough.

By choosing a man nearly half my age, I had not chosen the sexually empowered iteration of myself, but rather the mother. As I watched him unburden himself, I saw a beautiful man who was too young, too inexperienced to be my partner. If I wanted to fully embody the woman I had become, I had to release both him and the 25-year-old self I was trying to reinhabit.

When confinement finally lifted, and we were once again allowed to move freely through the city, my husband signed the lease on a sun-filled studio astride the Canal Saint Martin, where young hipsters hang out drinking craft beers.

Grabbing a black suitcase crammed full of clothes, he walked out of his self-imposed exile and into his new life. As I watched him leave, I cried. Of course I cried. But with confinement over, I could already feel the first flutters of my own rebirth.

Monique El-Faizy, who lives in Paris, is the co-author of “All the President’s Women.”

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: We Needed More Significant Others

Modern Love

We Needed More Significant Others

A cancer diagnosis in the midst of the pandemic led to our improvising a wedding and joining a commune, where our family of two became 14.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Jan. 8, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

Last June, instead of a rehearsal dinner the night before our wedding, Scott and I hosted a rooftop comedy roast for his soon-to-be-amputated right foot. One by one, our friends took turns walking up to the mic, wiping it down and removing their masks before making jokes about my fiancé’s doomed appendage.

“At least for the rest of your life,” said our friend Tank, “everything you do will be considered ‘brave.’”

A few months earlier, as coronavirus cases started to rise and people began hoarding toilet paper, Scott had ankle pain that wouldn’t go away. When physical therapy didn’t help, he got an M.R.I. Inconclusive results led to a PET scan.

After his first visit with the orthopedic oncologist, Scott stood in our newly outfitted home office in our small San Francisco apartment and said, “She told me if it’s a bone tumor, I’ll need surgery.”

“We can handle that,” I said. “Plenty of people have ankle surgery, right?”

“Surgery,” he said, “means amputation.”

After multiple biopsies over many weeks (Scott said he felt as if he were an Ikea desk being drilled into), his doctor called to deliver the diagnosis. We pulled off the highway and put her on speakerphone. It was osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that afflicts some 800 Americans a year. It appeared to have spread. The five-year survival rate for multifocal osteosarcoma is 30 percent.

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After we hung up, Scott — vegan, athlete, artificial intelligence engineer, the kind of person who adds turmeric to all his food — took my hand. Together for five years, we were only 32.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve never been below the top 30 percent for anything. But if something happens to me, I want to make sure you’re taken care of. Let’s get married now.”

We scheduled Scott’s below-the-knee amputation for 10 days later, a Monday. Our friends announced they were throwing us a wedding in Golden Gate Park the day before the surgery.

I wanted a wedding celebration, even if it was last-minute, so we could mark the occasion with more than just the administrative staff of the county clerk. Scott, however, wanted something more in line with his arid sense of humor: a foot roast. That’s how we ended up gathered on a roof telling amputation jokes and making bad puns about Scott getting “cold feet” before the wedding.

The next day we stood, masked and socially distanced, in Golden Gate Park with our closest friends, gathered at a week’s notice. I looked at Scott, handsome in his navy suit, noting that this was the last day he would fill it out with two legs and two feet.

Twenty-four hours later, I met him in the postoperative recovery room. He grinned a goofy, Fentanyl-fueled smile, but it faded as the drugs wore off and what he called the “Civil War pain” of his surgery kicked in. Soon the hospital’s Covid-19 visitor restrictions forced me to leave, and I stole one last glance at the space in the bed where the bottom of his leg had been.

When I unpacked Scott’s suitcase at home, I discovered his right shoe rolled up in a trash bag. Upset about that and all of the right shoes he would no longer need, I collected every one and shoved them into the back of the closet.

After our honeymoon (spent on the seventh floor of the hospital, followed by my mother-in-law moving into the apartment next door for two weeks), we received more bad news: The other suspicious spots meant he would have to undergo six cycles of intensive chemotherapy, during which he would need to live in the hospital. Two major surgeries would also be required to remove the lesions.

We faced the hardest year of our lives. Covid precautions would make it hard for friends or family to help or even visit, and the hospital would only allow Scott a single visitor per day. I looked into the future and saw night after night of coming home to an empty apartment, numbing myself with pizza and Netflix, and thought: We can’t do this by ourselves.

We tried to soldier on but struggled. One afternoon, our good friends Kristen and Phil visited us in our backyard; for the first time, they understood the gravity of what we were dealing with.

Not long after, they invited us to their place in Oakland for an outdoor dinner, but “their place” requires some explanation. A couple of years earlier, they founded a co-owned community called Radish, where a dozen or so people in their 20s and 30s live together. Most have their own one-bedroom apartment, but they share food expenses, cooking responsibilities and an outdoor space with a hot tub, fire pit and hammock. These days, they were working from home and following extremely strict Covid protocols.

As a researcher who studies romantic relationships, I have always been intrigued by this kind of arrangement. Modern couples expect to get all of their needs met by one romantic partner, but that can put a lot of pressure on the relationship. In 2015, a team of psychologists, led by Elaine Cheung, found that relying on different people for discrete needs leads to happier relationships. Eli Finkel, another psychologist, coined a name for them: OSOs (Other Significant Others).

An OSO can be a friend or family member who fulfills a need that your significant other cannot: a triathlete who exercises with you because your partner doesn’t, or a sibling you call to vent about work because your significant other hates corporate politics. This web of support is not new, but for many of us it has been lost.

For couples to survive and thrive, they need OSOs. That’s especially true during nightmarish years like the one Scott and I faced, which was exacerbated by the pandemic separating us from our normal network of support.

That evening, as we sat at a picnic table at Radish, one of the residents brought out roasted asparagus, a salad topped with seeds and berries, and a platter of sweet potatoes — a stark contrast to all that cold pizza and hospital food. As I ate and laughed, I felt happy and relaxed for the first time in months.

When we got into the car to drive home, I said to Scott, “We should move here.”

Scott and I are career-driven professionals. Living in a commune had not exactly been our life plan. Then again, none of this had been. So we adjusted. And after months of losses, we finally got a win: Radish had a one-bedroom, first-floor apartment opening up. Three weeks later we moved in.

Life at Radish has felt like turning on the lights after months of living in the dark. My new, bigger family and I have cooked elaborate dinners, commiserated about challenging co-workers and spent hours wilting in the hot tub.

Scott was still mostly confined to the hospital, but for me, instead of returning home from visits to a pizza-stained rug, I was welcomed with hugs and tea. And Scott got regular visits from many more significant others than me.

One rare Sunday morning when Scott was back home, I jumped into the shower before he woke up. There, against the stark white of the porcelain, were clumps of short red hair. I cleaned them up and crawled back into bed, where he turned to me, half-asleep, and said, “My hair is falling out.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want the nurses to shave it off with a dull razor,” he said. In the morning, he would be returning to the hospital for another week of chemo.

I’d had the strength to push through the foot roast and last-minute wedding, but something about his hair falling out really broke me, perhaps because I love his red hair so much. So I texted the group, and within minutes we decided to create a hair-shaving ceremony.

That evening, Misha D.J.ed songs from the musical “Hair” while Lauren ran a slide show of sexy bald men behind him. We all took turns shaving Scott’s head, moving through a series of faux hawks and mohawks before it all disappeared.

Hearing Scott laugh, I knew we would make it. I had known, in theory, about the importance of having OSOs in your life, but now I was surviving thanks to them.

One morning not long ago, when I was poaching eggs in the communal kitchen, Scott texted: “Where are my right shoes?”

I hadn’t imagined he would ever need them again, but of course he would, for his prosthetic. His first fitting was in the morning. Our housemate, Alex — who, unlike me, is a sports hardware engineer — had signed up to take him.

Logan Ury is the director of relationship science at Hinge. Her first book, “How to Not Die Alone,” will be published in February.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Like Looking Into a Mirror’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Like Looking Into a Mirror’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Dec. 29, 2020, 3:00 p.m. ET

Back in the Rhythm of Conversation

My 14-year-old, Vedant, dwells in a dungeon (i.e. basement) under my bedroom. Through the muffled cadence of his voice, I deduce if he’s in virtual school or playing an online game. Thrice a day, he comes up for air, asking, “What’s there to eat?” We used to talk a lot on our car rides, about life and feelings. Now we have nowhere to go. For the holidays, I make him my sous chef. Slicing a butternut squash, my knife slips. He takes my bleeding finger in his hand and blows a kiss. Food an excuse, we talk about feelings again. — Yogyata Singh Davé

Vedant showing off his creation: Wild rice, butternut squash and sprouts.
Vedant showing off his creation: Wild rice, butternut squash and sprouts.

Together But Miles Away

Because of the pandemic, John and I are thousands of miles apart and separated by borders that are indefinitely closed. On my weekend, he takes me on a trip to South Korea through Google Maps. We “stay” at the beautiful Hotel Shilla, where the daily rate costs more than my weekly food budget. We go on Street View to see the school John grew up attending and visit his favorite childhood haunts. We travel to different cities, my cursor dragging through streets and alleyways. John says, “I hope I can take you there for real one day.” — Erika Lee

Me and John during a recent video chat.

Seeing Myself Looking Back

Max and I first locked eyes across a classroom our sophomore year of high school, each sensing someone uncannily familiar staring back. We became fast friends, and suburban mischief ensued. We taught ourselves (and each other) a new, queer brand of masculinity, reveling in the freedom that comes from an instinctive mutual understanding. Then high school ended. She left for the military. I, for university. Differences that once felt small and sparse grew vast and plentiful. Yet, as we’ve come into our own, our paths realigned. Sometimes, it still feels like that first meeting, like looking into a mirror. — Kelsey Smoot

Max (on the right) and me recently, matching by sincere coincidence.

‘It’ll Heal’

On Jan. 3, in the emergency room with a broken femur, I realized my year had ended before it began. I had fallen 20 feet in a climbing accident in a gym in Atlanta. My hospital room was filled with my family, my partner, and fruit freshly cut by my mother. “It’ll heal,” said my surgeon. Twelve months, multiple quarantines and one healed femur later, I look 20 feet around me and still see my family, my partner and freshly cut fruit. I feel hopeful that next year will lead to further healing. — Melissa Zhu

Me and my fiancé with snacks and fruit delivered by my parents.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: How My Father Escaped Jail for Christmas

Modern Love

How My Father Escaped Jail for Christmas

He got out for good by (almost) dying.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Dec. 25, 2020, 12:00 a.m. ET

My wife and I were getting ready for a Christmas party two years ago when my mother called to tell me that my father was in a coma. She explained the severity of the situation as I watched my wife slip on a black dress she had purchased for the occasion.

“He’d been complaining of a headache for several days,” my mother said. “The guards found him in his jail cell unconscious. The doctors say he had three brain hemorrhages caused by an aneurysm.”

My father had spent much of his adult life either homeless or incarcerated. His most recent arrest was for driving without a license, driving while intoxicated, possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting arrest. Noticeably absent from the list of charges was grand theft auto, meaning someone had lent him the car, which I found hard to believe.

My mother and father never married. This meant, as my mother explained, that I was his legal next of kin, responsible for making his medical decisions. This responsibility, already complex because of his lack of a living will, would prove to be even more fraught because he and I barely knew each other.

Three years earlier, after more than two decades of estrangement, I met him at a park near where he had set up camp in the woods behind a Salvation Army. We sat on a bench under the shade of a maple tree, and I studied the constellation of cuts and scabs covering his arms. He looked as if he had recently jumped from a train car and rolled down a gravel embankment.

I hung up, told everything to my wife, and then I sat in silence as she changed out of her black Christmas dress and packed our overnight bags. I thought: What if my father had still been living behind the Salvation Army instead of in jail? There would have been no one to find him.

[Here are 10 episodes of the Modern Love Podcast to listen to throughout the holidays.]

My wife and I drove three hours from our home in Nashville to a hospital in Birmingham, Ala., where we joined my mother and made our way to my father’s room in the neurological intensive care unit.

I was surprised to find the lights off and the room empty, except for a blanketed body in the bed and the sounds of a ventilator and beeping electrocardiogram. I half expected to walk in and see someone standing over his bed doing chest compressions.

An hour later, the doctor appeared and told us that after the jail medical staff had determined the severity of my father’s condition, all of the charges against him were dropped, and he was released to the hospital. “Otherwise,” he said, “they would have been required to post security guards outside of his room.”

The doctor then gently explained that my father’s condition was not going to improve. “At this point he’s just a body,” he said. “We will need you to decide what you’d like for us to do.”

After thinking about it, I told them to move him into palliative care. We were going to take him off the machines and let him go.

“You’re making the right decision,” my mother said. “I knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t want to be kept alive artificially.”

I asked for time alone with him and sat next to his bed examining his tattooed body. The cuts on his arms, which I had first noticed while sitting with him on that park bench that day by the Salvation Army, had long-since scarred into patches of milky-white skin disfiguring his tattoos. I pulled out my phone and played “Midnight Rider” by the Allman Brothers.

During one of our visits since reconnecting, my father had asked if he could clean my tires, saying, “I’m doing it for a few bucks these days at a gas station nearby.”

As we drove to the gas station, he played with the radio dial until he found a classic-rock station playing “Midnight Rider.” He turned it up and belted out the lyrics. “Well, I’ve got to run to keep from hiding,” he sang, then said, “That’s me, man. Got to run to keep from hiding.”

When we arrived, he got to work, sitting on his haunches and spraying so much cleaner onto my tires that even from a distance it stung my eyes. “I’m here most days detailing tires,” he said. “I could do this for the rest of my life. Just clean chrome. I don’t know why, but it would suit me.”

“Maybe it’s the immediate gratification,” I said. “They were dirty, but now they’re clean.”

My father had a long list of regrets. He blamed himself for his younger brother’s overdose. He used to verbally and physically abuse my mother. He had been jailed on and off his entire adult life on charges ranging from drug possession to assault and battery.

I watched him scrub my tires in the summer heat, his face beaded with sweat, and wondered if this felt to him like a sacrament, like penance. Dirty, but now clean.

I left the hospital late that night carrying everything he owned inside of two plastic bags. The first bag contained a bag of Cheetos, a small carton of chocolate milk, rumpled papers with scribbled thoughts that betrayed the mania of his bipolar disorder, a box of Cheez-Its, cookies and a Louis L’Amour paperback novel.

The second bag had one white undershirt, a pair of camouflage pants, tan construction boots and a copy of Tise Vahimagi’s “The Untouchables.”

After a few glasses of wine with my wife and mother, I fell into a deep sleep with my father’s belongings strewn across my childhood bedroom floor, and I woke early the next morning to a call from the hospital.

“Your dad is awake,” the person said. “We need you at the hospital as soon as possible.”

After hanging up, I felt numb. I had cried after learning about my father’s coma, and I had cried when I made the decision to let him go. Actually, what I did went well beyond crying; it was more like an exorcism of repressed emotions, my body shuddering. But the news of his recovery — practically a resurrection — rendered me emotionless. There was no sense of joy, no feeling of shock or relief, just a keen understanding of my own powerlessness.

My mother, wife and I rushed to the hospital, where the doctor met us in the hall just outside of my father’s room.

“We were transitioning him into palliative care when he opened his eyes,” he said. “We can’t explain it. It’s miraculous. You can go in and see him.”

The doctor was smiling at the good news, but I was frozen, expressionless, anesthetized by the incomprehensibility of this new state of affairs. I was finding it harder to walk into that room with him awake than I had when he had effectively been declared dead.

I had sat at his bedside, holding his limp hands in mine, and said goodbye. I had been rushed forward along the timeline of reconciliation, as often happens at deathbed vigils, but now, suddenly, he was fully alive, and the drama of the past 24 hours felt like some crude bait and switch. I sensed it was going to be more difficult to let him back into my life than it had been to let him go.

When we walked into the room, he looked at us and said, “Wow. Wow. Wow.”

His eyes stopped on my mother and he regarded her with awe, as if she were an angel or a Hollywood actress. Then his gaze fell on my wife, and he gargled out the word “beautiful” before smiling boyishly. Finally, he looked at me. My stomach was in knots. I felt young and afraid. Then he said, “I’m your dad.”

“Yes, you are,” I said.

“I’m your dad,” he said again.

“Yes, you are.”

He repeated this statement several times, and every time I answered the same. With each recitation, I felt the knots in my stomach loosening and falling away, as if we were reciting some kind of healing incantation.

“He’s not out of the woods yet,” the doctor said. “There’s a chance he’s going to need lifelong care.” He paused, then looked at me with a grin. “But he’s not going back to jail.”

Sean Bess is a writer in Nashville, Tenn.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘My Lesbian Hallmark Christmas Film Fantasy’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘My Lesbian Hallmark Christmas Film Fantasy’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Dec. 22, 2020, 3:00 p.m. ET

She Smelled of Pine

The first winter I saw snow was the first winter I fell in love. I’ve always adored the holidays, but growing up in Florida meant I never experienced the “White Christmas” dream. After moving to Dallas, I started dating a woman who worked on a Christmas tree lot across the street from my apartment. Marleana would come over, smelling of pine, her arms toned from all the lifting. She was my lesbian Hallmark Christmas film fantasy. She even owned a shiny red truck that we drove in to find snow. Her Christmas gift this year? An engagement ring. — Hannah Melin

Marleana, right, and me in Austin, Texas.
Marleana, right, and me in Austin, Texas.

I Finally Said It

In Kolkata, “I love you” is not said often, and certainly not to parents. It is considered over the top; translated into Bengali, it can sound mawkish. I improvise when I call my parents in India from my apartment in New York. “I wish I had your tenacity,” I tell my mother. I praise my father’s compassion. “Wish you were here” is the furthest I venture. Yesterday, when my mother said that she longed to see me and her voice faltered, I blurted out those three words. The heart grows fonder when parents are old and away, but a pandemic makes it bolder. — Satarupa Ghosh Roy

With my parents in New York City two years ago.

‘I Need to Get Over Someone’

I walked into the cramped East Village candle store. The man behind the counter asked what I needed. “I heard that you … help people,” I said. He rubbed his hands together like he was about to make his favorite meal. “I need to get over someone,” I said. He nodded and retrieved a black candle from a shelf: “I need your initials and his.” I watched as he carved my heartbreak into the wax. “Burn this for seven days. You’ll feel better.” On day seven, I met someone new. It was a brief, healing romance. I never looked back. — Felice Neals

A candle flame.

When Memory Is Music

“Who is that woman?” my father asks me, pointing to a framed photo on the wall. “She’s so beautiful it makes me cry.” The woman in the photo is my mother, Rosemary. They were married for 56 years before she passed away. They slept in the same bed until the end, holding hands every night as they drifted off to sleep. My father has Alzheimer’s. Some days he doesn’t know who she is; others he speaks as if she’s in the room, calling out over his shoulder, “Rose — ” as if memory is music only he can hear. — Amy Massingale

Rosemary Massingale, circa 1963. 

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Tears Start Before My Feet Stop’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Tears Start Before My Feet Stop’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Dec. 15, 2020, 3:42 p.m. ET

Out of Despair, Pure Pleasure

In 2017, on the way to our third family funeral in four weeks, our car died outside a Minnesota highway sex shop. I hopped around the parking lot to stay warm as my husband called the tow company. “We’re trying to get to a funeral,” he said. “Our car died outside of — Pure Pleasure.” He’s always resilient, but I worried about his spirits; this was another setback during a harsh year. His mother and stepmother texted, suggesting that his recently deceased father had pranked us. We smiled, joking about going inside the shop to “warm up,” but the tow arrived. — Laura Logsdon

Our dog, Bert, in the Pure Pleasure parking lot.
Our dog, Bert, in the Pure Pleasure parking lot.

Playing With Dolls

It was Los Angeles in the 1950s, and my mother was ahead of her time. After my older sister, Debbie, got a doll, I wanted one just like hers. Of course my mother said yes. My mother’s friend, June, came over. They sat at the kitchen table. I was within earshot, dressing my beloved doll, when June said, “Marian, boys shouldn’t play with dolls.” To which my mother responded, “If Danny wants to play with dolls, he can play with dolls.” My doll was dressed and ready for an outing, and my mother looked at me adoringly. — Daniel Nathanson

As a little boy with my mother.

Unexpected Intimacy

Running to stay strong, to fill time, to be connected to ground and air and the space between one breath in and another out. Sometimes running is meditative solitude, sometimes joyful: for me, and me alone! Sometimes the isolation is crushing. Tears start before my feet stop. An evening run, 10 months into weathering the pandemic on my own. Another runner and I fall in step. There’s no explicit acknowledgment or agreement. But for a quarter mile in Queens, we maintain our pace. Breathing heavy through masks. Moving in tandem until our paths diverge. Distant but close. — Paige Arthur

The quarter-mile stretch we shared in Ridgewood, Queens.

No Need for the Awkward Talk

On our first anniversary, my husband gave me a beautiful piece of raku pottery. I loved that pot with its iridescent glaze so much that he gave me another piece for my birthday. And another for Hanukkah. I thought about telling him that my pottery collection was complete. The next year he surprised me with a glass vase. I considered launching into the uncomfortable “I have enough breakable containers” talk but held my tongue. Six months later, he wrapped up my vase and gave it to his relative. I didn’t know whether to be angry or relieved. I chose relieved. — Ilene Haddad

Holding two breakable containers at our wedding in Santorini, Greece. 

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: He Seduced Me With Bread

Modern Love

He Seduced Me With Bread

An Italian woman, trapped in lockdown, takes daily calls from strangers until she finds one who really knows how to cook.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Dec. 11, 2020, 12:00 a.m. ET

Years ago, with a friend, I played one of those psychological games where you begin by listing 15 things you would bring to a desert island and then narrow the list until you’re down to the two most important. By painfully dismissing one cherished item after another, I was left with my final choices: a guitar and “the people I don’t yet know.”

It may sound weird, especially for an Italian who talks to her mother every day, to choose a bunch of strangers over those closest to her. But for some reason, I’ve always been drawn to those I don’t know.

In pre-Covid-19 life, this meant I was the kind of person who makes friends on planes, talks to the next in line while waiting and knows everyone in the office. During the first wave of the pandemic, since the only regular contact I had was with my boyfriend (too close) and my family and friends on Zoom (too distant, as I was then living in Romania), I indulged in a new and seemingly harmless habit — connecting by phone, daily, with strangers.

DialUp is an app born from a simple yet brilliant idea: Every day you receive a phone call from a stranger somewhere on earth. No video. No pictures. Only voice.

I met many people this way, some more interesting than others. We talked about our jobs, the latest Covid-19 news, how hard the lockdown was in our countries and so on. The dose of mystery gave each day a little jolt of surprise.

One afternoon, while I was sunbathing on the rooftop with my Twitter-addict boyfriend, trying to bring some color to my pale, lockdown skin, the phone rang. I don’t like to talk to strangers in front of my boyfriend; it makes him grumpy. So I wandered away before picking up to hear a clear, happy-sounding voice say, “Hello.”

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After the first 10 seconds of these calls, I can usually paint a portrait in my mind of the person I’m talking to. From the timbre of the voice and the fact that he was from Amsterdam, I pictured Senne as blond, with long hair. I thought we were the roughly same age, mid-30s, though maybe I was older. I didn’t ask and neither did he.

He told me that a few days earlier he’d gone for a walk in Amsterdam’s city center and, because of the lack of people and noise, was able to hear, for the first time in his life, the sound of the water in the canals. We talked about how strange it would be to walk around Venice right now, without tourists. Then I introduced my favorite topic: cooking.

I am not obsessed with food, but when I travel, I plan the restaurants before the hotels. During lockdown, I had decided to learn the ancient art of bread making. A friend in Barcelona had sent me a recipe, saying I should try it. I told Senne I was a bread beginner. Apparently, he was a bread master.

From there, the conversation shifted to sourdough tips, oven recommendations, and the pros and cons of different kinds of flour. Senne told me he owns hundreds of cookbooks. He had eaten at what was once regarded as the best restaurant in the world, Central of Lima, in Peru.

Yet he had never been to Sicily, which for me is where food, history and sea coexist in an esoteric equilibrium. Our enthusiasm reached its peak when I told him I only use olive oil from my own trees in Umbria.

That’s when he said, laughing: “I think I am falling in love.”

By then, I had mentioned having a boyfriend, and he had mentioned having a girlfriend, which somehow made me feel more at ease.

At the end of the conversation, we were breathless, enthralled. In that second of silence, I think we were both wondering the same thing: “What now?”

We agreed to keep in touch on Facebook. I was so curious to see the face of that beautiful voice. By then, my phone battery was at four percent, and my boyfriend’s expression was inversely proportional to my gleeful one.

From Senne’s 2009 profile picture, I could see he was not 35 but was, like my boyfriend, a boomer in his late 50s. And he was not the strapping blonde I had imagined but dark-skinned, short and a little chubby. I searched for the youth of his voice in every picture, to no avail. I waited for him to log on and say something.

Half an hour later, he typed: “It was nice talking to you.”

Standard, but reserved. Was he unsure of himself now that we had revealed our faces? He didn’t seem eager to chat. Later that day, he sent me a picture of steamy, homemade bread, still inside a Le Creuset casserole, and the image actually made me feel aroused.

I should make a point here: Making bread is closer to sex than to cooking. It’s about diving in with your hands, massaging it, making it rise. And there is no fast climax; it takes at least 24 hours to make decent bread. All this time you have to care for it lovingly while you wait. And wait.

I pictured Senne’s expert hands turning a shapeless mass into that beautiful loaf. I imagined him waiting for the dough to rise in his Northern European kitchen.

Was he going to share it with someone? I told myself it didn’t matter. That bread was clearly made for me.

Senne knew how to wait. Often, he was not the first to send a message, and it could take hours before he replied. Other times, he was more prolific and shared recipes and songs. Despite our age difference, his taste in music was close to mine. He sent me a playlist of arias that evoked an image of him listening to opera in wooden rooms with a glass of wine, cutting vegetables.

He answered my questions about fermentation and introduced me to the art of growing my own sourdough starter. We shared daily pictures of the meals we prepared, congratulating each other. The excitement reflected a shared, unspoken thought: I’d love to be there and eat that with you.

One day he asked if I knew Sichuan pepper.

“Enlighten me, please,” I said.

“It’s a Chinese kind of pepper, sharp but flowery,” he said. “It gives you the feeling of soda water.”

How would I get some? Besides being in lockdown, I wasn’t living in my country and didn’t know where to find it.

“I could send you some,” he said.

My first thought was that my boyfriend would surely find out, since he is the one who checks the mail. Was it wrong to receive exotic pepper in the mail from another man?

I explained the situation to my friend Paula. We agreed that it would be better not to say anything, and she suggested that he send the pepper to her.

The idea of that brave envelope flying through Europe during a pandemic, with elegant handwriting and a Dutch stamp, was the thought I had before falling sleep for the next few days.

Finally, Paula called; it had arrived.

I put on my sports pants and acted as if I were going out to run, which was an accepted outdoor activity in Bucharest during lockdown. It wasn’t a lie. I was running to get my pepper.

On the way home, I stopped to open the package and felt a rush of happiness in seeing a little note with the bag of pepper, written in the same style I had imagined for his handwriting, that said: “To Albertina, because dishes sometimes deserve a special sparkle, and life too.”

This was before everything. Before my boyfriend would ask me about all the time I had been spending on my phone, and I would tell him about the stranger in Amsterdam. Before the pandemic would ebb enough for Senne and me to meet in Rome, where we would have a glorious time as tourists in my near-empty city.

It was before, on a wholly separate trip, my boyfriend would agree to come join us, and we would all hang out in surprising harmony. And it was before Senne and I would return to our previous lives in distant lands, unable to sustain our magical summer, leaving my boyfriend and me to find our way back to each other — a little warily, but with fresh eyes.

On the streets of Bucharest that day, in a world immobilized by fear and grief, I opened a packet of pepper, took a deep breath and fell in love with a stranger.

Albertina Coacci is an advertising copywriter in Rome, Italy.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love Podcast: With the Help of Strangers

Modern Love Podcast: With the Help of Strangers

Two women find allies to survive difficult times.

Hosted by Daniel Jones and Miya Lee, produced by Hans Buetow and Kelly Prime, and edited by Sara Sarasohn and Wendy Dorr; music by Dan Powell; read by Julia Whelan and Eliza Rudalevige

Dec. 9, 2020, 4:01 p.m. ET

Listen and subscribe to Modern Love
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher

[New York Times subscribers are invited to join the hosts Daniel Jones and Miya Lee on Dec. 15 for an evening of performances and special guests, celebrating the new “Tiny Love Stories” book. RSVP here.]

‘‘In trying to persuade me to file charges, my father said, ‘What would you tell your little sisters to do?’”

Credit…Brian Rea

This episode contains descriptions of domestic violence.

In 2013, Courtney Queeney published “The View From the Victim Room,” an essay about surviving domestic violence and the legal proceedings that followed. “I couldn’t sit or lean against anything comfortably because my head was still a battered, crusty mess,” she wrote.

In the essay, she described going to a courthouse every two weeks to renew her emergency protection order against her ex. It was during this period that she found “scattered bright spots” — things to laugh about when everything seemed unfunny. She found comfort in the woman who shared her court schedule; her lawyer, whom she revered; and the judge who made her crack up.

Today, we hear about how Courtney has worked through the experience and aftermath of her abuse — and where is she now.

Today’s stories

The View From the Victim Room,” by Courtney Queeney

Courtney’s essay ended with her walking “out of court into so much sunshine.” But as she explained to Daniel Jones in this podcast episode, the seven years since her essay was published have not been easy. “I just want to get somewhere back to whatever my normal was,” she said.

One of the things that have helped her is her recent decision to become a court advocate. Reflecting on the many people who have supported her, from lawyers to therapists, Courtney said, “I’ll never be able to adequately thank all of them for what they did for me.”

“I’m a stranger to a lot of them,” she continued, “but what I can do is be that person to somebody else who needs a person.”

Held by String,” by Eliza Rudalevige

In her Tiny Love Story, Eliza writes about a woman named Shelly, whom she met in an eating disorder recovery program when she was 11. Eliza was the youngest in the program, while Shelly, in her 60s, was the oldest.

When Eliza was released from the program after 100 days, Shelly gave her a handmade bracelet, which Eliza still has seven years later. “Looking at the beads nestled in the tough leather, I think of the young girl in the veteran’s arms,” Eliza wrote.

Shelly became a protector of sorts for Eliza, encouraging counselors to “tone down their harshness” toward her and making her feel less alone. When Miya, a host of the podcast, asked Eliza what she would say to Shelly if she were to see her again, she said, “I don’t think I ever said thank you to her. So I think I’d say thank you.”

────────

If you or someone you know is being abused, support and help are available around the clock. Visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website or call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Hosted by: Daniel Jones and Miya Lee
Produced by: Kelly Prime and Hans Buetow
Edited by: Wendy Dorr
Music by: Dan Powell
Held by String,” written and read by Eliza Rudalevige
The View From the Victim Room,” narration by Julia Whelan, produced by Ryan Wegner and Kelly Rogers at Audm
Executive Producer, NYT Audio: Lisa Tobin
Assistant Managing Editor, NYT: Sam Dolnick

Special thanks: Nora Keller, Mahima Chablani, Julia Simon, Laura Kim, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Joanna Nikas and Choire Sicha.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series and sign up for the newsletter. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: The Pandemic Arrived. His Text Back Did Not.

Modern Love

The Pandemic Arrived. His Text Back Did Not.

Tough times may not bring love, but they do bring clarity.

Credit…Brian Rea

By

  • Dec. 4, 2020, 12:00 a.m. ET

“Want to go on a 6 ft apart walk this afternoon?” I texted.

No response. A week passed as I wiped down every surface of my apartment, but those three hopeful dots never appeared. I began to face the facts. I had been ghosted during quarantine.

There are clear but unspoken milestones of app-mediated dating. The first is moving your virtual courtship offline. Unless you are highly unlikable, a second date is usually guaranteed. Tread slowly. Third and fourth dates are crucial. By then, you can no longer have the same conversation about siblings and work. You actually have to get to know a person.

At this point, you may begin folding them into the other parts of your life. You let them meet a select group of friends whom you can count on to dress well and banter lightheartedly. You’ve brought them to your hidden spots where the bartender knows your order, cooked breakfast with your roommates. You exhale. This could actually work.

The thing about this timeline, though, is it doesn’t account for a pandemic.

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We had been seeing each other for three months, my longest relationship to date and the most comfortable. He was the first guy whose place I didn’t feel the urge to flee in the morning after spending the night; instead, we would hang out and watch episode after episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He was training for a marathon, and often it was only his pre-scheduled runs that would end our TV binge.

I kept looking at my calendar, counting the weeks since our first date and bracing myself for the inevitable fade-out that had happened with all the other men I’d seen in New York. Each day felt like a small victory — one step closer to an actual, real-world relationship.

Two weeks before New York shut down, I was the fifth wheel to two sets of coupled-up friends at an Indian restaurant in the West Village. Between bites of chicken tikka masala, my friends assured me that it was time for the feelings talk.

Was this a talk of exclusivity? Defining the relationship? I wasn’t quite sure, but my friends insisted that there comes a point in all real relationships when feelings can no longer be left unsaid.

I didn’t want to be the one to initiate this talk. I wanted to carry on as the mysterious, chill girl who doesn’t discuss feelings — or even have needs. But as my coupled-up friends informed me, my escalating anxiety signaled that I was not, in fact, the chill girl, and that it was time.

Equipped with my friend’s advice (and with several seasons of “The Bachelor” under my belt), I was ready. I texted the guy saying that I needed to check in — direct but vague, as instructed.

“Let’s get lunch after my run,” he wrote.

He’s always running! I applied waterproof mascara, put on my best high-waisted jeans and headed to my execution.

We split French toast and chicken and waffles while talking about a job he didn’t get; he asked no questions about mine. He glanced at his Apple watch several times. We settled the check and headed to the park across the street.

I didn’t know it then, but it was a day of lasts. Last time dining out, last time sitting in a crowded park, last shared meal.

After several moments of silence punctuated by my offhand remarks about dog breeds, I told him about my feelings. We had spent an intense weekend together, after which he hadn’t contacted me for days, so I wanted to know where he was “at.” If I had feelings, I wanted to know if he did too.

What I got in return was confusing. Or maybe just upsetting. He told me he liked me but that he didn’t want to emotionally support someone or have someone emotionally support him. He valued his independence and boundaries and running. He had space for me once a week.

I held it together. We kissed goodbye. Then I met my best friend on the steps outside the Brooklyn Public Library and cried.

The next day he texted, asking about a play I had seen. I told him I needed space, that we should “check in next week.” Unknown to me, this was the week that New York City would ask us all for space by instituting social distancing policy. I would get my solitude whether I had asked for it or not.

The world would look a lot different during the pandemic. And yet my primary preoccupations remained the same. Like many New Yorkers, I experienced dread while reading daily headlines. I approached each morning anxiously, recognizing that the gravity of this crisis would continue to unfold. But the thoughts that kept me up at 2 a.m. remained as self-centered as they were before Covid-19: I’m lonely. I’m unlovable. What if I’m alone forever?

As the crisis accelerated, so did the panic for intimacy. There was no time to search for someone more right. You had to grab the best available thing. I wanted to stockpile romantic partners like toilet paper. The store was out of Charmin, so I frantically grabbed the 99-cent Scott. The runner and I started texting again. And then he ghosted me.

Lockdown was a turning point for many people in the early dating stages. As conventional wisdom was screaming at the time: If you’re a couple, be a couple. Quarantine together, or break up.

We broke up. I watched with jealousy as several friends overcame the hurdle I couldn’t. My roommate, also in a budding three-month relationship, bought walkie-talkies to communicate with her new suitor. It was nauseatingly cute. If others could do it, why couldn’t I?

In isolation, I spiraled into hypotheticals. If I could have kept up the myth of chill girl for a little longer, would we still be together, sharing a bed, shielding each other from the misery outside?

In quarantine you lose the excuse of life’s many distractions. There is no “Maybe he didn’t see that text,” or “Maybe he’s busy at work or out with friends.” You must remind yourself of the truth: that he’s sitting on his couch, looking at his phone, choosing to not respond.

You’re also drastically limited in terms of diversions, making the sting of rejection all the more painful. There is no bartender to flirt with, no movie theater to hide in, no live music to drown out your manic thoughts. It is a harsh but clarifying reality.

Our need for connection and reciprocity loom larger in times of crisis. The world spins off its axis and we turn to those around us to keep from spiraling out along with it. But even as social distancing presents challenges, the opportunities to support those we care for are vast. They just take new forms: 2 a.m. phone calls to your friend across the coast, shared playlists, House Party happy hours.

These moments of mutual connection offer the grounding we need. We feel that we are being held, even when no one is physically there to do the holding. His ghosting confirmed my fears that this relationship, by contrast, could bear no weight.

I was forced to confront my own needs. I was missing something larger than this one person, whom I had yet to really get to know. The aching was not just rejection but the disappointment of thinking someone might provide what I was so desperately seeking in all relationships: reciprocity, emotional matching, assurance.

Love during quarantine is no different from love during any other time. Instagram feeds signal an uptick in friends’ engagements, but quarantine does not make love out of thin air, nor does it break a relationship that was already off its hinges. It simply sheds light.

Jenna Klorfein is a social worker in New York City.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less” (available for preorder).

Modern Love: Junk Food Was Our Love Language

It’s autumn again, the eighth since my father died, and I’m craving chicken nuggets.

When the pandemic began, I craved foods that happened to feel more virtuous. I was a frequent takeout customer at local San Francisco restaurants in economic peril: beef noodle soup from a mom-and-pop on Irving, refried beans from a taqueria on 24th Street, a pork chop from the beloved neighborhood spot on Divisadero. Every action I took was fraught with the concept of doing good. I purchased stacks of books from independent bookstores, researched gardening gloves, donated, downloaded a workout app, started reading “War and Peace.”

And then: depression, Zoom fatigue, a major life milestone passing without the ability to celebrate it, the deaths of public figures, the deaths of frontline workers, the death of a friend’s father, the deaths of migrants detained at the border, the death of a friend’s father, the death of another friend’s father.

Six months later, I was moving 800 miles in an attempt to outrun a suffocating sense of doom, driving across state lines, every stop an exercise in anxiously navigating shared airspace and inconsistent mask policies, and all I wanted was the ease of a drive-through chicken nugget.

My father would have understood.

I don’t remember him saying, “I love you,” which isn’t a common phrase in Mandarin, his preferred language. We always had a bit of a communication issue. But his love language was the simple pleasure of processed food.

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I have a photo of the two of us, taken when I was 2, at the gleaming flagship McDonald’s in Beijing. The franchise had just arrived in China, and its “M” at the time was a signal of luxury, a marker of the cosmopolitan upper-middle class that my young parents hoped to break into. In the photo, I’m feeding my father a fry. We both beam. Everywhere the light falls in that faded print, it is as golden as the arches.

My father was the fun parent, the indulgent one. He introduced me to fries, Cool Whip straight from the tub, fizzy drinks. After we emigrated to America, where McDonald’s franchises were ubiquitous rather than luxurious, he drove for an hour on the weekend to deliver us, triumphant, to some generic, all-you-can-eat buffet with actual crab on silver chafing trays.

I sucked down soft serve after soft serve until I threw up. My father never reprimanded me for overindulgence as my mother did. He laughed. It didn’t seem to matter, then, that his English wasn’t fluent, or that my Mandarin was already slipping away.

Our language of junk food evolved into one of secrets. A conspiratorial Happy Meal on our fishing trip alone. Two liters of Coke guzzled together before my mother came home. I felt honored until I began to understand that my father kept secrets from me, too.

In third grade, I came home newly evangelized to the dangers of cigarettes and threw away my father’s packs. He raged, then promised to quit, but I kept smelling smoke in his clothes and car.

My father was not virtuous. He was a man of vices and quick pleasures. Processed foods, nicotine, trashy Chinese science fiction, gambling, adultery. The hit of dopamine, the rush of blood sugar. I didn’t ask why he turned to these — that wasn’t how our family operated, and anyhow, language remained a barrier.

Instead, I began to distance myself. By the time I graduated from my Ivy League university, newly educated in class and its trappings, I knew the person I aimed to be. That person was not reflected in my broken-English, gambling-addict, divorced, blue-collar father. He had become a shameful artifact to me, one I wanted to leave behind. I grew increasingly distant as I focused on my new life with the impersonal callousness of youth.

My father died two years after I graduated. He was 49. I was 22. His death came like a shaft falling from the heavens, marking the central tragedy of my life. I grieved his passing, and then I grieved the fact that I never fully knew him. There were questions I had never thought to ask and nuances I hadn’t been able to articulate in my language or in his.

I can see now that my father’s death was a tragedy but not a surprise. If he hadn’t died in 2012 of probable heart failure, he would have died in another year from diabetes or high cholesterol or Covid-19. I used to blame him for the weakened body that killed him — a product, I thought, of his weakened virtue. There was a kind of solace in the stark language of “good” and “bad.”

But the older I get, the more I see myself compromising, too. I live less perfectly at 30 than I imagined I would when I was 10. The world is hard and unforgiving, to some much more than others.

And so, each autumn, I think: Now I’m the age at which my father had to care for a newborn daughter; now I’m at the age at which he followed his spouse to a country where he didn’t speak the language; now I’m at the age at which he was fired from his job and took a minimum-wage gig; now I’m at the age at which he, low and dreary, found his first online gambling website, as irresistible to him as the dumb games on my phone are to me.

Friends of mine have, as adults, gotten to know their parents as people with whom they swap intimacies and truths. I can’t have that. The only intimacies I have are the years of my life that overlap with the years of my father’s life, and at each intersection, I think: The age I am is far too young for the responsibilities he bore. How can I resent my father for being the product of such a staggeringly unfair world, one that systemically suffocates some people more than others?

And I can imagine, too, the giddy power my father must have felt upon moving to America in the ’90s to discover that McDonald’s was now the stuff of everyday. Cheaper than fish, more accessible than fresh fruit, simpler than a long-distance phone call to Beijing in which he felt compelled to hide his difficulties, his loneliness and alienation.

I can imagine the balm of preternaturally smooth processed meat to a tongue made clumsy by translation; how sugar might soothe an ego bruised by rejection, racism and the need to ask if a store accepts food stamps. I can imagine how, when language for the above is difficult, it might be easier to hand your child a golden nugget — how the gesture is a promise of abundance and pleasure, however short-lived.

Autumn is a time when the skin of the world feels thin, perhaps permeable; it is the season in which my father was born and died. This autumn, we’re eight months into a pandemic that too many public officials, including the current president, have called the “Chinese virus,” a dangerous characterization that shimmers with xenophobia and implied blame. I know a taste of the uncertainty that my father, with his thick accent and expired visa, knew. No number of years lived in this country, no degrees or good deeds, can protect me from the anxiety of having a Chinese face in a year that has seen a surge in hate crimes against Asian-Americans.

Under such conditions, the demand for perfect virtue feels impossible, even cruel. And so I binge bad television when I can’t handle good books. I smoke one cigarette a week. And on occasion, I get the damn chicken nuggets. There are vices we must allow ourselves, even if they theoretically shorten our lives by a day or a week or a year — because first we have to get through this day, this week, this year.

Is it wrong to compare my father to a processed piece of deep-fried food, that unholy creation that is like a chicken translated again and again until it achieves a new form of existence? Because I think of him whenever I bite into one. If that sounds weird — OK. It’s a more faithful representation than the usual metaphors of fathers as safe harbors, rocks or teachers. None of those ring true when it comes to my father. A chicken nugget, then. Some religions, after all, think of Christ in a piece of bread.

The next time the urge strikes, and the air feels particularly thin, I’ll have another nugget or two or four. There will be the rush of additives, the hit of engineered pleasure, and — though I know I can’t comprehend a dead man in all his contradictions, and I admit that to imagine my father’s motivations is not to know them — in that moment, in a communion across a golden crust, I will understand my father completely.

C Pam Zhang is a writer whose debut novel, published this year, is “How Much of These Hills Is Gold.”

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

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Tiny Love Stories: ‘We Could Only See Each Other’s Eyes’

A Mint Lifesaver

After the funeral, I tidied the guest room for my mother, who was moving in temporarily while adjusting to life without my father. I was restless, believing I should have convinced him to see a doctor sooner. When I pulled a cloth along the closet shelf, a shower of mint Lifesavers rained down, left behind from my father’s last visit. An ex-smoker, he always kept his mouth busy. I unwrapped one, placing it, Communion-like, on my tongue. I wasn’t able to save my father’s life; the lung cancer was a wildfire. But as the Lifesaver dissolved, it cleansed me. — Julia Bruce

With my father circa 1977 on the boardwalk in Point Pleasant, N.J.
With my father circa 1977 on the boardwalk in Point Pleasant, N.J.

Within His Radius

Visiting my parents in Seattle, I expected my Tinder match with Jason to go like all the rest: warm hello, flirty banter, gradual trailing off. Back then, I traveled constantly for work, swiping everywhere, jaded but still looking despite myself. I returned home to Boston before Jason and I could meet. We communicated constantly. Discovering that neither of us had plans for Thanksgiving, we decided to meet somewhere between us (Nashville) and celebrate. We ate turkey and potatoes on our first date. One year married, Jason admits that he wasn’t looking for anyone outside of a five-mile radius. — Ian McKinley

At our wedding last year in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Jason is on the right.

She’s Back in Our Bed

In 1998, I decided to get rid of my very 1980s-looking bachelor furniture. After posting on Craigslist, a gentleman came over with a tape measure. Everything would fit, including my king-size platform bed. He just needed run it by his girlfriend. The next day, the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, I saw the man and my ex-girlfriend from 20 years earlier. We shared our surprise, then moved on to the bedroom set. They said it was perfect. I said to my ex, “That was ours — are you sure you want it?” “Absolutely.” And off they went. — Paul Weinberg

 The view from my front door.

Eyes Only

Two travel nurses, we arrived in New Mexico to help with the pandemic. We met in the hospital’s Covid-19 tent, glimmers of desert sun streaming in. Pushing through 12-and-a-half-hour shifts, we interacted as we treated patients and tested the sick. A quiet connection grew. With our faces covered, we could only see each other’s eyes. I didn’t see his hidden smile for weeks. When I did, it felt like seeing weeks of masked smiles in an instant. His face, once unknown, soon became home. His heart, a remedy for uncertainty. — Jacqueline McMahon

Our smiling eyes.

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Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less” (available for preorder).

How Fighting With Your Spouse Affects Your Body

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Credit Illustration by Sam Island

Emotions are known to influence health, especially when they are negative or intensely felt. Chronically angry, sad, frustrated or fearful people tend to become chronically unwell, though which emotions go with which conditions has not received much scrutiny in recent years. A new look at old research from a long-term study of married couples, however, has found some striking correlations, according to an article that appeared in the journal Emotion in May.

In the 1980s, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, invited heterosexual couples who had been married for at least 15 years to recreate in the lab some of the ups and downs of intimacy. First the spouses talked to each other for 15 minutes about their day; for the next 15 minutes, they were directed to rehash an area of ongoing contention in their relationship — in effect, pressed to argue, which they did. “We just pushed the right buttons,” says Robert Levenson, a professor of psychology at Berkeley and the senior author of the new study. The resulting spats were followed by 15 minutes of dispassionate, general discussion. All interactions were inconspicuously recorded on video. The subjects also completed detailed questionnaires about their health. Every five years since then, for at least two decades, the couples have returned to the lab and repeated everything.

This experiment has produced a wealth of data for studies on long-term marriage and well-being, but the recent Emotion study marked the first time researchers (from Berkeley and elsewhere) examined subjects’ facial expressions and voices while they bickered. The researchers then compared emotional signals during arguments — when someone is angry, for instance, his or her eyebrows lower, eyes widen, lips compress and voice crescendos — with the health questionnaires. Spouses, especially husbands, who seethed with anger while arguing were much more likely to later report symptoms of cardiac problems, like chest pain or high blood pressure, than calmer spouses; those who stonewalled were more prone than others to develop muscular problems, like back or neck pain. These associations were highly specific. Angry spouses rarely developed back pain, stonewallers rarely reported cardiac symptoms and people whose main response to conflict was sadness or fear did not report many cardiac or musculoskeletal problems at all.

The results make physiological sense, Levenson says: Anger, for example, raises pulse rates and causes other biological reactions that tax the heart over time. Of course, an observational study like this doesn’t prove that emotions cause health problems or that other factors, like genetics, aren’t more influential. But it might be broadly helpful. “We’ve known that people in bad marriages are often unhealthy,” Levenson says, but we’ve been unable to predict particular health outcomes. Now, perhaps, we can. If your arguments often escalate to hollering, you might consider a checkup with a cardiologist.

Related:

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Alzheimer’s Disease as an Adventure in Wonderland

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A page from “Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass,” by Dana Walrath.

A page from “Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass,” by Dana Walrath.Credit

In her memoir “Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass,” Dana Walrath uses drawings and stories to chronicle three years of caregiving for her mother, Alice, who was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The experience turned out to be a magical trip down the rabbit hole of memory loss, an outcome that inspired Dr. Walrath, a medical anthropologist who taught at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and who also studied art and writing, to share their tale.

Refusing to accept the dominant narrative of Alzheimer’s disease as a horror story, Dr. Walrath used the techniques of graphic medicine to create “Aliceheimer’s,” an 80-page, 35-picture tribute to her mother’s animated mind. Graphic medicine uses text and graphics to, as she writes in the book’s introduction, “let us better understand those who are hurting, feel their stories, and redraw and renegotiate those social boundaries.”

We spoke with Dr. Walrath to learn more about graphic medicine, how the book came into being, and what it can teach others about caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation.

Q.

You say that “Aliceheimer’s” found you, not the other way around. What’s the backstory of your story?

A.

After a lifetime of mutually abrasive interaction, my mother moved into my home when a lock-down memory-care unit was her only other option. The years of living together not only brought us closure, but it also integrated my disparate career threads. Medical anthropology, creative writing, visual art — who knew they were connected? I sure didn’t. But Alice must have. During dementia, she said to me, “You should quit your job and make art full time.”

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A page from “Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass,” by Dana Walrath.

A page from “Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass,” by Dana Walrath.Credit

Q.

What is “graphic medicine” and how did you discover the genre?

A.

I started making “Aliceheimer’s” comics before I knew that graphic medicine existed. Watching Alice — a lifelong reader who was finding straight prose too hard to track — eat up books like “Maus,” “Persepolis,” “American Born Chinese” and “Fun Home” when she lived with me, made me certain that to tell our story I wanted to use a form that a person with dementia could access. When a fellow medical anthropologist introduced me to graphic medicine, I knew I had found my tribe. The “Graphic Medicine Manifesto” defines graphic medicine as “the intersection of the medium of comics and the discourse of health care.”

Q.

Which came first: your drawings or your stories? When and how did they merge?

A.

The drawings came first. If you page through “Aliceheimer’s” looking only at the left-hand pages, you can read the original comic, a love story in pictures. I started writing short vignettes, each one in response to one of the original drawings. I began posting them on a blog until the content felt right for the intimate interior of a book.

Q.

How did the “Alice in Wonderland” theme come into play?

A.

My father had read it out loud to us as kids, and during dementia Alice and I often recited parts of it together. But the day I cut up a cheap paperback copy of “Alice in Wonderland” to depict Alice’s bathrobe, her favorite garment, I knew I had found the voice for the story. Life with dementia is filled with alternate realities and magic, both scary and uplifting. Accepting wonderland as our baseline made day to day life an adventure.

Photo

<strong> </strong>A page from “Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass,” by Dana Walrath.

A page from “Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass,” by Dana Walrath.Credit

Q.

How might “Aliceheimer’s” influence the medical, artistic and caregiving communities?

A.

I would love to see “Aliceheimer’s” contribute to reframing dementia as a diversity issue. Of course there is loss involved, but the more we can see people living in this state as useful true humans who might teach us all something about living in the present, about knowing sides of our loved ones that social processes kept inaccessible, the better it will be.

I would love for the medical community to start to touch on the opportunities for closure and forgiveness that this condition might bring instead of the ongoing fight for the cure. For artistic and caregiving communities, I hope the book empowers people to tell their stories, particularly in comics form.

Q.

In “Aliceheimer’s,” you suggest new ways of thinking about Alzheimer’s. How did your mother’s memory-stealing disease open your mind?

A.

The dominant zombie story of bodies without minds strips people with dementia of their humanity and interferes with creating new kinds of familial connections. How many of us have the privilege of knowing our parents as children? Through connection we heal. Comics lead us to light because, subconsciously, we associate comics with laughter, and we need permission to laugh at sickness and not just describe it in medical terms. Laughter is respite. It opens new possibilities for how to cope.

Photo

A page from “Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass,” by Dana Walrath.

A page from “Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass,” by Dana Walrath.Credit

Q.

What suggestions do you have for people caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s?

A.

Learn to read the signs and messages embedded in your loved one’s actions. Often what looks delusional is an attempt to express a deeply felt need or desire. Dementia has them communicating through a code that we can track. Use the “Yes, and” principle from improv — in which you accept what the other person has said (“yes”) and then expand on that line of thinking (“and”) — to build on what your loved one is experiencing instead of contradicting them, and it will be easier to decipher his or her intentions.

Dementia lets all of us connect back to our deepest memories, to a time when we could communicate — give and receive stories — through the looks in each other’s eyes, through touch, facial expressions, actions and gestures. In this way, even in the midst of loss, dementia lets us heal.