“Do you recognize me?” The message comes in over Feeld, a dating app for people in open relationships.
My heart rate quickens. Do I recognize this person? I look at a profile for a man I’ll call Gabe. He has thick, long, blond hair, a smile that dazzles. He is incredibly handsome. He is tall, fit, well read; not someone I could’ve forgotten.
“I cheated off your high school Spanish tests,” he DMs. A hint, but the hint doesn’t make sense. I went to high school in Minnesota, a place almost 2,000 miles from where I now live in Berkeley, California.
Impossible, I think, but I scroll through his pictures. They are like a key that unlocks a flood of memories of people I haven’t thought about in years. But we didn’t exactly have memories together. Gabe was impossibly cool. He was the high school basketball star, often surrounded by popular girls wearing cropped Abercrombie T-shirts. More often than not, I ate lunch in the library with a book.
Time is a flat circle. It’s been 20 years since we graduated. I jolt back to now. We’ll be 40 years old soon. I want to know the story of what’s basically the first half of his life. He gives me his number. I FaceTime him.
When he picks up, he’s sitting in a car, his still dewy, flawless skin lit by the cosmetic mirror over his driver’s seat. He’s confident, fun, smiling, shining, radiant. We smile at each other. I am confident, radiant, and smiling too.
“Tell me everything?” I prompt. For 30 minutes, he does.
I am delighted. Seemingly no one from our hometown leaves it. It is a suburb of Minneapolis — safe, quiet, friendly, close enough to the city to feel connected, far enough away to feel calm. When I look up people I went to high school with, they are married with children, stable jobs, solid lives. They wear plaid often and pose in front of pumpkins and they look happy. They are not people who move to California to chase impossible dreams. But I did. And Gabe did too. I feel utterly connected to this person I know primarily through a lens of nostalgia.
He tells me about how he’s driving to Los Angeles. I introduce him to my husband and emphasize that we are in an open marriage. He says he’s driving through the Bay Area in a month. I invite him to dinner.
We both know dinner is a euphemism.
As we talk, he tells me about one love, communes, his interest in psychedelics. I nod. I like all those things too.
“Why are you leaving LA?” I ask.
“There’s so much fear here. You know, the masks and such. I need to get out,” he tells me.
I pause, consider the subtext. I hope I’m considering it wrongly.
“But you believe in science, right?” I ask daintily, uneasy for the first time since we started this almost hour-long romp across the past 20 years.
“Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah.” he replies. Good. I smile but don’t press for more.
I set a reminder on my phone for a month out. For 30 days, I imagine how the sex will be. Though we were never friends, there is a comfort in people from the past. I imagine that he will smell like Minnetonka; crackling wood logs turned to chimney smoke, fallen leaves, a first frost. I imagine that he will wear Sorel boots and a Columbia jacket with mittens. I count down the days.
When the snooze alert on my calendar tells me that it’s been a month, I message him. I haven’t friended him on social media yet because I like the version of him I’ve created. I find him on Instagram, but don’t really look hard at his pictures. I like this story that I’ve created about him.
“When are you coming to dinner?” I text. He doesn’t reply for 24 hours and the anticipation builds. The next day, he texts back.
“I’ve desired you since high school,” the message begins. I physically lean into my phone. Well hello.
“But I can’t do the vaccine swap on fluids,” it continues.
I hope I’ve misread.
“What does that mean?” I ask, hoping to God there’s a typo. All the promise of a Minnesota-turned-California vibe I want to harness hangs in the balance of what comes next.
“If we have sex, we swap fluids, and I don’t trust the vax.” The suspended disbelief collapses in on itself. The vibe dies. Or does it? I think back to Tom, a screenwriter I’d met in the Marina in November 2020. The sex was so good, great, really ... and then he told me he voted for Kanye. After that, the sex wasn’t the same. I know in my heart that with Gabe, it will be the same — but I keep the door open while I think about it.
“Can we still have dinner?” I ask and he says he’d love that but neither of us follow up. We are in two different worlds: mine; a worldview steeped in data and science and the shots called by a flawed CDC. His seems to be one that weaponizes the jargon of science, a world where “doing the research” is akin to diving down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.
Of course, there is nuance to the anti-vaxx left. I share the text thread with a friend who moved from Seattle to Costa Rica at the beginning of COVID-19 and she tells me how she believes a flight back to the States where she had proximity to vaccinated people may have caused her period to be worse. She tells me she knows many people who report vaccine side effects but are scared to talk about it. She believes that there is unheard science, data not being recorded or reported. Her view doesn’t sound crazy to me.
I try to convince myself that not having sex with Gabe because he’s worried about the experimental quality and warp speed nature of the vaccine is part of a bigger problem, part of the reason that this country is divided into us versus them. I tell myself that it would be centrist, bipartisan even, for me to keep pursuing Gabe, that maybe if we put the politicalization of things that aren’t politics aside then maybe we can heal as a country.
I indulge this righteous ideal of a better self and fantasize about a world where nostalgic lust outweighs rational thought. My heart warms at the thought of a humanity that is simple in this way. But I can’t get there. The science gets in the way.