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I’d Rather Be Reading: My Pandemic Dating Life

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In an unexpected turn of events, pandemic dating has been surprisingly successful. First, there was Gus, a successful writer and perpetual cynic. Our beach houses neighbored each other on the quiet shores of a small town. Then Milo, the young, kind, and sensitive musician who helped traverse NYC searching for a missing beloved Hollywood starlet — my grandmother. And I can’t forget Max, the young hotshot politician who won me over with a variety of sweet and savory treats.

My mom might say that these “fictional” romances hold no weight in the real world and that she wants me to put myself back out there. That a year-long self-imposed exile from men is more than enough (a direct result of having my heart torn out/chewed on/ etc. I’ve written about it, I’m sure there’s a google alert you can set at this point).

It’s not that I didn’t want to try! I’m a planner at heart and 2020 was going to be the year I got my groove back. The year I strapped on my dancing shoes and waded back into the deep end of the NYC dating pool. I realize I mixed up some metaphors there but remember, it’s been a while. At first, I thought the idea of a quarantine courtship could be quite romantic. I imagined tapping into my inner Regency-era heroine — think Elizabeth Bennet with a dash of Jo March — and penning a love letter by hand. I would sit by the bay window in my quiet country home, eagerly waiting for a handwritten note in return. Except realistically, my country home was a ground floor 1-bedroom apartment in Queens, with no bay window to speak of. The windows were, however, just thin enough to hear drunken neighbors and farting sports cars at all hours. If I did sit staring out the window, it’s highly likely that my neighbors would call the police about the disheveled-looking girl in the window. It’s safe to say I didn’t get any handwritten love notes. Truthfully, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much time I was losing by not dating.

What I did get was a handful of disappointing digital interactions. There was the guy who really liked the Buffalo Bills and banking, two things I’ve thought very little about. He was perfectly nice but I couldn’t quite muster up the energy to put in much effort. There was also the guy whose profile ticked all the right boxes. English teacher! A reader! Snuck out of the house to go to the library once! Instead of a budding romance, I found myself entangled in a week-long conversation full of weird misinterpretations and painfully weak banter. At this point, any feelings of romantic curiosity I had managed to coax out of hiding were running far far away. I picked up Beach Read somewhere along the way and Gus and I jived way better, so I marked that as another win in the fictional boyfriend column.

A few weeks into this uneasy thought experiment, I saw my ex on Hinge. He had a new dog, a new haircut, and seemed perfectly happy, all smiley and well adjusted while I was barely hanging on to my sanity and showering maybe once every three days (peak quarantine anxiety). I was furious and jealous and instead of talking to my therapist and working through my feelings like an adult, I turned to Hinge with one goal in mind. Winning. I swiped right on anyone who seemed even remotely interesting. I was a machine. I started conversations and dropped them just as quickly. I was trying to prove that I could do this despite being way more interested in reading about the slow burn romance in Now That I’ve Found You than in exchanging messages with a guy who wanted to hang out maskless in the middle of a pandemic. I was trying to prove that I wasn’t falling behind, that I wasn’t failing.

Thankfully, with the help of my therapist (who I really should be paying more), I realized that I was holding on to this fear of falling behind, of not making progress, and that had driven me to jump back in when I wasn’t ready for it. I had these self-imposed deadlines and timelines that were screaming at me. You should be dating! Get back out there! You’re losing time! The voice even sounded like a cross between my mom and Samuel L. Jackson. Once I started to look outside what I was doing, it became obvious that I was putting pressure on myself to succeed at something at the wrong time in my life. Even the idea of a “quarantine courtship” was my attempt to create a dating scenario that fit my comfort level. It’s no wonder I found reading about romance more appealing than trying to navigate how to safely date during a pandemic.

While in-person dating might be out, for now, I’m going to make the most of my romance reading. I think of it as dating with the lowest possible stakes. I’m making note of the qualities I find most attractive (patience, honesty, passion, love of baked goods) and the things that I definitely do not (misogyny, deceit, blackmail). For those of you who have been able to date successfully during the pandemic, I’m impressed and I truly couldn’t be happier for you. For those of you who haven’t, not being able to meet an arbitrary timeline you created when you were 22 is not a sign of failure. I’m trying to pivot my way of thinking and reset my expectations. I’m going to do my best to focus on what I find joy in right now rather than spinning out about the future. I’m going to take it slow, use this time to learn how to hope again, how to love the idea of love again, and to reconnect with my inner romantic. Who knows, at this point next year I might jump back out there. Until then I have plenty of books to keep me company.

The Reading List

Beach Read by Emily Henry

Romance writer January Andrews and literary writer Augustus Everett are as different as two writers can be. The one thing that brings them together (other than the fact that they’re old college rivals) is their neighboring beach houses. They strike up a deal to help each other get over their respective writer’s block. January, she of happy endings, will write a super serious “literary” novel, and Gus will try to write a happy ending where no one dies. Over the course of Emily Henry’s debut there are plenty of tongue-in-cheek romcom moments, but what really sets this novel apart is the very real grief and trauma that each character is working through. She strikes a fine balance between a fun flirty beach read and a real character-focused story about two people falling in love.

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Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest

Eighteen-year-old Evie was on the cusp of becoming Hollywood’s next leading lady, that is until a scandal tarnishes her image. Lucky for her, her grandmother is Evelyn Conway (Gigi), beloved Hollywood starlet, and one appearance with her at an awards show could set Evie’s life back on track. That is, until her grandmother disappears. Evie recruits the last person to see Gigi before her disappearance, a charming musician named Milo who helps deliver her groceries.  Kristina Forest’s story manages to explore the budding romance between Evie and Milo while also exploring Evie’s relationship with her grandmother, all set in a magical pandemic-free New York City.

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Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

Luc and Oliver both have something to gain when they agree to play pretend boyfriends. Luc, the son of famous musicians, has been unfairly labeled a sloppy drunk by the press and could use a respectable boyfriend to repair his damaged image (especially because he’s coordinating a fundraiser for the nonprofit he works for). Enter Oliver, a barrister (lawyer) who checks all of his respectable boyfriend requirements. If you’re willing to take a chance on another fake dating trope, Oliver and Luc’s slow-burn romance is worth it.

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Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Chloe Brown is determined to tackle life with a well-thought-out “Get a Life” style to-do list. With the help of her sexy, tattooed, and secretly artistic neighbor Redford “Red” Morgan, she’s determined to have actual experiences rather than just reading about them online. What writer Talia Hibbert does well here is unpacking each of her characters, their past traumas, and mental and physical health. There are no quick fixes here but two people slowly opening themselves up and falling in love.

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Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

Olivia Monroe is an ambitious lawyer with no time for dating, so of course she immediately meets a cute guy in a bar, hotshot junior senator Max Powell. To try and win her over, he starts wooing her with baked goods, and I honestly don’t know why this doesn’t happen more often in real life. Along with the challenges of navigating an interracial relationship they have to deal with the pressure of doing so in the public eye. Party of Two is delightful and romantic while also tackling some very real issues to make it feel more grounded.

Looking for a wider selection? See 50 Must-Read Love Stories or 15 Funny Romance Novels for Your TBR.