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Sick Gal Seeks Rare Elk Sighting or Mate photo

Chronic illness already made dating hard. And then the pandemic arrived.

“I almost forgot—” my childhood friend interjected as we were wrapping up a phone call on a blustery September day. “I talked to Lindsey and she agrees that you don’t need to put a disclosure on your dating profile. You can just cross that bridge if you meet someone you like.”

Her comment startled me from my meditative walk-and-talk on the golf course in my backyard; I had already put aside the profile dilemma and was trying not to think about it too often, this question of how someone like me might date. And even more complicated: how someone like me might date years into a pandemic that—as far as most people are concerned—is long over.

I still had a profile draft on Hinge that I had once set to “public” in an impulsive flurry from my parents' kitchen table, only to “pause” it minutes after my first match came in. How would I engage with someone, given my situation? I agonized. Did I need to post some kind of disclosure?

Enthusiastic yet occasionally depressed sick gal seeks date willing to don PPE for an outdoor, socially distanced golf course rendezvous. Possibilities for physical intimacy anytime in near future: nil (or masked). Potential for spotting migrating geese and shouting through masks (over honking): high.

Most days, online dating feels far too complicated. But it’s my most probable way to meet someone as a chronically ill person who is “still covidding” to prevent an infection that could return me to a bed bound state. I haven’t been inside a grocery store since March 2020, let alone a coffee shop or concert venue. I am more likely to encounter an elk on my golf course walks than an eligible bachelor (and though I frequently circumnavigate the musky scat of my bedecked neighbors, in my two years living here I have only once spotted the elk herd in the flesh).

To be fair, dating was challenging long before Covid arrived on the scene. A bad case of mono in my early twenties, which relapsed in my mid-twenties and then never fully went away, washed me up on the shores of the mysterious, severely underfunded, mostly-affecting-women, maybe it’s all in her head island of chronic neuro-immune illnesses.

It’s not an easy place to meet folks, and I have more often lusted after treatments and cures than potential dates. My dream man arrives bearing in one hand a stack of peer-reviewed journal articles with tested and proven cures to my condition, and in the other, a pair of running shoes.

“I’ll have you back in these in no time,” he says, “and then you can whip my ass at tag.”

My life hasn’t been without romance since illness first slowed my legs. Long before the pandemic, I went on a few dates with a hunky car salesman who had sold me a used SUV. We kept it professional in the dealership since my parents were there, but we fortuitously matched on a dating app several weeks later and began a feverish and erotic text message exchange that sent a zap of energy through my prematurely-elderly-feeling body.

From my reclined position on our kitchen couch, I confided in one of my housemates at the time about the highs and lows of that short-lived relationship, entranced by the movement of his arm as he stirred a pot of oatmeal, those same arms that would seize me whenever I walked in the door and throw me over his shoulder while I laughed and shook with delight.

“Tell me everything,” he said, equally intent on me and his pot.

My roommate was cute, also, I realized—if too young for me—as I wondered aloud whether a mutual interest in whiskey and tossing a football (when my body cooperated) was enough to sustain a connection with the car salesman, given my tendency to identify cars based on color. (You know, the white one).

I soon discovered that inventing excuses to follow my roommate upstairs to his bedroom was far more interesting than pursuing romance with the dtf and not-much-else car dude. And as we got to know each other better, with and without clothes, I found an escape from my challenging body in his young and athletic one. Though he often betrayed his age, he was also surprisingly tolerant and seemed unphased by my illness. A youthful tendency to live in the moment seemed to preclude him from any deep worrying about what my health might mean for us in the future. Or perhaps he did not see me in his future.

I sometimes muse about if we ever would have dated under different circumstances. I read somewhere that the longer you’re single and spend time around a person you previously wouldn’t have considered dating, the more attractive they become. It’s a helpful evolutionary strategy for sick folks like myself whose best chance of mating is by falling in love with our housemates, mail delivery people, and doctor’s office receptionists. (At least, before a global pandemic heightened the danger of even those everyday situations).

The 22-year-old with the full-body laugh and shapely forearms was my last serious love, however. Perhaps from the stress of months of dysfunction, my condition worsened shortly after we parted ways. Willing to try almost anything to get better, I decided to follow the advice of a group of people on the Internet who had made substantial or full recoveries from chronic fatigue-like syndromes by avoiding indoor mold. I was tired of years of expensive supplement regimes, labor-intensive diets, bank-gauging specialists not covered by insurance, and mornings spent in the bathtub shooting coffee up my butt as a “liver cleanse.” The mold sabbatical, by contrast, sounded almost idyllic.

After a month of preparation acquiring brand-new, mold-free camping gear, I embarked on a summer of outdoor, quarantined living without any of my previous possessions, first in the wilderness and then in the suburban wilds of my parents’ PNW backyard. As my health improved in small ways, I sometimes contemplated dating again. From my mold-free lounge chair out back, I would listen to the noises of my parents’ cooking that escaped the kitchen window and consider possible online dating profiles:

Somewhat-recovered sick gal seeks date willing to disrobe and bathe in the grape arbor upon first meeting; pristine, mold-free attire will be provided. Outdoor-only frolicking permitted. Parents may be on premises.

I didn’t waste my thumbs’ energy and instead packed up my car and drove south, eventually settling in a small mountain town in the Southwest. The dry air, sunshine, and accumulating effects of the supplements, diets, healers, neuro-retraining, and a daily qigong practice seemed to be helping, and I began to adventure out on short hikes in the mountains on my good days.

After one exhilarating walk to a rocky viewpoint, I snapped a selfie and sent it to my mother. She responded almost immediately, exclaiming, “You look like yourself again!”

I liked the face of this girl with round, rosy cheeks and bright eyes, too, and for the first time in a while, I wondered if I might be ready to give love another try. As I hiked back to my car, I tried to articulate a fresh profile description:

Gradually recovering sick gal seeks date for once-a-week wood wanders to hidden viewpoints on sun-warmed boulders. Cold-nose make-out sessions and snuggles on pine needle beds desired. Low-key romance with no potential for nervous system overwhelm required.

A week later, the pandemic began. As society shuttered and folks hunkered down at home, I encountered a new kind of loneliness and a new kind of solidarity with the world around me. For years, I had been avoiding most indoor spaces due to my apparent mold sensitivity and had been practicing elaborate decontamination rituals after any exposure. Now, most people around me were participating in a parallel safety dance, and my own engine, which had so often been stalled or relegated to the repair shed, was now joined by an entire fleet of sidelined trains as the world abruptly stopped.

And yet, four years into the great shutdown, as many folks have passed from tolerance to fatigue to downright outrage at the thought of pandemic restrictions, and vaccines have offered the illusion of normalcy to those unconcerned by the growing risks of long Covid, my own vulnerable system has left me to once again watch the world spin beyond my window.

When family members ask me now if there are any “special” prospects in my life, I jokingly remind them that any partner would have to live in complete isolation for the pleasure of dating me.

“Well, I think it would be completely worth it!” Mom says in response to my dour attitude. I chuckle and try to believe someone else could feel the same.

Maybe I should try harder, trust more in a romance that could conquer all these circumstances. But instead, I find myself embracing love in other places. My parents are my daily confidants now, filling the place of a romantic partner. We speak almost every evening, and when there is nothing new to say, our lives still simple for the sake of survival, we stay on the phone and listen to the clinks of each other’s dinner preparations from a thousand miles away.

When I am overcome by a longing for human touch, I take baths, and let the water hold me instead. And on my evening golf course walks, I run my hands over pine needles and relish the rush of excitement I feel every time the geese fly over loudly, their bellies tinted gold.

I try not to think about the future. The older I get, the more I realize that nothing is guaranteed in health or in love. I may never get fully better; I may never have another big romance. But hope isn’t about getting what I want. It has independent value. Hope is walking on the golf course every day for the joy of it and keeping an eye out. Hope is a pile of fresh elk poop. And sometimes hope is a bit of movement in the trees—a rare and distant elk sighting—too far away or dangerous to touch, yet, but just enough to keep me moving forward.

Hanging up my phone call with my friend, I composed another message as I stomped across a muddy green, but this time it wasn’t for a dating app profile, or the friends who assume pained expressions about my years of single life, or the inner critic who reminds me of my ticking biological clock. It was a message for the wind, the big sky, the elk herd moving silently through the woods, the final warm rays upon the distant mountain:

When the time is right, I will look for you.