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Like most millennial dating stories these days, this one started in the DMs. He was a professional skier with a blue checkmark, and I was just trying not to slip up.
Michael was an elite athlete—one whose recent success on the skiing circuit made him a podium contender for the next Winter Olympic Games—and his direct message came in just after April Fool’s Day. I had to double-check to make sure I wasn’t being pranked. “Managing in this quiet time?” the message read.
Perhaps it was the monotony of quarantine, or the cheap celebrity tequila I’d been drinking in the name of “product testing” for an upcoming article, but I didn’t hesitate before writing him back. “I’m doing alright,” I replied, watching my message ski straight into his DMs. “Just trying to figure out how to navigate life during a pandemic.”
Michael messaged back right away and asked me to tell him more. I was confused but giddy, my fingers gripped tightly around my phone, thumbs dancing over the keypad as we messaged back and forth. I told him about life in LA, my favorite books and the drinks I preferred to tequila (He wasn’t a drinker, but enjoyed the occasional gin and tonic). Michael told me about his hometown, and we bonded over shared city stereotypes, liberal politics and the government’s response to COVID.
It was one in the morning his time when I realized that we had been talking in the DMs for almost three hours.
“My eyes are getting tired,” Michael messaged. I told him to go to bed, offering my number in case he ever wanted to take our conversations offline.
“Yes!” he replied. “If you didn’t offer, I was going to ask.”
Over the next few months, Michael and I talked every day. We spoke mostly by text message, especially after an initial phone call attempt left us both suddenly awkward and shy. Shielded by a keyboard, we were far less guarded, and our text message log quickly filled with passionate hours-long conversations about family, work, religion and, yes—relationships.
We had been talking every night for three months when I decided I needed to know where we stood. I had been burned too many times by guys I had professed feelings for in the past, only to be rejected outright or—far worse—placed dismissively in the “friend zone.” I needed to know where this thing with Michael was going.
I waited until he had already gone to bed to send the message. With a little bit of liquid courage in me, I told him that I had developed feelings for him, acknowledging how absurd and unconventional the whole situation was. After all, we’d never met in person and hardly even talked on the phone.
“I don’t know when we’ll ever be able to meet, or if it even makes sense to explore a relationship while you’re training for the Olympics,” I wrote to him, “but I really like you. And I hope you like me, too.”
His reply came the next morning. “I don’t know what to make of all this either,” he wrote. “But I’m still here.”
He hadn’t exactly returned my feelings, but I convinced myself that his response was meaningful enough. Just having someone to talk to and confide in had always been a struggle for me. Being physically attracted to him, I figured, was just a bonus.
In September, COVID restrictions eased and I started planning a trip to see Michael. He seemed excited about the idea of our finally meeting. “One more week till you’re here!” he texted one night. I was thrilled, glad to know that he was counting down the days just like I was.
Michael decided to take me out for Mul Naengmyeon (a Korean cold noodle soup) for our first “real” date. Even though we had never met before—barely even hearing one another’s voices beyond that short-lived phone call—it felt as if we had known each other our entire lives. With nowhere to go and no one to see during the pandemic, we had immersed ourselves into a nightly texting routine that became so comfortable, a familiarity and ease was established between the two of us even before we laid eyes on one another.
In person, Michael’s face looked more boyish than in photos, and his gaze was warm and curious. While I was prone to self-deprecation, he was more stoic and intentional. Years of training had made him a fierce competitor on the slopes, and he maintained that same laser-focus in conversation, prompting me with questions and sharing stories as we slurped our slushy noodles.
After lunch, we drove to a small hiking trail and walked around, admiring the early fall foliage and each other. At one point, we pulled off the path into a leafy alcove. Surrounded by wide, wild trees, I wanted to pull him in for a kiss. Perhaps it was the fact that we were in a public place, or because we had masks on, or just my own nerves, but either way, I chickened out. We settled on a clumsy hug as we parted ways.
A week after our first date, the ski competition season began. For athletes like Michael, that meant strict COVID prevention protocols that restricted the number of people he could see, as well as where he could go outside of practice.
Though I longed to see him in person, Michael had to be careful. “I can’t risk being disqualified because of COVID,” he explained to me over text message. With his first competition just days away, we stopped messaging every night. Michael was going to bed earlier to get up for pre-dawn mornings on the slopes. Gone was the intensity of our late-night texting back and forth.
I understood, of course—he was one of the top skiers in the world. If he was forced out of an event due to COVID the blowback would be enormous, both from the judges and the press. Still, even though I knew we couldn’t see each other, I missed talking. I wondered if he missed talking to me, too.
I had come to his hometown chasing a little COVID clarity, but things were starting to fall out of focus. My intention had been to spend my trip with Michael, but between his all-consuming training schedule and an influx of new stay-at-home orders from local officials, we had only seen each other once. Our texting had grown even more infrequent, and he balked at another attempt at talking on the phone.
With COVID cases on the rise, and any potential for a relationship seemingly at a standstill, I decided to head back to LA. “I booked a flight home,” I texted Michael one afternoon, giving him one last shot. “If you have time to hang out, let me know. If not,” I prepared to let him off the hook, “that’s totally fine, too.”
Two days before my departure, Michael messaged back. “If you’re free, I would love to meet up,” he wrote.
For our second date, we met up for coffee on the back patio of a cafe that was nestled between a tiny parcel of misshapen trees. The leaves that had been golden and glowing during our first date now lay bruised and browning on the ground.
During our first meeting, our words had spilled out like the conversation of excitable teenagers. This time, our discussion felt more clipped. We talked about holiday plans and winter sweaters, he asked about articles I was writing and played coy when I asked about his plans for the Olympics. The leaves fell and we sat in silence as we took the last few sips of our Americanos.
Before long, it was time to move on. We shared a final hug outside the cafe and I relaxed my chest into his, wanting the embrace to last just a few masked breaths longer. We both shifted our eyes downwards, not quite knowing what to say, resigned to the fact that the pandemic that had brought us together was also the thing keeping us apart.
After some awkward shuffling, Michael spoke first: “I’m sorry this whole thing has been so weird, but I hope we can keep in touch,” he said. I nodded, but didn’t say a word. I smiled at him from under my mask, but below the surface, my feelings were defeated.
Had I wasted six months pursuing someone, only to wind up just as single and alone as when I first started? Had the expectations I built up been unfair to him? Or was the demise of whatever Michael and I might have had just another COVID-related romantic casualty?A few days after arriving back in LA, I was able to fully accept what had gone down. I may not have taken home the gold medal athlete, but there was still a silver lining to be found.
In a year that felt so stagnant, it was a thrill to have a few fleeting months of excitement and anticipation. For all the anxiety spent on the state of the world, it was nice to also feel a little sweat bead up from texting a flirty message and awaiting a reply. During a pandemic that cast a shadow over our day-to-day interactions with others, being able to connect with someone so deeply and assuredly was a welcome relief—even if the connection didn’t last.
In downhill skiing, the goal is always to barrel down the mountain with zero hesitations. Real life is far more complicated. The carefully choreographed routines of the past no longer apply during COVID, and the rules for how to navigate a relationship have never been more slippery.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time with Michael, it’s that letting go of expectations and allowing yourself a little improvisation can sometimes open you up to far greater joy than struggling to charge forward.
And if you ever find yourself feeling like things are moving too fast on the slopes, it’s nice to have a hand to hold onto for a few moments, even if you’ll eventually let go and face the mountain on your own.
This story was updated from its original version.