As the Pandemic Continues On, What Is There But Love?

Life & Love

Years ago, I worked at an upscale restaurant with a huge communal table in the middle of the dining room. It sat 26 and was reserved for large groups. Apparently, there are people with 25 friends.

When there weren’t large groups, the table sat empty. During lunch and dinner rushes, we offered seats there to singles and small groups. Sometimes they were up for it, and we sat them at a respectful distance. Other times they’d switch to takeout and eat sushi at their desks instead.

Valentine’s Day was different—every seat was reserved. When things got very crowded, we’d start sitting couples at the communal table, two by two, like ticket holders on Noah’s Ark. You can imagine telling a canoodling couple celebrating a Hallmark holiday to sit at a long Last Supper table shoulder to shoulder with 12 canoodling strangers.

I’ve been thinking about that table a lot recently. It’s been nearly a year since I sat in a restaurant, and I’m missing the way life used to be—and hopefully will be again. I miss things I didn’t care for, like a lack of personal space and hearing someone’s conversation. Which is ridiculous, because for those of us who have been quarantining with others, the lack of space and abundance of conversations are the main event. For others, time at home means feeling like the solitary diner with takeout at the office, facing a screen bearing the faces of those one misses.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to witness all the different people my loved ones are up close.”

I’m just going to say it: There are downsides to quarantine. I realize I am not the first person to admit that it’s a mixed bag! I would prefer to be out in the real world, seeing people I love and getting distracted from them and committing my energy to eavesdropping. I love the small talk of other couples; it’s the quotidian music of kids’ schedules and low-stakes gossip and the narration of work politics only one half is invested in. When our communal world is resurrected, and I climb atop the long table to address the 25 new friends I met in Zoom breakout rooms, I will deliver my full Yelp review of quarantine. The one bright spot will be that it offered a new way of hearing that quotidian music.

Listening to the work or school drama hits differently when you can also listen to it from the next room. The question “How was your day?” becomes rhetorical when you know everything the person did. While that can be annoying, the strange intimacy of becoming a passive participant in the narrative that you once only heard about is striking. We are different people at work and at school, and in the world of friends and nemeses we pretend are friends. I’m grateful for the opportunity to witness all the different people that my loved ones are: up close, personal, and playing on loop.

I imagine that on some Valentine’s Day of yore, a new couple sat at that communal table, trying to conjure romance over all the noise of festivity. One leaned across the table and half-shouted, “I want to know everything about you!” I wonder how that couple is doing now. I wonder if that wish feels different now that it has strangely come true. I hope that, for those lucky enough to be getting to know their loved ones in quarantine, the experience of sharing the petty work drama and the personality your significant other takes on in meetings makes a kind of music. I hope that, when the communal world revives and our ears fill with other sounds, the specific music of this time will sound quite beautiful.

This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue.

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