Melissa and I found ourselves alone together at her apartment for the first time last December, during that eerie limbo between the presidential election and inauguration. Until I worked up the nerve to kiss her, near dawn, it hadn’t been clear that we’d been on a date that night, or what exactly we’d been doing over the previous few months. It’s only in hindsight that our texting and sporadic happy-hour cocktails seem to have been leading somewhere in particular.
That evening, I’d invited Melissa to see Jackie because, in my despair about the fate of the country, I’d become fascinated by the trailer, by the close-ups of Natalie Portman’s grieving face. Melissa was the only other person I knew—besides the younger sister of my ex-wife—who’d read all four volumes of Robert A. Caro’s biography of LBJ. After the movie, she brought me to a raucous house party in a remote part of Brooklyn, where we barely talked until about two in the morning, when she saw me fumbling with the ride-sharing app on my phone. With an eye roll, she invited me to share her cab.
I hesitated before accepting, because my life was unsettled. Two years earlier, I’d quit my job of 10 years in New York City to get a PhD in history at the University of Pennsylvania. Not entirely by coincidence, my marriage of nearly equal duration fell apart at about the same time. So by last December, I was approaching 40—living in a sparsely furnished studio in a drafty old house in West Philadelphia—and had resolved to be single for a while to focus on becoming a historian.
That term, I was a teaching assistant for a course called “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” The “rise” part of the class ominously coincided with the current
presidential campaign, and by the October break, it was 1936 in Germany. Hitler had consolidated power, but he hadn’t begun his fateful march to the east. Things still could have turned out differently.
I watched the election returns with a crowd of young socialists who’d begrudgingly campaigned for Hillary. I felt lonely and guilty; I lived in a swing state but hadn’t campaigned at all. For the rest of the semester, I did my best to maintain my enthusiasm for teaching the fall of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France, through World War II and the Holocaust, while trying to come up with something helpful to say to my students about racist incidents in the aftermath of the election. Whenever I could, I went back to New York for a couple of days—my ex-wife was still letting me crash at our old apartment when she was away. I’d go to scavenge kitchenware and hang out with friends, but increasingly I felt like I was stockpiling resources in case of an emergency. I also tried to gird myself for the impending civil war by getting back to jogging and buying some combat boots at Nordstrom Rack. On the dry-erase board on my mini-fridge back in Philly, I wrote “Battle mode.”
So I was pretty exhausted, emotionally and intellectually, by the time the semester ended in December. Melissa wasn’t rushing into anything, either; she was on the verge of starting a new job. In fact, instead of stumbling into bed that night, we just stayed up talking—and learned that we had much more to talk about besides the movie and the party and the impending destruction of the country.
One thing I like about dating at my age is that as women get older their stories become much more elaborate and subtle. Melissa regaled me with tales about a passel of quirky or dashing or troubled exes, and I mused about my past relationships, too. A paradoxical effect of the political uncertainty was that the future seemed to stretch out in a curious and even relaxing way. It seemed pointless to make plans if democracy was going to collapse. I hadn’t felt so present in the moment for years.
Quantitative researchers repeatedly have tried to link rates of marriage, fertility, and divorce to catastrophic events, and their speculation can easily descend into wishful thinking and ideology. After September 11, journalists predicted a marriage or baby boom, as we New Yorkers would supposedly reflect on what really mattered and decide that the answer was reproductive monogamy. Neither boom occurred, and now the expectation seems almost perverse. Fear, anxiety, and depression aren’t necessarily conducive to love.
Still, the circumstances do seem to explain some aspects of my own marriage. My ex and I had been friends-with-benefits in college, but we’d had a big fight and hadn’t spoken for nearly a year when, over Labor Day weekend in 2001, we resumed communicating. The following week, she called me from work to tell me about the attacks. I gallantly walked to rescue her in midtown, spent the next few days at her place, and then evacuated her to my parents’ house in Connecticut. That chain of events may explain why we never fell in love in any conventional romantic sense; why we didn’t think to miss that head-over-heels euphoria; why the story we told ourselves about ourselves was that we kept each other sane in an insane world, a narrative that may have pinned us to selves we’d outgrown.
In the midst of our marriage, I didn’t notice this, but now our relationship is really marked by history in my mind. The best part, our “making house” phase, coincided with the relative security of No Drama Obama’s first term; our bond started to fray as Occupy Wall Street began; we gave up on couples therapy not long after Republicans swept the Senate. Viewing our marriage through the lens of history may be my way of getting closure.
Over the subsequent weeks, I returned to fix her plumbing and two of her lamps. I bought her an organizer for her silverware, which she’d been storing in tie boxes from J.Crew, left behind by an ex during the last Bush administration. Weekend mornings we mostly spent getting caught up on work. By implementing the Pomodoro Technique of time management—with five-minute yoga breaks every half hour—we gradually returned to a normal and productive experience of time. When the new president was inaugurated, we were planning our first dinner party together. For Valentine’s Day, I bought some new chairs for my own apartment, so Melissa would have a place to sit when she came over.
About six months after we fell in love, we were on a road trip in New Hampshire, alone on a country road, when Melissa suddenly announced: “I can’t believe Donald Trump is the president…and you’re my boyfriend.” She sometimes had the same feeling in the morning, she said, when she woke up next to me in bed, then reached for her phone to check the news. Lately, our feeling of suspended time has been giving way to coordinating Gmail calendars, but the two surprises will probably always be connected for us.