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When dating is no walk in the park

As the pandemic creeps across New York City, a young woman embarks on a first date and a chance at more

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Via illustration, TuAnh Dam shows how coronavirus came between her and Alex on their first date and beyond.

Courtesy of TuAnh Dam

“Whatever,” she tells herself, pulling a white jacket over her burgundy blouse. She met him on Hinge, a dating app. He messaged first, saying that he, too, had never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Soon she gave him her phone number, and he asked her out. But in early March, as a strange new virus creeps across the city, she thinks, if it happens, it happens.

Leaving her apartment on 125th Street, TuAnh Dam catches the No. 1 train. By month’s end hundreds of New Yorkers will die each day. But for now, the daily toll hasn’t reached double digits. At 74th Street, she stops by Levain Bakery to buy cookies; a double chocolate belated birthday surprise for him and peanut butter-chocolate for her. She offers cash, but the cashier asks for a card instead.

TuAnh gets to the southwest entrance at Columbus Circle 20 minutes early for their stroll through Central Park, just in time for a text saying that he’ll be late. Whatever. She isn’t exactly looking to fall in love. As a 24-year-old graduate student with an out-of-state internship in the works, she doesn’t know where life will take her next.


TuAnh Dam, a graduate student at the Columbia Journalism School, poses for a graduation photo in front of Columbia University’s main library.

Courtesy of TuAnh Dam

She has time, so she steps inside the Time Warner Center — home of CNN — and washes her hands. You can’t be too safe.

Back in the sunshine, she sees him. Yes, there’s Alex, 5-foot-5 with piercing green eyes and a thin beard, wearing a blue jacket with a busted zipper. Should they hug? Shake hands? It’s a complex calculus. She breaks the awkwardness by handing him his cookie. 

They begin their stroll, stopping to sit near a lake and comment on passing dogs. TuAnh pulls up their favorite episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on her phone. They keep their distance from passersby, but not each other. 

They play on a swing set until he gets nauseous, then visit a coffee shop and joke about the sign on the wall that says “No Animals Allowed” with a picture of a deer. He’ll tell her later that he wanted to put his arm around her then. “I wanted you to,” she’ll tell him. “But you didn’t get the hint.”

After a quick stop at a candy store, it’s around 5, and he needs to head back to the east side. She offers to walk with him. “If you’re tired of me,” she adds, “I can just go home.” He’s not tired of her, not even close. On the way, they talk about the virus. They wonder what’s ahead. But they don’t leave the moment.

For the next hour, they’re the only customers at some Italian place. They start with white Russians — Alex’s favorite. TuAnh jokes about her “Asian glow.” Following a cosmopolitan, she asks him to feel her heated face.

After nearly seven hours, it’s time for her to go home. He walks her to the subway. He’s the first guy to do that, and she loves it. They hold hands for the first time.

He kisses her goodbye and disappears past the turnstiles, leaving TuAnh sitting on a bench, already reminiscing. The platform, like much of the city, is empty. 

He texts that night to make sure she got home all right, and asks her out again. She says yes. 

But nothing is certain in a pandemic. As the city shuts down, they decide to postpone, to be responsible. What’s a couple weeks of quarantine?

They talk every other day on video chat. But as the weeks go on, her time in the city grows short. In late April, they have a tough conversation. They decide to just be friends.

But when they start hanging out again in late May, the lines blur. Each time, they bring each other a treat, building on their tradition. In June, she hypes her gift — one of his favorite cookies. “I know you’re gonna like this,” she tells him, “100%.” She’s right. He loves them. But he was hoping for more than a snack.

“I thought the surprise,” he tells her, “was that you got a job in New York and were staying.”