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Before the lockdown, I was at the gym trying to avoid touching the handles of the elliptical, while news of coronavirus exploded on the TV. “Should I even be here?” I thought worriedly, as I realized there were just a few of us dotting the floor.
It also occurred to me that I may not go on another date until the public-health emergency was over. I would be 37. A few days before, I had been interviewed for a Washington Post article about dating during coronavirus. I was quoted as saying the guy I was supposed to be meeting “had two desirable traits: a six pack and a job.” I didn’t think anyone I knew would see it. I lived in Montreal, it was possible.
A text from my friend Tori interrupted my Bollywood playlist. “YO?! What?!” Her improv troupe was passing the article around.
My cousin in New York, “Lolll. The WaPo article.”
A friend in Ireland, “It’s more viral than corona itself.”
I had two options. I could be embarrassed that my single life was out there for the entire world to see or I could own it. There was a pandemic, it felt like the world was ending. If there were ever a time to be brave, it was now. I shared it on Facebook for everyone to read, including my mother.
Like in most Indian households, I can count on my fingers the number of times we’ve talked about dating. In Grade 6, I proudly announced that I would have a boyfriend like Jessica and Elizabeth, the Sweet Valley High twins. My Mom explained that I would not have a boyfriend because “we don’t believe in that.”
The night before high school started, I was eating a snack in the kitchen and my mom was on her knees mopping the floor. Over the scent of Pine Sol, she looked up at me and said, tersely, that I wasn’t allowed to talk to boys. My little brother was my date to grad.
I met my first boyfriend when I was 22. Months later, my brother called. “Mom thinks you have a boyfriend. She says she can feel these things.” When we broke up five years later, I flew home, I needed her. As I cried, Mom came into my room and pulled open the blinds. “Get up,” she ordered, “There are plenty of boys in the world,” I whimpered that I loved him. “You’ll love another one,” she insisted. I looked at her, surprised. She’d had an arranged marriage soon after meeting my dad, she never talked like this.
Later, while reading the paper and not meeting my eyes, Mom said: “You should read his messages, he must’ve met someone else.” She was right. He was going to start eating chicken for her. Ugh. How did she know?
Maybe we could start talking about dating openly, like my Canadian friends did with their mothers. She obviously knew more about the subject than I gave her credit for. As I sat on the floor packing my suitcase she observed with a fallen face. “No one will marry you now that you’re not a virgin.”
I swallowed the hurt and tried to forgive her. She was caught in the crossfire of Indian values and North American practices, sometimes she was the auntie in a Bollywood movie and at other times she was Claire Dunphy from Modern Family. I didn’t always know which mom I was going to get.
I didn’t tell her about my next boyfriend, who was 13 years older. But when I went home at Christmas, as we drank chai in our pyjamas, she asked me to tell her before I eloped. The third boyfriend I did call home to tell her about – five days before I left for France to meet his family.
A few years later, over dinner at a busy restaurant, she inquired hesitantly, “Are you dating?” I stopped chewing. Like all Indian girls, dating was something I did in secret. It felt like a shameful practice, like I was a stripper, the men were my clients and if anyone found out I would be scorned. Boyfriends were a different beast, you introduced them when it too late for anyone to have an opinion, always making it clear that a word against them would mean turning your back on the family tree.
“No,” I said quietly. Time stood still, the smell of calamari drifted away. She was trying. I could confess, tell her about the guy I was seeing, she could give me advice and laugh at our first date story, but I didn’t. I was resentful, because of her I was a late bloomer, learning how to navigate relationships as an adult, without guidance.
Putting the article on Facebook was my coming out. I knew she’d read it and I anticipated the fallout. Set against the backdrop of COVID-19, talking about dating with my mom didn’t feel like the grave danger it once was. She might be mad. What other people will say, “log kya kahenge,” rules the South Asian community with an iron fist, but if they lockdowned our cities I might not get to see her for months. If I didn’t have this conversation now, there was the possibility that one of us would get sick, and I may never have the chance.
After I shared the story, it wasn’t long before my phone lit up. Mom. “I saw the article – very interesting!” she said. Nervously, I talked too much, dancing around the fact that I had made visible something I’d worked my entire life to keep so hidden. But she wasn’t upset; instead, she was supportive and excited. She was exactly what I had always wanted her to be. I fell asleep smiling. I didn’t have to hide any more. We were a team.
During the pandemic, as much as I struggle to get through each passing day without panicking, I know the positive take away is healing the relationship with my mom. And when I go on my first postquarantine date, I’ll call her afterward, the woman who’s always known me best, even when I used to vehemently tell her, “You don’t know me at all!”
Sajmun Sachdev lives in Montreal.