I sat beside my husband’s grave the day I officially installed the dating app on my phone. I knew it was a strange place to be, but if I was doing this, really signing up for a dating app as a 36-year-old widow with two kids after almost a decade of a beautiful marriage, I needed Matt, my husband, by my side. After all, we had promised each other that we would always be a team. ‘Til death do us part, and all that.
Sitting on the half-frozen cemetery ground, underneath a gray sky that stretched maybe to some place where Matt was still Matt and I was still me and death was a word from someone else’s nightmare, I activated my profile, and I was faced with an impossible question: What do you want from your dates? A relationship, something casual, marriage?
I didn’t want a relationship, and I certainly didn’t want a new marriage. I was seeking something more specific than a marriage offered and something more committed than a casual hookup promised.
I was seeking what I’d lost: someone to save me from a zombie apocalypse, a partner who knew how to do the things I didn’t know.
I met Matt on February 4, when I was 22 years old and he was 27. I met him in the way people aren’t supposed to meet their first love—after one too many vodka shots. Our eyes locked across the dance floor and he weaved through the crush of people, handed me a business card with a picture of a toilet seat, and offered to buy me a drink.
From then on, our lives were effortlessly entangled. Or, more accurately, my life was fluidly absorbed into his. I was younger. I had no established career, no immovable anchor set down, no baggage that couldn’t be left behind. I moved into his apartment. I closed my bank account and he put my name on his. We filed tax returns together; he was the taxpayer and I was the spouse.
My life became our life and Matt became our captain, steering our direction. I was the happy co-captain, believing in his gut instinct, trusting in his meticulous nature, sure he knew where to go. There was even a moment in our marriage when I was hit with a deep-seated conviction that if a zombie apocalypse were to strike, we would survive. He’d finagle for us the last seats on the rescue rocket in the event of the end of the world; he would navigate a dystopian future better than any young adult novel hero.
I could sleep soundly every night, knowing he would save us, even when our “us” grew from two to four.
As it turned out, I would not be able to save him.
Matt died on February 3, nearly thirteen years to the day after we met. He died in a hospice bed, in a room lit only by a single lamp. He died as I matched my breaths to his and then waited for the breath that would never come.
All the space that he’d taken up in my life was empty, and the crater left behind could have swallowed the sun. Surrounded by darkness in those earliest days of grief, it was easy to believe that it had.
Now there was just me, with two kids and a mortgage and a tax return bearing my name alone. At 35 years old, I found myself in the captain’s seat for the first time, and it was so hard to steer. And the truth was, I didn’t know how to do the things Matt had done. I’d never learned the login information for the mortgage; I hadn’t educated myself on deductibles and premiums for health insurance; I hadn’t bothered to understand how we paid our property taxes and what amounts we spent on utilities.
The ship was now unmoored, adrift and directionless. And though I put my hands on the wheel where Matt’s hands had been, they were so much smaller than his, so much less capable. In a world where books like Handmaid’s Tale could become reality, in an era where #MeToo stories were prevalent in every space, without Matt by my side, I felt all too vulnerable. I was a young woman, too slight to live a life that had been built for two people, too unsure of my own voice to speak.
I needed a partner, someone to steer the ship. And, in 2019, that meant turning to my phone. Because, apparently, there’s an app for that.
Fourteen months after Matt died, I went on my first date in 14 years. Where 14 years ago, I had met the man I would eventually marry on a street corner in Manhattan and worried I wouldn’t recognize what he’d look like after our first vodka-soaked meeting at a club in Manhattan’s meat-packing district, this time, I met a man outside a strip mall in New Jersey and was surprised to find he looked older than the photos that accompanied his profile picture. Where 14 years ago, I walked with the guy who would be my best friend to a place called The Coffee Shop in Union Square and couldn’t stop smiling, this time, I met a stranger outside of a coffee shop in a strip mall and couldn’t quite remember how to breathe. Where 14 years ago I sat across from the boy who would steal my heart thoroughly and completely and fell in love with every word he said, this time, I sat across from an unknown body and wished he’d speak a little softer, take up a little less space…be a little more familiar.
I smiled through the date, nodded and made conversation, used every skill I’d learned from meeting other moms at the playground to fill in the hour or so of small talk. Afterward, as he leaned in to hug me goodbye, alarm and panic and terror shot through me. The incredible, horrible truth of what I was doing sizzled through my every cell. I was on a date with someone who was not Matt. He was not Matt, and nothing else mattered—not his attractiveness or intelligence or personality.
A day after I told him that I wasn’t ready to date, and knowing that was achingly true, as I Googled the word “deductible,” and spoke with investment advisors and stayed awake all night, worrying into infinity about all the things that must surely be falling through the cracks, I made a plan with another match to meet for a drink.
I told myself the only way to be ready to date was to fake it ‘til you make it, to go through the motions until one day it didn’t feel like going through the motions.
Dates two through four went much the same way as date one. The pattern was easy to identify: one date followed by a text message telling them I’m sorry, I’m just not ready, followed by a night of feeling adrift and another attempt at steering the ship by searching for that capable captain.
When I texted my sister-in-law to tell her I’d made a new date with a new man, despite being unready to date, I admitted I didn’t know what I was doing. I said, “I feel like I’m losing my mind.”
Her response: “No, I think you’re finding your mind.”
I so desperately wanted her to be right. I desperately wanted to believe that my aimless steering wasn’t so aimless, that my aimless steering was leading somewhere. Anywhere.
I drove to the cemetery, to Matt, and the tears slid down my cheeks as I was forced to confront the truth that I couldn’t simply replace what I’d lost. There was no app for that.
But sitting there on the ground that was no longer half-frozen, surrounded by the trees which had bloomed bright in the summer sun, I saw how much time had passed, how less frequently I Googled words I should have known, how much easier it was to sleep knowing the cracks were slowly sealing, allowing nothing to fall through. The seasons had shifted and the ship, under my direction, hadn’t sunk. It had wobbled and tipped, even nearly capsized once or twice, but it hadn’t sunk. It was traveling forward.
And I knew then. I’d been looking for someone to steer the ship, but I’d been the one steering for all these months.
And maybe what I needed wasn’t a partner for the zombie apocalypse. Maybe all I needed was someone to laugh with, to travel with, to send a funny meme to. Someone to steer his ship beside mine.
Because, maybe, actually, I could save myself.
(Author’s note: in retrospect… If I’m truly concerned about a zombie apocalypse, a cemetery likely isn’t the best place to hang out. Then again…dead, adoring husband plus zombie apocalypse…maybe I never had a reason to worry at all.)