Playing the singles game in 2021

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How can singles carefully navigate the dating game in the time of a pandemic? Illustration by ZOE SABANDAL

The funnest thing about being single used to be all the socializing. But how to do that now?

One Saturday morning I found myself in the Tagaytay home of an old friend of my sister’s, Gerard. He’s two decades older than me, in the upper limits of Gen X, but has spent more time monitoring screens than any millennial or Gen Z kid I know. He’s a stockbroker, and my sister and I came by to give him advice on redoing his back porch, because like many second home owners, he wanted to spend more time there in the sanitizing fresh air. His prompt, for the cabin style house, was to make it more bar-like. “Wag na yung masyadong Flintstones,” he specified as he rapped on a hardwood table, the thick kind you see along with those varnished driftwoods in so many of the furniture yards on the drive up.

Maligned as it was, later that evening the table transformed into the centerpiece of an inuman, bearing dinner in takeaway trays, a cheese and fruit board, and cans of tonic water on its two-meter wide body. It was a cousin’s birthday, and around the table was the celebrant, his wife and kids and one daughter’s significant other, my sister and myself, who Gerard had invited last minute.

Pocketing my mask (which would go back on after sips and swallows, almost like a totem for mindfulness), I went in for sampaguita gin and dried mangoes, as a phone played Chicane, but then also something like Fetty Wap, before I requested for Everything But the Girl.

This type of intergenerational party happens a lot now because of family members being locked down with each other, and bluetooth speakers.

Now, I’m the type of person who feels injured by posts of other people’s parties. Especially when I know some type of biohacking is involved. My mean thought is always, they should be a test group for the vaccine. Not that I’m a saint. My idea of a stiff neck salve is a bottle of CBD oil and why not a drop under the tongue while you’re at it? But I would say this one was an intimate party. A gentle party. Something out of what the United Kingdom’s National Health Service has called a support bubble.

“Uy classmate!” A tito said when I walked in.

I didn’t get this joke, so I sent the energy back. “Classmate!” I said, before scampering off to the bar cart, regaining more social distance.

The youngest, a development studies freshman, announced, “I want to get tipsy... I’m tipsy na.” Later she found me, a loner, eating inside the house, where I shoveled lamb biryani off my plate in silence, and she, a little flushed from joining an earlier round of shots of Maker’s Mark (blech, she said, eyeing the bottle like a tyrant), had just gotten out of the bathroom.

Within a minute, she was bursting. “I’m really interested in politics and the economy.”

“Oh cool! My dad’s an economist,” I said between mouthfuls.

“What does he do now?” She asked, and I noticed how super charged she was.

“Consulting, writing papers, it’s pretty good financially,” I point out.

“Oh while that’s tempting and SO important to think of the financial aspect,” she said, her smile really crowning, “I really want to help people.”

I was going to say you could do both, but she got shy about talking too much and said she would meet me back outside. There, she waved her phone in my face, opened to an email newsletter from The Behavioural Economist. “It’s got great insights!”

Just like in bars, the walk from the bathroom back to the table (slowed by patting my hands dry on my blue jeans after the requisite handwash), was a rich in-between space for intercepting people.

To be good at interception, and meeting strangers, I always think of what Steve Martin says about writing stand-up: Be interested, be interesting. Which was what worked for me talking to Gerard about his stock portfolio earlier in the day.

“What are your favorites?” I asked, when we sat out in the garden on a “Flintstones” bench, while inside, some wine was being chilled.

“Cannabis.” He answered.

“Ooh right, all of the lines…” I was thinking of the dispensaries on the news in places where it’s legal.

“And also biotech is hot,” he added.

“Of course. Moderna,” I venture. “Do you have any tech stocks?”

“Yes, but I let a... millennial,” he laughed, “work on that.”

“I would love to meet this person! And pick their brains.”

Silence. Like a man who is paid for his opinions.

When I used to tag along with my sisters to dinner parties in his Manila apartment ten years ago, I was the quiet one, but it was because I didn’t know how to approach a conversation with someone who didn’t have a lot in common with me. Working in a magazine, I limited myself to fashion topics and fashion friends, but I realize now that actually, I was interested in swagger, in what lights a person up and gives him or her the urge to speak. It doesn’t have to be clothes. Now when I have vacancies of time, or feel lonely through what now feels like a very intentional practice and still the most valued social protocol — staying at home — I let myself think about persons I already know. The best definition I’ve come across of loneliness is that it’s a function of whether our interactions are meaningful or not. Loneliness can tell us where to look.