Zibby Mag

The Webby Award-winning literary lifestyle destination.

How an Unlikely Bond Formed in the Middle of the Pandemic

Friday, February 26, 2021

By Lindsey J. Palmer

When you’re looking for friends, it only takes one to make a difference.

“I’m not here to make friends.” That staple catchphrase of every reality-TV villain became a joke my husband and I uttered to each other during those early months of quarantine.

When the world shut down, we’d been lucky to leave our small apartment in Brooklyn for my parents’ house on Cape Cod. Here we had space, including a yard for our two-year-old to run around in. The remote location meant we could go days without seeing another soul. During a pandemic, that was appealing. We weren’t here to make friends — we were here to stay safe, and keep others safe from us.

At first, we didn’t have the time or energy to miss our friends. Like so many others parents who were suddenly without childcare, my husband, Damian, and I traded off being with our daughter, Emilia, and tried to cram full workdays into five-hour sprints; evenings were for playing catch-up, plus occasionally pulling together some semblance of a meal or making a dent in the growing tower of laundry.

We knew our good fortune: We were healthy and still had jobs, our employers were flexible, and we were living in a house with only one child to wrangle. (When I found myself overwhelmed, I’d think about my friend managing remote school for her four young children out of an apartment.)

Still, it was a slog. And I struggled to keep coming up with ways to entertain Emilia. Most days we bundled up in every layer we had and headed to the beach, chasing seagulls as the icy wind whipped at our backs. On rare occasions, we’d spot another person in the distance, walking a dog or donning a pair of binoculars, head tilted to the sky. It was like an alien sighting, and if the person spotted us too, we’d blink at each other from afar, waving tentatively.

We weren’t here to make friends — we were here to stay safe, and keep others safe from us.

In our former life, we were social people, who chose to live in a city that required paying an exorbitant sum for a tiny space. As a result, we spent most of our time out and about with all the other people who had made that same choice. Even Emilia used to spend ten hours a day palling around with her buddies at daycare. After months devoid of all socializing, save for Zoom meetups I’d come to dread, we got a tip about a summer camp: It was outdoors, the counselors lived together in their own pod, and the sanitizing protocols were so stringent I was skeptical there’d be time for any activities besides cleaning. We signed Emilia up on the spot.

Suddenly, she was social again. She came home brimming with stories about swinging with one friend, making crafts with another, and playing hide-and-seek with the group. Given the opportunity to spend time with people besides her stressed-out, distracted parents, Emilia blossomed.

Meanwhile, with a few hours of my own now freed up each day, I finally had the bandwidth to realize I was lonely. I was grateful to be hunkered down with my small family, but I missed spending time with friends. As much as I understood that my friends back in New York weren’t meeting up for drinks, attending concerts, and cozying up in each other’s living rooms for book club without me, it felt extra isolating to know they were all nearly 300 miles away. My circle of friends and acquaintances within a 100-mile radius clocked in at a big fat zero.

Despite our grim, oft-repeated catchphrase, I decided I would try to make a friend. I’d put myself out there, in the only way I could think of: I consulted Emilia’s camp list and found the contact info for the parents of the kids my daughter had befriended. With the subject line “Hello, from Emilia’s mom,” I wrote an email introducing myself, explaining that my family was new to town, and asking if anyone would be interested in a social-distance hang. Nervously, I pressed send.

Exactly one person wrote back (to this day, I remain baffled by the ones who didn’t respond — how hard is it to dash off “Welcome to the area!” then offer up an excuse as to why you’re not free for a meetup?). But when you’re looking for friends, all you need is one. Suzanne, mom to M., had also just arrived — her family was on Cape Cod for the summer. A couple of exchanges later, we discovered we’d grown up in the same Boston suburb, and that she knew my brother. Kismet!

Our initial get-together will likely sound familiar to anyone who’s dated in the past year — it’s awkward meeting someone for the first time from six feet away, everyone masked up. But in my experience, making a new connection is awkward whether it’s during a pandemic or not. And extreme situations tend to foster bonding. Just like me, Suzanne didn’t know anyone local outside of her immediate family.

That first afternoon in our yard, Suzanne and I chatted haltingly while our daughters pushed around doll strollers and collaborated on Magnatile castles. After that, we started hanging out nonstop: We hit the beach, we met up for BYO-dinners, we scoped out abandoned motel playgrounds (still wary of the heavily trafficked public ones), and we watched each other’s kids when work cropped up. After one harrowing Saturday morning when I’d been taken in by a phone scam, we got together at the lake. As the girls built sandcastles beside us, I recounted the story, blow-by-blow, still shaking from the experience and feeling like a complete moron. Suzanne listened and responded with such compassion and understanding — it probably helped that she’s a therapist — and I felt immediately lighter. Oh right, I was reminded, this is what it’s like to spend time with a friend.

Labor Day loomed, when Suzanne’s family would be leaving. Emilia and M. had met at camp, and my time with Suzanne reminded me of a camp friendship, too — a bond had formed in an environment outside of normal life, all the more intense because you know it’s fleeting.

In my experience, making a new connection is awkward whether it’s during a pandemic or not. And extreme situations tend to foster bonding.

For our last hang, we convened at a beach in the early evening. It was low tide. As Suzanne and I sat on the sand sipping white wine, our daughters skittered down the empty beach until they were little specks, crouching down in a huddle to collect shells. Isn’t this perfect, I thought. I still longed for New York, for the bustle and the energy and the people I loved there, but here was something special, a beautiful silver lining to a dark, difficult time. As the sun set over the horizon, we packed up our things and said our goodbyes — as always, from six feet apart.

Now, it’s become yet another long-distance friendship. Emilia and M. mail each other sticker-laden cards, and Suzanne and I text about Cape Cod news, the ongoing drama of parenting during a pandemic, and most recently, camp signup. Because my family is still here, and Suzanne’s is coming back this summer.

In the depths of a Massachusetts winter, when COVID cases have spiked and the idea of an outdoor meetup makes me want to hibernate under a heated blanket, it’s fun to anticipate warm weather and the return of friends. And who knows? Maybe by July we’ll all be vaccinated and we can reunite with actual hugs.


Lindsey J. Palmer is the author of novels Otherwise Engaged (paperback out March 2), If We Lived Here, and Pretty in Ink. She is a senior editor at BrainPOP, an animated educational site for kids. Previously, she was a high school English teacher and a magazine editor. Lindsey and her family usually live in Brooklyn, but they’ve temporarily relocated to Cape Cod.