Love in a Pandemic—the Scientist and the Serviceman

A Story of Unexpected Love after Divorce


I never thought I would get a divorce. No one does.


As traumatic and deeply painful as that experience was, no one ever told me that my first relationship after divorce would not only reawaken my life but also destroy me in the end.


About two years after my divorce, I was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge on a weekend adventure with two of my best friends to visit the Cowgirl Creamery and all of the other cheese shops in between. As we chatted and laughed about life, my dear friend said to me, “You’re smart, beautiful, successful; you need to get out there again and date!” I looked at her in the back seat and said, “Really?”


My thought of loving again seemed like a long shot considering the traumatic experiences I endured throughout my marriage, the inability for us to have a child, ultimately ending in divorce. As we all giggled about the thought of me experimenting with online dating in my 40s, I just assumed that my very successful friends had a very straight path to success both professionally and personally. My own personal path, I thought, had taken more of a scenic route. What was shared that day on that car ride in search of cheese, changed the course of my life.



Cowgirl Creamery and oodles of Mt Tam. (Ahna Skop)

 

Two weeks after getting back home to Wisconsin, I decided — and also dreaded — even attempting to navigate online dating at the urge of my dearest friends. Match, OkCupid, Bumble, Tinder…UGH, I thought. Being in my mid-40s and a scientist to boot, the idea of putting myself out there on these sites was met with skepticism and trepidation.


My friends ensured me I was certainly of value to other men, but that I just needed to get out there like she had after her first marriage ended. Despite her divorce, she found the love of her life again after a few failures trying to date online, and three children soon followed. I thought, “What do I have to lose?”. Given this past trip and all of our discussions, I started a profile one evening after work.


What was I looking for? What did I need? I hadn’t had a clue, but this man had to be very different from my ex-husband on a lot of levels. I want a team player, a partner, and most importantly a companion in life. I need someone who loves to travel, likes to try new foods, and especially enjoys eating the food I like to cook at a minimum. Everywhere I travel, I make it a priority to take cooking classes, and eagerly love to share my travel experiences once I get home through the dishes I learned to make on my trips. I want someone who loves to eat — a picky eater definitely will not do. Certainly not a vegetarian, no offense, but the thought of having a fridge filled with tofu, seems like something I couldn’t see myself happy with for the rest of my life. I want someone adventurous in all aspects of their lives and are not scared to at least try everything at least once.


As a woman scientist, I knew I would meet many men who simply would not give me the time of day because “I was smarter than they were”.

Equally, this person would have to like to go to art shows and museums, enjoy the history behind things, and to go on local adventures around Wisconsin or the country. Someone who appreciates art and design in our natural world. Someone good at fixing and building things like my father. Someone with a beard perhaps? Someone who is a creative problem solver at work and home. Someone who is active and has interesting hobbies. Someone progressive, emotionally intelligent, and can empathize with others. Someone who likes to help others and is equally a good listener. Someone who can laugh at memes, have gut-busting laughter over jokes about donut and toilet paper exchanges, enjoy stupid TV comedies like Baskets, or awesome ones like Fleabag, or old Seinfeld episodes perhaps. Lastly, someone that would be confident and curious enough to be with a woman scientist.


I looked at my list and gulped. Who could this person be, do they possibly exist? As a woman scientist, I knew I would meet many men who simply would not give me the time of day because “I was smarter than they were”. This statement was thrown at me throughout my entire path to becoming a scientist. I knew that many men might also not believe I was a scientist, and question that I was even a professor at a big research university.


Countless men that I had conversations with on many of my work trips had said these things to me before. They usually noticed my microscope imaging data I was working on during the long flight and would ask me what was doing. Only to be met with disappointing and unfortunate comments.

I just assumed men online would do the same. And many of them did. I thought to myself, I need to find a confident man, who was not only ok with dating a scientist but could also understand I needed the same emotional support just like anyone else.



A fish tagine Ahna made at a cooking class in Marrakech. (Ahna Skop)

Within a few hours of posting my profile, I had a large list of men to search through ranging from construction workers, truck drivers, lawyers, retired bankers, salesmen, CEOs, computer guys, teachers, realtors, writers, surgeons, historians, to swinging couples, etc. Wow! Really? Did they read my profile? Could we be a match? Hmm…It was a lot to take in and the likes kept rolling in.

Within two days, I was inundated with over 200 men and even a few couples. How could this possibly be? Am I that attractive or interesting or even a match for them? Self-doubts crossed my mind multiple times, and then I decided to chat with a few.


The first men I talked with ran computer systems for a hospital, to a lawyer who worked for the state, a surgeon, a metal artist/farmer, and even a self-proclaimed “computer nerd” who loved to play the drums on the weekend. All of them were interesting and handsome, but I then settled on a few I would talk with further.


If the discussions we were having by text was natural and easy, and they seemed like confident enough men that were not scared away by my job as a scientist, I decided to pursue talking to them further. Equally, I was paying attention to how quickly they would respond to sarcastic jokes, what their family was like (how many siblings, what did their parents do), and what new places they might want to visit perhaps.


The first man, the computer guy at the hospital, had his wife leave him for another woman about a year prior. She had been an alcoholic too. Talking with him, it seemed like we certainly shared similar pain of abandonment and divorce. Although I could not empathize entirely with what he had experienced, he seemed adventurous and was curious about my career as a scientist.


We decided to go on a date, and I thought the zoo would be optimal after Googling a few places for first dates. I felt it was the one place where you could get exercise, learn something new, and also run away easily, if necessary. It turned out better than I expected, despite being a cold blustery January day. At least the polar bears seemed to enjoy the weather, why not two people on a first date?


He was a nice man, and I enjoyed his company and conversation, so the next week we planned to go to another event. But it was there he got drunk and left me to go to another bar after the beer and cheese festival we attended. After that night, I never called back, as I felt I would be walking back into an experience with my ex all over again.


 

The whole online dating experience was interesting and at times even comical. I began to see, with my scientist’s eyes, that there were many of the same men on all of these sites, but more so on the free ones. Equally, I thought most men don’t usually want to pay for something they can easily get for free. So, I put myself out there on all of the free sites too, and within a few hours after this wise decision, I was getting inundated again but with much more diversity than before. And as you know, diversity is not only important for innovative teams but relationships as well.


My friends had said, “Men only look, they don’t read your profile”. I figured maybe I should try reading each guy’s profile in detail, but it seemed like I could be spending more time doing better things with my life. But I guess you have to be attracted in some capacity visually.


As a science nerd and sapiosexual, it’s hard to find these similar types of men by looks, you have to read — words are important. Many profiles I received were pictures of men holding a fish, and how close they lived to me, usually. That’s it. Slim pickings here in Wisconsin, except if you’re really into men who like to pose with a fish in one hand, and possibly a beer in the other. And I’m not the first person to write about this apparent trend.


To me, I wanted to know how these men think. What they are interested in or what their passions are both super turn-ons for me. How a fish draped across their body was going to tell me this, was beyond me? Looking and reading the guys’ profiles who liked me only seemed like the right thing to do.


Around the same time as my first failed date after the divorce, I stumbled across a man who was handsome and taller than me (important as I’m very tall). But what intrigued me more was that his pictures showed him doing things: skiing, motorcycling, being outdoors, and camping. And even one photo of him in front of an old Winnebago in the snow in his housecoat. I was smitten. Terribly intriguing, equally cute, and yet unbelievably much more interesting than all of the guys with the fish draped across their laps and beers in their hands.


I asked him why he liked my profile. He said, “Well you are clearly beautiful, and you look like you’re in your mid-thirties. But you had me at cheese.” I had snarkily said in my profile that, “I was looking for a man to share life and cheese with.” He told me he was sold on that line.


I was being honest, but I hadn’t realized that this was something that would attract the right man. My own “fishing technique” with cheese bait reeled in the right guy for me. He told me that he used to work at a cheese factory when he was a kid and loved all kinds of cheese. Things were looking good for me I thought. This guy has a LOT of potential.


 

We soon moved to talking on the phone about everything else under the sun: from traveling the world to his surprisingly progressive politics, his insight about the military as a socialist construct (that I hadn’t thought about before in that detail, but he was right). Equally, he shared stories about a funny bathtub game his brother did to him with ping pong balls that still cracked him up, to our shared fondness for Beck, and to what it was like to experience war in Afghanistan.


His Humvee had been blown up by a suicide bomber, and he described in great detail his experience of what it was like that day. One by one, he texted a picture of how the events occurred that day. Each one got more difficult to look at. I had never seen the aftermath of a suicide bomber attack before in this detail. I had paused in between and asked him if he had ever shared these photos with his wife…but he said she had refused to look at them. I had told him that she probably should have at least looked at some of them. I paused silently for a bit, and at that moment the intimacy between us was tangible.


His Humvee had been blown up by a suicide bomber, and he described in great detail his experience of what it was like that day. One by one, he texted a picture of how the events occurred that day. Each one got more difficult to look at. I had never seen the aftermath of a suicide bomber attack before in this detail.

I was enormously overwhelmed about what he saw during the war, and what we see here on the news. The disconnect is vast, and the emptiness the veterans feel after they get home after these physical and emotional experiences I could not fathom to begin to comprehend, but at least I know a little more than I did before. We all need to know a little more about each other, I thought. Why don’t we listen, why don’t we share the painful things we have experienced, or seen or have heard.


After that phone call, I recognized that these memories are something he has to deal with every day for the rest of life. War is not kind, war is forever I thought. My empathy for him and his army buddies became very real for me after that. I can at least understand the pain. It’s an enormous burden to carry, much more than a heavy backpack. It’s a heavy heart and soul always full of pain and fear.


Not only did he survive all of this, but when he came back he was diagnosed with cancer. And then several years later to be met with yet another trauma of divorce from a wife he truly loved for 23 years. A partner he thought would be there for him when he came back from war. The abandonment and loss you feel after war, death, divorce, disease are enormous. To me, this man is truly invincible and will always be my hero.


In a million years, I could have never guessed that a career military man would be a match for me. But the conversations, the laughter, the music, the love for cheese, the pain, the emotional scars, the trauma of life, and the abandonment after divorce were something we shared. And all of this very much intrigued me about him on so many levels. I wanted to know more. I needed to know more. Who was this guy?


After about two weeks of chatting daily on the phone, and after a much-needed trip to Florida to see one of my best friends for my birthday, we decided to meet. I realized that the zoo date went ok with the last guy, but doing that again might jinx me, as things didn’t work out so well on the second date.


I suggested we meet for lunch on a Friday at one of my favorite spots near my campus. For me, lunch had to be short, and I had an excuse that I had a meeting at 2 pm, so it was perfect. I suggested we meet on Friday, February 1st. I felt the day was significant for many reasons, it would be a first date, on the first of a month, and possibly the first step to a new life going forward.


After we both agreed to meet then, and my panic and anxiety set in. My gut was full of nerves, as I knew after chatting with him and seeing his photo, he was different from all of the other guys I’d ever gone on a date with in my life, and also someone more handsome than any other boyfriend in my 47 years would ever encounter.


Yes, he is that handsome, a “silver fox” as my cousin said.



One of Ahna's favorite cheeses, Azeitao, discovered in Portugal. (Ahna Skop)

 

As the February 1st day came, I could sense we both were nervous on the phone. Could you blame us? Dating someone new after many years of marriage is terrifying. I was almost two years out of my divorce and had never had a long-term relationship with anyone yet. He, as I found out later, hadn’t even been a month out from his separation after 23 years of marriage, and was on his first date. At the time, I didn’t realize how this short separation was going to affect our relationship later on. Despite being warned by authors of a few dating after divorce books and blogs, but I thought to myself it will be ok.


I woke up with butterflies in every inch of my body that Friday. I put on my best outfit and even decided to use eyeliner, something I don’t always do at work. But I wanted to show him that this scientist can clean up quite well.

I went to work super early that morning to get a lot of paperwork done for a manuscript, and then I was to polish a talk I was giving in a few weeks in Washington. I decided that I would go to the restaurant earlier to make myself feel comfortable with my surroundings and to work on my talk, something I did often before my talks or if I had to teach. Indeed, it was also a good idea today.

He, as I found out later, hadn’t even been a month out from his separation after 23 years of marriage, and was on his first date. At the time, I didn’t realize how this short separation was going to affect our relationship later on.

I remember it being a terribly cold snowy day with black ice almost everywhere. The week prior it was -30F, one of the coldest winters we ever had here in Wisconsin. I dumped all of my layers; the coats, the fleece jacket, the scarf, and gloves, down next to me on the adjacent chair, and set up my laptop to work on my talk while I waited for him to show up. Anyone who has ever been on a date after 40 knows what this feels like. This is different from when you are younger. The fear of immediate rejection after my divorce was building inside me and enormous. What was I thinking?


After a few people blew into the restaurant, and I mean blew in, as it was cold as hell outside, I turned my head back to my laptop again and again. I would say to myself, “Nope, not him. Nope.”, and back to work, I went. Then, almost exactly to the time we said we would meet at noon, he walked in or rather blew into the restaurant with the bitter cold right behind him.


He was dressed in a thin light coat, not as puffy as mine, but warm, and he had big gloves on, and a simple knit hat, and I immediately noticed his beard. As he walked toward me, he took off his gloves and hat, and for some reason, as he got close to me the hat, he had just taken off his head missed his hand as he looked at me, and it dropped on the floor.


I knew that the hat missed his hand as he was nervous when he saw me. I reached to pick it up as he reached to shake my hand and said, “Hello, you are more beautiful than your photo.” I quickly sat back at the table as I blushed, where he now grabbed a seat across from me, and I clicked Command S to save my Keynote talk quickly.


But before I closed my laptop, he said, “What are you working on? Show me.” So for the next fifteen to twenty minutes, I talked to him about my research. He asked questions about what I was showing him and what I do. I was nervous because I was not sure what he understood. He would tell me what he knew and kept asking really good questions. More importantly, I knew that most men probably would have bolted when I told them what I did as that had happened countless times to me in the past. But this didn’t happen this time. He was curious, listened, and appeared even more intrigued and engaged.


The server came over and gave our menus. And, of course, when you are having a good conversation, you don’t have time to read the menu. She came back a few times, and then I just said, “Can I suggest something good for you?” to which he obliged. I ordered quickly and we continued talking about my research and teaching, then about his military work, and current consultant job teaching and mentoring young people in the national guard.


It struck me as strange, as I assumed that we would be so different, yet our jobs seemed strangely similar as we continued chatting. He had managed many large groups in his long-decorated career, I had managed a lab for 15 years now and had been in science for 29 years. I write grants, he writes grants, yet he gets almost all of them. I usually don’t. Darn military funding levels, I thought! All were surprises to me.


He had managed many large groups in his long-decorated career, I had managed a lab for 15 years now and had been in science for 29 years. I write grants, he writes grants, yet he gets almost all of them. I usually don’t.

Time was flying by and I had to go to that 2 pm meeting. We finished our burgers and Parmesan topped truffle fries with a garlic aioli that we shared. And as any gentleman would do, he paid for lunch. I ran to the bathroom, to pee, of course, but to also check to see if I had parsley in my teeth. Thank goodness I didn’t. I walked back out, and he was waiting for me all bundled up with his giant black boots that appeared he could walk on water with them possibly. And there I stood with all of my layers of clothing, likely only my eyes were showing, prepared for the bitterness of outside.


Nervousness set in, as I knew the date was ending. I had never been on a date in the middle of the day before and had no idea what the protocol was, but I knew that I needed to get to my car without slipping for one. I had already broken my left leg three times, so ice and snow are not friends of mine.


I could see him trying to grab for my hand and then all he could get was my elbow and he said, “Let me help you to your car.” I couldn’t believe this military man was interested in me, a scientist, and nevertheless wanted to hold my hand. Panic was going through my mind as I realized that people often like to kiss after a nice date. I thought to myself, “Who kisses at noon?”. No one I thought, except married people or young college-aged kids.


When we got to my car after walking over the frozen streets, I opened my door and I could see him kind of unsure what to do either, but sensed he wanted to kiss me at NOON on a FRIDAY in a small town. I said to myself, “No way” and thanked him for a wonderful lunch as I pulled my car door closed and quickly drove off. I went back to work, attended my 2 pm meeting, and then came back to my office, and sat dazed at my computer, smitten with the butterflies he had just given me-something I had not felt in a long time.


About four o’clock, I got a text from him, and he said he had a great time and that he was calling to apologize for the ‘rookie mistake’ he made after lunch.

I said, “What ‘rookie mistake’?”


“Well,” he said, “On the drive over here, I thought of every scenario in my head on how to kiss you and thought any one of them would work, but all of them failed miserably.”


I said, “Hey it’s ok, it’s lunch at noon in a small town. Who kisses at lunch?” He laughed as I stared at my computer smirking. He said, “I would like to see you again, how about tomorrow?” I said yes and thought to myself, “Wow, I guess I didn’t scare this one off?”


 

February 2nd was a day I will never forget. I had to work on more manuscript revisions, but I could not think clearly. I was going on another date with probably the most handsome and interesting man I had ever met. I reminisced on how he blew into that restaurant yesterday, dropped his hat as he saw me, and I looked up and was equally smitten.


Before I knew it, I was running around my house trying to figure out what kind of outfit would look nice when it was sub-zero outside. What shoes to wear and are my nails clipped? He said he would come to pick me up at 6:00 pm, and we could walk down the street to Sal’s, the famous pizza place everyone raves about here in Madison.


As night fell, again butterflies were filling me up, I had to call my best friend in Florida to get a pep talk on what to do and what not to do. I had to have brushed my teeth more than six times and checked my makeup and lipstick just to make sure everything was perfect. I was terrified and excited all at once.

He rang my doorbell exactly at 6:00 pm, and there he stood with one rose in his hand, and his giant boots that could walk on water, and thin coat and possibly a leather jacket underneath. He came inside, and I put the rose in water and said, “Thank you for this, it’s so kind.” He said let’s walk down to the restaurant. I said it’s icy out. He said, “I’ll hold your arm.” I agreed.


In a million years, I could have never guessed that a career military man would be a match for me.

We walked down the front steps to the sidewalk, arm in arm except that he was also holding my hand too. It was nice, really nice. He smelled nice also, as I looked up at him while the cold wind hit my face. He was this tall, powerful, handsome military man that was holding my hand as we walked. It was something I’ve been craving for two years since my divorce, and today it seemed like I’d been waiting for this night my whole life. It was even better than I could have imagined.


As we walked toward the restaurant, which is only three blocks away, I barely looked in front of me, which was unusual, given how many times I had fallen and broken my same left leg. I just looked at him, and his hand in my hand and around my arm. And before I knew it, within a flash, I went down. I mean really down. I landed flat on my back with the wind knocked out of me, and I blacked out. I had slipped on black ice. I came to and he was saying, “Are you ok? Hey, are you ok?”


The look of horror came over me, as all of my primping, especially my hair and the outfit that I was wearing was soaked wet from the back of my head, coat, pants, to my feet. I was hurt, wet, embarrassed, and wanted to bolt back to my house. This date was not starting well.


He picked me up this time, said it’s going to be alright, and held me even closer and more firmly, and we made it to the restaurant and sat at the bar. I feverishly used my fingers to detangle my hair that was matted from the wetness from the fall on the ice.


We were at the bar, and other couples there were perfectly coifed and dressed up, and as I looked at him, completely dry and handsome as he took off his coat and I could see that he was staring at me. I was quite certain my mascara was running, and bruises were starting to form all over my body. I was embarrassed, to say the least. He did not even bat an eye. Yet, I think he was laughing inside, but he didn’t let up.


We ordered Sal’s best pizza and some tasty chicken wings too. Although I noticed his leather jacket and pressed shirt, I was smitten with his silvery fine disheveled haircut and beard. I’ve got a thing for men with beards. He was rugged, sexy, and his eyes were on me, the completely wet nerd who just wiped out on black ice sitting next to him.


I was smitten with his silvery fine disheveled haircut and beard. I’ve got a thing for men with beards. He was rugged, sexy, and his eyes were on me, the completely wet nerd who just wiped out on black ice sitting next to him.

We laughed, chatted about current events, science, the army, and then finished the amazing pizza I absolutely loved at Sal’s and walked back to my place. This time he said, “Let me really hold on to you this way.” He grabbed my elbow, forearm, and squeezed my hand in my gloves tight and we walked, inching step-by-step home, looking for black ice all the way. We made it close to my house and I said, “Let me go around back and open the garage door and let you in the front door,” as I did not want to walk on the ice near my door again.

I left his arm and headed around my building, and as I made my way to my garage, I wiped out again, knocking the wind out of me for a bit. I brushed myself off, now even more embarrassed, and rushed to my garage and inside my home.



Pizza at Sal's. (Ahna Skop)

I quickly checked myself in my bathroom mirror to see what I looked like after falling not once but twice in the same night. I looked awful. I combed my hair with my fingers to get more of the matted tangles out, and then ran to my front door to let him in. He said, “Where did you go?” I said, “Well, I wiped out again out back!” He said, “Oh no, are you ok?!”

We sat in my living room, and I dried off again and laughed a bit. I had a sip of tea and poured a drink for him. I was like, there is no way this guy is going to want to see me again. I’m a total hot mess and just decided that this date was a bust.

As it got close to midnight, after falling two times, I said, “I think I have to go to bed my head hurts.” Possibly even a concussion I thought. He lived about an hour and a half away, so he said, “Maybe I’ll just crash on the couch.” I said, “If you want, and I’ll show you the guest bathroom upstairs where you can brush your teeth and wash up.”

I was nervous about what was going to happen next. Really nervous. I’d never been with a guy since my husband, we had not even kissed either. And in the living room just prior, I said, I don’t sleep with guys until I’m ready. He said, “Ok, fair enough… noted.”

So, I went upstairs, and he followed me and I showed him the guest bathroom. I ran to my bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror yet again, and was just like, “What the hell? Why did I have to fall again? I totally blew it, for sure.”

I could hear him in the other bathroom washing up. He asked for a toothbrush, and I gave him one of my many free ones from hotels I save from my numerous work trips. I then got into my favorite comfy black nightgown and jumped in my bed before I heard him walking toward my bedroom, possibly to say goodnight.

He stood at the end of my bed and said, “I can sleep on the couch, but I wanted to know if it’s ok to sleep here next to you in my jeans and T-shirt?”

I was kind of surprised given how much of a hot mess I looked like this entire evening. Yet the first thought that popped in my head was, “What guy sleeps in jeans and T-shirt the whole night?” No one! Not one guy would do this.

But I said, “Ok. You can sleep over there on the left side,” and again reinforced my ground rules. He obliged and laid down on the left side of the bed in his jeans and T-shirt, surprisingly.