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Unsplash/Ahna Skop Illustration

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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.

I turned the lights off, and I just laughed to myself quietly and uncomfortably. I again thought to myself, he’s going to sleep next to me in my bed the WHOLE night in his jeans.

We chatted a little more, laughed a bit, and then he asked me about my head. At this point, I felt a bump forming on the back of my head. I’m positive I most likely had seriously hurt myself and blacked out, so any decision I was going to make going forward I was to blame on this concussion. I said goodnight, rolled away from him and thanked him for a wonderful time.


About an hour later, I was still wide awake, because there was this handsome man in my bed still in his jeans. Duh?! And I just turned over to face him and I said nothing, ripped my nightgown off over my head, and said, “Let’s do it!” Although it was dark and I could barely see him, I knew he was smiling from ear to ear. And now likely more comfortable since he didn’t have to sleep in his jeans all night.

I never will forget that night — the night he made me realize, I was beautiful, sexy, smart, fun, adventurous, and attractive again.


He ended up staying the entire next day, Super Bowl Sunday, which I found equally unusual. And I had said to him, “Don’t you have a party to go to with your brother or friends?” He said, “No, I like this company instead.” Perplexed, I sat there and smiled as we watched a few funny shows and some of the Super Bowl together. I couldn’t even tell you who was playing or winning.

As time went by, and we saw each other more often, he texted me photos of him skiing and wherever his work took him. I sent him photos of me either at my desk working or where I was traveling too, as he appeared to be visually inclined. I often sent him on scavenger hunts to buy magnets for me (which I collect from each one of my travels), and then he would snap a photo of him there and bring me this gift when he returned. It was cute and fun.

We went on adventures together, picked each other up at the airport, went camping up North, attended a glass and light art show, saw my friend’s Salsa band, made lots of dinners with friends in my newly renovated kitchen, sent him on his road trips with two kinds of chocolate chip cookies (because you know, I wanted to make sure he liked at least one version I made; one crispy topped with salt, and another one thin and chewy), to lastly sharing a really good Waygu steak at a nice restaurant downtown.

The Waygu steak. (Ahna Skop)

One of my favorite things we did is our frequent chats about geography and maps. I’d say we are both big map nerds. This was his major in college, and I took several geography and global positioning classes as well. Find my Friends app is one of my favorite things and being able to share your geolocation on Google Maps made maps come to life for me. I guess this might have something to do with my dyslexia.

I always travel alone for work, and these apps allowed my family and friends to know where I was in the off chance, I fell or got hurt. One fond memory was when I called him on video phone from Morocco as I walked the streets of an ancient city, Ait Benhaddou, a World Heritage site. Getting there was one of the longest six-hour bus rides of my life straight up and over the Atlas mountains. I was always unsure of my safety and it was nice to see him, and I remember him specifically saying, “You are one ballsy chick.” I took that as a compliment.

About six months in, I knew that he knew, I was falling in love. Yet, his divorce was still not finalized. I knew he was not ready for another relationship, but I loved being with him, sharing experiences, sharing my GPS coordinates, and cherished the time we spent together just laughing about sugar-free gummy bears or talking about politics, his experiences in Afghanistan, or about some scientific discovery he wanted to know more about.

Everything about him I liked: his laughter, sense of adventure, love for science, ability to fix and refurbish bikes and cars, his supercool 1972 Winnebago, that was as old as me, but I reminded him I looked much younger and was in way better shape than it was, despite my falls.

“You are one ballsy chick.” I took that as a compliment.

I loved his spontaneity, his warmth, his empathy towards my painful end to my marriage, especially the inability to have a child, and certainly the pain from going through a divorce.

I even loved his smell. Oh, his smell. I once asked him for one of his T-shirts when he went out of town so I could sniff it to feel close to him. He obliged, and I kept it on my night table until I really had to wash it. I was attracted to him on a level I had never experienced with my first husband, first boyfriend, or any other boyfriend I had ever had.

It took me by total surprise that my feelings for this new man, a decorated military veteran and cancer survivor that I met online, outshined all of the previous men I had ever dated in my life.

Ait Benhaddou, the World Heritage Site Ahna visited in Morocco. (Ahna Skop)


As time went on, and as I felt like I was getting more attached, he was struggling with his divorce, managing work, his kids, his soon to be ex-wife, and his new life going forward. I knew he was devastated to lose everything he had built for his family and cherished after 23 years of marriage. It was more than double the time of my 10-year marriage, and my marriage and experience was traumatic enough for me. I couldn’t even imagine the feelings you have to process after 23 years together with someone and also having three beautiful kids as well.

I think our mutual empathy toward each other, and our shared passions and experiences were evident. We talked about things he was going through often, and I shared my own stories and how I got through them after divorce. We bonded a lot over these discussions and feelings of abandonment. I could see the pain on his face and in his voice. The fear of being on your own again. The uncertainty of everything.

Divorce, no matter how long you have been married, is a very difficult experience. And to watch someone else go through what I did just two years prior was painful for me to experience. But I loved him nonetheless.

“We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.” -Sam Keen

About seven to eight months in, I understood that he needed his space and his time alone to figure things out, to date other women, and to experience life on his own a bit. I was also equally getting more anxious about the stories he told me. The fights over money, the kids, the house, everything. I had not realized how much it was affecting me.

After two years, I had gotten myself into a good place emotionally, but then I found a man that I could love deeply, and see myself with, but he was not in the same emotional place as I was. He wasn’t ready for a relationship like I was. I needed someone to be there for me too. To comfort me and support me on my bad days and lift me on my good days, which he had done on many occasions, but missed many of my bad days because he was involved with his stuff. And I didn’t want to bother him.

I had to recognize that despite all of the good things that I saw in him, he wasn’t ready for anyone yet — he especially wasn’t ready for me. Soon after, we kind of drifted apart as friends would do but it was different. He needed something that I could not give, and I needed more than he could not provide at this point in his life.


A month later, he stopped by unexpectedly just as I landed from a flight from giving a seminar in Minnesota, and he asked to see me and went to dinner, told me he really liked me, and then, later on, told me started seeing someone new. I knew it was inevitable, but I was devastated nonetheless.

I regrouped several weeks later and decided to start dating again. I eventually met a very nice man, even a scientist, but realized I was still in love with my serviceman. I decided I needed time to find myself again, so I put dating on hold, told this new guy how I felt, he understood, but I happily gained a new friend.

In a million years, I would have never thought I would fall for a decorated serviceman. Our worlds seemed very different, and we both came to discover how similar they are. We clicked really fast, and it was easy, much easier than my marriage or dating any other guy had ever been.

We drifted apart for a few months, and then out of the blue, he texted me a song he recorded on his flute on Christmas Eve. Then, on Christmas day he wished me well. It was darn cute, to say the least. But I got it. I know he missed me as much as I did him.

I had sent him five pounds of sugar-free gummy bears to cheer him up a few weeks prior, as a housewarming gift. He had finally got his own place, so I was excited for him.

The last time we had seen each other, I had him in stitches while we read a few of the thousands of reviews of this fine product on Amazon together. I always loved seeing him laugh despite the ever-present pain of his impending divorce. I was sad we couldn’t see each other at Christmas and to see my friends that we enjoyed countless dinners with over the past year.

A week went by again, and although I thought I wouldn’t hear from him again, he texted me the night before his divorce in early January. I had this date burned in my memory and on my calendar, as our entire relationship revolved around many of the dates of his court hearings. I kind of expected him to reach out because he knew, that I knew what he was going through and I could empathize.

I wished him the best and sent a little heart kiss emoji (as I often did to him) with a picture of him and my cat Bonzai snuggling him, clearly showing the love she even had for him. He sent me a wink back acknowledging my love and also Bonzai’s.

Later that weekend, I reached out and said, “If you ever need to talk, you know I’m here and would be happy to take you to lunch when you are ready or need me.”

He never responded. Not even a word.

I was heartbroken. Not only for myself but for him.


For months, I heard nothing. Not a word, until a few weeks ago as the coronavirus pandemic started to surface on the news. He texted me a funny video, one each week without saying a word after this long silence between us, just the videos. And then a serious video was sent last week of a scientist who worked on the Ebola outbreak in Africa. This scientist served on the pandemic task force under the Obama administration, who discussed the drafted a plan for tackling another pandemic, that had been disregarded by the Trump administration when he took office. It was a very thought-provoking video that I shared with my friends, hoping to get them to see why we are not prepared for this coronavirus outbreak.

I texted back and asked if he was ok and not sick. He finally responded that he was ok and didn’t have the “cooties yet”. That was it.

Then one early Saturday morning, I woke to a 7 am text. “Do you want a visitor? I’ll come and pick up the grill. Your choice on social distancing.” After being in quarantine for four weeks and desperate to see anyone, I said, “Sure.”

I had been staring at that grill with rotisserie he gave me back in June for months now. I wasn’t able to emotionally move forward, because he was always here in my home each time I pulled into my garage after work or when I took out the recycling. My friends and family heard about this grill; everyone knew how much this grill reminded me of him and my love for him. Guys told me what this meant. I knew what it meant. And I couldn’t keep it if we were not going to see each other or be in each other’s lives anymore.

Not sure what to expect, I jumped out of bed and took a shower and got ready. I was dying to see someone, anyone I loved, and who loved me after being home for four weeks in quarantine and self-isolation. It was exactly what I wanted and needed.

He said, “Heading out soon ETA 11:30-ish.” I always loved how military prompt he was. And if he was running late, he’d say, “Updated ETA 11:45.”

I just loved it when he did that, as I was someone who hated being late for anything or disrespecting people who were depending on me being on time. We were very similar in this regard, despite my slow uptake on using military time, but I got a hold of it.


After six months of not seeing each other in person, he pulled up in his red Jeep out front, and I opened the door. His silvery hair was combed, but always was nicely disheveled at the same time, shirt tucked in; he looked nice as always. He came in, and I asked him to wash his hands and his face, he laughed, but understood my ground rules in the “time of the virus”.

I offered him coffee, but we both decided on tea. And then sat distanced from each other as we chatted about life, how his divorce trial went, and what has been going on since we last saw each other. It was really, really nice to see him. Although the pain had subsided from my broken heart, it was just nice to catch up, and we picked up right where we left off as if nothing happened. After about two hours, I asked if he could help me replace a light switch that I just got. He obliged, as he had always done with my home projects. When we first met, I had just started to renovate my entire first floor and kitchen. We then spent the rest of the next few hours trying to install this seemingly simple, Wi-Fi-enabled 3-way light switch.

All-in-all, we spent about five hours on this thing, and, the way the wiring in my home was done, it wasn’t as easy as the YouTube videos said it was going to be. Then, at about 6:30 pm, and many, many flights of stairs turning on and off the circuit breaker, I slowly trudged up the stairs for the last time. My legs were exhausted.

He said, “Turn that switch on over there in the kitchen, and then that one over in the living room.”

“Ok,” I said, and as I made it past him to the living room my shoe got caught under the wheels of his chair, and I did the splits as my socks slid across the slick floor.

We both heard a tear in my body somewhere, and I fell forward on my face. I cried in pain, and he knew I was really, really hurt. I ended up tearing the MCL ligament in my knee after an X-ray and then an MRI a few days later.

And as I sit and write this now, I am disappointed that I had to be vulnerable in front of him, again as I did on our second date. Because I knew this might be the last time we see each other again for a while, and yet I had so much to say to him.


I sat in my chair with my leg propped up with ice on it, as he reinstalled the old light switches back to how they were. He turned to me and said, “I can’t leave you here in the dark.”

A few minutes later with a screwdriver in his hand, he looked at me as I was crying and said, “I know your biggest fear is being alone and falling.”

At that moment, what he said not only told me that he got me, but that comment emotionally gutted me. He understood the immense fear I had as someone who has broken this very leg three times before. And to boot, he knew I was alone, and at this point four weeks in quarantine and self-isolation. I was in an emotional desert, couldn’t walk well, and he had to leave.

His girlfriend had tried calling a few times, but he didn’t pick up. So he gathered his stuff. It was 7:30 pm, and he was leaving me both hurt and alone. The devastation was setting in.

My Saturday did not end up how I thought it was going to be. Certainly, I did not expect that he would stay for so long, yet we spent eight precious hours together. In that moment of vulnerability, after falling, and after four weeks in quarantine and self-isolation, he gave me love, when I needed it the most. He had asked me a few times if I was sure he didn’t need to take me to the ER. I sensed he didn’t want to leave me here hurt. But I refused. He went to the bathroom, and then we both washed our hands again.

As I sat propped up against the kitchen counter, he reached his arms out and hugged me and held on to me for a long while. I whispered in his ear, “It’s going to be ok; things are going to get better, take care of yourself.” I could sense some tears from his eyes developing, and I could feel his warmth radiating and heartbeat change as I said this to him.

I fell not once, but twice for this man, not just physically in front of him, but emotionally.

I found it serendipitous that I slipped on ice on our second date, the date I will never forget. The date that helped me get passed my pain from divorce and showed me that I can love again. But now this fall in front of him was likely the last time we would spend together for a long while.

My first real relationship after divorce taught me a lot, and also emotionally destroyed me, more than my 10-year marriage ever did.

I fell not once, but twice for this man, not just physically in front of him, but emotionally. I will never forget the warmth, the comfort, the adventure, and the joy he brought into my life when I needed him the most, especially during this pandemic.

More importantly, this decorated serviceman taught me so many things about his world and life that I will never forget. I learned many things about myself that I had not recognized before.

Particularly, as a scientist, I will always be a “babe”, and worthy of love.


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Ahna Skop

From New Haven, Conn., Ahna received a Ph.D. in Cell and Microbial Biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and currently serves there as a Professor of Genetics. A scientist, artist, and diversity advocate, Ahna received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on outstanding scientists and engineers in the early stages of their independent research careers. She was also the winner of the inaugural American Society for Cell Biology Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity and is selected as an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador. Identifying as Eastern Band Cherokee, Lebanese, and Ukrainian, Ahna has served on the board of SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science); as a daughter of two artists, Ahna's own scientific artwork can be seen in the main entrance of the Genetics/Biotechnology Center building on the UW-Madison campus.