The city had just entered lockdown when the mourning dove laid her first egg: a perfect white oval in the flowerpot-ensconced nest on my fire escape. A second egg followed the next day. I photographed the clutch during the changing of the guards: my term for a daily occurrence where one dove landed on the fire escape to relieve its partner of the roost. The dove-on-duty would quickly depart while its mate prepared for its shift, and for a few brief moments, the eggs sat unprotected.
V. and I had met in January, before the pandemic took hold. She worked out of her loft as a prolific music artist; I co-conducted a small business while making a comeback to full-time writing. I’d seen her around the neighborhood before she asked me out for coffee. Her bright smile disarmed my best defenses; her stylish biker jackets and chunky vintage rings seemed the right kind of armor for someone that was so open-hearted to wear. For a few months, we traversed the quarter-mile distance between our two apartments. Then lockdown transformed our budding short-distance relationship into one reliant on long-term—and long-distance—dating techniques.
The city grew quiet then loud, as traffic stopped and sirens began. Global tensions reached fever pitch. The doves pacified me. I watched them instead of the news and talked to V. daily through handwritten letters, Netflix Party chats, and paragraphs-long, emoji-embellished text messages. I’d waited three years after my last relationship ended to date again. V.’s high-energy, frequent-contact communication style was different from anything I was used to, and its persistence both soothed and startled me. The regular cadence helped foster familiarity and trust, and I learned to relinquish silence—a writer’s most reliable companion—as our exchanges took center stage, the doves’ coos playing backtrack to my blooming heart.
One day in Mid-April, after weeks of deferring to quarantine restrictions instead of allowing our mutual professions of longing to take the lead, I left my apartment to walk to the park. A few steps out, I halted. My heart’s strongest desire was to see V. The gospel she preached to me and through her music was to trust your heart, take leaps of faith, and embrace the bigger dream. I changed course towards her, intending to stand outside her loft window—wait in the rain, if necessary—to say in person all that we communicated while apart. My adrenaline surged as I imagined her surprise and delight. When I arrived, her pink hoodie peeked out from the fog; once she drew near I declared, “Six feet!” She stared, stunned. Shock and not excitement, disturbance and not joy flickered in her eyes. In that moment, I saw V. as clearly behind her face mask as if for the first time: that she was indeed an excellent performer, in this instance of someone in love.
Haltingly, we established common ground. “I can’t believe you’re here,” she kept repeating. With masks on and guard up, we re-acclimated to each other’s presence over the course of several park laps. V. walked slowly. She’d gone out, she said, to listen to a newly mixed track, but could spare the time to see me. Was her current workload intense? No. Would we laugh, swap stories, or share our hearts? Definitely not. I rambled about random topics, hoping to hide the heavy sense of shame welling inside me. How could I have so badly miscalculated? I retreated back into the shell from which she’d coaxed me, especially when she confessed that she’d cried the entire next day. Confirmation, I took it, that I’d done something wrong. The wound deepened a few weeks later, when V. exuberantly celebrated a window drive-by performed by her photographer friend. It was the warm welcome I wished I’d received, but hadn’t.
It was the first of many moments when V.’s public actions contradicted what she’d told me in private. She’d worked tirelessly to build her career, its trajectory often intersecting with her long-term relationships. Social status begat success, intimacy interlocked with secrecy, and boundaries belonged to squares, not rock stars. The result was someone who knew exactly how to look and what to say in order to get what she wanted—including me—while also evading responsibility for what broke in that process. A disagreement between us would resurface on her Instagram feed, the views and likes from her followers validating her viewpoint as correct and my grievances as misguided. A flower bouquet would make me feel special and wanted, until I learned she also used it to market her new song.
I learned to build our relationship around these inconsistencies. When she wrote a song about our relationship and released it alongside interviews declaring her love for me, all before revealing that information to me in person, I forgave her. When she gifted me a self-help eBook on personal finance that I’d explicitly told her I didn’t want to read, I let it go. I could return V.’s love without criticizing its source; I could accept her challenge to open my heart more fully, no matter the outcome.
In many ways, that outcome mimicked the story of the doves. One week out from the eggs’ anticipated hatch date, I watched the parents swap evening shifts. Mama Dove rose from the nest, departing the fire escape with her customary “chee-chee-chee.” Papa Dove settled into bed, and so did I. But the next morning the nest was empty, the eggs gone. I searched in vain for eggshells or fallen hatchlings. Google shared that predators probably ate the eggs, or the mother transported them to a safer location by rolling them on the ground. Whatever the case, the doves appeared as puzzled as me. They returned to peck curiously around their old home before departing.
V. and I fell out of grace almost exactly one year after we met. Our anniversary dinner concluded with me providing some well-meant but unsolicited advice on how she could monetize her work: a recommendation that she immediately crowd-sourced and then discarded. Soon after, we respectively spiraled into our worst habits. I withdrew, tired of speaking and not feeling heard. She threw herself into her work with a manic cheerfulness that denied anything was wrong. Our insecurities chiseled away at our love until only the broken shell remained, reminders of what once held us together. V. mailed me two belated and love-laden anniversary cards alongside a breakup letter. I sent back her car key, with instructions on how to redeem a birth chart reading I’d purchased from an astrologer whose business shared the same name as the title of the first song V. ever wrote for me. The city further confirmed that we were through. On the sidewalk between our homes stood a concrete square with our initials carved into it. A newly installed storm grate soon replaced it. Then the other day, one dove returned to my fire escape. It strutted a few moments, looked me in the eye, and was gone.