By Kelsey Miller
When Leslie arrived for her first date with Tom in summer 2020, she had a plan: the date would last two hours, outdoor activities only, and no discussion of sensitive subjects. The rules had nothing to do with Tom himself. In fact, he was one of few matches she’d felt comfortable meeting in person since returning to dating after a long hiatus.
Leslie, a policy director in pharmaceuticals, had used Bumble a few years prior. “But I was chronically insecure back then,” Leslie says. “I swiped right based on looks and jobs, and made concessions for other things.” Even things that made her uncomfortable. “I thought I had to be with someone ‘good on paper’ in order to be respected.” This way of thinking only amplified her insecurity and decimated her confidence—so she stopped dating and started therapy. “I had to develop my own self-worth and values,” she says, “in order to be ready for someone like Tom.”
Leslie stood waiting for Tom in Riverview Park, a scenic spot in Jersey City, N.J., where Tom lived. It was a quick trip from Leslie’s place in Harrison, and they’d chatted for a month before planning this date, but she still wasn’t sure she was ready to meet in person. Leslie began to think through her gameplan again, when suddenly, Tom appeared. “Before I could say a word, he wrapped me in the biggest bear hug,” Leslie says. Her anxiety flared—then vanished. “That hug—it was like a hug you’d get from someone who’d known and supported you for years.”
He hadn’t, of course, but Tom was already enamored with Leslie. He knew better than to say so, he says. “But every instinct was telling me, ‘Dude, this is the girl.’”
Tom worked in television production, and had spent much of the previous year prioritizing that. After ending a long-term relationship in 2018, he’d taken his own year-long dating sabbatical. Like Leslie, he’d recently re-joined Bumble with a firmer sense of self, and what he was looking for in a partner. Unlike Leslie, he had no trepidation: “I wasn’t really interested in just dating around,” Tom says. “I was looking for my partner—someone who I could see myself with in twenty years. Someone who’d gotten to know herself too.”
Even during their early chats, Tom could tell Leslie had done just that: “She took herself seriously,” he says. “She was clear on her goals and was actively working toward them.” Tom also found Leslie hilarious, and was captivated by her infectious charm. That day, as they chatted and strolled from the park to an outdoor bar—then to another, then one more—Tom felt more than charmed by Leslie. He felt connected to her. “I was already head-over-heels,” he says. “I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe it’s going this well!’”
Neither could Leslie. “I broke all my own rules!” she laughs. Within the first hour they’d discussed each other’s politics, spiritual beliefs, and even therapy. The two-hour timeframe stretched into nine. When they finally said goodnight, Leslie walked to her car elated, and kind of annoyed: “I’d psyched myself up to start dating again with all these rules, and he made them seem totally unnecessary!” Leslie says. “In a good way.”
Still, they moved at a moderate pace, at least for the next few dates. And Leslie maintained her most important boundaries: “I wasn’t going to kiss him, or let him in my apartment until I knew where we were—not just romantically, but in terms of our COVID-19 rules.” Though the pandemic kept them physically distant, it accelerated other forms of intimacy. “When everything’s shut down and you can’t go to the movies, you end up doing a lot of talking!” Tom says. “We went deep.”
Leslie slowly opened up to Tom about her past dating troubles. “He was so affirming and genuinely understood,” says Leslie. “That was huge, because I’d always worried my problems were unique.” Tom also understood that she was still working through them. “With certain things in life, it’s not about ‘getting over it.’” says Tom. “You just work through it, day-to-day. Leslie and I were able to be each other’s support.”
By fall, they’d kissed, gone indoors, and become exclusive. By winter, they were practically living together. So that spring, they decided to move in together properly, and found a new apartment in Bloomfield, N.J. We’ll test it out, Leslie told herself. Leases can be broken. “It was a constant push-pull in my head,” she says. “I knew I loved him. I could see myself with him long-term.” Still, the anxiety lingered, even as they went furniture shopping.
“There’s one moment I’ll never forget,” says Leslie. They were in a store, discussing a bed with a salesperson. “It was a really expensive bed, and she was trying so hard to sell it to us: ‘It’s so good! You’ll have it forever! You two will be on this bed for the next twenty years!’” A wave of panic hit Leslie.
Then, she looked at Tom. “And he was just laughing!” she says. “He was having a great time, just casually chatting with this woman about twenty years?!” They left the store and she turned to him: Had that salesperson really said that?
Tom nodded calmly, agreeing it was a pretty wild sales tactic. “But he said it with kind of a knowing smile,” Leslie says. It was one of the things that confounded her about Tom, and one of the things she relied on: “He was always a bit more certain about things than I was.”
A year after signing that first lease, they signed another, in Washington D.C., where Leslie’s policy career had led her. The following summer, Tom knelt in a field of lavender—Leslie’s favorite flower—and asked her to marry him. By then she could answer with no hesitation: “It was an emphatic yes,” she says. A year and a half later, in fall 2023, she said yes again on their wedding day.
Main photo credit: Karen Norian Photography