Mondays and Wednesdays with Sukari
Three days after San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order went into effect in March 2020, I called a complete stranger out of the blue and asked her if she’d like to talk.
I’d been assigned to call Sukari, aged 84, through a local nonprofit called My Life, My Stories. Calling strangers is not my strong suit; I’ve often said I would be terrible at a sales job, wary of imposing on anyone and wasting their time. Fortunately, I wasn’t trying to sell anything to Sukari, just seeing if she needed help getting groceries and setting up a weekly time to chat.
On our first call, Sukari told me she’s happy 98% of the time. “I love life,” she said, as I frantically tried to ballpark my own percentage. 40%? 50? We set up a regular time to talk on Monday and Wednesday mornings.
A few days after my first call with Sukari, I woke up to a new “like” on Hinge. I’d been on and off dating apps for three years. Once the shelter-in-place order went into effect, I had to grapple with the reality that I would not be meeting anyone in person in the near future. When I re-downloaded Hinge, I answered the prompt “together we could” with “find love through protracted banter in the time of shelter-in-place.”
This was the answer James liked. He was cute; I was intrigued. We started messaging on the app — I asked him what his strangest grocery store panic buy was (mine was a giant stack of tostada shells).
As he and I traded messages, I got to know Sukari through our twice-weekly phone calls. Sukari talked about a speech she was working on for Toastmasters about learning how to be old. I wanted to read this speech, but even more than that, I wanted her to give me a roadmap for how to be young.
Our lives have unfurled entirely differently: at age 21, she was married with four kids. At age 30, I was single with zero. But here we both were, attempting to navigate this strange new reality, just a few blocks apart from each other but separated by masks and gloves and at least six feet. “Some mornings I wake up,” Sukari said, “and say, how many mistakes can I make today?”
Deliberately making mistakes has never been a guiding principle of mine. When I turned 30 in December 2019, with a job I love but very single and still unsuccessful in my quest to find an agent for my novel, I felt like I didn’t quite have my act together like I was supposed to. “You’re still in puberty,” Sukari told me and I appreciated the sentiment, even though that was not, strictly speaking, true.
She kept trying to offer to help me, asking if there were letters I needed sent or phone calls that needed to be made. That wasn’t the point, her helping me, though of course that’s exactly what was happening. “We’re going into a new world,” Sukari told me, “and we have to try to do the best we can.”
This was abundantly clear to me as I walked up and down the hills of a relatively empty San Francisco, shops and restaurants boarded up and sometimes graffitied over. Every few blocks, blocky post-it note hearts adorned bay windows — calls to hope, despite it all.
James from Hinge soon went into my phone as Quarantine James. As we texted more and more, I fell fast and hard for his words. I was entirely unaccustomed to the feeling of being so confident in another person’s interest, because the other person assures you of it, in no uncertain terms.
He deleted Hinge even before the first of our series of socially distanced bike and picnic dates; I followed suit and did the same. When I confessed a white lie I’d told a friend and jokingly asked if my secret was safe with him, he texted back, “Everything about you is safe with me.”
On Sukari’s 85th birthday, I donned a mask and gloves and brought her pecan cookies I had baked. She talked about the tremendous effort it took to make it up the California Street hill and how she told herself, “I’m going to make it or I’m going to die trying!” On Mother’s Day, we walked up the hill together, taking breaks to rest before sitting in the sun in the courtyard of Grace Cathedral.
I told Quarantine James he was competing with Sukari for the title of best person I’d met during quarantine. I felt, paradoxically, more connected than ever, but everything seemed so tenuous: at any minute, I could get sick, or someone close to me could. On weekday afternoons, I started bringing my laptop to my fire escape as soon as the sun crossed over the top of the building, putting my life in the hands of an antiquated structure that I could only hope wouldn’t fall out from under me.
Quarantine James and I went on a “date” to a virtual pun-off in our respective apartments. We joined a two-week healthy cooking challenge, texting each other photos of our dinners each night. I met his friends during socially distanced picnics on the Presidio Golf Course; we watched The Day After Tomorrow on his iPad in Golden Gate Park. “I’d like to go on the record here,” he texted at one point. “I’m crazy about you and I’m beyond thankful we connected.”
A few weeks into the pandemic, I bought post-it notes at CVS and made a giant, blocky heart on the center pane of the bay windows in my bedroom. When I looked in the mirror, the light streaming in through the pink post-it notes lent a rosy tint to my skin. “A lot of good things are coming out of this pandemic,” Sukari told me, but I already knew this to be true.
Two months after we first connected on Hinge, Quarantine James sent a text that wished me “happy weekend” before telling me he wanted to take a step back and just be friends, due to a few contributing factors that he wouldn’t elaborate on. He signed off with “quarantine would be a lot less fun without you,” relegating whatever it was that we’d had to a distraction from the bleak existential dread of the pandemic.
Minutes later, I responded, still in shock, telling him that I was taken aback and heartbroken and that it would be too hard to just be friends. I asked if he could shed any light on what was going on for him.
Waiting for his response, I took down the post-it note heart from my window. I didn’t do it to be poetic — if I had, I would have left up half a jagged heart, one that made passersby stop and stare and wonder if I hadn’t quite understood the prompt. I just couldn’t stand to look at it anymore.
He never answered.
Falling for someone during those early, chaotic stages of pandemic was like taking a drug that dulled the edges of the pain and boosted my emotional immunity — it was something to hold onto that was now gone. I had to accept that I’d misjudged the narrative arc all along; it wasn’t the epic love story I’d hoped for, but yet another heartbreak.
Early in our relationship, Sukari told me about her sweetheart, 12 years her junior, who took her to Tommy’s Joynt for martinis on their first date. Listening to Sukari talk about Harris, I asked her if I’d have to wait until I was her age to meet someone like him. Sukari reminded me that I was the prize.
“We feel like we would be so lucky to find the right man,” she said, “when really we’re the right woman.”
The day after Sukari definitively beat out James as the best person I’d met during quarantine, I called her and immediately started crying.
Somehow she knew every thought I’d had in the past 24 hours — that I’d done something wrong or in some way hadn’t measured up — without me even telling her. “You cannot let what happened with him determine what happens with the next person,” she said. “Don’t ignore the hurt — acknowledge it and it will go away quicker.”
Over the next few months, we kept talking twice a week, and often more, Sukari ending most conversations with a promise: “until next time.” We did virtual improv classes together; compared notes on the recipes we made in our Instant Pots. She met my family over FaceTime.
When I told Sukari I wanted to train for my first-ever half-marathon, she asked me to text her every time I ran to hold her accountable: when I would run, she would walk. When I crossed the finish line weeks later on a course of my own making, she and Harris were there to greet me in Union Square.
After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered and the country erupted into protest, I watched with humility as Sukari spoke to multiple virtual gatherings about growing up Black in segregated Virginia, about not being allowed to walk on certain sides of the street, about only being allowed to go to Chinese restaurants and even then, having to go through the back door and get takeout. Sometimes her mother would break the rules and they would sit in the front of the bus.
“Role model?” Sukari wrote of her mother in her memoir. “My mother led the pack. When I think of the price she paid for this life, I regard her as I do all of the other Black women throughout this story: miraculous. They, as well as my mother, are miracles of the human race. The constant reminders by society that I am different because of the color of my skin, once I step outside of the door, is not my problem; it’s theirs.”
In August, Sukari went to a routine doctor’s appointment, and came home so tired that she went to bed in the middle of the afternoon. A few days later, I listened to a voicemail that made my heart drop: “I think I have the virus,” Sukari said, in a voice so frail and unlike her own that the sound of it scared me almost as much as the words themselves.
When I called her back, after asking all the practical, logistical questions, I asked if she was scared. “I’m trying not to cry,” she said. “I’m trying to be a big girl.” My heart broke, again.
Both she and Harris tested positive for coronavirus. They quarantined separately, Sukari at home and Harris at a Covid center run by the city. Sukari had no close family members in San Francisco—in addition to being her sweetheart, Harris was a huge part of her support system, taking care of her after a stroke a few years prior, but now he too was incapacitated.
I dropped off sunflowers and chicken noodle soup and pecan cookies, which Sukari said were the only food she could still taste. I gave her an oxygen saturation monitor I’d purchased months earlier, after reading a particularly terrifying account of Covid, and picked up new pajamas at Macy’s because she didn’t have the energy to wash her clothes.
I cried a lot, those days, but I never let her hear it. If texts or calls went unanswered for stretches of time, I imagined the worst. I asked for Harris’s number, both so I could check in on him and in case I ever couldn’t reach Sukari.
One week after she received her positive test result, Sukari told me that her oxygen saturation level had dropped to a level that her doctor previously said would warrant hospitalization—but she hadn’t spoken to her doctor in over a day. I was set to move out of San Francisco the very next day, but I panicked and started making calls, trying to get in touch with Sukari’s doctor, the city’s Covid center, anyone who could help. Eventually, Sukari got in touch with her doctor and went to the hospital for a respiratory screening.
The doctors told Sukari she had pneumonia on top of Covid and gave her the option of being admitted, which she chose to do. Sukari was in first one hospital and then another for the next two weeks; for the first of those weeks, she sounded extremely weak and occasionally disoriented when I talked to her. “You’re something to hold onto,” Sukari told me one day, and I in turn held onto that, hoping that she might make it, despite all the odds that were stacked against her.
And then one day, two weeks after her positive test, she sounded like herself again: feisty and full of life, even though she was still too physically weak to stand up for a minute at a time. When Sukari was transported home in an ambulance after her two-week hospitalization, Harris was there to greet her.
As she recovered, we made plans for someday: someday, once we had a vaccine, Sukari would visit me at my parents’ home in San Diego, where years ago, she’d camped out for weeks in a VW van she fixed herself.
In the intervening months, I moved across the country and got a puppy. Sukari was interviewed by the Bay Area’s NPR affiliate and published her life story through the nonprofit that first connected us, a copy of which sits on my nightstand in Washington DC.
Sukari and Harris got vaccinated; a few months later, I did too. I turned 31; she turned 86. I’m still single; she and her sweetheart are still going strong. She tells me not to rush out of this stage of my life. I try to listen.
I wrote the first draft of this essay over a year ago, and since then, the ending has changed a number of times. Recently, I told Sukari I wanted to change the beginning — after all, Quarantine James has faded into the distance now, evolving into a faint memory rather than a present hurt. She told me not to. “Just keep adding to it,” she texted me.
Sukari asked me to write her eulogy before she died so she could read it. This essay is my tribute to her, my pre-death eulogy, in part a reflection on a relationship that wasn’t, but more importantly, a celebration of a relationship that has given me so much more than I ever could have imagined.
I’ve thought about what it will be like, once she’s gone, and how I’ll use the empty half hour on Monday and Wednesday mornings that’s become ours. I’ll miss her saying “I’m wonderful” when I ask how she’s doing, miss her making fun of me for going to bed early, miss the constant reminders that growing up and growing old doesn’t mean abandoning curiosity and joy.
“Even at 85 years old,” Sukari wrote in the final pages of her memoir, “I do my best to continue to remind myself to grow up with dignity, and that doesn’t mean I have to give up being spontaneous. There is never a precise time when I absolutely and extremely know myself. I’m a work in progress.”
Next week, I’m going to visit my parents in San Diego, and Sukari is coming to stay with us for a few days. One year after she caught Covid, we’re finally going to have the someday that once seemed like a fantasy for both of us to hold onto. We’re planning to go to the zoo.