Ian Wilhite wants a serious relationship. At 32, he feels like he’s probably “the last of his cohort” who grew up with him in Michigan to settle down. It wasn’t supposed to be this way — he had a long-term relationship that he thought could lead down the aisle ... but it fizzled. Ian is close to his family, and he’d like to start one of his own soon. Ian has sickle cell anemia, which means he has spent a lot of time in hospitals; he wants to travel and experience everything life has to offer.

After stints working for former U.S. representative Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) — during both his ill-fated Senate and presidential bids — and for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the Hill, Ian now is a director in the office of academic affairs at a local law school, “helping students like me who were in law school who were interested in working in national politics.” All that means he has been in D.C. for a while and is finally in a job that gives him enough personal time to focus on, well, him. But, thus far, there hasn’t been a Mr. Right who’s ring-worthy.

So, he signed up for Date Lab. Then the pandemic hit. Date Lab found him sheltering with his parents at their home on the outskirts of Dallas. As his Zoom date approached, “I oscillated between excited and also nervous about what a blind date entails,” he tells me. He put on a collared polo shirt and ordered from a local barbecue joint.

Oddly enough, Eric Martinez, 25, who normally lives in NoMa, was also in Texas, socially distancing with his parents and siblings in Houston. Eric had applied to Date Lab just after Valentine’s Day. “I was feeling like maybe I should start dating again. I got out of a relationship last April, and I wanted to take some time to be alone and love myself. And seeing all these couples online expressing love made me want that.” Still he approached the application thinking it was an unlikely source of love, “but wouldn’t it be cool” if it were?

Eric works for a local trade association. Back in March, when his office announced a week’s worth of telework, he booked a one-week trip home — and the week never ended. But it’s okay; like Ian, he’s close to his family. Unlike Ian, he’s not the only one at home. One sister is in school; a brother is an essential worker at a liquor shop.

For his date, he decided to put on jeans. (“That was the first time I put on real pants in weeks.”) He ordered in fajitas and logged on. He immediately wondered if he was sabotaging the conversation by launching into a chat about the pandemic, and how crazy the world is right now, and how odd it was to be having a virtual date in the middle of it. But he needn’t have worried. They got pretty deep quickly. “One thing that jumped out,” Eric notes, was that Ian didn’t come out till he was 21 or 22. “And I have known for, like, my entire life.”

Ian, for his part, says that Eric “had sort of mentioned — he attended an all-boys Catholic high school, and I think he was kind of saying he came out much earlier than I did — not like a judgmental way.”

Eric says it felt like “chatting with a friend — or FaceTiming with a friend — but it was different because he was a stranger.” Eric was surprised Ian had told his family so much about the date. It gave him the sense that Ian took the whole thing more seriously than he did.

“It’s not a topic I generally talk to them about,” explains Ian, but “my dad was very interested and not only in the pre-date but also the post-date. He was joking like ‘Are you really going to wear that?’ But I think overall ... they were like ‘Are you really going to do this in quarantine? Can’t you wait and do this when you get back?’ ”

The chat lasted nearly two hours. But both men felt the banter was more friendly than romantic.

“I wonder if it would have been different in person,” muses Eric, adding, “You can’t really be sure if there’s that energy or that palpable tension unless you’re in person. I don’t know if you can get virtual butterflies.”

Ian agrees: “That might be a casualty of the Zoom aspect: It felt more like making a friend just in terms of the chemistry I was picking up.”

By the end of the date, they both put on a “Love Is Blind” Zoom background and traded emails, but any nods to meeting up again seemed pretty perfunctory. Both offered a vague “look me up when this is all over.” But who knows when, or if, that will be.

Rate the date

Ian: “Between a 3 and a 4” [out of 5]. “I don’t think chemistry was there other than friendship.”

Eric: 3.7. “He was really easy to talk to and really engaging, but it was really hard to feel out any romantic vibes.”


No further contact.

Sarah Wildman is an award-winning journalist based in Maryland.