Before the pandemic, Lourdes Elena South, who goes by Elena, had a full social life that included seeing live indie music, meeting up with friends and going dancing. But the pace of city life slowed dramatically and her weeknights now consist of talking to friends on Zoom, making dinner or “watching my garden grow,” she jokes. So when a friend suggested signing up for Date Lab at the start of the pandemic, she thought: Why not?

“I feel like I’ve become so socially awkward from being inside a lot and only talking to really close friends or family, who are used to my brand of weird,” Elena said. While she is interested in a relationship, dating during a pandemic is not ideal. She was nervous for her date in part because she has forgotten what it feels like to socialize. To get in the right mind-set, “I painted, did yoga and finished an audiobook.” (Appropriately, the book she finished was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers.”) Pre-covid, she may have worn bright red lipstick. But there was no point in that, since it would get smeared by her mask. She selected a pair of nice jeans and a thin jacket, tamed her curly hair, then drove from Arlington to RedRocks, a pizza place in Columbia Heights.

All of her relaxation prep was undone within minutes. “Driving was nerve-racking,” she said. “There was a point where I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to make it because I was stuck behind a cop car that stalled out.” While she prefers to get to dates a few minutes early, she arrived a few minutes late. She was frazzled, and she had no idea what her date looked like. She figured it out by deducing that the woman with the camera must be with The Washington Post, and the man next to her, Matt Gontarchick, was her date.

Blind dates are inherently awkward, and covid has only made them more so. “It’s kind of different now because when you’re first meeting people, you’re wearing masks and there’s this question about safety,” said Matt. “I’ve never truly been on a blind date before. When meeting her I just didn’t know what to say or do.” As with Elena, the pandemic has put a damper on Matt’s ability to find a partner. “I’m definitely open to something more serious and looking around,” he said. “Unfortunately, a global pandemic has kind of made this harder, so I’ve been trying to think out of the box and see what I can do outside the app world.”

After requisite banter about the weirdness of meeting a stranger during the pandemic, they tackled the first order of business: food, quickly settling on splitting burrata pizza. To drink, Matt ordered an Old Fashioned, followed by a Pilsener, while Elena ordered a glass of malbec and water. Despite the initial awkwardness, “it didn’t really take much to get us to start talking,” Matt said.

Matt, who doesn’t like to talk about himself, relied on Elena to steer the conversation. “I think I’m pretty good as a conversationalist, but maybe not A-plus,” he said. They talked about their hobbies and upbringings, searching for commonalities, and were pleasantly surprised to discover they are both only children. “When somebody asks me if I have any brothers or sisters on a date, it’s my least favorite question because I always feel like the chances of there being a second or third date after that basically plummets,” Matt said. “There’s a kind of stigma against only children.” Elena explained: “A lot of people have some misguided ideas that only children are weird or a little bit spoiled, and we both beg to differ on that.”

There were no red flags or cringeworthy moments. “We were both very aware that we were going to be interviewed afterwards, so it was a light, generic conversation,” Elena said. But something was missing. Elena, who is half-Peruvian and has lived in Puerto Rico, Panama and Peru, is passionate about Latin American art and culture. “He was interested, but it was a little harder for us to relate,” she said. “The last concert I went to was a 1960s psychedelic cumbia concert ... and he was like, ‘Okay, sure.’ ”

“We had superficial things in common,” she said, but “it didn’t proceed to more conversation.” There were other differences: He loves to run. She does not. She loves magical realism and surrealist art. He loves Warhol. She’s more “chatty and go-with-the-flow.” He’s “very methodical and contained,” she observed. Ultimately, the spark was missing. “The conversation felt like more of a friend or a work colleague,” Matt said. Elena echoed the sentiment: “It felt more like networking than a date,” she recalled. “Demeanor-wise, I could not gauge his reactions very well.”

They ordered cannolis for dessert, and after about two hours called it a night. Matt asked for Elena’s number at the restaurant. (“I did at least want to text her afterwards to thank her for a nice evening,” he said.) Then Matt walked home, while Elena walked to her car. The evening left her reflecting on the lessons of Gladwell’s audiobook: “We all think we are really good at communicating with strangers, and we’re not,” she said. “So I was like, I don’t know. I can’t read this situation at all.” Nonetheless, she enjoyed an outing “that was not my usual Tuesday on a covid-19 day.”

Rate the date

Elena: 3.5 [out of 5].

Matt: 3.8.


Matt texted Elena to tell her that, although he enjoyed meeting her, he did not feel a romantic connection. She said the same.

Prachi Gupta is a writer in New York.