These days, I keep a box of shoes hidden under my bed. I’ve never worn them, although after writing this, I probably will start.
            The pandemic brought restrictions in 2020, of course, and my in-person classes were cancelled on March 12th, thrown into cyberspace. For the next couple months, the world existed at-home, online, and in open-air places. So, bored, I swiped on Tinder and ended up texting some guys, trying to navigate things online, so that I wouldn’t accidentally bring the coronavirus back home with me and get my family sick. My family was, and still is, incredibly anxious about the coronavirus.  
            In April, I walked in the park with Zach—a sober guy that I met a while back, who almost gave me herpes before stealing essential oils from a CVS; I facetimed Hermz—a guy who changed his life after a near-death experience at a rave; and texted Cesar consistently, while reading St. Teresa of Avila, suggested by one of my classmates, and also reading On the Origins of Species, and setting up studio lighting, and feeling waves of stress headaches, and sitting on a phone call with Mikey and Greg. And, two days later, I spent all day reading about Sufism—it was Good Friday—and talked about mystics with a head full of stress. Cesar wanted to read my Sufism book, the one my priest recommended and the one I was using for my term paper in that class, The Mystical Dimensions of Islam, and so he ordered it for forty dollars. Another dude, Smitty, texted me for help while I was playing Star Wars Battlefront II with my brothers, depressed and suicidal. Crazy April.
            Cesar was the only one who I kept texting. He had a similar music taste, sending me 24 songs for every song I sent, and was as romantic as you could get over text messages (which, I guess, meant that he sent rose emojis rather than eggplants). I think we called a few times, but I don’t really know. I’ll admit one of my weird romantic ideals and say that I suggested that we become something like pen-pals, writing letters instead of text messages, which, in my mind, avoids the dystopian character of something like the movie Her. Early on in the pandemic, it was the best we could do. And Cesar agreed, two weeks into texting, asking “red or blue?”
            But initially, before the letters, we talked about religion, though he wasn’t religious. Cesar had a family that didn’t support him—a Catholic mother and a Freemason father. According to a woman in Starbucks, where he used to work, his tattoo, apparently, was a mark of the devil. And, speaking of other religious people that we’d encountered, we both agreed that “why did Adam and Eve have a belly button?” was a dumb question.
            And beyond religion, we talked about how whenever Cesar told other guys that he loved them, the guys would run away, because Cesar gets attached fast, and the other guys really don’t know what they want. He’s the type of guy who just wants to stare up at the night sky with someone, he said (he was a night owl working a night shift), asking, “You wanna see two neutron stars collide?” He sent a gif, asking whether he should send me roses. “It’s too early for that,” I said.
            So in late April, I woke up with a text from Cesar, saying that a shipping thing is “out for delivery.” And, additionally, Uber was bringing me something in forty minutes, he said: a flat white to wake me up, because normally he would pick me up and bring me to a coffee shop, but the pandemic brought restrictions.
            I sat up in bed, immediately panicked, because I lived with my family and did not want them to see the coffee: not only could the coronavirus potentially be transmitted through coffee (we really didn’t know at this point), but I did not want them to find out that I gave out this address to some rando on the internet, even if he seemed incredibly sweet and harmless, only sending gifts of coffee and some unknown “shipping thing” (it could all be fake! He could show up at the house with an axe asking my family where I was, throwing my family into an ethical dilemma! But, more realistically and charitably, everything is mediated online these days—some say that the internet is a good model of a mystical faith, requiring trust where you only have an image of someone! And isn’t the risk of meeting an axe murderer the risk of all online dating? Yes, my mom would say, and she forbid me from it when I initially came out, because any guy could be a murderer. So how would you pass this form of a Turing test? What would you do in a pandemic?). And so I paced around my room, I walked downstairs and saw my family, for no reason at all, just staring blankly and innocently out the empty window onto the street, talking about the people walking by at 10:40 in the morning, and I ran upstairs again, anxiously counting down the clock while Cesar sent me shipping updates. And a grey car pulled up for the no-contact delivery; I hid upstairs, and my dad walked inside with a small container from Starbucks in his hand, while my mom circled around incredibly perplexed, both asking questions about this mysterious delivery dropped off from a grey car and abandoned on the doorstep, my mom noting “that’s creepy.”
            In the kitchen now, my parents, reading the name on the cup, asked each other if they knew a Cesar. “No,” they both concluded, deciding to ask my brothers if they knew a Cesar. I stood there, curious and wanting the coffee without disclosing anything to them. “Maybe we should just throw it away,” they said, and my mom added, “it’s probably poison.” I told them to leave it: “I’ll take it if no one else will,” because it would be a waste to dump out fresh coffee. Twenty minutes later, after they both lost interest, I brought it up to my room, now cold. I texted Cesar, but he was asleep.
He texted me at four the same day, saying that he got a notification that “my package got delivered.” Two in one day, I thought. I ran downstairs, my family watching closely, about to pick up the package, when I grabbed it. “Photo stuff,” I told them, and ran upstairs, shocked that this was not a letter, but a full-blown package. Cesar, awake, wanted me to open it. I did. It was a box of bright red Toms. “They fit, right?” and I said “yeah.”
            I started shaking because it was a lot for me. I never met this guy, really, and I was so worried about my family finding out, while Cesar immediately changed the subject to an image from the Hubble telescope. It was a galaxy swirling, with the blue stars just appearing and the orange and yellow stars cooling. And I told him that I was nervous to accept the shoes, offering to return them, because we had not actually met each other, even though the shoes were incredibly sweet and thoughtful. “Keep the Toms, you deserve them and so much more” he said, with no expectation of any strings attached nor anything in return. And I sat on the floor, shaking, sobbing, and overwhelmed—not only for Cesar but for everything else in life, for the fact that an all-but stranger would be so generous, while I was surrounded by stress, isolated in a pandemic.
“Just don’t run,” he said. I said I wouldn’t. This would just be a lot to navigate, especially over text, and I needed some time to process. I did not want to be wooed by a phone, but by a person in-the-flesh, and that was a limitation we faced.
            To help me process, he sent me a picture of his wasp tattoo, from the occult, as a suggestion of the hidden aspects of life, because he felt emotions more deeply than most people. It was a way for him to make sense of this confusing emotional territory. The wasp tattoo was from a major event, when his father had put a gun to his head after Cesar said “no” to the abuse his father put him through. His dad got arrested; Cesar got a tattoo.
            From here on, Cesar just started sending me Troy Sivan songs, and slowly the chat faded out. It became a dump of thin content, with less questions and more simple observations about the world around us. The texts got shorter too, and I had essays to work on, until the replies stopped. Texts can only hold so much.
            I still have the shoes under my bed, two years later. They still fit. And I wonder if I will wear them one day, if only to be reminded of the person who told me that I deserve them and so much more, in spite of all the anxiety his gifts brought me. Or, as a reminder that I drank a gift that my family thought was poison, cold, as someone’s unspoken attempt to break out of the limitations of a text thread. A reminder to do the best you can when the world breaks down for a bit, even though I was not ready for it.