Ben and Caitlin washed and sanitized their hands, strapped on their masks, and headed into the early morning.
Maintaining a distance greater than an airborne virus could travel was critical, Ben said, even if some of those they visited tried to get closer — a definite possibility considering the curiosity of baby chimpanzees.
It was late summer 2018. Ben, a University of Michigan biological anthropology Ph.D. candidate who grew up in Mount Airy, was spending a year studying the aging process, health, and behavior of the wild chimpanzees who live in Uganda’s Kibale National Forest. Caitlin, then a University of Michigan postdoctoral fellow who usually studies the culture of human primates, was visiting him.
They had met two years earlier via a dating app, when Caitlin, a Yukon, Okla., native whose work focuses on feminist media studies, digital culture, and pop culture, was herself a Ph.D. candidate. Ben opened their digital conversation by asking if he, a dogless dog lover, could borrow one of the two she mentioned in her profile. After just a few app messages, Caitlin said she’d like to hear more about his work over coffee. It was the first time she had ever asked anyone out.
Ben said Caitlin’s brilliance was obvious, and she was dressed for the class she was teaching afterward. “I felt pretty outclassed, but at least I was wearing my nice green T-shirt.” Caitlin admired the eloquence with which Ben described his research. She also immediately sensed the potential for something real between them — something she didn’t feel ready for.
He texted within hours that he would love to see her again. She didn’t answer until a week later, when she realized they were about to be in the same class. First came panic, then reason: It made no sense not to at least try with someone who seemed so great. “I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you. I’d love to go out again,” she typed. “See you in an hour.”
Two months of fun dates later, Caitlin was late for class when Ben met her on the street and began a nervous stream of words about not knowing whether she wanted to see other people.
Was he breaking up with her? Caitlin did not have time for such an emotional conversation. She shot out the facts: “I guess if you want to date other people you can, but I’m not planning on that,” she said.
“No! I don’t want to date anyone else, either,” Ben said.
“OK, great!” she said. “I’ve got to go teach!”
Ben went to Uganda for a summerlong stint in 2017. Caitlin finished her dissertation, and they had a daily video chat. In 2018, facing a full year apart, they decided she would visit him in Uganda. She was excited to see the place and his work, but also concerned she would hold him back for the 10 days they would be in camp together. “I’m definitely an indoor cat,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I was cut out for sleeping in a tent in the middle of a forest in Uganda.”
Caitlin asked how she could prepare for the treks in and out of the hilly rain forest where the 200 chimpanzees live. “StairMaster,” Ben said.
Caitlin was an asset in the field, Ben said. It turns out the skill set that allows Caitlin to make observations about human behavior and pop culture came in handy, he said, because watching chimps is akin to watching a soap opera. “Every dinner at camp is basically celebrity gossip. ‘Anna was so mean to Garrison. Garrison was so cuddly with the baby, I’m glad he’s opening up more now that he is older.’ ”
Ben, now 30, returned to Michigan in late summer 2019, joining Caitlin, 31, and dogs Jack and Lorelei at the Ypsilanti apartment.
That October, on a trip to visit friends in Idaho, Caitlin was most excited to take the Iceberg Lake Trail in Glacier National Park. There had been a recent snowstorm, and the going was hard work, but then they were surrounded by sheer cliffs with Glacier Lake before them. Caitlin knelt in the snow. She told Ben one reason she loves him so much is her absolute certainty that he would be completely fine with her being the one to ask if he would spend his life with her.
A very surprised Ben joyfully said yes. Caitlin gave him a $20 gold-plated ring that was meant to be a placeholder, but Ben has grown too emotionally attached to trade it in. At Thanksgiving, he gave her a ring made with diamonds that had belonged to his grandmother.
The couple had planned a wedding for 65 at a historic former freight house in Ypsilanti in June 2020, on the date that is their shared birthday. But by late February, when the new coronavirus was surging in Europe and had reached the United States, they began to question whether a gathering could, or should, happen.
Ben had learned from the chimps how devastating a virus can be to a community that has never been exposed. In 2017, a respiratory virus that causes cold-like symptoms in people killed nearly 20 of the chimps. It was that terrible incident that led the Kibale camp to institute safety procedures including the wearing of masks, hand sanitizing, and a quarantine period for humans entering the research site.
They warned their family and friends to take this novel virus very seriously. Ben set up a quarantine station — similar to the quarantine shed at the preserve.
In early April, they postponed their reception until June 2021. Both sets of parents encouraged the couple to be married on their original date. On their shared 2020 birthday, the couple, their photographer, and four friends — including their ordained-online officiant — met in the backyard of an Ann Arbor Airbnb. All had been in a two-week, pre-wedding quarantine at their homes, so they felt comfortable skipping masks for the outdoor ceremony.
Caitlin promised Ben she would always prioritize their relationship and make sure to be a partner worthy of his love and respect.
Ben told Caitlin he values her voice — how beautiful it is, and how well she uses it to share her opinions and speak with compassion. He promised to always listen to and cherish what she has to say.
Their ceremony included a Quaker moment of silence — something that has been meaningful to Ben since he was a student at Germantown Friends School.
Recently, the couple left Michigan for Massachusetts, where Caitlin will be an assistant professor at Emmanuel College. Ben will teach remotely and write his dissertation.
In Boston, they will continue to don masks, liberally wash and sanitize their hands, maintain a safe distance from the other primates at the grocery store, and spend lots of time together at home — an activity both say confirms they chose the right partner.
“Caitlin is absolutely hilarious, and even her humor is insightful,” Ben said. “We will watch a reality TV show that’s 20 minutes long, and then have a 20-minute conversation where she is breaking down all of the tropes and the relationship dynamics that are going on. I could listen to her forever.”