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The past 16 months have taken so much from all of us: time, loved ones, income, joy, too many restaurants to count. I managed to make it through the worst stretch of the pandemic relatively unscathed, which is to say I only caught a light case of COVID-19, transferred all my friendships to FaceTime, and went without hugging my father for nearly a year.

Like many people, I coped with this depressing reality by drinking more than usual. In a 30-day study performed by Johns Hopkins University, nearly two-thirds of the participants reported drinking more during the pandemic—and 34 percent engaged in binge-drinking at least once. I for one learned to make Boulevardiers, Old Fashioneds, Negronis, and Aperol Spritzes, and even managed to escape with fewer than a handful of hangovers. But as restrictions begin to loosen in the U.S. and I return to seeing friends outside my immediate bubble, I’ve begun skipping drinks in lieu of something a little more wholesome: ice cream.

Here’s the thing: I’m by no means new to ice cream. In fact, in eighth grade, I took a job at my local Dairy Queen, where I remained every summer until my final shift as a college sophomore while I was home on spring break. That’s a whopping seven years of scooping, twirling, and pumping hot fudge—far too much experience for someone who never graduated into a managerial role.

But I was more than happy to spend my evenings washing melted dairy off my arms in exchange for as many free cones as I could eat. My favorite treat at DQ was simple: a small vanilla cone rolled in rainbow sprinkles. More than the soft serve or the toppings, I loved the clash of textures where the ice cream met the cone. On slow afternoons, co-workers and I would experiment with new flavor combinations, mixing butterscotch syrup with Nerds and chopped Twix with cherries, trying to luck into something shockingly delicious.

At that age, ice cream was a collaborative way to kill time on rainy days, and now every cone that I eat is steeped in nostalgia. Writing this now, I can feel the wafer crunch coldly on my teeth. It’s the exact same taste I found a few months ago, on the first sunny day of spring, when my partner and I flagged down a passing Mister Softee truck. This is the ideal way to get Mister Softee. You can’t go looking for him—the ice cream’s only good if he finds you, and the interaction feels dunked in the hard chocolate shell of destiny.

Ice cream doesn’t demand you stick around any longer than you would like.

Since moving to New York last summer, I’ve made a habit of getting ice cream with friends rather than cocktails or beers. It all started during a brief courtship with a woman I met on Hinge who rarely drank—I proposed ice cream, eager for a vice but suspecting she wouldn’t be up for a bar. We had a great date at Van Leeuwen in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, after which we walked and talked, cones in hand, about our love of movies, specifically our deep admiration for Showgirls.

A few weeks later, I returned to the same spot to meet up with a mutual friend who’d just left a work dinner. We’d gone out for drinks a few times before, but this was our first time meeting up one-on-one. We shared our frozen dessert on the sidewalk, commiserating about dating as queer for the first time in our lives. Our conversation went deeper than ever before—ice cream was the portal from acquaintanceship into friendship. Recently, after grabbing ice cream at a small shop home to only a single—and occupied—bench, a friend led me to a nearby park, where we rested beside a quartet of misters to cool off. As we ate, a pit bull chomped adorably at the head of a sprinkler, a scene we never would have encountered stapled to a barstool.

For me, there is something exciting yet pure about catching up with a pal while licking the side of a waffle cone, and likely your hand and wrist. Ice cream doesn’t demand you stick around any longer than you would like. After a single cone, you’re probably too full for a second; servers never puppy-dog-eye you into another round. When the ice cream is gone, so is the reason for seeing your friend—you’re both free to go!—but if your ice cream hangouts are anything like mine, you’ll continue the conversation, napkins bunched in your palms, simply because you enjoy each other’s company. It’s a sign that your friendship (or relationship—I’m all for an ice cream night with a lover) is far more important than your reason for meeting. Yes, the ice cream is sweet, but the friendship might be even sweeter, not to mention sturdier than a stale sugar cone.

As heat waves wash over the country, and as I try to cut back on the heavy drinking I did during lockdown, there’s no better way to defend against summer temperatures than to go on an ice cream rendezvous with a friend. Sure, ice cream might appear childish, but after a year and change of accelerated aging, we could all benefit from the occasional youthful habit. My only question is: What flavor?

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