Lying comfortably on her back, Allie looks up into my eyes and graces me with another one of the big smiles that I’ve quickly grown to cherish since matching with her on the dating app Hinge last week. It’s our third date. The first two went exceedingly well, with seamless conversation uncovering like-minded worldviews, agreeable senses of humor, and even some respective vulnerabilities. By this point, as the third-date rule dictates, getting a little randy was natural.
“I was wondering how long it was going to take me to get you into bed,” I say, sparking a laugh, considering our current circumstances.
Indeed, this is the first time I’ve been welcomed into Allie’s bedroom, but this experience has only been made possible thanks to the magic of contemporary video-communication technology.
Such is courtship in the coronavirus quarantine of 2020.
“You look so good,” I say into my phone, also in bed, at my apartment in Queens. Allie, whose name has been altered here out of respect for her privacy, thanks me, miles away, from Brooklyn. Earlier this evening, in an attempt at normalcy, we each dined on home-cooked meals — chicken, rice and steamed broccoli in my case; pasta with Beyond Burger chunks in hers — while video-chatting on Zoom, dressing up as though we were meeting each other at a restaurant — I wore a blazer, shirt and tie, while she donned a Creamsicle-inspired spring dress and dangling earrings.
Now, over FaceTime, the conversation turns to sex, and our possible compatibility in that arena. About five minutes in, it becomes apparent we are, in fact, very compatible in that arena.
We disclose some sexual predilections that, like our political perspectives, are in lockstep.
It somehow feels as though heat is being exchanged between our screens, almost no different than if we were lying next to each other. When I ask Allie to unbutton the top of her dress — a wish she dutifully grants — it happens with effortless spontaneity, like all of our other interactions. Driven by the evidence that Allie’s obviously into me, and the fact that we’re only on video chat, an unusual amount of self-confidence flows through me. I can almost play out the prospective, intimate next steps in my mind from muscle memory, the only hindrance being the smartphone in my hand.
I begin to tell her “I’m so turned on right now.”
But she doesn’t hear the whole sentence. My screen goes black.
Fuck. I realize I’ve made the rookie mistake of not charging my phone during a third virtual date — perhaps the equivalent of forgetting to bring a condom to one “in real life.”
By the time my battery recovers, the mood is shot, but for the most part I don’t mind. I probably shouldn’t have ventured into that territory to begin with.
I had made a promise to myself that during quarantine I’d do a better job of working on myself, of sitting with my feelings, no matter how sad or worrisome they might become. Across nearly six years of talk therapy — to treat an anxiety disorder and depression — I’ve learned that mentally remaining in the present moment, or “practicing mindfulness,” helps reduce my stress levels. But I’ve also learned just how difficult such an exercise is for me. One of the ways I’ve taken myself out of the moment in the past is through dating, and trying to locate self-worth through the eyes of a woman who’s into me, regardless of my true feelings for her. Staying present during the pandemic would be a great test, and one I believed I could gain much from if I set my mind to it. So, in some ways, I was looking forward to alone time.
Then I started falling for Allie, a woman I have now been dating for a month, but still have not met in person.
After talking to you that first time, I just wanted to keep talking. I was interested in you and what you were saying. You seemed more serious than I was expecting, but I really loved your voice. I put in my journal that you have a “sonorous” voice, deep and manly, and I like the slight New York accent. If we had met in real life at a bar or a restaurant, instead of logging out of Zoom I would have wanted to go someplace else to keep the conversation going.
— Allie, in an interview on April 17
As the pandemic caught fire in China over the winter, I began breaking bad cycles of behavior. I stopped drinking, redoubled my efforts in therapy, worked out at a gym six days a week, improved my diet, and pulled back on dating to work on myself before opening up to another person. It was part of a larger plan. I have a history of self-soothing my anxiety with booze, food, and, sometimes, women. Emotional chaos is my baseline norm, so I tend to make rash decisions without considering the later consequences to my state of mind. It’s getting drunk to reduce stress, but instead guaranteeing a hangover when I’d planned on a productive work day, which, in turn, increases stress. It’s eating unhealthy comfort foods and then feeling ire for my body when I look in the mirror. It’s climbing into bed with a near stranger, feeling vulnerable with them, and then experiencing inextricable disappointment when a relationship doesn’t bloom.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep all of this self-sabotage from ever getting completely out of hand. (I’m perhaps somewhere in the middle on the spectrum of addiction.) I make rent in New York City as a full-time freelance writer, generally keep in respectable physical health, and maintain close friendships and relations with my family. I’ve just always felt a little more shitty throughout adulthood than perhaps necessary.
On Wednesday, March 11, Tom Hanks announced he’d contracted the coronavirus, the National Basketball Association postponed its games indefinitely, and President Trump suspended most travel from Europe. Though New York was still more than a week away from officially sheltering-in, all of that news was enough to keep me in my apartment, save for excursions to the pharmacy and supermarket and exercise in the form of walks through my neighborhood.
The panic, for me, would arrive soon. A number of publications I’ve worked closely with on a freelance basis ceased publishing stories from non-staff writers over budget concerns. I worried whether I’d be able to sustain myself financially through the crisis, but, overwhelmed by anxiety, I could barely muster the energy to find new revenue streams. I worked two or three hours a day, if that, in spite of the threat to my financial status.
One thing was certain, however: I was doing a decent job of staying present. Though at times I really wanted a bourbon, I thankfully didn’t bend. I worked out in my living room and still regularly ate salads for dinner. My therapist, Lori, reminded me that I had savings in place for just such an occasion, and, most importantly, no one close to me was sick or dead from the virus.
I slowly realized I was in a much better position than many others, and the panic I initially felt subsided.
However, old habits die hard. I still hadn’t had a drink, but my exercise routine had all but dissolved. Food delivery emerged as a frequent guilty pleasure, and I reinstalled Hinge on my phone, perhaps a callback to less emotionally sound times.
Then, on Saturday, March 28, with New York City now the global epicenter of the pandemic, Allie liked my profile.
I’d hit so many dead ends on dating apps that I’d grown weary of the whole matching affair, which, again, calls into question why I was even on the thing. Just looking to mentally check out of the moment? But her big smile compelled me to match back. She’s also an editor and, at 45, a few years older than me, so I presumed she had some mature life experiences behind her, and would be looking for serious prospects only, willing to invest in a relationship — like I would be if I were technically “dating.”
The likelihood of a romantic connection seemed slim, if only because there was probably no way I’d be able to see her in person for months. Maybe we could be friends, and forge a new connection that would help us through the pandemic, or perhaps there was a networking opportunity to be had for both of us.
We only exchanged a couple of texts before I wrote: If you’re comfortable with this, I’d rather not go on and on texting. … I’d prefer to maybe do a low-stakes pandemic phone call or vidchat. How’s that sound?
When I’m single, I’m always looking for my partner, my person, and with the video component, I felt the pandemic would be the perfect time to get to know someone without the pressure of sex. I’m not just looking to hook up with people, so if you can get to know someone this way, right now, why not? I also thought that dating, virtually, could be a little bit of a distraction from the pandemic, sure.
For the first time ever, I scheduled a Zoom meeting, for 7 p.m. that same night. I felt victorious upon seeing Allie’s face and hearing her voice through my laptop. We spoke for about an hour and 20 minutes, both opening up about how we were dealing with the quarantine. Because this is such a somber world moment — and I think because I truly had zero expectations — I was at ease discussing my history of anxiety, depression and failed romances, including one marriage. Allie absorbed it all in stride — even my bare foot, which, unbeknownst to me, repeatedly made appearances in the corner of her screen. She later told me the foot was distracting, but then thought to herself, Well, at least he’s comfortable, so that’s nice!
When I asked her if she’d ever been married, she said yes, telling me her husband had died of cancer a few years ago. She disclosed some of the details of his fight, which lasted two years, and the heartbreak she felt over his passing. Sympathy poured out of me, but connecting with someone who’s endured such hard knocks, only to emerge cheerful and optimistic, was both sobering and exciting.
Our second Zoom date, a couple nights later, lasted about two hours. We chatted about our families and work lives. We weren’t flirty with each other at all — because, why? — but after closing my laptop I was struck by a desire to kiss her.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. Am I really hitting it off this well with someone right now?
After our titillating third date, Allie and I had another Zoom meeting “for coffee” that Sunday. We had two more dates that week, including one “trip to the movies” on Saturday, the 11th, watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner on Netflix at the same time, and chatting about it over Zoom afterward. (We each thought it was terrific, and marveled over the parallels in Get Out, which we are also both big fans of.) Each of those conversations lasted hours, and we snuck some FaceTime calls in between too. As we talked, we’d catch our faces getting closer together, leaning into the cameras. Before long we were blowing kisses to each other — though, out of fears that we’d become too emotionally invested, we’ve avoided any attempt at video-chat sex since date three.
Allie seems to get more beautiful every time I talk to her, and the thing I might like most about her is her uncanny ability to sidestep cynical approaches to life and instead travel an upbeat high road, looking at every little thing with a bright perspective, like with the onscreen foot incident — a yin to my yang. We’ve independently told our families and some friends about each other, exercising cautious optimism in framing the relationship. So far, everyone’s been open-minded, supportive and happy for us.
At the end of one impromptu FaceTime, on April 10, I started fishing for hints on how strongly she felt about me. (This can’t be “real,” right?) Work had started to pick up for me, and I had to hang up to get some stuff done, but something inside me was pushing to stay on the call with her. Resigning to finally x-out of our talk, I said, “Maybe let me know you miss me later if that’s a thing that happens for you … ?”
She laughed and said, “Sure.”
A few minutes later, she texted “I miss you!🙃” I took the emoji as verification that, yes, she too was a bit puzzled by the fact that this budding relationship could somehow feel so special.
“Thank you,” I texted back. “I miss you all the time. WHAT IS THIS!?! Lol”
“Haha. Awww 🥰” she wrote back.
I thrive in relationships where my partner is forthcoming. When I’m with someone and they’re open, it’s better to know what’s going on so it can be addressed than to have them hide their feelings, even if they’re not the most savory of emotions or thoughts. When I think about, “How did this get so deep, so quickly?” that’s a big part of it.
Over the course of our conversations, Allie and I openly wondered if we were only bonding as eagerly as we were to avoid confronting our fears of the global-crisis reality. I was particularly concerned because of my mental health history, and I began thinking this could be another instance where I was engaging in relatively self-destructive behavior.
But Allie wasn’t deterred by her worried feelings or mine.
“I’ve already been through the worst thing that could happen to a person in a relationship,” she once said, referencing the death of her husband. “If this doesn’t work out — even if we never see each other in person, or if we do and we realize this isn’t really viable — I’ll get through it, and just try and meet someone else.”
In my core, I feel the same way. I have gotten through a divorce, and another breakup with a woman I lived with for nearly two years. Still, what emotional strife am I subjecting myself to by buying into a relationship crafted in such an odd, unprecedented stretch in my life and the world?
I eventually spoke about Allie with Lori, my therapist, over Skype.
“So I’m ‘seeing’ someone,” I told her, nervously and with air quotes.
Therapy is the one place where I always feel safe. Lori and I have built trust over the course of years, and as a result I’m able to remain more present in her company, and tap deeply into my emotions. Talking to Lori that day, I was worried I might reveal to myself that I wasn’t on as strong an emotional footing in this new relationship as I’d hoped.
But that didn’t happen.
Lori said she thought Allie sounded “lovely,” though she did advise me to proceed — like in any other situation of such gravity — with mindfulness, and an awareness that meeting Allie in person could change things between her and me quickly.
“Of course,” I said, unsure if my heart was synchronized with my mind.
By Saturday, April 11, two weeks after my first video-chat with Allie, we set a date: April 18 would be our first in-person meeting, at her place, where she lives alone. The topic, like everything else between us, just came up organically. I’m not sure who mentioned it first, but it was clear that we both wanted to be together, in the flesh. There’ve been many moments where, when we’ve held our respective cameras close up to ourselves, we felt like we could literally reach out and touch each other. But that wasn’t enough. Person-to-person contact was fast becoming a must.
“I’ll take an Uber to your place,” I said. “I’ll wash my hands as soon as I get inside too.”
“Make sure you wear a mask and some gloves, please,” she added.
The fact that she was opening her home up to me, of all people, under these circumstances was, in a strange way, incredibly romantic.
Standing in my kitchen later that Saturday afternoon, I talked with my roommate, Steve (a pseudonym), checking in on how each of us are getting along in quarantine. I mentioned without much thought that I was planning on seeing Allie in person, at her apartment, the following Saturday.
“I gotta say, the thought of you going over there gives me a little anxiety,” Steve said. “It’s a risk, to you but also to me.”
“Well, sure,” I said, “but I’m going to be very careful. I’ll take an Uber there, and back. I’ll wear a mask and gloves during the rides, wash my hands right away, all that stuff.”
He was appreciative, but presumed — correctly — that I wouldn’t go all the way to Allie’s place to sit six feet away from her the whole time.
“I’m sure she’s been careful and that she’s trustworthy, but you never really know, do you?” he said.
“I guess, but if I really thought the risk to your health was significant, I wouldn’t go,” I said. “If you want to tell me not to go, that’s fine. I don’t want you to be resentful.”
“You’re an adult,” he responded. “I’m not going to tell you what you can and can’t do; I’m just saying if you see her, it’s going to be something that I’ll worry about for a while afterward.
He then said something that hit hard: “I have a friend who lives just a few blocks away, and I’d love to go hang out with them, but I’m not because they could get me sick and then I can get you sick.”
Is this another instance where I’m bent on making a rash decision, with consequences I’m not considering?
It wasn’t long ago in therapy that Lori reminded me of life’s “Golden Rule,” which is to “treat others as you would like to be treated.” Of course, I’d heard that phrase since probably before kindergarten, but it had begun to resonate with me more strongly in our session that particular day, just prior to the quarantine. To live by such a code is not only humbling but also a way to slow down your mind, consider another’s feelings, and stay present.
After hearing Steve out, I took the time to truly deliberate over the right course of action. I decided to wait to see Allie, but as I committed my mind to calling off our first in-person date, I felt crushed by sadness. When I talked to Lori about the episode, she applauded my responsible decision, and we called attention to the fact that if I’d gone to see Allie, I might have had a wonderful time with her, but I’d have added more worries to my plate, about getting sick and getting others sick in the aftermath.
Allie completely understood — just like her.
“I wish it could happen, but I totally get why it can’t right now,” she said. “You’re not the one who lives alone, so you have to be sensitive to your roommate.”
It’s only a matter of time before the shelter-in guidelines are eased in New York, and we can hang out together, at her place, talking for hours, eating lunch and dinner, watching a movie, and making out, at the very least. Only then might I get over the fear that she won’t be attracted to me in person. As I write this, our governor is happily reporting that the number of statewide daily coronavirus hospitalizations is decreasing, and his administration is already in the planning stages of a “reopening.”
When I discuss the idea of writing this piece with Allie, I tell her that I’ll pitch something with a title like, “Falling in Love in the Time of Coronavirus.”
“Do you think that would be an appropriate way to frame this?” I ask her, my voice trembling with nerves, fishing again for insight into her feelings for me.
“Yeah, I would say so,” she responds, and a sense of relief washes over me. “In fact I just wrote in my journal the other day that I think we’re falling for each other.”
Aside from that offhand mention, we’re not officially dropping the L-word yet. I think we both know that would be too absurd at this point. All we can do is continue to get to know each other, safely, over Zoom.
Which is still pretty great.
When it’s the right person, it doesn’t matter how it all starts. Not knowing for sure about things — in relationships or a lot of other developments — is part of life. I think there’s something really pure about just going for it, and if things don’t work out between us, I would feel like, “Well, at least it was a good story. I connected with someone during a global pandemic in a profound way, and we tried.”