Love in Lockdown

10 Aug

I become aware of two things around the same time.

One: there is a virus coming for us. It’s been in the news for weeks, the girl next to me in the office becoming increasingly hysterical, whereas I was rolling my eyes. “It’ll be another Swine Flu,” I said, remembering how I was quarantined in my tiny bungalow in Afidnes for a week before I was allowed to teach, and then every kid in the school got sick anyway by summertime. Or another SARs, a disease over there that fizzles out before it gets over here.

My cynicism is punctured when my friend Dennis texts me from Germany in mid-Feb. He’s half-Italian and just came back from a research trip to a village there. He’s worried about what’s happening. For some reason, his is the message that makes me stop in my tracks. I stockpile pasta and tinned tomatoes and Dairy Milk with a racing heart. Nobody else is buying for disaster, yet, but it’s simmering in the background.

Yet, at the same time, my mind is consumed by two: the dawning realisation that this pipe dream of casual dating is simply not going to work.

I thought I’d have a few months of meeting people, being cool and aloof about it all while I breezed through a newly single lifestyle of dinner dates and nice cocktails.

But my very first date turned out to be really, really good. And the second. And the third…

Stephane. My ‘homme grand, beau et brun’ with his dusty glasses, his loping walk, his jacket made for the North Pole, his cold fingers, his wayward hair. We can talk about anything, and we do, tracing the political history of France over brunch and the merits of various poets over a glass of good wine. Or two. He looks good in a white shirt. He has this smile where he bites his lip and his eyes widen like he just got a double scoop of ice cream.

The chemistry I thought would be elusive is just there. I’m never awkward in his arms. I feel like a million francs.

Eventually, he takes me to the opera. I dress up in a nice frock and heels, and he comes to meet me at the door with his dark and shining eyes. We go up to the terrace and drink champagne with a backdrop of the lights of Covent Garden. There are kisses and there are kisses, the kind you remember forever. And I think, okay, this is not casual.

He doesn’t stop looking at me during the performance.

Suddenly, it’s March, and the other guy I’ve been seeing turns out to be a selfish bleep and several European countries are going into lockdown and my parents are stuck in Spain and I can’t really process the speed at which things are changing for me and for the world.

I have a weekend of last hurrahs. Last trip to the museum, last drink at the pub, last walk round the park and a halloumi sandwich with my friend Jimmy, last dinner I cook for my friend Kathy. After my last long run in the Royal Parks with Gem, I jump off the bus for an impetuous lunch at Shake Shack. I order the works: burger, fries and an extravagant chocolate ice cream to finish off. I cry as I eat it, thinking about dying alone in my flat. London seems to be rolling on, somehow, but I know it can’t last. I’m deeply afraid. It’s my last meal out.  

Steph comes to me in the evening and cooks with me, frying up courgettes in frankly illegal quantities of butter and garlic, enough that I can freeze them for future meals. We eat them with perfectly cooked fish with its skin crisped just so, while we watch the film of the play we can no longer see in the coming week.

Just two days later, I’m with him again for the last twenty-four hours that we can snatch before borders close. I write in my diary that I’ve fallen in love. I was trying so hard not to, but what for? The need to be distant, to be in control, falls in away in the face of everything that’s happening outside.

He leans over the chair I’m sitting in to ‘work’ and kisses me with a tenderness that takes my breath away.

We squeeze every drop of goodness from that day. I open myself to the possibility of loving him. And then he’s gone.

I settle myself in for a long haul of isolation. I’m not alone; I have my flatmates, and an ever-expanding list of Zoom calls with friends and family. Yet they make me jealous, when I see people in their cosy houses with their partners close by. They have someone to cook for them, to cuddle with, to tell them jokes and squabble with about what to watch on Netflix.

London goes into lockdown. I don’t notice a difference, personally, although it makes the notion of getting to my parents’ far more unlikely. I miss them, and my sister, with a bone-deep pain I can barely confront. Why did I spend so much time on the useless fripperies? And not enough time on the things that are truly meaningful?

My life that was so busy falls still. I was living for culture, for the magic of theatre, for the thrill of meeting new people, for art that made my heart beat faster, for travel, for learning.

It’s all gone. I’m left with the permanent quietness of a Sunday afternoon with the sun gleaming in through the living room window and a wind chime clanging its sad song in the breeze. A trip to the shop is terrifying enough to make my palms sweat, although the heady rush of seeing an unfamiliar face is almost enough to counter this.

I’m still afraid of falling ill on my own. I read Twitter threads about women caring for their husbands: the intensive labour of bringing the fever down, the importance of feeding them regularly, how they can’t get out of bed at all and have to be helped to the bathroom, for weeks. I lose count of the people I know or follow who have suffered from the virus.

Strangely, though, my anxiety is less severe than it was before. Perhaps it’s because the rest of the world is so screwed, I can’t be afraid of my own personal failings anymore. If there’s no future for anyone, well, why worry about my own?

I don’t feel lonely, though. I have Steph.

We communicate by text, mainly, during the day. We send pictures back and forth, from my outfit for the day to the sunset from his garden, from my evening meal to his hair wet from his bath.

We talk on the phone for hours, sometimes with video, sometimes just our voices. I tell him I love him for the first time and a bad connection means he doesn’t really hear it right away.

This is an old-fashioned kind of love. It’s a love for the 1960s, maybe, a sort of cross-Channel Pillow Talk. I try my halting and childish French for a few minutes, sometimes. We listen to opera and watch movies in sync while we talk. We play Civilisation IV.

We’ve done our relationship backwards, in many ways. This is merely an extension. At the same time, it is a deep exploration of each other. He sends me pictures of his parents when they were young. I send him photos from my first digital camera in 2004: school plays, my end of sixth-form prom, a golden afternoon at summer camp. He writes for me, picking his words so carefully, like splinters tweezed from a wound. I write for him, trying to pin down the essence of what’s happening here.

I don’t really know what’s happening here.

We are in love via cables, via wires. We are in love via pixels and API. When will we see each other in person? When will we touch? When will we kiss? There is nothing but uncertainty and that probably makes us cling tighter.

At the same time, I feel him. Connection transcends distance. It keeps me afloat.

Comical, that I should stumble upon this on my first try, and that I should only realise its value at the worst possible time. We are to the gods as flies to boys, or however that King Lear quote goes. But I think the gods know what they’re doing (more than they let on, anyway).

‘Babe,’ he writes. ‘I’m here.’

‘Moi aussi,’ I reply.

Moi aussi.

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