Love in the Time of Corona

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When it comes to love, 2020 has really been the year to put the “hopeless” into “hopeless romantic”. The conditions needed for new love to form have all but been wiped out by various covid restrictions. If you find yourself single and lonely in 2020, I hope you have a Netflix subscription and decent internet, because living vicariously through romcom characters is the closest you’re gonna get to new love any time soon.

I’m almost 23-years-old, and I’ve never been in a romantic relationship. Blame it on circumstance, poor timing, the fact I had terrible self-esteem until, ironically, the month the pandemic hit. I had so many excuses, and I used them every chance I got. But lockdown changed me. Months of separation from the world, wearing a daily uniform of leggings and no bra, changed the way I viewed my body, the way I understood the relations of power and balance of worth between myself and other people. My hair grew longer, I stopped hiding behind eyeliner and lipstick; my image began to change. The reflection facing me in the mirror each day no longer felt like a painted character.

I feel beautiful now more days than I don’t.

I see my worth now, and no longer feel the need to question it. I am beautiful and intelligent and mature, emotionally stable, less dramatic than I used to be. I’m a well-rounded person, a good cook, can speak a few sentences in Russian, have published an entire novel… I have spent 2020 working through all the issues that held me back in 2019, and I’m at a point in my life where I’m ready to be in a relationship. I would make an excellent girlfriend.

My life doesn’t feel static anymore. I started a postgraduate degree three weeks ago; I’m moving into a better flat next week. I’m moving forward in my life, but socially I have regressed. Almost all of my friends have moved away, and I don’t know how to make new friends when everything is online. As for my love life, it has been dead since either January 2020, or January 1998, depending how you measure it. My inter-personal relationships have been frozen since March, lost in a retrospective haze.

I’ve internalised this idea that if you were to draw a Venn diagram of men who are attracted to me, and men who respect me as a person, the two circles would not overlap. I’ve been insecure about my looks for as long as I can remember, a constant fear that I would never be beautiful enough. I got over it, somehow. Which turned into a new form of self-deprecation: “what if the problem was my personality, all along?” I’m an acquired taste—I think we can all agree on that—but I am witty and intelligent and excitable and talented. I’ve maintained friendships for enough years to know I’m a likeable person. I can find a positive counter-argument to every negative thing I could say about myself. I still have my off days, but overall, my self-confidence is strong.

Yesterday I bought a black lace slip dress from Ann Summers, and took artsy photographs with red lipstick and a matching cardigan, with my hair falling in soft curls over my shoulders. I was beautiful, and I could appreciate my beauty. But what is art without a gallery? I said, as a joke, to my friend that I should download a dating app just so men could see how pretty I looked. For better or worse, our friendship is built on a steady foundation of us saying “do it” to each other’s chaotic ideas, so I downloaded the app.
I got 51 matches in about 16 hours. I had zero intention of actually meeting anyone – we’re in a pandemic, after all. I don’t know what my intentions were. Maybe I just wanted to see how I’d be perceived.

If you’re not familiar with the horror that is Men on the Internet, imagine being catcalled, and translate it to an online setting. Even being called “beautiful” feels sleazy. I woke up this morning to messages from about 20 different men, all various levels of inappropriate and disgusting. I was bored of the attention, because it was shallow, and had nothing to do with me as an actual human being. I deleted my account, and uninstalled the app. A deepening sense of dissatisfaction crept in.

If you, like me, have googled something along the lines of “how to find a boyfriend during the covid pandemic” you will know that every single article talks about dating apps. They were the norm beforehand, but now they are seemingly the only way to meet people. Every crush I have had in the past four years, I either met at a university society, or through work. The majority of those crushes were kinda shallow, and based more on looks than personality, but they all began in the real world, not in a virtual one.

I’ve only been in love once. Infatuation? Many times. But love? It was one long, winding road, with so many twists and turns it seemed to stop entirely for months at a time. Even now that I know the road ended with me falling off a steep precipice, I still take it seriously for what it was. I don’t write it off as infatuation, because that wouldn’t do it justice.

Love crept up on me, after almost a year of knowing someone, and wove its way in and out of my psyche for another two years. Complicated and confusing and intoxicating, and natural, so natural I couldn’t see I was falling. In retrospect, the signs were there almost from the outset. I could have seen it if I had known to look. But the main thing I associate with that love was how unexpected it was. One minute they were just a normal person, and then something shifted and they held a special piece of my heart, they become a part of me.

I don’t know if love fades, even when the people do. There are still streets I can’t walk down without being enveloped in memories. Even my own name holds an echo of his voice, a defeated sigh of an “Eliza” on a phone call that marked the beginning of the end. I have no hard feelings now. My resentments faded. Perhaps an occasional “but it doesn’t make SENSE!” will creep out when I’ve had a glass of wine, but all in all, the past is in the past. The unfulfilled love becomes another relic frozen in time. If I could go back to the Autumn of 2019, I would see it, cold as a snowflake, on late night walks down Dumbarton Road, pausing on the corner of Peel Street. I would hear it in my laugh, the way my voice softens and deepens until every note is filled with love and care and admiration.

I like to think 2020 Eliza holds that love for herself instead. But the way I love myself is different to the way I love other people. My love for myself is fierce, protective, determined. On my bad days, I become both mother and child, taking care of myself, being gentle with myself until I am stronger and ready to be whole again. Loving myself is an act of survival, a cornerstone of adulthood. It’s not something I can romanticise.

I don’t want romantic love because I’m lonely, or because I want a “normal” life experience. I want it because I’m ready for it. I’m ready to be in a relationship. I don’t want to date people, to scrutinise them from the first meeting, trying to tell if my future self will be able to love them. I want a love built on a foundation of friendship, a love that takes me by surprise.

I don’t fixate on the future like I used to. I’m not praying for forever, searching for a once-in-a-lifetime kind of love. If I find it, I’ll be grateful, but I’ve learnt to take life day by day. If you’d told me in March that the “three-week lockdown” would last for months, I wouldn’t have believed I could survive it. I’m glad I didn’t know. But the not knowing is different now. The one thing we do know is that the virus isn’t going away any time soon, that it will shape the course of our lives for years to come. If I were a better person, I would think about the lives lost and the collapse of the economy, and all the other fatalities. I wouldn’t focus on my personal life. But I am 22 years old, and as much as I try to be a good person, there is still a part of me that’s human and self-absorbed. I wonder if I will kiss another person before I turn 25. I wonder how long a human can stay sane without touching someone. I once read that people need an average of twelve hugs a day for optimal mental and emotional stability. I don’t know if I’ve had 12 hugs in the whole of this year. I am a tactile person. I show affection by touching people’s arms, kissing their cheeks, hugging them and burying my face in their chest. It is not enough to love myself. Humans are social animals. We need each other, we need to touch each other. I look at the next few years of my life, and imagine going all that time without touching someone, without making new friends, without falling in love again, and it terrifies me.

I care about my education, I care about my career, I care about progressing in those areas of my life. But happiness, for me, comes from human connection. We’re all desperate for connection this year, and how much of it we get depends on our social conscience, whether we care about other people enough to keep our distance. If there’s one thing I learnt from my brief foray into dating apps, it’s that there are plenty of people prepared to break the rules (no wonder there are more than 1000 daily new covid infections here…). There is a world of clandestine meetups, of people taking affection where they can get it. I judge them, and deep down I understand.
When it comes to love, it’s more complicated. There is no space left for chance, for serendipity anymore. Covid has stolen many things from us this year, and one of them is the slow-burn romance. Love doesn’t come from a formulaic series of dates, carefully allotted calendar slots of time. Love comes from moments in between the plans, chance meetings, the seat you just happened to sit in, jokes shared at the expense of your friends, the particular intimacy of walking each other home.

I’ve always been a little old-fashioned when it comes to love. I’d take a quasi-1950s courtship over dating apps any day. I want romance, I want someone who takes their time with me. As much as I call myself a hopeless romantic, I’m not just drifting off into the clouds. I take love seriously.

Covid has changed the way we pursue and cultivate love. I’ve sustained long-distance friendships throughout this year; I know how to take care of the love that’s already in my life. But when it comes to new love, I’m at a loss. At what point do I write love off entirely until after the pandemic ends? Love isn’t something you can search for. The greatest loves have always been accidents. But how do we make room for this in a world where every face-to-face interaction puts ourselves, and those around us, in danger? It would be one thing to sacrifice ourselves for love, but it’s another matter when it affects our loved ones, our community, strangers in our vicinity.

I’ve spent over 1/3 of my life writing dystopian novels – and even longer reading them. I know that love can be found in the darkest times. But the particularities of these times make them too hostile an environment for love to bloom. If I knew it was one year, and then the world would return to normal, that would be one thing. I look at the future, and my vision is blurry. No one knows how long this will last. Love, to me, has always been an apple hanging a little too high on the tree for me to reach. Now the tree doesn’t bear fruit at all. The only option left for me is to wait it out another season, hope the cold winds of spring don’t blow next year’s blossoms away before the sweetest fruit can form.

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