I’d never met Ian in person; we matched on a dating app in January, one week before he flew to China to start teaching cultural studies at a university in Hong Kong. We continued to message, and it was Ian who, on Valentine’s Day, first introduced me to the term social distancing. His school had recently moved to online learning, around the time that shops and restaurants began to shutter, and he was lonely; he described life in Hong Kong as a kind of super future, one in which the social fabric had broken down and citizens were living on a fault line. He lamented the impossibility of making new friends or dating in what he called the old analog style; he sent me an article from the South China Morning Post about the way we wither without touch. He appeared relatively cheerful, though, and he had come to embrace the life of an ascetic, running twenty kilometers a day through the verdant hills of Hong Kong and mastering his split-legged arm balance with the help of Fiji McAlpine, his virtual yoga instructor.
Back then the virus had seemed, to me at least, a threat unique to China. Social distancing would make a good novel title, I joked, never imagining that Americans would be doing the same in a matter of weeks, that the phrase would soon be joining so many others—community spread, an abundance of caution, flattening the curve. But then the book event for which I had driven to my mother’s Rhode Island summerhouse was canceled, and with it much of life in New York City, and while I was used to, even thrived on, long solitary stretches—the previous winter I had opted to seclude myself for sixty days, leading an existence that was almost indistinguishable from my existence now—the growing realization that this time around I had no choice gave rise to a powerful, panicky loneliness. Coronavirus and the isolation it imposed, coupled with uncertainty about the future, about how long such radical withdrawal would last, was the clearest distillation yet that, some four and a half years after my divorce, I was still utterly alone.
Let me be clear about the myriad ways in which I was luckier than most. As a writer and tutor in my late thirties, I wasn’t concerned about my own health or my own finances—as my boss had put it in an email, online education was one of the few industries that was actually thriving. My seventy-four-year-old mother was self-isolating in her native Australia, a country that seemed to be faring relatively well, and I had access to her house on the water and daily walks along the river. As I gorged myself on virus coverage, spending upwards of five hours a day refreshing the live feeds of the Washington Post and New York Times, I worried for the millions of workers who had lost their jobs, for the 750,000 New York City public schoolchildren who did not have enough to eat, for the fact that one day soon our health care workers would be performing triage in our hospitals. But recognition of one’s own good fortune does not keep loneliness at bay, and it was a new kind of pain to talk to my friends during my river walks and realize that while we were all lost and scared, they at least had access to another human being or two whom they could hold close at night.
I couldn’t bear the onslaught of social media posts about all the adorable quarantine activities that seemingly everyone I knew was undertaking with their partners and their children—making ravioli from scratch, reenacting famous paintings, mastering the art of kintsugi. I felt foolish when I sent increasingly heretical invitations to my coupled friends to join me by the seashore, and they wrote back kind but noncommittal text messages. I took perverse pleasure in newspaper articles about China’s spiking divorce rates, in increasingly desperate dispatches from parents who had failed at homeschool. Having a child to educate would have been nice, though: I had given myself until forty to fall in love again and thus hold off on single motherhood, and it was distressing to think that the eighteen months remaining had now shrunk to almost nothing. Worst of all, one of my two elderly cats, Oscar, was rapidly losing weight; the vet suspected intestinal lymphoma, but the tech was home with corona symptoms, and there was no one in the office who could administer an ultrasound.
“I’m lonely!” I wrote to Ian on Day 3. “(((HUG))),” he replied, which felt more comforting than you might think, and then, “I hear you, isolation sucks.” He himself was on Day 60, and he sent me a selfie of his quarantine beard, which was thick and coppery and set against his immaculate apartment, full of Aesop products and red lacquered furniture. He was heartened to hear that I liked his new look—the Hong Kongers had been largely unenthusiastic, he said, expecting more of a banker aesthetic from their expatriates. He also sent me, long before it was cool, a Surviving COVID playlist, with songs like “Let’s Move to the Country” and “No More Airplanes,” which made me laugh. Under normal circumstances the eight thousand miles between us might have seemed a bridge too far, but as the days passed, we corresponded more and more. He told me all about his family—the person who made barrels on the Mayflower was a direct ancestor—and his years abroad in Istanbul and Dublin; I told him all about my writing and my ailing cat. He often reached out during his usual breakfast of coffee and almonds, and eventually he proposed we do one of those “weird FaceTime first date things.” I agreed, stipulating that ordinarily I would never, and we set up a plan for that coming Friday—my Day 14 and his Day 71. I had the sense that Ian in real life was too wholesome for me, and too peripatetic, but I was really looking forward to it.
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Katharine Smyth is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her essays and articles have appeared The Paris Review, Elle, The New York Times, Literary Hub, The Point, DuJour, Poets & Writers and Dominoamong other publications. Her first book, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, was published by Crown in 2019 and named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
Credit Photo: Frances F. Denny.