The 14th of February 2020 was one of my last really great days before the first lockdown began. The details seem impossible now. Boarding a crowded train full of maskless strangers, sitting in a pub at lunchtime with my book and a beer, having my hair dyed orange on a whim, taking my time browsing supermarket shelves for a nice bottle of rosé to drink with my housemates. That was a different kind of world, a world where you could reach out and touch when you could pick up and put down, where another person wasn’t just a list of risk factors to consider. In that world, it felt like a gift to be single, to be weighing my options and learning what I liked and didn’t like. I went where I wanted when I wanted, and I liked it. It felt like I was gathering momentum towards something. Towards what? I don’t know, exactly. Possibly a great love, but possibly just sex and joy and connection and collecting funny stories to tell at dinner parties. To feel that momentum slow to nothing has been hard. One day we were out there, in that world, and then the next we were not.
And so it’s difficult to feel anything but dread about this coming Valentine’s Day. The freedom and possibility that made being single exciting doesn’t currently exist, and it’s another missed milestone for those separated by restrictions. But still, I’m going to try my best. I’m going to be happy for couples who get to spend the day together, dressing up for a night in and writing long, gushing Instagram captions. I’m going to send cards and gifts and flowers to my mates, just because. It’s all brash and commercialised, yes, but I think the ceremony and spectacle of love is especially important when we can’t physically be together. Love can happen at a distance. We can hold each other through this.
In writing this I’ve had to look at the love that exists in my life. Who do I love and who loves me and what can that love mean in our current circumstances? What are its limits and its languages? How can I tend to it remotely? How can I best protect it against distance and time and grief? I’ve also thought more about what I love, the actions and the practices that return me to myself. I love walking by myself for hours in the craggy, wild British countryside. I love bringing my grandma a cup of black instant coffee. I love the fierce protectiveness I have for my friends. I love stopping a stranger to fuss over their dog. I love long train journeys and heavy rain at night. I love Céline Dion. I love seeing spokes of sunlight cut through dark clouds. I love finding just the right words, in just the right order. I love dating, too. The way we’d text ahead ‘here early- what are you drinking?’ The awkward hello and the flurry of small talk. The first contact, legs knocking under the table, the comparing of palms as an excuse to hold hands. Dating during lockdown isn’t the same. Intrigue and spontaneity are self-isolating and one-night stands are illegal. Even as an exercise in fantasy the apps aren’t much fun. Conversations are hedged by the months between now and any potential meeting. We’re bookmarking one another, like recipes in a cookbook, like shoes for a summer wedding we’re certain will go ahead.
In a world like this world, it’s hard to resist retreating into imagination. I think of a future where things are back to normal. I don’t want to see my friends on computer screens, I want to rest my head on their shoulders. I don’t want to do a zoom quiz, I want to sit in a pub and shout out wrong answers. I want a real date, too, with real awkward silences and spilt drinks. I think of a time when that will be possible again.
I think of the weeks and months before we start to take it for granted, when it will still be miraculous to be together in a room with a stranger who you quite like who quite likes you, to make shy eye contact on the tube, to decide whose house to go back to. The wise part of my mind knows that this is coming, that we will date and flirt and meet one another again, but the part responsible for my day to day sanity isn’t quite buying it. I think it’s necessary for my survival that I don’t think that far ahead. I have to shorten my gaze to what exists now, to what is real.
Still, in the moments before I redirect my attention I feel an overwhelming love for that other world. I love it even when I’m not in it. I love it even when it’s distant and faint as a mirage. I love it, I think, enough to wait for it.