It’s Saturday night, 9.30pm. There’s a notification on my phone: ‘Today, 22.45:PER–>DOH–>LCA.’ When I enthusiastically set this reminder some months ago, I certainly didn’t expect that tonight I’d be sitting in front of a laptop, sporting fake glasses, a scarf, and eyeliner tattoos, instead of boarding a flight to Cyprus.
And yet, one pandemic and some cancelled flights later, here we are.
The ‘we’ in this instance is me and my partner Paras. We’ve been together for about three years and ‘doing distance’ for about eight months. The ‘here’ is his parent’s granny flat in England and my sister’s spare bedroom in Perth. We’ve each moved in with family to see out COVID-19 isolation.
Cue the laptop and the ridiculous costume getup. Tonight Paras and I are on a virtual date, and we’re off to the art gallery (via Google Arts and Culture). The costumes are for laughs and also to force us out of our pyjamas. Just isolation things.
I’m fascinated by what isolation has meant for people’s love lives. The fact that I was already in a great long-distance relationship when this all began means that I’m used to virtual romance. For example, my body clock functions according to Perth time and Cyprus time. There’s an iconic early 2010s earworm ‘Jetlag’. You might know it. It goes:
“You say good morning when it’s midnight
Going out of my head alone in this bed.”
A great bane of this long-distance existence is that this infuriatingly catchy song is permanently lodged in my brain, sound-tracking every early morning phone call to my love, who is in the late night.
Despite this one grievance in the form of a pop song, isolation has in many ways made my long-distance loving a little easier. Normally, I’d speak to Paras every day, but we’d never have a virtual date — which is to say we’d never set aside specific times, don specific clothes and pay specific attention to conversation the way you do when you go on a date with your partner in real life.
Now that we don’t know when we can see each other again, we’re forcing those treasured dating rituals into the virtual world, too. Putting on mascara to facetime my partner, whom I call every day in my trackies and with bed hair, is totally ridiculous. But this is ‘real life’ now, and we’re forging something weird and lovely in it.
My single friends have had equally absurd dating experiences in isolation. One friend said he was so bored he reactivated tinder after a long time.
“For what good reason?” I asked him.
“What’re you gonna do, go for a coffee in two months’ time?” He shrugged and told me it gave him someone to talk to and that he was having to navigate a whole new set of conventions flirting over messages.
I think to some extent my mate’s iso-tinder chats were uniquely wholesome, because they weren’t just a means to an end: neither party was expected to hook up, at least not until until social distancing rules were relaxed. So, they were just chatting for the sake of chatting. Just a coupla bored strangers clumsily flirting their way through a pandemic on their phones.
The philosopher Jaques Derrida wrote a lot about his phone conversations, particularly those with his peer and badass feminist scholar Helen Cixious. There’s a lot to unpack from his work, but I’m reminded often lately of his notion that the telephone call creates a new kind of space, one with different rules, norms and values to the physical world. I reckon this idea applies to tinder messages and video dates too, and we can see it in action as we rewrite the codes of dating in isolation.
There’s something to be said for this virtual romance, because at its very core it says: even if I can’t be with you, I still want you with me. For some, dating in isolation meant dating even when it wasn’t convenient. And what is romance, if not inconvenient? We have always gone out of our way and reshaped our days to fit in little bits of love. Perhaps isolation-dating was just another way of doing that.
For now, with my distance relationship, I’ll cop that cheesy chorus on repeat — my heart, heart, heart is so jetlagged — and I’ll download that Netflix Party browser extension, because I’ve got another date coming up with Paras. This week we’re going to the movies.
*On 27 April, Western Australia relaxed its two-person limit on public gatherings to allow up to 10 people to meet while still maintaining the 1.5 metre recommended distance between them.