Make Your Own Rules: On Long-Distance Dating During a Pandemic

After a few months of dating, my boyfriend relocated to North Carolina to be closer to his mother and stepfather, and to leave behind San Francisco—Frisco—his birthplace and where he has spent most of his life in its schoolyards, bookstores, on its streets, on muni and BART. The move had been a year in the making. As a longtime poet and housing activist, he, along with many locals, witnessed his beloved city turn into a tech playground, a place he no longer recognized, a place he could no longer call home. It’d been clear from the beginning that this move would not be temporary, did not serve as a break from the city, but a permanent relocation across the country, never to return except for occasional visits.

The anticipation of his departure two weeks before his scheduled train ride across country proved to be harder than I thought. In fact, the anticipation of his departure was harder than the departure itself. Counting down the days … 9, 8, 7. Not really knowing how things would play out. Whether or not he’d like it out there. Whether or not we’d stay in touch.

For the past year or more, I’d experienced a similar feeling—anticipatory grief. A term I learned from Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir The Long Goodbye about her dying mother. My beloved dog and best friend Isso whom I adopted at eight weeks old had turned sixteen, and although he didn’t have significant health problems, or any health problems, really, I knew the chances of him making it another year would be slight, especially since he’d already blew past the expected life span of a 70 pound dog. I tried to prepare myself for what his decline in health might look like, but it only gave me anxiety. I tried to imagine him no longer around, but I couldn’t. It turned out that all the anticipatory grief I’d experienced didn’t help; that time would’ve been better spent being with my dog in the moment. I embraced each health challenge as I met it. I had to put him down exactly two weeks ago as I write this, just ten days before his 17th birthday.

As soon as my boyfriend got on board the train, the text messages and pictures and audio clips and video clips started to fill my inbox. I’d been wondering about how much we would keep in touch once he arrived in North Carolina, never really imagining that I’d be along for the train ride to his new home. Our communication got stronger with the distance. After a few months, I went out to visit for the first time. The weather in western North Carolina was in the process of turning to fall. He introduced me to his mother and stepfather, his uncle, and a few new friends he’d made. A few months after that trip, he came to visit me in Oakland and we attended a literary festival and took a trip to the ocean, something he missed being in a landlocked place. I got to meet both sets of grandparents at their grave sites, which he cleaned with much respect as he told me about his memories with them. I returned to North Carolina in winter for the holidays. And then again in March to throw a reception for him as the newly named Carl Sandburg Writer-In-Residence.

During the reception, he disappeared for a while. When he came back, I could tell something had happened. We said goodbye to our lovely guests, and on the car ride back to his place, he said his residency got cancelled due to Covid. No reschedule date. No further instructions. Just cancelled.

Just two weeks prior, I had attended a 400+ person gala at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco for one of my clients. It seemed impossible that so much could change in just a few short weeks. That Covid could affect our lives in this way.

When we said goodbye at the Asheville airport in March, I knew that it’d be a long time before we could meet again. No one knew what we were in for. I’d be flying back to the Bay Area on the first day of the shelter-in-place mandate. To make certain we’d meet again, I left behind a rosary my mom gave me, one that I carried in my purse always (if I changed purses, I moved the rosary to the new purse). Wrapped safely in a small leather pouch I’d purchased long ago in Venice. It now sits in his living room near his TV.

For the past seven months, we have kept in contact through Facebook Messenger, SMS texts, video calls, audio clips, email, cards. We send each other small things in the mail. Together we attend readings and workshops on Zoom. We have date nights with sushi and wine. We’ve argued, made up again. Sent each other ridiculous pictures of ourselves with graphics from our phones like two teenagers. In the time since Covid began, we would’ve met two or three times, but events got cancelled and flying became a scary, and even foolish, thing to do.

I’ve been reading up about how other people are managing with a long-distance relationship. Lots of tips about how to keep it fresh, alive. And when I read these tips, some resonate with me and others do not. I’m finding that two people must figure out what works best for them. For example, many sites recommend having at least one meal together every day. I don’t like eating when I’m on video. When I’m eating, I want to focus on my food. When I’m on the video call, I don’t want to be chewing. Other tips say to watch a film together. That’s something we would do together in person, so it makes sense to transfer that to the virtual world. But that hasn’t really worked for us. What works better is reading the same book (not necessarily at the same time) and discussing it. What seems to work for us is spontaneity, not previously scheduled video calls. I get video calls in the morning when I look like hell, and then video calls when he’s on his daily walk through the streets of Hendersonville trying to get home before the next rain, and when he’s picking up a sugar-free dessert at the local bakery on Main Street that we both love and turns the camera around so I can say hi to the staff. Some days like on a Sunday, we might communicate very little or not at all. Even we need a break. For me, this lack of schedule has kept our communication alive. I never know when we’re going to see each other virtually, but I always know it’ll be soon.

Lately, we’ve been breaking down all the different scenarios on airline travel. If we should do it, how we should do it, who should travel, what precautions we’d need to take regarding quarantine once the person who travelled arrives. I’m dizzy from reading articles on the topic, where some experts say the risk level of getting Covid from a plane is low, and other experts say they wouldn’t dare get on one. Every time I read one article that makes me think it’s okay to travel, I read something else that cancels that one out. For now, we don’t have a plan, and maybe not having a plan will end up being the plan. Neither one of us is comfortable flying right now. Winter is coming, the flu season is coming, so travel during those peak months will definitely be out of the question for us both. The desire to see each other is there, and hopefully that’s enough to carry us through this pandemic.

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