“Hey,” said the man looking back at me on my phone screen. “Nice to meet you!”
I was sitting at my dining table, my phone propped up on a stack of books. I had put on mascara for the first time in weeks. And I was wearing my nicest loungewear. This is too strange, I thought to myself. But I smiled back at him anyway, took a sip of my wine, and said, “Hello.” Thus began my first virtual date.
A few weeks before social distancing had entered my vocabulary, I decided that I was once again ready to start dating. A series of brief and disappointing romances in the months prior had left me craving some time to myself. But after a requisite break, I was ready to jump back in. Of course, my timing could not have been worse. Suddenly we were in the midst of a pandemic, and I was self-quarantining in my New York City apartment, feeling more single than ever before.
Lonely and isolated, I decided to give FaceTime dating a try. I was going on a few “dates,” each night, but I wasn’t finding anyone particularly interesting. And then, a few days into my experiment, I matched with a man I’ll call Aaron. I settled onto my couch with a cup of tea for our first virtual date. He was at his parents’ home, lounging on the bed in a sweatshirt. Our conversation flowed effortlessly. We seemed to have a lot in common, and his sense of humor was disarming. I was still smiling when we hung up. He texted me later that evening, and we quickly set up another date. It was rejuvenating to connect with someone new. To have an excuse to put a little effort into my appearance. To flirt. But there was a thought that kept gnawing at me: We don’t know how long we will be living like this. This period of social distancing—and for those like me who live alone, physical isolation—may continue for months. So where can this connection really go?
Past experience has taught me that there are some deep pitfalls in relying primarily on digital communication. Last year I had a fling with a man I’ll call Peter. He went to law school in Canada but was in New York for the summer, working at a local law firm. For our first date we had drinks at a bar near my office and then strolled around the city. Our physical and intellectual chemistry was powerful, and we spent much of the summer together after that night. But August arrived and Peter went home to Canada. I was sad to say goodbye, but I had been aware of our expiration date from the outset.
To my surprise, Peter’s departure from New York seemed to spark a spike in our communication. His texts grew more frequent. We talked on the phone often. And I found myself feeling closer to him than I had when we were living in the same city. We reunited in person about a month later. I had returned home early from a vacation in Panama after injuring myself in a bicycle crash. Peter had a flight booked out of New York to the U.K., where he would begin a 10-week backpacking trip. He decided to stop by and see me on his way. It was a dramatic reunion; I was badly bruised and bandaged, hobbling around on a broken foot. He arrived in his travel clothes with nothing but a small backpack. We were glad to see each other and made the most of the few hours we had.
Peter departed once again. This time, though, I was left swimming in a heady cocktail of feelings. I was fragile, recovering both physically and emotionally from the bicycle accident. Peter was attentive and made me feel cared for. There was also inherent drama in the circumstances; he was jetting off on an epic adventure, and we would now be separated by thousands of miles and several months.
Peter and I stayed in close touch for the majority of his trip. He shared photos of his travels, and I updated him on my orthopedist appointments. We spoke on the phone whenever we could. Soon, though, he was texting me throughout the day, complaining about the taxi drivers or sending me a photo of a rash he wanted advice treating. My amorous feelings were starting to fade. Somehow, it felt like we had stopped getting to know each other, and the magic had evaporated. But still, we were enmeshed. I had grown accustomed to sharing my emotional life with him. It took a few tries before we were able to end it for good.
Now, six months later, in the eye of this pandemic storm, I am wary of re-creating that kind of long-distance love. Sure, it’s a time that feels ripe for romance. We are vulnerable and lonesome. We are at war with a common, invisible enemy. The stakes are certainly high. And yet, for those not quarantined with a partner, the only romance available is that of the digital variety. And, to me, digital love is like aspartame. A little bit might feel good and tide you over, but something undeniable is missing.
There’s an enormous amount of nonverbal information you learn about a person just by being in their presence. Their mannerisms. How they treat a server in a restaurant. How they kiss you. The information you get over FaceTime or text is a small fraction of what constitutes the whole person. And yet at the same time, digital communication can elicit an immediate sense of intimacy. Maybe you’re alone in your room, relaxing on your bed, and on the other end of your phone is a romantic prospect with whom you feel free to share your deepest hopes and anxieties. Working with such limited data, you might—like me and Peter—end up becoming emotionally attached to someone who’s partially a projection of your own fantasies.
I have no regrets about my experiment in virtual dating. It lifted my spirits during a time in which optimism is an unrelenting challenge. But ultimately I told Aaron that I wasn’t interested in continuing to get to know each other over the internet.
Don’t get me wrong; digital communication has its merits. Phone calls and Zoom dates with loved ones have been helping me stay afloat during this anxious time. But they can also serve as a hollow reminder of the real thing. For me, it’s a lesson in the vitality of human contact.
So I’m choosing to wait. To try to make the most of this time I have with myself. And to remember—when this storm passes—not to take for granted the magic of experiencing the world side by side with someone you might grow to love.