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.
Unlike Ian, I had adopted a decidedly un-ascetic response to isolation. Yes, I had signed up for a free fifteen-day trial of YogaGlo and roasted twenty pounds of vegetables, but I was also sleeping till ten, developing a costly online shopping habit, and making my way through my mother’s freezer at an alarming rate, defrosting one by one those very items—a honey-baked ham, a blueberry tart, stewed peaches, and smoked whitefish—that just a month before I had deemed too weird or too unhealthy. I was also drinking with abandon, looking forward with rather too much urgency to my nightly gin and tonic, which I drank beneath a blanket on the deck at sunset and most often chased with half a bottle of wine. (Ian “wasn’t much of a drinker anymore,” he told me, but he had offered to partake of his nonalcoholic aromatic spirits for our date.) By the time the sun had sunk beneath the trees across the water, and I had caught up with the latest news alerts—“Italy surpasses China’s death toll, becoming world’s highest”; “New York tells nonessential workers to stay home”—I felt lackadaisical and hazy, and distinctly intrigued by the prospect of texting with one of the several men in my life with whom I was now fixed in time. Indeed, for the single among us, the advent of coronavirus was like the sudden silence in a game of musical chairs; in an instant, the people we were casually dating—many of whom we had already deemed incompatible, and no doubt vice versa—were the people we were stuck with.
Take, for instance, Paul, a painter with whom I first corresponded back in 2016 and whose name I have changed for obvious reasons, along with several other names in this essay. At the time, he had failed to follow up on not one but two dates, first because he’d lost my number while “reformatting his phone,” and next because he had “crushed his phone in the studio.”
“Wow, you sure do have a lot of phone problems!” I wrote, a message to which he replied some four years later when we finally matched again on Bumble. “He’s a contested figure for sure,” said my friend who knew him from the art world. “Slippery comes to mind? But he’s always been very nice to me.” Later, another mutual acquaintance would describe him as a “bottom feeder.”
Paul and I had seen each other twice before I’d unwittingly decamped to Rhode Island, encounters dominated by talk of Walter Benjamin and postcolonialism; every so often I tried to ask about his mother or his childhood, but the conversation always pivoted to Big Ideas. He looked like a very beautiful lesbian, to the point that I braced myself for a surprise when we first took off our clothes, and he was very serious and self-absorbed, thrice sending me unsolicited links to a short film he had made and asking for my feedback. When at last I did watch it, penning what I thought was a generous response, he didn’t reply for four days. (Some day, when this is all over, I’ll write a homage to Rebecca Solnit called “Men Send Their Art to Me.”)
Even so, I was wildly attracted to him, and I was disappointed when the Rhode Island university at which he taught predictably sent its students home and he texted to say he was no longer coming for the weekend. In the following week, he reached out every day or so, sending me more art to praise—“We started a sound cloud!”—and links to articles I had already read because, again, I was consuming five hours of coverage a day. His own response to the virus skewed toward the paranoid; he was forever demanding to know why Facebook was removing everyone’s COVID-19 posts, why the media wasn’t reporting on the bleakest epidemiological models, why a freight train’s worth of tanks was heading westward to the city on the Long Island Rail Road. Still sitting on the deck, I would sip my cocktail and text back encouragement and validation—as I looked out over the water, breathing in the night sky’s pinks and yellows, it was almost impossible to believe we were at war. On Day 8, stirred by fantasies of a doomsday tryst, I invited him to come self-isolate with me. “Thank you!” he wrote. “I may take you up on that when the cities fall apart.”
On other evenings I reached out to Steven, a sweet, hirsute creature who was arguably even less of a match than Paul. The previous summer, for our first and only date, he had asked me to meet him at an abandoned fire station he was transforming into a bar and hostel—its location was so suspect that my mother, who had driven me there, pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot and kept watch from afar. Over beers in the communal kitchen he struck me as wayward and impoverished, so I was surprised when he later drove us to dinner in a smoke-steeped Lexus and made mention of both a recent Galápagos trip and a private charitable foundation; a quick Google search in the bathroom revealed that his family was worth $14 billion. Before the night was over, he introduced me to the nightclub that he owned, the existence of liquid cocaine, his beloved tabby cat, and the magical, labyrinthine loft in which he lived, one whole wing of which was given over to experiments in S&M—by two in the morning, I was lying prone and naked on his sex swing while he, fully clothed, affixed suction cups to both my nipples.
At the time I had decided that Steven was a little too frightening for my taste, but on a whim I had invited him to the now-canceled book event and we had since started checking in on each other from afar. One night he sent me a crying cat emoji and then apologized—he was in a mood, he said, having just left his parents in Connecticut; he had been bored all weekend, but then started bawling when it came time to say goodbye. Now he was just bored at home, for the state had closed his club and hostel bar. His plan was to drink his way through isolation, he said, while also finding time for home improvement and metalworking in his studio. When I said I was impressed that he was working, that I was having trouble focusing, he was full of good suggestions. “Perhaps a little mind adjustment like LSD could get you inspired,” he offered. “Or some relaxing sensual stimulation.”
Then, on Day 10, my best friend, Helen, who had underlying health issues and had been complaining of a sore throat, was admitted to a New York City hospital because she couldn’t breathe. I was walking through the woods when I heard, and I remember the sudden cold that passed through my body. It was the first time I had been able to actually conceive of the disease that had been obsessing me for weeks now, and the first time, too, that I realized that we would—every single one of us—be intimately touched by it in one way or another. I tried for a moment to imagine a world in which Helen no longer existed, in which I could no longer call her up to say hello, in which her two sons grew up without a mother, and then I tried to multiply that desolation by 14,443, which was the current global death toll, though of course I failed—our minds aren’t built for such vast numbers.
Afterward I went to the grocery store for the first time in two weeks, staring with fascination at the bottles of disinfectant in the vestibule, at the ravaged produce aisle, at the cashiers wearing masks and plastic gloves. I had been working my way through American history with a high school junior that semester, guiding her through the devastations of the Civil War and Great Depression, and it was startling to recognize in that faintly apocalyptic supermarket scene an approximation of the black-and-white images that decorated her textbook. I had never felt so much a part of history before, nor understood so acutely how little there was to separate us from the men and women of the past, how we had always just been people. I smiled at the other customers as we wheeled our shopping carts around one another in six-foot circles—“the waltz of the trolleys,” my mother’s friend calls it—feeling toward them such an odd blend of solidarity and distrust; I imagined us as the partygoers at Prince Prospero’s ball, soon to be dropping like flies. On my way home, I finally got a flu shot.
On Day 13 my phone buzzed with a WhatsApp message from Elliot, another man I had first met four years before. At that time we had gone on two dates, marveling at the series of coincidences by which we were connected—we were both citizens of England, Australia, and America, for instance, and while he was an expert in Sudanese conflict resolution, my grandmother had been the first white baby born in Khartoum Hospital. We almost certainly would have gone on a third date had I not broken my neck in a car accident and been confined to a hospital bed; when I texted five months later to say that I was finally neck-brace free, he announced that he had moved to Jordan.
It was with some excitement, then, that we had reconnected a few months back. Though we both had reservations about the other—I thought him too ornery, and he thought me too promiscuous—I was nonetheless disappointed when he left for Africa for a monthlong work trip. But then the virus began its exponential climb, the whole globe went on lockdown, and now he was texting to say that he was self-quarantining at a temporary rental apartment in Melbourne, having managed to escape just as he and his fellow diplomats were being pulled out of the region. He was trying to look on the bright side, he said, mainly having to do with net gains for environment and people learning how to be alone again, though he also lamented—in classic ornery fashion—that they would now load up on social media. I said I doubted the environmental lessons would last, unfortunately, adding that I had already been pretty good at being alone. “Your dating run notwithstanding,” he said, a dig that I let slide.
There was something about our last sexual encounter that he had found epiphanic, he continued, having to do with the way in which his head had already been on a plane to Africa and yet had returned to the bedroom once we started fantasizing about my coming with him to Nairobi. “It was the starkest illustration of the psychological component of sex,” he said, “that I have ever had.” This discovery didn’t strike me as remarkable at all, frankly, but I went with it, suggesting that we shared the same breed of fantasy, one rooted in the prospect of intimacy and future connection. Then he sent me eight dick pics in a row; it was only three in the afternoon in Rhode Island, but I nevertheless climbed the stairs to my bedroom and shut the blinds to the construction workers who were somehow still employed in building a new sewer line outside the house. I hadn’t shaved my legs in nearly a month and my underwear was left over from high school and full of holes, so when he asked for a visual I went quickly fumbling through the archive, pressing send and waiting for his affirmation. “This may be out of order,” he wrote instead, “but I definitely prefer your body now.” I looked again at what I’d sent him and started laughing—it was a date-stamped screenshot that made it very clear those were my breasts of four years earlier.
I told this story later that day at my first ever Zoom happy hour, now laughing at Elliot’s bafflement when I’d expressed my dismay that he thought Body 1 and Body 2 so dramatically different. Even so, I said to the faces on my computer screen, it was a pity that he and I had been so star-crossed, thwarted first by a broken neck and next by a global pandemic; for all the irritation he aroused in me, I couldn’t help daydreaming of what might have been, of how we might have learned to forgive each other our shortcomings had the world not been turned upside down. And I think that he agreed with me: “It’s a bit of shame not to have been able to come back,” he said before we finished texting. “I wouldn’t have minded trying to get you off the market.”
I was sitting on the deck as I spoke, holding Oscar in my lap and taking unanticipated pleasure in the sight of my high school friends, who in reality were spread from coast to coast. Helen had returned from the hospital, thank goodness, and was lying on her couch in Brooklyn as her husband fed the kids; she still had a fever, and a sharp pain in her lungs, but that terrifying shortness of breath had disappeared some days before. Jessa was quarantined in Echo Park, where she was now living with her newish boyfriend—the private chef to a television producer, he had filled her driveway with rented industrial freezers and refrigerators. His boss had approximately zero qualms, she told us bitterly, about sending him off to seven different grocery stores a day in search of kumquats and oat milk while all the rest of California sheltered in place.
Rachel and her husband had spent their isolation microdosing mushrooms and emptying their Pacific Palisades home of any and all objects that brought them displeasure, including chairs, tables, photographs of ex-lovers, gifts from in-laws, and every single diary that Rachel had ever kept. This last filled me with alarm—I could still picture how she had looked at fifteen, filling notebook after notebook with her lovely, loopy script—and yet she was adamant; she said that she and Simon, sobbing, had already built an enormous pyre overlooking the ocean. When the four of us hung up, they planned on performing an elaborate burning ceremony that would rid them of the past and pave the way for new beginnings. Helen asked if she would show us the pile, carrying her computer outside as Jessa had done to reveal the refrigerators, but Rachel demurred. No, she said, she would not give those hateful things that power.
Before leaving the deck that night, I sent a flare to Daniel, another relic from the past and one I might have fallen for had he not brightened when I inadvertently introduced him to the term “ethical non-monogamist” on our first date—he was so delighted, he said, to have finally found the words he needed to define himself. According to Instagram, Daniel was hunkering down somewhere in the American Southwest with what appeared to be a lifetime supply of garbanzo beans; he had befriended a shy bobcat, and there were lots of wildflowers and cute little birds among the cacti. He was doing great, he said when I asked, he was in a really good place, and yet he also admitted that some companionship would have been nice. “We should probably sext or something,” he said. “For our health.”
“Sure,” I said. “But right now I need to finish making dinner and watch Homeland.” As a token of goodwill, I sent him the same picture that I had to Elliot, making sure to crop it properly this time.
The days continued to pass, and it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between them. Friends would call, and we couldn’t remember whether we had spoken two hours or two weeks ago. The virus colored everything, giving birth to alien emotions, blurring boundaries between the real and the imagined. I felt blind fury when our president suggested that the churches must be full by Easter, stabs of anxiety when the characters in the book I was reading walked into a crowded room. My teenage clients were sleeping till two and bursting into tears when I asked if they had finished fifteen pages of The Bluest Eye. One boy would only FaceTime as he wandered the streets of Manhattan like a hooded flaneur, and the sight of my city’s painted eaves and bright blue sky, joggling with his every stride, filled me with homesickness. Another client, a freshman, had spent days building the most splendid of forts in her bedroom, hanging from the ceiling every towel and blanket she could find, sleeping, eating, and conducting all her classes there, until one morning it had outraged her with its messiness and she had torn it down. “What am I doing with my life?” she wailed. “I can’t just be building forts all day!” My mother had started penning daily emails that doubled as absurdist literature—had I heard that the dogs in Italy were getting quite exhausted, she asked, now that their owners were lending them to all their petless friends and they were being exercised for hours? Another time she sent a picture of a present she had made for her sister, a six-foot-long walking rope with handholds at either end. “Why,” asked my friend Nellie, “is everyone on the internet baking bread?”
On Day 20 I drove Oscar to an emergency vet that I had found in Massachusetts. Pet mothers were no longer allowed inside the clinic; instead you had to call from the parking lot and a technician wearing a face mask and plastic gloves would retrieve your animal from the passenger seat. While I waited, I read an essay by Ian on political fatigue and recovery—finally, an artwork that I had actually solicited! Ian and I still hadn’t FaceTimed, mainly because I was too lazy to wear real clothes or put on makeup, but we had spent three and a half hours on the phone the previous Friday, when I had found him charming and considerate. He had the deep, clear voice of a radio personality, and all the years he’d spent at Trinity had given him the traces of an Irish accent. Since then, I realized, he had become the person I wanted to tell things to, the person I wanted to text when I was sad. Then Oscar was returned to me trembling, his belly shorn, and I spent the rest of the day trying to make a list of reasons why it would be all right if he had cancer.
It was that same day, I think, that I finally broke my quarantine for William, a college basketball player turned environmental activist whom I had tried to break up with in the fall. His obsession with sexting and single-use plastics, coupled with his failure to ask me a single question about myself, had made me want to scream. I eventually told him as much and he responded by buying my book on Kindle, but things went downhill from there. “I’m just confused,” he said of the preface, “because it kind of reads like a memoir.”
“It is a memoir,” I said.
“Oh.” He was silent for a moment. “I guess I just thought from the title”—which includes the words “Woolf” and “Virginia”—“that it would be all about Jane Eyre.”
Now he arrived at the door with a bottle of wine; he had been taking a life-must-go-on approach to the virus, but he still humored me by consenting to sit outside and apart in thirty-degree weather until the light had left the sky. Then we ordered pizza, opened more wine, and retired to opposite ends of the couch. I told him about my fears of single motherhood, and he suggested we become co-parents. I tried to explain why I couldn’t raise a child with a man who was indifferent to literature, just as he couldn’t raise a child with a woman—me, as I had just demonstrated in the kitchen—who didn’t know that you couldn’t recycle the greasy side of a pizza box. I was mean to him, I’m ashamed to say, punishing him for the fact that I was all alone in a pandemic, that he hadn’t been born a completely different person, that try as I might I couldn’t mold any of these men into the shape of a soulmate. La solitude, I kept thinking, c’est les autres. We argued for a while, and then we started fucking, leaving me with a tremendous sense of guilt at having endangered all humanity.
That night I dreamed of two strangers, one of whom had peeled off the other’s skin and worn it like a mask. When I woke, I realized I had been clenching my fist in my sleep—embedded in my left palm was a row of little bloody half moons, and William was gone.
I have been alone for over a month as I write this. One by one, all my future plans have been canceled, and it has come to seem of little consequence whether I will be quarantined through May or November or the following May. As with my car accident, when the preoccupations of my “real life” were voided in an instant, I find myself in a kind of continuous present, with the distinction that this time around almost all the world’s people are in the same boat. There are mornings when I wake to the sunlight that filters through the wooden slats and feel almost happy; it’s only when I check the headlines that have piled up like bodies overnight that the catastrophe comes flooding back.
Every day I talk to friends across the country and the globe, collecting their own tales of quarantine—the virus has invaded human life the way it does the human body, it seems, latching on and wreaking havoc. There is Samantha, a cancer survivor who will soon be having a baby with a surrogate; the surrogate lives in Ohio, and Samantha was just told that she and her husband won’t be allowed in the delivery room. There is Eliza, a working mother in the midst of an acrimonious divorce whose husband just moved back home to watch the kids full-time. There is Sean, who recently had a baby from a one-night stand and then went to quarantine in the mother’s family compound on the outskirts of Buenos Aires; for months, he swore that he and she were only friends, but now they’re drinking wine in cornfields and falling steadily in love. There is Sean’s friend Dom, who invited a girl he barely knew to join him for a weekend in Seville and now finds himself domesticated and attached, and Bethany, another single mother who fears she is becoming abusive to her children—“No, really,” she says when I protest, “they run away from me when I so much as look at them.”
There is my uncle Robert, a English bachelor whose lifeline was the pub and who just doubled his dosage of antidepressants, and Laura, a dermatologist who is learning for the first time how to intubate a patient, and Eva, who has decided to wait it out alone in Costa Rica and just adopted a new puppy. It will be interesting to see, Sean and I agreed when we last spoke, he in his Argentine cornfields, me beside my river, all the ways in which this contagion will bring us together and rip us apart. “Just think,” said my single friend David as we looked for silver linings, “of all the new divorcés who will soon be flooding the market.”
I haven’t heard from Paul or Steven in weeks, nor from Elliot or Daniel or William—perhaps, like me, they realized after our initial flurry of communication that it is actually lonelier to grasp at some simulacrum of intimacy than it is to try and make peace with one’s solitude. In the years since my divorce—a rupture that clarified just how fully I had lost myself in marriage—I have struggled between the desire to rebuild my sense of self and the desire to re-dissolve into another human being; never has that tension felt more acute than during this period of isolation, though, when on some days the pain of singledom is like an open wound, and on others I revel in my own autonomy, hugging it to me like a flesh-and-blood companion. I have continued to lean on my mother and my friends, spending many more hours on the phone than I used to; at the same time, I have become almost covetous of my seclusion, often canceling Zoom dates at the last minute simply so my cats and I can sit outside and watch the water. (Oscar’s ultrasound came back clear, though the mystery of his dwindling continues.) Yesterday my mother sent a picture of a zucchini loaf that she had baked—“Oh, I wish I could be there to cook for you!” she said, and I panicked at the very thought of it. And yet I do still talk to Ian in Hong Kong. Sometimes we FaceTime in the mornings or the evenings, and I find myself soothed by his strong face and his radio voice. Perhaps he will be able to fly home some day and I will once again begin that process of dissolving into someone else, or perhaps we only like each other because we’ve never met.
A little while ago I talked to Jon, the only man aside from my ex-husband whom I have ever loved. He and his girlfriend are holed up in Chicago with his mother, and every weekend they drive to the mother’s house on Lake Michigan and walk along the sand. He had been worried, he joked, thinking of my proclivity to solitude, that they were going to lose me to this pandemic—that I would become so enamored with my own disappearing act that no one would ever see me again. As he spoke, I was watching a white-haired man in a white dinghy; every afternoon in summer, he rows out to his sailboat in the middle of the basin, but now that it was winter and all the moorings empty, he was simply rowing south. I wondered where he was going. He was moving with the current—even if he had set down his oars, he would have been making good progress—and once he passed the old stone bridge, the river would widen and there would be nowhere left to land. Don’t worry, I said to Jon, I’m not going anywhere.
Katharine Smyth is the author of All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf. A graduate of Brown University, she has worked for The Paris Review and taught at Columbia University, where she received her M.F.A. in nonfiction. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.