We’re away until January 4, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2020. Enjoy your holiday!
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.