The last person I touched before going into isolation was a stranger I had semi-regular sex with. I guess he wasn’t a total stranger. We met online; I knew his first name was Frank, I knew his address, and I knew that he ― like me ― was a reliably horny person.
I’d kissed him against the marble counter in his kitchen, laid in his bed. After our first hookup, he let me use his shower, and I had to call him back into the bathroom to show me how to turn it off.
“It’s too fancy!” I’d shouted from behind the foggy glass partition. His outline stood in the doorway, watching as I waved my hands at little blinking sensors inset in the fixtures to no avail. I twisted a knob and a second jet of water erupted from a clandestine bidet in the floor below.
I left that day feeling embarrassed, but in a cute, charming way that made me take no issue with texting him again a week later, then the week after that, and so on.
In the days before COVID-19 cases began to appear and multiply in New Orleans ― where he and I both live ― we communicated with little more than propositions and times. We were efficient, judicious, we used emojis:
“Devil face! Winking devil face! Thumbs up! Eggplant! Water drops! Water drops! Water drops!”
It was a system that worked for both of us. I spent nights waiting tables at a restaurant in the French Quarter and he worked from home, doing what, exactly, I had no clue, and I never asked. It seemed all that mattered was our willingness to continue and the ease with which we found ourselves once again meeting. We shared polite conversations before and after sex, blips of inconsequential small talk as I undressed or emptied my pockets onto his dresser.
He was always pleasant, offered me water, laughed at my jokes; all the qualities someone like me hopes to find when pursuing something fun and regular but otherwise meaningless. We lived separate, busy lives on opposite sides of town, we had no mutual friends, and so there seemed no point in getting to know each other beyond the ways we already had. Without speaking it, we had agreed to perform this service for one another; sharing brief exchanges of physical intimacy unlinked to our real lives outside those moments.
We met in person for the last time shortly after my job announced it would be closing indefinitely, until the city gained some control over the rapidly spreading virus.
“Guess we won’t be seeing each other for a while,” he said with casual disappointment as I slipped back into my shoes. “Try to keep in touch, though.”
“I will,” I said. “If we get desperate, we can always Skype or something.” Then I left, not thinking twice about the offer I’d made; my desire for connection curbed by the sense of quiet, calming satisfaction that lingers briefly after sex.
“He was always pleasant, offered me water, laughed at my jokes; all the qualities someone like me hopes to find when pursuing something fun and regular but otherwise meaningless... Without speaking it, we had agreed to perform this service for one another; sharing brief exchanges of physical intimacy unlinked to our real lives outside those moments.”
Within days, six cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, turned to 9, then to 30, to 56, and so on. Every restaurant shuttered or transitioned to take-out, and I found myself ― like the majority of people in the city ― alone in my house, waiting for something to happen, fearing all the things that hadn’t yet, but still could.
I read online that keeping a routine similar to the one you had before all of this would help smooth out the shift from real life to endless days locked inside, which, at the moment of writing this, still doesn’t feel entirely real to me. By day four, I had become an expert at video conferencing. I called former coworkers who sat in their living rooms mere blocks away every evening at five, the time we would all usually be lining up for pre-dinner service. I had coffee dates with friends abroad, comparing notes on our general feelings of doubt and dread. So it seemed natural when the regular time Frank and I normally met up arrived, that I should give him a call too.
This method of connection was still very new to me; face-timing someone without an invitation felt like barging into their house unannounced in the middle of the night. So, I sent Frank a little devil face emoji first. He responded with a thumbs up.
We lay in our respective beds staring at each other when we finished. We chuckled sheepishly, avoiding eye contact with the little squares in the corners of our screens that reflected what the other person saw.
“I’m not used to seeing my own face when I do that,” I said. “It was a little distracting.”
“I know,” he replied. “I need to find a little post-it to cover it up next time.”
Minutes passed, and we continued to lie there, still smiling at our laptop screens. If it had been real life, I’d probably be staring at his ceiling, or through the sliding glass door beside his bed, thinking about what errands I had to run or appointments I needed to make. After a few minutes, I would rise and get dressed and walk ahead of him down the hall and out his front door; we would part with a wave and I would wait to hear from him again. But this didn’t feel like real life; I was already in my own bed, and I had stared at my own walls and through my own windows too much already. I had nowhere to be, nowhere to go, so instead, I kept looking at him.
“What are you doing today?” He asked, pulling his bed sheet up to his chest and tucking it under his arms. He lifted his computer from the comforter beside him and set it in his lap.
“I’m not sure,” I told him. “Staying home. Cleaning, cooking, maybe if I get ambitious I’ll go for a walk.”
“What are you cooking?” He asked.
“I’m not much of a cook,” I said. “Maybe a scrambled egg sandwich.”
“That’s too depressing,” he said, retrieving a pair of glasses I didn’t know he wore from a drawer in his nightstand. “Show me what you have.”
I gave him a tour of the fridge, moving the screen from shelf to shelf, then to the freezer, then to the pantry. He slipped out of bed and into a pair of gym shorts, then carried me with him into his own kitchen.
“This’ll be easy,” he said. “We can do pasta.”
We worked simultaneously. I watched him from his place propped on my cutting board; a view of his back as he opened a can of tomatoes on the same counter I had once leaned against, kissing him, not thinking about how and when he ever used any of the tools or appliances around us. He turned back to me every so often, checking my progress. He showed me how to dice an onion, the fastest way to peel garlic; he watched as I salted the water and set the lid on the pot.
“In this new era of the coronavirus, my social media pages run rampant with couples posting tandem workout routines or joking about how they’re ready to murder each other, but little is to be seen in regard to single individuals in isolation; aside, of course, for debilitating levels of horniness.”
We ate dinner together, and when we finished we returned to our beds. All the small talk and harmless topics of conversation had been exhausted, and we were left only with ourselves.
“Feel free to hang up whenever you want,” he said. “I mean, I’m sure you have other stuff to do.”
“I don’t,” I said. “But I mean, obviously you can also hang up whenever you need.”
“Let’s just stay here for a while, maybe.”
“I’d like that,” I said, and we stayed that way for a long time.
In isolation, the things we might previously have taken for granted begin to present themselves more clearly; something that once seemed so casual and meaningless has the ability to grow significant. Unable to continue our physical connection, Frank and I chose to pursue a digital one in its place. Doing so, we offered each other a reprieve from this specific aspect of our confinement.
When we did finally part, I was left to consider what all of this could mean for my romantic future ― and everyone else’s, for that matter. In this new era of the coronavirus, my social media pages run rampant with couples posting tandem workout routines or joking about how they’re ready to murder each other. But little is to be seen in regard to single individuals in isolation; aside, of course, for debilitating levels of horniness. That’s perfectly reasonable: Are the uncoupled among us expected to stoically endure the coming weeks and months without complaint?
Initially, I’d viewed my act of online exhibitionism as something separate from the sex life I’d enjoyed as recently as two weeks prior to writing this. But upon further reflection I understand — for the foreseeable future — it’s the only game in town.
To put our own health and that of those around us at risk for the sake of getting off is comically reckless, but that doesn’t necessarily require total abstinence. We can use this time to form stronger connections from a greater distance. We can adapt to these new restrictions without entirely foregoing our desires.
Right now, to be alone is to be responsible, heroic even; so now let us find heroism in the act of getting off for ― and with ― people on the internet! In doing so, we might discover a way to satisfy certain longings we would otherwise have to ignore. Maybe some of us will even find something we didn’t realize we were looking for before all of this happened: a small, significant way to feel less alone.
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