If You Stop Using Zoom, Do You Cease to Exist?
She loved people and she loved travel. The pandemic took both. Her family lived on another continent, so face-to-screen-to-face was familiar. But it was bloodless. When Zoom became everything, she starved. Human contact gave her purpose. But the pandemic reduced the ceremonies of cooking and eating to mere bodily functions. Reflective solitude became forced isolation. Drinking alone was still just drinking alone, even on Zoom.
She separated from her husband a year before the pandemic. For the first time in her life, she demanded that her needs be met. She stopped giving everything to make another feel loved. She finally understood that loving someone is not the same as being loved.
So now she was single, but her friends weren’t. And, she still shared them with her ex. There he was, always in the Zoom grid, charming and carefree, sometimes with his new partner—but always in the same room in the same apartment, the one that they had shared, the home that she had found and made for them. Beside and above and below him on screen were her closest friends, laughing and chatting like all was good and right—when nothing was.
If she stopped logging into Zoom, would she cease to exist? One night she just couldn’t, so she deadened her phone and focused on paint, brush, and canvas. But even across the room, with her back to it and music playing, she could feel its cold radioactivity. When she finally picked it up, she wept to see it bristling with the banners and badges of a person missed.
Pandemic couples had privilege. They had each other. On darker days she deliberated: would the pandemic be better with the wrong partner than it was with no partner at all? She knew how to live that way. It was a seductive and punishing thought.
She and I formed a COVID bubble. At the beginning of the pandemic we knew little except that we didn’t want to die and we wanted to spend time together. When antibody tests became available, we walked together in masks through an empty city to a vacant medical facility with unfamiliar markings on its floor. We had both been sick near the beginning of the pandemic and hoped for superpowers . . . but we were mortals.
We took our first COVID tests together. We arrived at the hospital holding hands then stood six feet apart. Moving slowly towards the white tents, observing her in front of me, I suddenly had to steady myself on a stanchion. Social distancing blossomed before me as a ruthless reminder that, though we had arrived together, we were separate. Alone. COVID, an uneven sidewalk, a slippery subway stair, or something or someone else could take this person from me, or me from them, at any time. As I slowly came back to the cold asphalt under my boots and the moist air escaping my mask under my eyes, I felt like a new load-bearing beam had been added to my emotional architecture. Falling in love and making plans felt like tchotchkes from a decadent past. Sadness an ostentatious luxury. Meanwhile, in the present, a cotton tipped stick swabbed the back of my eyeballs.
She longed to see her friends. They would come to her apartment building and sit on the sidewalk and talk to her through her open second floor window. She would bake cookies and drop them off in their lobby. She did this for me once, but I happened to be near my street-facing window and caught her, which was awkward and sweet.
She and her friends decided that cycling was socially safe, so they put on hundreds of miles across Brooklyn and Manhattan. In Coney Island, the bars catered to the cyclists, selling them booze in mobile containers before it was legal.
Then, her married friends formed a COVID bubble and invited her to join. But she was already in a bubble with me, and their bubble would become her bubble, and her bubble would become my bubble, and my bubble would become the bubble of the other people in my life. I couldn’t justify changing my exposure from a few to many—and she didn’t ask. At first she didn’t respond, as her answer would require an explanation and explaining me was complicated.
A few weeks later, the COVID bubble rented a house upstate for a long weekend, as this group had before. It was a startling and electrifying possibility for her—to taste and feel and be the things that she mourned daily. But now her bubble choice was real. Going with them would mean new, unknown risks for her, and a long separation from me. COVID tests were hard to get and results uselessly slow, so she would need to quarantine for 14 days upon her return.
It was agonizing for her. Her friends were her tribe, and they would be leaving her behind. Exclusion is one of the darkest human experiences. Science has shown us that loneliness kills. Evolutionarily, we and the humans around us come from bloodlines carrying an atavistic aversion to being left out.
She decided not to go. She was sensitive and clear: she was making this choice because it was what *she* wanted. She was *autonomous*. She wasn’t being left behind *because* of me or *for* me. I encouraged her to go, not because I wouldn’t miss her, but because I believed the value to her was higher than the cost to me. Pandemic time was amorphous anyway. But I was cautious in encouraging her because the B side of empathy is emotional asymmetry. After all, when you tell your lover that, “parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell,” you don’t want to hear, “nah it’s all good, dog.”
I had experienced the heaven and hell of being somebody’s everything, and still had bruises sensitive enough that merely waving a hand over them would drive a phantom spike into my limbic system, reminding me that even if I had wanted to be this for her, I couldn’t be this for anyone, ever again.
But I was glad she didn’t go. It gave us more golden mornings in her glassy apartment, listening to her music, drinking her coffee, watching her laugh, smelling her smell, tracing her lines with my eyes and my hands, and carrying her to the bedroom with her lips on my neck. It gave us more long evenings of eating her food, being seen, being heard, and lying tangled together, sweat drying, silent and safe.
A few weeks later, after all this emotional algebra, she told me with joy that she’d had a picnic in the park with her friends. They sat closely, talking and laughing and drinking and eating—without masks. She was so happy—and oblivious to the risk. I understood why. In those early days our understanding of COVID and method for evaluating acceptable risk were embryonic. But it was a risk I couldn’t overlook.
Other people depended me on me. Keeping them safe and well was elemental, and as their sole caregiver that meant I had to keep myself safe and well. Human connection and intimacy were not optional, but like many things in the pandemic, their value had to be measured with new instruments. The risk of an outdoor picnic infecting her and her infecting me was low, or at least lower. But with COVID burning its way through the city, and field hospitals in Central Park, and freezer trucks full of bodies just down the street, even minor medical problems meant delayed care in a ward smothered with COVID patients.
She was distraught when I pointed this out. We met on a park bench midway between our houses. She cried. I cried. She decided to quarantine. Our bubble was going to break after all.
COVID didn’t kill our relationship. But everything after that was a coda.
Our intimacy had been immediate. Every question my body asked, her body answered. When the music started, our bodies already knew the dance and our other parts keenly watched and learned. But we didn’t fit in ways that matter when you are no longer Romeo or Juliet’s emotional age. When you are the Romeo and Juliet who survived and divorced years later after bankruptcy, cancer, infidelity, and a custody battle.
I don’t remember exactly how the end came. I could enter her name in an empty field on my phone and find out. Or at least find the evidence, in blue bubbles and white text, clean and crisp but pregnant with dark and blurry subtext. But I won’t. Is that because it already feels like an alternate timeline? Is it because I won’t like what I see?
I remember this:
I did my best, and my best wasn’t great. I was clear about my needs, my understanding of hers, and my sense that they were incompatible. But the pandemic had driven me inward, and my emotional stamina was low. Instead of Zooming, I could only text. Instead of seeing her, I could only Zoom. The process of dismantling us lacked the physicality and the finality that she needed. I saw it, but I couldn’t rise. I didn’t realize then the toll that the pandemic’s grinding had taken on me.
Months later, as the fog cleared and the city opened, I put on a concert in an off-Broadway theater. I invited my friends and family. I invited her. I told her that I was sorry I couldn’t give her what she needed in either the life or the death of our relationship. I said I valued her and our time together and I wanted her to be a presence in my life. I asked if she thought that was possible. Her answer was neither amorphous or elliptical: