Finding Love in a Locked-Down City

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by Rachel Miller aged 30, living in London

Go out but stay in.

During April, the month of peak national lockdown, I had been stationed in the ‘cage’, which was what I called my flat at the time, for around six weeks and had been ordered by Boris Johnson to wash my hands, stay at home and whatever I do, do not spread the bloody virus. Our social circles had been divided into the paranoid and the ‘pffts’. Now I know what you’re thinking, this is the classic romantic story set-up; viruses, sanitiser and Boris Johnson – and that’s exactly what I thought too.

The pandemic had crept up on us (the public, not the Government as it turned out but that’s another story). As every man, woman and child professed, the times were indeed unprecedented. Quite frankly, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I adhered to all the millennial cliches; I baked banana bread (complete disaster), I checked in on family and friends around the world, I had even started embroidering. Hundreds of questions swirled around my head daily; when can I see my friends? When can we go back to the office? Where the hell is my bloody Laithwaites order? How can I get out of tonight’s Zoom quiz? Amongst all of this, there was another thought that protruded, how can I possibly meet someone now?

Ben.

I had been single for 2.5 years at this point. My previous relationship of nearly 4 years ended abruptly after moving to Vancouver together and within ten days of the breakup, I was suddenly thrust back into living in London, finding a job and being single in the new age of digital dating. Naturally, I turned to family, friends and The Lord Morpeth for a wealth of support and encouragement and after a few weeks of ugly-crying, I had taken the first step and downloaded Tinder. After about seven minutes I concluded this was a terrible app and immediately deleted it. Next up, Bumble. Over the following year, I went on several dates of varied success peaking at a second date until Ben. Ben was so lovely, good-looking, worked at E&Y, ambitious, took me to The Jazz Cafe on our second date; he was a decent young man but I just didn’t feel it. This set me back as I doubted myself, I thought – why do I not like this perfectly decent man? Am I not over my ex? Do I only like absolute dick-heads (an affliction many women seem to have in their early 20’s however it can last up to their 40’s in severe cases)? Why did I feel this dread whenever I was meeting Ben? A wave of whispers inside me got louder and louder “wouldn’t you rather be hanging out with your mates?”. Alas, Ben was sent ‘The Text’ and life and dating continued.

Swiping fatigue.

Skipping ahead to 2020 and the Year of Lockdown, I had by this point migrated to Hinge; a dating app which doesn’t swipe but shares mini-profiles of 3 photos and answers to 3 questions which the user has selected from a predetermined list. It was all very exciting at first; “oo I wonder why he chose this question or used this caption to his photo” etc. The format was clear, it appeared you needed to demonstrated the following ‘sides’ to you:

1. Social – the group pic; you have friends and aren’t a complete mentalist

2. Adventurous – you don’t just sit in the pub all day because you once hiked in Big Sur

3. Cute/kind – you’re hugging your Nan or holding a cat so therefore aren’t a mega-lad looking for a quick shag

4. Funny/witty – you have at least one ironic or topical caption/answer e.g. Q. “What I want to do next year?” A. “Leave the house.” (sigh)

It was relentless. Hinge fatigue was real and tedious. I went in dips of deleting it for mental breaks to pep-talks of “come on, you can do this, you’ve got to put yourself out there before someone else asks you how it’s all going”. Creating material for social conversations was a huge incentive as it turns out. It was also the main topic of conversation between my flatmate and I (also single). “Oh my god babe, look at this guy” was probably the most-used phrase of our cohabitation. During March ‘20 I matched with a few people but we just didn’t see how it could go anywhere, really we were messaging to pass the time. I would say I matched with maybe 2-3 people a week, most of whom you would never hear from, or you would message 2 or 3 things then it would fizzle. Getting or giving a number was another step, to arrange a first date was quite the success and a second date – TELL ALL YOUR FRIENDS IMMEDIATELY. This was my experience anyway and one that became quite intimidating the closer I got to the big 3-0.

Matching with Max.

On 14th April we matched on Hinge. He was any other guy at this point (soz Max); an inevitable peak of potential as our initial chat hits off to a plunging realisation of nothingness and the bleak process restarts. He came across as funny, we, of course, referred to lockdown and before we exchanged numbers he mentioned he was still living with his ex-girlfriend. Normally this would be a huge red flag for me but I respected his immediate honesty and the light-hearted nature he spoke about being stuck in this awkward situation. It became clear they were on good terms and it was nothing to worry about. I gave him my number and we practically began a dating questionnaire about each other:

“What do you have with chips – ketchup or mayo?”

“Vinegar”

“NICE. How do you cook your steak?”
Medium rare.
“Phew, any more would’ve been a deal-breaker. [wink emoji]”
“City-breaks or beach holidays?”
“Skiing”

I never had rapid-fire interviewed a date before but it was actually a really fun and revealing way of getting to know each other. After a few days of chatting and the mutual awareness of being stuck inside our houses, we boldly decided to have a virtual date.

Do you have a Zoom account?

It was a Friday night and I got dressed up in my room to walk to the other side of my room. I video called my flatmate as a test to see if I looked ok on camera and that the angle was ok, once confirmed I got into position and placed a glass of wine by my feet. Yes kids, welcome to dating in April 2020. I was using my work laptop and Zoom account, ever the professional, then he messaged to say he was running 5 minutes late. I was getting nervous. What the hell am I doing? Sitting on the edge of my bed wearing red lipstick about to video call a practical stranger to see if we get on. I reminded myself we said we would just do 20 mins / one drink then I needed to make dinner. No pressure. Worst case – I could shut the laptop lid and run into the lounge, never to speak to him again. And breathe. He dialled in and the connection is bad. Great. As if the awkward cup wasn’t full enough, add in face-freezing and robotic stuttering and you have an overflowing glass. He logged back in with his work account and we got stuck in. I became panic-confident and tried to get ALL my stories across, in return he was funny, sweet and very chatty. The most bizarre thing of video-dating is how distracted you are by your own face and how you’re coming across. Not in a vain way but there you are, staring back at you in real-time making these crazy facial expressions. Somehow three hours passed by with an interval to get more medicinal wine and use the facilities, in the kitchen my flatmate asked: “how did it go my love?” “It’s still going!” I gleefully replied.

Church bench.

After another two hour virtual date and regular messaging, we decided to take a somewhat morally-questionable move and meet in real life. Outside, with a 2m distance. Our justification was that going to Tesco was riskier. After work on a Wednesday in May, I crossed the road and there he was, in real life. I had 15 seconds to dodge the traffic and analyse everything about his face. His beard was bigger, the shape of his face looked different (they always do) and he was wearing all black. We didn’t hug but smiled and continued walking to Shoreditch Park as planned with some tinnies in tow. Again the plan was to stay for an hour or so then head home. After two and a bit hours we had run out of tinnies and I needed to wee. Pubs were closed, public toilets were closed, it was becoming dark and my options were extremely limited. I had a 45-minute journey home and after this length of time, that was far too long. “Just go behind that bench in the Church there.” This is not something I wanted to deal with on a first date. It happened, it was needed and I was mortified.

A mouth-full of bread.

Our second date was a picnic near my flat in Victoria Park so I could nip back and not have to squat behind a tree. Always preferred. I was annoyingly hungover, despite trying to be sensible, and had planned to make two dips: cumin carrot & feta and baba ganoush. This was a huge effort, I was feeling very nauseous but popped my summer dress and denim jacket on and met Max at a local shop to pick up further picnic supplies. I was emulating faux-confidence to try and mask my hangover and he seemed a little more nervous this time. We found a suitable plot in and amongst the park but in eyeshot of my flat (for toilet safety). Chatting away, we nibbled on bread, olives, cheese and of course some delicious dips. Mid-story I lent back with conviction and an assured posture, Max had a mouth full of bread and began pointing at me. I touched my face, confused, he started laughing and held his hand flat towards me. What is he doing? He swallowed half his mouthful after what felt like a fortnight but was probably about 12 seconds to inform me that as I lent back my dress had revealed my left nipple. There I was mono-tit out in the middle of Victoria Park chatting away whilst this lovely man was trying to cover it from his view. I bolted forward and enclosed as much of my body as possible with my jacket. A wave of hot anxiety rushed from my toes to my ears as he began giggling. Every word in my vocabulary had vanished in embarrassment apart from “oh my god, oh my god” which I repeated extensively. My confident aura evaporated and I became Timid Tim, the Queen of Coy fish; I was Bashful from the Seven Dwarfs. My Pantone colour was now permanently crimson. He kindly began telling me a story as a distraction but I kept interrupting “I’m sorry, I just keep re-living it.”

We were kicked out of the park at 4 pm and moved to the outside area of my flat – the car park. He left and we still weren’t sure whether to hug. He had seen my breast but were we ready to hug in public yet? Only in 2020 would I even think of that sentence.

It started with gnocchi.

After several picnic dates and “but is there a toilet there?” conversations, my flatmate kindly left the flat for the night so I could do something quite extraordinary; make dinner. He turned up with red wine, I made butternut squash and goat’s cheese gnocchi, we had gin and tonics, shots of limoncello and the loveliest evening sharing our stories where external worries were minimised to Volume 1. After this, the lockdown was starting to ease and we started fantasising about weekends away and what we ‘would normally be doing’ if we weren’t restricted. We had our first evening meal out, he came to my 30th birthday party in my Mum’s garden (sans Mum until the next day), he joined me at my family celebration in Brighton with my two brothers, their wives and Mum and Stepdad. We have had two staycations and have been to Malta to meet his Mum and her partner.

Courting.

Within six months I have completely fallen in love with this funny Welsh man who challenges me whilst making me feel completely comfortable and myself. The greatest gift a partner can provide. Who knows if lockdown helped our relationship or whether we worked in spite of it but I felt that I enjoyed courting him rather than dating.

We went on walks, had picnics and got to know each other through shared experiences. It felt like a relationship much more embedded in this notion than just pubbing and eating (although this was of course a thread throughout). Learning about each other through experiences is something we continue to do and it has taught me so much about not what people like to do or have done, but what their character truly is.

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