When I was in my early teens and devouring dystopian novels like they were Effie Trinket’s chocolate-covered strawberries, being a plucky protagonist in a post-apocalyptic world always sounded fun. Fast-forward eight years and living through the sort of pandemic that I thought I’d be reading about in a Stephen King novel rather than The Guardian, the prospect of living out my Katniss dream is a lot less appealing.
Although I probably wouldn’t fare well in a deadly reality show, there’s one thing I do have in common with most dystopian heroines (unfortunately it’s not the ability to rock a French plait or shoot a bow and arrow), and that’s a star-crossed romance.
When I reflect on the mess that is 2020 so far, two major aspects stand out: love and Coronavirus. In January I started dating someone. He was lovely but it was the start of my final few months as a student, and with a dissertation deadline and final exams looming, I didn’t want to start anything serious, so we decided to keep things casual and steer clear of any “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” labels. We’d go to cafes together, we’d get cocktail-drunk together, we’d watch The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina together, but there was no pressure, and no expectation that we’d continue seeing each other beyond graduation; in June we planned to part ways and chase our post-uni dreams unfettered. For ten weeks it was dreamy; a low-key university romance gave my final year a much-needed touch of excitement.
Unfortunately there was something else set to add drama to my last few months of university – Coronavirus. The presence of the crisis didn’t strike my romance suddenly; it was always there, with my fear of the virus growing in parallel with my affection for this boy.
At first it felt like a joke. We scoffed at the hysteria surrounding what was first described as a cold, exchanging the hilarious memes that flooded our social media timelines and rolling our eyes when students lobbied the Students’ Union to provide everyone with free masks. China had come down with the flu, but it was so distant that it didn’t feel real. Tipsy off one Long Island Iced Tea on a Friday night in February, I kissed him and told him with a giggle that I’d decided to call our fling Love in the Time of Coronavirus.
Then at the start of March the world started turning topsy-turvy and Coronavirus became very unfunny. The campus supermarket ran out of soap, Tesco ran out of toilet rolls, and every shop in the country ran out of hand sanitizer. Chatting over a coffee one afternoon, he talked about his fears of the implications that the virus could cause – the term “collapse of society” was mentioned – and suddenly I was panicked. He told me not to worry and even promised me unlimited access to the vat of hand sanitizer that he and his housemates were planning to concoct using alcohol and aloe vera (possibly the ultimate romantic gesture in the time of Coronavirus).
Then in mid-March, as university wrapped up its second term, we had an email stating that all further in-person teaching and exams had been cancelled and would be replaced with online alternatives. And just like that, my uni life crumbled in uncertainty. Would anyone come back for term three? Would that even be possible? Britain seemed to be on the brink of lockdown and university seemed to be over.
This left the future of my fling unsure and my heart heavy. I got teary every time I reflected on our short love story, mourning the months of post-exam romantic bliss that had suddenly been snatched from us. I saw him before I left for Easter and only managed to hold it together for twenty minutes before bursting into tears.
He was so optimistic, saying that we’d see each other again soon, that we’d still enjoy some of the summer term together. He held me and listed the things we’d do in June after our (virtual) exams; we’d have a picnic together, we’d eat Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream together, we’d finally watch the latest series of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina together. The images were beautiful but blurry in my mind; pages of a chapter that we would never get to write.
So I cried some more and admitted that I was worried we’d never see each other again. He scoffed at the thought, of course we’d see each other again, even if it wasn’t for a few months. Our original agreement to stop dating in June seemed ridiculous and maybe the pandemic was making me slip into madness, but I felt like I was falling in love. My second admission came flooding out, “I feel like you’ve become my boyfriend”. He faltered and confessed, “my housemates already refer to you as my girlfriend” and in that moment at least one thing in this crazy world felt a little more certain.
That was the last time I saw him before I returned home in time for the UK lockdown; my eyeshadow leaving glittery tear stains on his shirt, and the promise that we’d meet again once the world has stopped ending. On that afternoon I’d never felt more like a character at the start of one of my teen dystopian novels, saying goodbye to her sweetheart at the brink of the apocalypse.
As I write this, the UK is in its second week of lockdown and the future has never felt so precarious. Coronavirus infections are rising alongside the speculation that social distancing measures could last many months and it’s easy to lose hope that I’ll be reunited with my Corona Crisis sweetheart anytime soon. But it seems our fling has been extended indefinitely and what I once drunkenly joked about has become a reality. I found love in the time of Coronavirus and what better way to strengthen a relationship than by living through a global pandemic together? At least I have a date night to look forward to in the post-apocalyptic world, and in the meantime I’ll start practising my French plaiting skills.
Words by Anonymous.
Images sourced from Instagram and film stills.