I knew you’d been trying to talk to me. I thought you were weird at first, but changed my mind so suddenly, it caught me by surprise. The death toll was creeping up, but I barely noticed because all I cared about was how blue your eyes were, and how you looked up at me from the dishwasher and said my dress was pretty. I said to my friends, I can NOT self-isolate right now.
I wondered if you’d stand next to me while everyone in the office watched the 1 p.m. briefing. I thought if we stood at the back of the kitchen, maybe you’d find a way to secretly touch my arm, or tap a hand quickly against the small of my back. It’s been so long since I let anyone touch me. I don’t even remember the last time.
Of course it would go like this. I finally meet someone who’s actually nice to me, and the whole nation gets sent to their rooms.
On the day the lockdown was announced, you asked when I was leaving work. I said, ‘As soon as I figure out which of these cords is the laptop charger.’ You asked me to wait, and you walked with me to the train. Leaves were scattering across the road, and people in suits walked against the wind, carrying computers and pot plants. You said, ‘I’m not going to see you for so long.’
As my train arrived, I asked you what the rules were for saying goodbye, because you’re so weird about PDA, and I still didn’t know what we were allowed to do. I held out my hand for a fist bump, and you laughed and kissed me. You’d never done anything so public, and I didn’t want to leave.
You drove 40 minutes to see me, past police setting up roadblocks. You couldn’t find my house in the dark, and your flatmates were texting asking where you were, saying they would lock you out if you weren’t back by the time level 4 started at midnight. We were never going to have enough time. I was hearing stories about people quarantining with someone they’d just started dating so they wouldn’t be separated for so long. I wondered if you’d suggest it, but my house is too small, and I knew the only thing worse than isolating alone would be isolating with someone else’s flatmates. I thought about how to say no so that you wouldn’t feel rejected. But then you had to go, and our time was up. I walked you to your car and thought, ‘Ask me. Ask me.’
It’s five minutes past midnight and I’m three whiskeys in, pacing my small kitchen. I can’t believe you left.
While putting your shoes on that night, you asked if I’d ever write about you. I said, ‘Not unless you do something wrong,’ but the next day I started this. It needed an ending, but I knew I’d never finish it because there would be no end for us. I had known since you looked up at me from the dishwasher and said my dress was pretty. I’d really looked at you, after all those months of thinking you were weird, and a little voice in my head said, ‘This is it.’ I’d never done that before. It’s not what I do.
My grandpa tried to tell me that he remembered quarantining during the Spanish Flu. I think he’s forgotten that happened after WWI, not WWII. I don’t know if he means to lie, or if he creates stories in his head and believes them. I can’t judge because I do that too. There are so few stories of the Spanish Flu. It’s like no one wrote anything down. I want to capture everything. I want to be able to describe it in 40 years. I’ll tell people how my whole street smelled like pot, and about the bottle of Corona Beer that was smashed on the road. And the memes. So many memes. I imagine what we’ll all do that first day out, and what the world will be like afterwards. I would be perfectly happy, if only you were here and we could talk about everything that was happening and not happening.
We text about our days. We video call on your lunch breaks. You still have work to do, but I can’t do much from home. You’re with flatmates. I’m alone. We talk, we talk. I learn what times of the day you’re free and adjust my routine. I send photos from my walks. You send photos of your view. You tell me at night that you’re thinking of me, and I ask you to tell me what you’re thinking. There’s something blissful about how much I miss you, about how I can’t concentrate on anything else but counting down the days, and wondering when my phone will light up. You’re not the best at texting, and people who can’t text have no business getting into relationships, but you’re doing the best you can, and I structure my days around waiting for you.
The lockdown gets extended. I don’t care about anything else now. I don’t care about writing things down. I don’t care about the new world order or the socialist paradise that might come from this. I don’t want to read the Arundhati Roy piece that I saved, or the Covid novel that Ali Smith is definitely writing. I don’t want to write a Love in the Time of Corona essay. Representations of life aren’t enough anymore. Give me the real thing or burn it all down. I only want to show up at your door, and for you to do the things you say you’ll do. I want you to kiss me in the elevator at work, or press your body against mine outside a restaurant like you did that time, when your hands slid up my shirt and you breathed against my neck. The imprint of you is fading. My arms close around empty air.
You’re often late for video chats these days. Today you cancel and I wash my make up off and feel stupid that I wasted all morning waiting, but what else is there to do?
When level 3 starts, you go into work. I don’t need to be there yet, but I wish I could go with you and circle you in the kitchen, pretending for the others that there’s nothing going on. You send a photo of my empty desk, but then I don’t hear from you all day. You tell me later that you had to work till 7:30, but you send a picture of the sunset that you took when you left. It’s full dark by 6 these days, but I don’t think about that.
It’s your birthday today. I can’t do much, but I buy a donut and put a candle on it. I send a photo of it and say, ‘Make a wish!’
And then I wait.
And then I wait.
You don’t text for three days and I try not to write to you. You must be waiting till we can see each other in real life. It’s not far off now. I say you don’t have to text me until then. We both know you aren’t going to, but at least I’m free from waiting. Something has changed, but you can tell me what it is later, when I see you, when we start putting things back together. We’ll be getting out soon. I don’t want to video call, I don’t want you to write. I’m tired of half measures.
I ask you when you want to meet because I’m scared you won’t ask me and I don’t want to know if I’m right. You say it’d be good to catch up and I send a screenshot to all my friends to analyse the possible hidden meaning behind that particular choice of words. The general agreement is that I’m overthinking. I know I am. What could have possibly changed?
When I see you again, it isn’t how I thought it would be. I thought maybe you’d jog a little, to reach me quicker. I’d run my hand over that quarantine beard, and you’d wrap an arm around my waist. Your body would be back in its place.
You greet me with a hug and a pat on the back and I think, aren’t we past hugging? That’s the only time you touch me. We don’t talk like we used to and you aren’t like you used to be. You’re someone new and I don’t like you like this. After an hour you say you have to go because people are coming over for a barbeque, but it’s raining, and if I were having a barbeque, I’d want you there with me. I decide I’ll wait until we’re at your car, then I’ll ask if you’re okay, if I did something wrong, if I misunderstood, or if there’s another you — a you who’d been so nice to me but is gone now, and, if so, where did he go and do you have a map to that place? I have the words ready but you get in the car so quickly that there’s no time for me to speak. You say it was nice to catch up and I know you’re never going to text me again. I know I’ve just gotten the end of the essay I started writing about you. Whatever this thing was that we never got time to name, it’s done.
I go back to the house I’ve been shut in for two months. I was here the first time you called and I was too nervous to answer, and when you first wrote, ‘I wish you weren’t so far away,’ and when you said, ‘It’d be nice to catch up.’ We’ve done one full revolution, and yet here I still am. I’ve not moved from this spot.
That wasn’t worth the petrol it took to drive to you. It wasn’t worth the half hour it took to curl my hair. I wish I could pinch off the mascara I’m wearing to put it back in the tube, and scrape the gel from my eyebrows, tap my cheeks until the blush falls back into its bright compact. I want back everything I wasted on you.
When I start back at work you’ve moved to an office across the road. I can’t decide what I’ll do if I see you in the street. I could ask what happened, but you might say you just stopped thinking about me and that would hurt too much, because I’m still thinking about you. I could say you disappointed me but I’ll forgive you because you made me pretty happy for a while and sometimes that’s all you get. Later I think no, not that.
I’m mad at you because I want you to be in the kitchen making tea, and I want you to avoid meeting my eyes like you used to because people might see what was going on. They might get zapped by the energy that was zinging between us. I’m mad because I thought you were better than me. I thought I was the lucky one, that someone like you would want someone like me, but I would never do what you’ve done, so I’m better — I’m the better one — and you’re going to break my heart? I’m mad because it’s embarrassing how much I wrote about you in my journal, like I’m literally embarrassed in front of my journal. But if there was more to write I would write it.
I want to clutch my chest and tip off my chair, like I’m having a heart attack. I want to howl about how awful you were to me, and how much I wish you were still being awful because at least then you’d be here and I’ve known for a while that I’d change I’d change for you if you didn’t like me I’d be different just don’t leave me. I should be able to call an ambulance for this feeling, like I should have been able to call you but never did, even before, because I wasn’t sure you’d answer.
I don’t want to be distracted from this feeling. I want to hold it close because it’s all you left me when you left me. I talk to my ex and say, ‘I’m so sorry if I ever made you feel like this.’ He tells me it’s okay because it passes, like everything passes, like the good part of this passed.
I have to unlearn the habit of telling you everything, like the funny things that have happened at work, and what it’s like being back without you, and how sad it is going to the kitchen and not finding you there. I can see your new building from my window. They’re doing renovations and I wonder if the noise bothers you, and if you stop yourself from telling me about it.
I don’t want to finish writing this because it’s the last thing to do. Yesterday I sat in a restaurant with my family and I realised that life is wider and more complex than this feeling. I realised I’m not as sad anymore. I should unfriend you on Facebook, I should get in first.
Ah, it’s alright. It’s all alright. I just miss you; the you that you were before. We would have been perfect if you weren’t the way that you are, if we were both other people.
Alie Benge is a Wellington-based essayist. Her essays have been published in Takahē, Turbine | Kapohau, The Spinoff, and others. She holds an MA from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and in 2017 was joint winner of the Landfall Essay Competition