It’s midsummer, aka the 117th day of quarantine. Despite how standard it is now, the apocalyptic feeling hasn’t faded. I’ve acclimated to wearing masks and maintaining a six-foot distance in public spaces, but even so, I’m still experiencing cognitive dissonance. I’m still missing my friends’ untamed laughter and my teen brothers’ cheeky smiles. I’m still missing libraries and movie theaters and cafés.
Although, honestly after the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and other Black folks, I’m more afraid of being murdered by police than dying from COVID. In some ways, Black people have always practiced a form of social distancing. Whenever I leave my home, I fear the possibility of white people’s fear of me, of what it could lead to, of how it could impact my livelihood. These thoughts haunt me more than ventilators and hospital bills. But much like the stress of the pandemic, this now-familiar anxiety can be difficult to manage. Sometimes coping activities like making lavender lattes or taking nudes just don’t work.
Thankfully, surprisingly, there are still pockets of delight in the darkness. The disorienting circumstances of the pandemic have allowed me to forge a new romantic connection that’s been strangely refreshing.
In April, a quarantine-themed Instagram page led me to digitally cross paths with a person named Michael. Mutual curiosity turned to a series of mildly flirty video messages that eventually evolved to weekly FaceTime chats.
Michael lives in such a way that welcomes multifacetedness. He’s a communist who likes Nikes and playing video games like God of War. I adore when one of his thoughtful critiques on capitalism somehow leads to a mention of something boyish like NBA YouTubers. He doesn’t place himself in a box and extends this grace to others. Even while calling out political systems, his compassion for people shines. He believes in the goodness of humanity despite his awareness of our faults.
Amidst COVID-19 and the racial justice movement, Michael has witnessed and supported my fullest expressions of anger, grief, and delight.
But the first thing that truly struck me about Michael, besides his gorgeous beard, was his insistence to call me by my name, my real name, the name mother gave me: Oluwasemiloré (Oh-lu-wah-shea-me-low-ray) or Loré (low-ray) for short.
By age five, I quickly learned the ways that society expected me to water down the Nigerian aspects of my Nigerian-American identity, and express only the Americanness—more specifically the Americanness that appeased white people. My first name became the biggest assimilation sacrifice. From Lori to Lore to Lori-Anne, I’ve been referred to as various versions of Loré. In middle school, I settled for the pronunciation lah-ray and decided it was close enough.
But when Michael and I started talking to each other in April, he refused to settle. As a Black Dominican man, he understood the implications of this compromise. “I want to say your name the right way, the way your mother does,” he said firmly. “It’s erasure if I don’t pronounce it correctly. Your name is important.”
I nodded with a half-smile before slowly uttering those two consonants and two vowels that I know so well. This was just the beginning of being charmed by him. Soon after, my crush on him would give way to the emotional movement between being infatuated and having deep admiration.
As much as I can list off the reasons I like him, I also have a list of things I don’t know. There are many physical aspects of him I wonder about, like his body language without the glitchy barrier of FaceTime or the softness of his skin or the way he smells. The emptiness of these key details is frustrating at times.
After three months of exchanging music and immigrant mom stories, we’ve developed a closeness that feels like more than just a quaran-fling. And it’s true, our iPhones and Macbooks allow us to be together in special ways, but at times it intensifies the separation. Michael and I have never strolled around a neighborhood together or poured the other a glass of water or held hands. To a certain extent, our lengthy calls cannot make up for the fundamental aspects of knowing each other.
But I suppose this is true of every relationship, romantic or otherwise. There are always certain details that our lovers, family, or friends do not know about us. This natural ignorance doesn’t negate the significance of those connections. In fact, it might make them more meaningful. There are always specific companions who witness us become and unbecome different versions of ourselves.
Amidst COVID-19 and the racial justice movement, Michael has witnessed and supported my fullest expressions of anger, grief, and delight. With everything that is going on, there are so many unpredictable emotional waves. The freedom I experience with Michael has allowed me to embrace them. He makes me feel safe as I come to terms with all the heaviness around us. My time with him also reminds me that Black joy is just as radical and necessary as Black rage. Intense conversations about the intersection of the pandemic and anti-racism often lead to cackles about funny tweets and vice versa. Together, we practice laughter. We tease each other, we play. Though we cannot hold each other, there is an abundance of pleasure.
Naturally, the specific nature of dating during quarantine is packed with uncertainty. There isn’t a guidebook for maintaining a relationship during a global pandemic. Throughout the course of our time together, we have talked about the future and imagined what our dynamic will be like once we meet. The things that work for us now may not translate well later—from big things like incompatible post-quarantine schedules to seemingly small matters like being completely turned off by each other’s scent. There are so many unknowns. But for now, we are taking it day by day, embracing the wonderful strangeness of being simultaneously together and apart.