My strange foray into ‘meeting’ new people during the lockdown
Moving on from your ex can be hard. But if there’s anything this year has taught me, it’s that government-mandated lockdowns certainly don’t make it any easier.
As someone who was just in a two-year relationship that was slowly falling apart, I had always accepted the possibility of becoming single — I just didn’t expect it to happen on the precipice of a pandemic. But given my knack for timing, that’s exactly what happened.
So, during the first week of lockdown, I hastily packed up my stuff — and my dreams of the future — and moved out of my ex-boyfriend’s house and into a new apartment. Suddenly, I was not only single but physically, emotionally, and spiritually surviving a global crisis with two roommates I had only just met. For a moment, it felt like the fabric of my reality had been completely torn apart.
But life goes on, and so do people’s sex drives, I discovered. Since the shelter-in-place order, I’ve been navigating a new, irksome terrain of dating: a virtual minefield of poorly crafted DMs, unsolicited thirst traps, and late-night requests for nudes. So when my editor introduced the opportunity to write about a virtual speed dating event hosted by MyCheekyDate — a U.K.-based matchmaking service — I was morbidly fascinated. Would it be any better than what I was experiencing now? Or would it just feel like a dystopian version of Chatroulette minus the dicks? Somewhat masochistically, I put on a blouse (but kept on the sweatpants), poured myself a tall glass of wine, and signed up in an effort to find out.
“I’m officially on the Zoom Call from Hell.”
Once I received my confirmation email, it became clear that MyCheekyDate is pretty conservative. Only men and women’s seats were available, and I later discovered that I’d only been paired with men even though I never specified my sexual preference. The age bracket, too, was pretty narrow — participants in my experience were all aged 25–39. The hosts explained the process: We had five minutes to chat with each person in a designated breakout room via Zoom, where we were separated into pairs based on our location (people called in from all over the world). Afterward, we would message the host with our top three choices, and if there’s a match, we’d be notified via email.
Admittedly, I didn’t feel great about the prospect of having to socialize with a bunch of strangers in videoconference format. But at 8 p.m., I took a deep breath, clicked on the meeting invitation link, and logged into the main “event” room. There, I was confronted with a slew of white and Asian men staring back at me from a tidy grid.
“How are we doing, lovers?” said a disembodied voice coyly from my computer. Mortified, I looked to my left and identified the voice — it was Candy, our co-host, broadcasting live from her living room on the Las Vegas strip. In the bottom right corner, I saw a woman with a headset drinking murky liquid out of a glass mug. On her left was a man whose house looked like a college dorm room. “I’m officially on the Zoom Call from Hell,” I thought. Immediately, I wanted to throw my computer out the window.
“Let’s be real here, who else has been drinking since 4 p.m. besides me?” said Candy. Stifling a nervous laugh, I took a sip of my wine, noticing that just about everyone else in the main event room also had some sort of alcoholic beverage. “I bet liquor sales are skyrocketing right now,” she continued. I had to hand it to Candy. Conversationally, she was doing most of the heavy lifting and remained as bubbly as ever despite all the participants — myself included — awkwardly fumbled around as she and the other host worked to resolve ongoing technical difficulties.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I was abruptly sucked into a breakout room with my first potential match. A man’s face loomed over me. “Oh, hello!” I said, waving to him and introducing myself. “Have you done this before?” I asked my date, Zach*, a military veteran. He told me that he had done a few of the in-person sessions and that it was much more fun that way. Then, as predicted, the conversation quickly diverted to the pandemic and how we wished we could actually meet people in person. We sighed. Unfortunately, this was an unavoidable topic throughout the evening.
As the dates dragged on, the men I spoke to generally asked me the same questions, which all centered around what I did to pass the time and whether or not I was going crazy yet. One person I spoke with, Andrew, who was disheveled and drinking heavily in his living room, clearly was not doing well. He said he was an outdoorsy person and missed doing activities with his friends. I felt bad for him. Other than that, though, I was met with the usual getting-to-know-you questions I would be asked on any regular date: What do you do for work? Where in the Bay Area do you live? What do you do for fun?
It’s downright exhausting to rehash the same conversation with strangers for so long.
Many of the men I spoke to were also essential employees and worked in either the government, tech, or health care sectors. One person I spoke with, Diego, a physician, told me that this was his first night off in eight days. “What do you think of all this?” he said, referring to the virtual speed dating format, wine glass in hand. “Oh, I hate it, I think it’s so weird,” I said, in earnest. “But I’m curious if it works,” I quickly iterated. He laughed, sadly nodding in commiseration.
“So what do you do?” Diego asked. “I’m a communications manager at an art museum and a freelance writer,” I said. “Actually, I’m writing about this for an assignment. Could I ask you some follow-up questions afterward?” Diego looked visibly disappointed and perplexed. “Oh. Um, yeah, sure,” he said, taking a big sip of wine. “Okay, great! I’ll message you directly in a sec then,” I said. As we signed off, Diego’s disappointed expression flashed in my mind. “Am I an asshole for doing this?” I thought. Diego did not respond to my interview request. I guess that answers it.
For a brief, golden moment, it felt like a normal human interaction even though we were physically separated due to frightening circumstances and broadcasting from two different cities.
By that point, I had spent over an hour talking to about 10 different people and was ready to quit. It’s downright exhausting to rehash the same conversation with strangers for so long. I also felt like the five-minute mark made it difficult to get past the social niceties, which is when I felt the real connections happened. And, to top it off, I was all out of wine. But toward the end, I was pleasantly surprised.
As I was plunked into my second-to-last breakout room, I scanned my virtual surroundings. There, I saw a wall of books, a whiteboard, and a handsome young guy in a button-down staring back at me. “Oh my god, are you in a high school classroom?” I asked the stranger on the other side of the screen. He laughed, “No, I’m a math teacher; this is my study.” “Holy shit,” I thought. “Hot.”
Noticing my guitar in the background, he asked if I played music, and I told him yes — he mentioned that he made music too, and we started talking about our influences. I learned that he had spent time in Nashville and played mostly folk music. Overall, it was a pleasant diversion from the usual Covid-19 conversation starters. And I thought he had a nice smile. For a brief, golden moment, it felt like a normal human interaction even though we were physically separated due to frightening circumstances and broadcasting from two different cities. “Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all,” I thought as our five minutes were up.
As we finally reconvened in the main event room to wrap up, participants and I were advised to enter our top choices to our hosts via direct message. I entered the math teacher’s name. “Am I doing this right? Lol,” I wrote. No response.
Once we all awkwardly waved goodbye and signed off, I collapsed onto my bed, exhausted. The next day, I scanned my inbox for match notifications and was admittedly — and somewhat arrogantly — surprised to learn that I had been rejected by my top choice. When I followed up with MyCheekyDate to confirm, I received the following email:
Daters who garner matches are notified approximately 24 hours after the event. For this particular one, we did not have a mutual match for you. Perhaps next time it will be in the stars.
To my own surprise, it stung to get rejected — even if it was from someone who I knew almost nothing about.
Eventually, I told a friend — someone I’d once dated — about my unfruitful virtual speed dating experience on Facebook Messenger. And at one point, we started talking about movies.
“Man, for some reason I really wanna watch The Lost Boys,” I typed.
He replied, “I was just thinking that. This is totally doable in the year 2020. I’m down to throw it on a stream if you want!”
So then, via Kast, a streaming service specifically designed for sharing movies, we watched two vampire films “together” back-to-back in a virtual chatroom. There, we talked back and forth for hours, sent each other photos of comic books in our apartment, and raised our wine glasses to one another from our respective apartments in Oakland and Alameda. In the corner of the screen, I saw that it was just us two signed in, and I felt a small pang of joy.
Perhaps connections can still be made in these strange times after all.
*First names have been changed.