In this op-ed, McKenzie Schwark describes what she learned about online dating during a pandemic when she met her coronavirus crush.
I downloaded Tinder’s passport feature hoping to meet a nice Parisian, or maybe a Canadian in case I decided to hightail it out of here and get some health insurance. As the pandemic raged on, I was hunkered down at my parents’ house in North Dakota, dreaming of the moment I’d board the first available flight abroad to meet the citizen of absolutely anywhere else I was sure I’d find online. Instead, I met Topher.
Topher happened to be 500 miles away in Chicago, where I had gone to college and was considering relocating when my lease ended in Brooklyn. Topher had deep dimples and a thick Chicago accent, and although he couldn’t offer me citizenship out of this increasingly dark country, I had an instant crush on him.
Tinder convos turned into constant texting. The distance quickly became a non-issue considering we couldn’t see each other anyway. We’d stay up late talking about movies and music, all while the world around us erupted into this painful, chaotic place. But talking with Topher was such a respite from that. Online dating can often feel chaotic and painful, but for once it was working as I’d imagined it was supposed to. As more and more people got sick, and the COVID-19 death toll climbed, Topher actually made me feel excited and hopeful for the future. So it was with that in mind that, sitting up under my comforter and holding my phone tightly to my ear one night, he whispered from four states away “I have a crush on you.”
After almost five months of flirting over the phone, I had the opportunity to road trip down to Chicago with a friend and I jumped at the chance to safely get a change of pace. Coincidentally, Topher’s apartment happened to be just across the park from where I was staying. So, we made plans to meet there. On the day of our date, I found him sitting in the tall grass under a tree, the sun just starting to set in front of him. When I sat down next to him all of my nerves went away. We watched a socially distanced amateur softball game from across the field and made up personalities for each of the players. As the sun set further we wandered down to the lake to watch the retired swan boats bob on the blushing water. It was the kind of stuff movie montages are made of. When we parted he said he’d like to see me again soon, and I agreed.
I walked home while the prospect of getting my first hug in over five months danced in my head. I decided I would happily isolate for two weeks if at the end of it I could hold Topher’s hand, or swipe a bug off of his arm. A few days later I texted him, eager to schedule our next socially distanced date. But he had something to tell me: He’d sparked a similar relationship with someone else. Since exclusivity seems like the only option in a pandemic, they were going to give that a go.
In my normal, pre-pandemic dating life, the idea that Topher was dating someone else wouldn’t shock me. In fact, I’d expect that we weren’t exclusive until we agreed to be so. But, given the global pandemic that relegated most of us to our homes, with only furtive trips to the grocery store as a brief escape, it just hadn’t occurred to me that there might be another Tinder match, at least not another stay-up-all-night kind like we had. The normal rules of life seem to be on hold, so it surprised me when the rules of dating pretty much stayed the same, despite the circumstances being wildly different.