#40: Love in quarantine
And a love letter I wrote in 2017
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Happy Super Bowl Sunday—this one’s for all the football fans out there who want to read a newsletter about falling in love.
Last week, Avi and I got into a fight because I was in the mood to change our apartment and he was not. It was barely 10 a.m. when I asked him, out of nowhere, to choose one of five lamps I’d pulled up on my browser. “For where?” he’d asked. “Right there,” I said, pointing at a lamp we already owned. Minutes later, I was gripped by the idea that our monstera was cursing our apartment’s feng shui—a set of guidelines I remembered vaguely from writing a story on it four years ago. I left my computer teetering on the arm of the couch and stood in the kitchen in my socks, eyes wide and unfocused, hands framing the monstera in expectation. He sighed. I scoffed. “Your reaction to this is making me feel stupid,” I resigned. “I’m just not on your level,” he said. Things unraveled from there.
I stood at the counter, he in the living room, each of us defending our positions until we realized we were both wrong: I’d unwittingly entered a state of home-makeover mania and got upset when he didn’t join me, and he’d inadvertently insulted me because I’d made him feel like a drag. Should I qualify that we would never have gotten into this fight before quarantine? But would anyone get in a fight if the conditions that incited the fight didn’t exist? As we attempted to unpack what had gone wrong, I think both of us wanted it to mean more than we’ve been crowded in a small space during a hard time, but it didn’t, really. We had been crowded in a small space during a hard time, and we’d had more scuffles to its name than we’d have ever deemed possible. In the end we both accepted blame, hugged, moved the plant. (If I may say so, things felt better right away.)
The next day at 9 a.m., a magazine editor called to interview us for a feature about relationships. We sat huddled together on the couch, my phone between us, as she asked us to recount our days of falling in love. Back when, before the pandemic, before my enthusiasm ever collided with his indifference or vice versa, any distance between us felt impossibly far. The interviewer wanted to know when I knew it was serious. I said I felt it fairly soon after we first kissed, even though I knew I shouldn’t have, because Avi was my roommate and I was supposed to be “single in New York.” Single in New York! But I had a strange confidence in us right away, and I knew he felt it too, even though we refused to make it official for months. Later we laughed at the irony of taking that interview less than 24 hours after we’d nearly lost each other over a plant that blocked that passage between our living room and kitchen, that temporarily blocked the passage between us, too. Quarantine has humbled us 100 times over, but that strange confidence is still there—growing, somehow—even when we misunderstand each other so profoundly we just stare into each other’s dumbfounded eyes.
Later that night we watched Before Midnight, the final installment of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, which we’d watched in a whirlwind over the course of a single weekend. If you’ve seen this trilogy, a masterpiece filmed over the course of 18 years, I’m sure you’re laughing. There’s no better commentary on how time changes love: warping it, deepening it, complicating it. We were spooked as the credits rolled, uninterested in drawing a parallel between the movie’s depressing arc and the one we’d just relived that day, from kissing on a dance floor to navigating the emotional ropes course of loving your roommate long-term. I don’t want to spoil the trilogy, which I loved so much, but something about the ending didn’t sit right with either of us. We could tell it was trying to make a point about real love—the kind resistant to hyperbole and punctuated by a sort of existential depletion—but it didn’t reflect how we felt, exactly. Did that mean we had a different, more promising destiny, or that we were simply naive? Before Midnight was effective in that it made us feel awful; we resented the implication.
When I was researching my old diaries for the newsletter I sent a few weeks ago, I found a letter I wrote to Avi cataloguing our first weeks and months of falling in love. I wrote it in 2017, about a year after it all happened, because I was struck by a fear that I’d lose the details. Not just the words we said to each other in a restaurant the day after our first kiss, but the total madness I experienced in the process of realizing I loved him: the essential ingredients of that strange confidence. I’ve decided to share it below this week, in honor of our arc, wherever it’s leading us. Falling in love is totally batshit, and if you’ve experienced anything like what you’re about to read, I hope it makes you smile in recognition. It did for me, even through all the sappiness and cringe, even as quarantine drives me to a new kind of madness.
A love letter from 2017
Last November I would lie in bed as emotions knocked through me like dominos. A cacophonous chain reaction so much louder than its individual parts: desire, elation, desperation. I can feel it in my gut even now, the consuming tightness that would spread across my abdomen like a stomachache. Those feelings, they weren’t the sort that wilted when ignored, they were the kind that grew exponentially until unleashed. They were the kind that needed to see light and air, to explode into space in all their impossible unwieldiness, lest they implode in my lovesick throat.
You were so close, just downstairs, but my most intense feelings for you—the ones that had scarcely seen a page let alone the warm space between our faces—were buried inside miles and miles of my bloody innards. They were trapped there, making my body squirm, my heart beat, my breath quicken, and my face spread into a dumb smile in the dark. I’d kick my feet in my sheets like a kid learning to swim, I’d scream in my fucking pillow I was so out of my mind that I found you. I was a grown woman acting like a child, and the only idea more unbearable than more of that tortuous ecstasy was less of it.
You lay right below me, your long, lanky body no more than 15 feet south of my smaller, softer one. “Say goodnight to your toes for me,” I’d stupidly text you, wishing I could do it myself, dying to, maybe. If my floor hadn’t sat between us like a rude stranger your face would have been close enough to inspect. Your eyes close enough to lock with mine. The distance between us was so miniscule it only proved any distance between us was too much.
Before that cold October day when this all started, before we were drunk on a dance floor, pushed against each other under cover of a sweaty crowd, before the thump of Billie Jean turned the magnets behind our lips to 11, you were just a guy in my living room with headphones strung around your neck, dirty sneakers on your feet, a big goofy grin on your face, and a boisterous laugh that came easily. Falling in love with a roommate is a dangerous dance, but I knew you were something long before our bodies decided we were. Long before we stumbled out of the club and into the dark Bushwick street, the four of us high on vodka and the two of us high on our newfound affection for each other, I knew.
“I have a stupid dumb horrible crush on Avi,” I wrote frantically in an iPhone note months before. I rattled off everything that drew me to you in a feverish, impossible list: smart, funny, sexy, fun, confident, interesting, self-aware, irritating, ironic, cute, annoying, hot, endearing, extroverted, creative, social, weird, emotional. You were so many things it felt dumb to list them, but I couldn’t bear not to. Later I’d tell you I wanted a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. That if I tried to hold everything I liked about you in my head at once it might spin right off my neck. “I like the way he dances,” I wrote. “I like the way he bites his lip when he dances,” I wrote, knowing I should be thinking about your lips even less than I should be thinking about your body because you were my roommate and I wasn’t supposed to be interested. But you arrived like a mirage and I kept imagining what it would be like to bury my head in your chest.
The Sunday after we kissed you asked me to dinner. As we walked to a restaurant down the street, my heart beat wildly inside my coat. I’d been unable to think of anything else since my mouth touched yours and your body being within a foot of mine was the only relief I’d felt in days. We sat at the bar and listened to each other breathe. We were strangers, kind of; roommates, certainly; something more, we weren’t sure. We talked around the us-shaped elephant in the room until any other topic seemed insane.
So, Friday night, you said.
Friday night, I said.
It wouldn’t happen again, you assured me, it was a mistake.
But it was so fun, I countered.
It was, you agreed.
It’s going to happen again, I said.
Probably, you said, maybe we can handle it.
Yes, I agreed, maybe we can.
My stomach flipped in disagreement.
Weeks passed as we tiptoed around our affection so meticulously it betrayed our put-on casualness. Every morning you’d find a reason to plop down next to me on the couch in a show of exhaustion. Every morning I would mask my relief that you were near me again. I would sit with my computer on my lap and you would distract me with jokes and stories and offers to make me coffee since, you know, you were making some anyway, and we were roommates after all. I’d say yes because I did and because it gave us an acceptable reason to hear each other’s voice and see each other’s face for just a little longer.
Sometimes, at night, one of us would be brave enough to admit we wanted to talk, sleep, exist within touching distance of each other. It was usually you. “Well, I’m going to bed,” you’d say, after we’d sat on the couch talking for hours, not wanting to separate but not knowing how not to. “But, you know, you are welcome to join me down there. No pressure but…it’s cold and I could use a little warmth,” you’d say.
I wasn’t supposed to be the one to keep you warm, we weren’t supposed to be falling for each other, but all that logic had nothing on our inevitability. Elated to not spend another night in bed with my dominos, I’d grab my pillow and tip toe down a set of stairs I could have jumped in a single bound. I’d crawl into your bed and there we would lay, our faces inches apart, our legs entangled and our minds engaged for hours. 3 a.m. came and passed, then 4, then 5. We had a knack for saying everything except for everything we really felt. How we existed on so little sleep those days still confounds me. We were all nerves, all blood and guts and adrenaline. You were skipping to work in pure joy, you told me, and I was running out of reasons not to love you.
p.s. I picked this week’s song because I listened to it a lot when everything was first happening with Avi and it makes me painfully nostalgic. I probably wrote the letter to it like a loser.
1. This arrestingly beautiful painting by Tamara de Lempicka which, in a rare twist, actually got me to stop scrolling on Twitter like a mindless drone.
2. “Cold Pastoral,” a short story by Marina Keegan for The New Yorker, recommended to me by a reader after my 38th newsletter about posthumous diary-reading and publishing. What’s eerie is the story is about a college student reading her boyfriend’s diary after he dies, and the story itself was published after Keegan tragically died in a car accident at 22. I loved it so much. When I shared it on Instagram a bunch of people also told me to read her essay collection, too—The Opposite of Loneliness, in case you’re looking for a rec.
3. Richard Linklater’s famous trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, which Avi and I both loved so much. The second was our favorite. Although I would like to state for the record that, although I believe in police and prison abolition, whoever styled Ethan Hawke for these movies should be arrested.
4. This tweet thread by @hannahcrileyy about why people in prison should be allowed to have cell phones.
5. Lane 8’s most recent album, Brightest Lights, which took me back, in a painful way, to electronic shows I went to in my twenties. (The best part of being 31 is saying “my twenties.”)
“Pixar’s ‘Soul’ is, in fact, the latest in a long tradition of American race-transformation tales, each of which finds a pretext—a potion, a spell, a medical treatment, or simply makeup—to put a white person in a black body (or vice versa).”
7. The latest episode of Poog, the podcast by comedians Jacqueline Novak and Kate Berlant, titled “Jargon,” which was a wild and emotional ride I did NOT expect!! Multiple people texted to ask if I’d listened and I’m so glad I did. (If you’re new to Jacqueline Novak I once profiled her very strange and special mind.)
8. This DIRT newsletter which effectively summed up what I find ultimately grating about Fran Liebowitz. She does sometimes make me laugh, but it found it hard to get past her insisting she had no power and complaining about paying rent as she sat, spotlit, on a stage talking to Martin Scorsese in front of hundreds of rapt audience members, and then millions of rapt Netflix viewers.
9. YouTube essayist Contrapoints’ latest video on JK Rowling. Her videos are long but they fly by for me.
10. “The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship,” by Amanda Mull for The Atlantic, which finally put to words something I’ve been trying to express for a while: I miss my outer circle.
“The small joys of running into an old co-worker or chatting with the bartender at your local bar might not be the first thing you think of when imagining the value of friendship…. But Rawlins says that both kinds of interactions meet our fundamental desire to be known and perceived, to have our own humanity reflected back at us. ‘A culture is only human to the extent that its members confirm each other,’ he said, paraphrasing the philosopher Martin Buber.”
11. 1 jar of Laoganma Spicy Chili Crisp, purchased by Avi from Kalustyans in Murray Hill. Words fail me in trying to describe how good this chili oil is. It somehow smells like Thanksgiving dinner and the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten combined. Avi and I randomly sniff it for sport.
12. “Robinhood Banning GameStop Proves the Free Market Is a Lie,” an interview with Chris Arnade, a “former bond trader [who] spent two decades on Wall Street before growing disillusioned with his profession’s culture of cynicism and greed,” for New York Magazine. There have been so many pieces on this debacle but this one stuck with me.
14. “Love and Slush Puddles,” Helena Fitzgerald’s recent issue of her newsletter, Griefbacon. Helena is one of those writers who to me seems born to write.
“There’s nothing to love about snow if you’re smart and practical; objectively, snow is bad. But the desire to love that for which we cannot explain our love might be the whole point of loving things. We don’t love things because we should, and certainly not just because they deserve it. This may be the whole thing we’re seeking from it, a singular relief from the bank-account value lines that link deservingness and reaction, in which results are always predictable, and everything is always earned.”
15. And lastly but critically, the idea to remove my outer shower curtain leaving only the clear liner, care of my friend Michelle. It makes your bathroom and shower feel bigger. In this economy!
Okay okay that’s all folks….catch Avi and me playing our version of The Newlywed Game + YouTuber couples’ love test on the podcast this week. Completed, in the spirit of TikTok teens, under our new color-changing lights. Come for the gossip/stay for the drama. Tuesday 9 a.m.!
Thanks for reading,
p.s. To the people who reply to my emails saying, “Can you see this?” I can! And I read every reply, even if I can’t get back to everyone. Thank you for giving me your time, your emails are so smart and insightful!
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