By Magali McMurry
In the year 2020, Valentine’s Day in New Orleans was the same holiday it’s always been. Couples poured into candle-lit restaurants, took selfies in the busy streets of the French Quarter, and held hands together in crowded movie theaters. Bars were full of people looking for company on the most romantic (and oftentimes, the loneliest) night of the year, and everywhere across the city new connections blossomed.
A full calendar year has passed since then, and February 14th 2021 passes by much like every other holiday in the age of COVID-19: quickly, quietly, and with an inescapable feeling of unease. The streets are nearly empty in New Orleans, and couples who decide to go out, bearing the shadow of a global pandemic that has taken 568,000 American lives, do so cautiously. New connections are far and few between these days. The people we love and feel close to can’t always be with us, and interactions with them may only occur through a screen.
Some couples, like college students Jennie Bodenstein and Cyrus Burns, are lucky enough to share a home together during these strange and distant times. “We decided to move in together at the end of [my] junior year,” says Jennie, “we moved in together during the height of COVID-19 since we were basically just living at my house by that point anyways.” Once March had begun and news about the growing number of COVID-19 cases caused the universities to send students home and begin online classes, the couple had a long conversation about moving in together in order to eliminate the stresses of managing a relationship between two different households, each with their own risk of infection. “There was certainly some initial nerves about the scenario but considering we slept with each other every night anyways, the transition was not as difficult as expected.”
Jennie and Cyrus met on April 13th, 2018. “I remember thinking he was so cool and confident, I saw him after we first met, out in the street, and I was too nervous to say hello,” says Jennie, “I just made eye contact with him and walked away.” Spending any time around this couple makes it clear that they are in love. They lean in to each other comfortably, and every time Jennie laughs at herself, Cyrus can’t seem to help but laugh too.
When asked about how the news of quarantine affected them as individuals, the couple goes quiet for a moment. “I don’t think, at the time, that I could even comprehend what quarantine meant. I was just overwhelmed with the transition to online classes and most of my roommates leaving.” Jennie says. Cyrus nods, “At the initial moment, I didn’t consider the severity of the circumstances since I really thought much of what to come was only temporary. I honestly saw it as a vacation at first. That feeling dissipated within a week though, when I began to understand how much this affected the greater New Orleans community.”
Like most other couples living together during quarantine, Jennie and Cyrus had to learn to adapt to life together in COVID-19 times. “Originally there was this expectation that we both had to utilize our free time to do things together, but as we had more and more free time, we eventually realized we would have to spend moments doing our own things,” says Cyrus. “I think sharing a room and a common space made it really hard to find a place to be alone. It was really hard to navigate both of us using the bedroom for both work and relaxation since we had one other roommate and that was the only place we could be alone.”
Overall though, the couple seems to have taken the experience in stride, as a means of strengthening their relationship. I asked the couple if they had any specific hopes for the future in terms of their relationship and Jennie enthusiastically responded with “I hope we stay together!”
Cyrus took a little longer to respond. “I hope we’re both able to maintain the growth we mutually experience being with one another in relation to who we are as people and what we strive to contribute to others. I think providing space and time for understanding and healing is one of our strongest attributes as a couple.”
Not every couple will be lucky enough to see the end of this quarantine together however. An anonymous source, who has requested to have her identifying information omitted from this piece, describes her COVID-19 fueled breakup as “the lowest and loneliest point of [her] life.”
I conducted my interview with this anonymous source over video conference, and the small screen preview into her living space showed a largely unlit apartment, with clothes strewn about the floor and couch. She looked exhausted. “I met my ex-girlfriend one year ago in an economics class we had together. We started as friends. It was the longest relationship I’ve ever been in.”
Before the pandemic reached New Orleans, the couple had spent their first ever Valentine’s Day together. “She cooked dinner for me and stuff. I bought her flowers. It was a really nice night.” The couple also enjoyed their first Mardi Gras together in 2020. “We went to every parade we could with our class schedules. I love Mardi Gras since I’m from here, I was really excited to spend it with somebody I thought I had a future with.”
There was no way of knowing that a few short weeks later, the city would shut down, and hundreds of university students would be sent home to finish out their semester in quarantine. My source’s ex-girlfriend was among those students, returning to her hometown while my source stayed in New Orleans. This was the beginning of what my source describes as “a doomed long-distance relationship.”
“We actually started out kind of hopeful. For a while, we thought that this long-distance thing would be temporary and that everything would open up again soon enough. We thought that maybe this was like a, you know, they say sometimes that ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ and everything. We were obviously wrong.”
After her ex-girlfriend left, my source describes her roommates and friends leaving for home too. “My little brother has an autoimmune disorder that makes him extremely high risk for the virus. I couldn’t see my family and they couldn’t see me. We called each other everyday at the beginning of the pandemic, but eventually we just couldn’t keep up. I felt so alone.”
“I felt like everybody was slipping away from me,” she says. “The worst was honestly my ex, because everything started off so well with her.” The couple would message each other every morning and night in addition to constant FaceTime calls and “miss you” texts. Eventually, however, the calls and messages become fewer and farther between. A sense of dread settled between the pair, and the distance between them seemed unconquerable.
“There’s a lot of ways to keep in contact with people now, and that’s great. I can’t imagine I’d be sane without Zoom and FaceTime and stuff. But a screen can’t make up for a real person being there. It was so hard, especially because I could feel [my ex] getting more and more distant but I couldn’t figure out how to bridge the gap between us. That was the worst part, when I knew she was going to leave and I was just waiting for her to say it.”
The couple finally did break things off in June of 2020. “Honestly, it was a bit of a relief. It was so sad but I could finally stop worrying about it.”
After the relief however, the real loneliness began to set in. “It was bad before, but God it got so much worse. I didn’t realize how much I relied on [my ex], after we ended things I realized how disconnected I had gotten with all of my friends. I think that the night I ended things with [my ex], I went outside in the courtyard of my apartment complex and struck up a conversation with the first tenant I saw.” She laughs, “I don’t think he wanted to talk to me, but I really needed somebody to be there in front of me, actually in person.”
“I’m doing much better now. My mom and my dad have both been really supportive and there for me through the worst of it. I also adopted a cat, which helped because taking care of him helped take my mind off things.”
I asked my source if she has any advice for people who are in the same situation as she was. “I would say, let the person go. It’s always worse to drag things out. I don’t think things would have been as bad for me if I hadn’t tried to stretch out a relationship that obviously wasn’t going to last much longer. And don’t let your partner be your whole life. It’s been hard to reconnect with my friends, especially since I realized I hadn’t been attentive to them while my relationship was falling apart.”
Valentine’s Day 2021 has passed, and we’re nearing the end of spring now. More and more people in the United States are getting vaccinated. There is hope ahead for couples, lonely hearts, and anyone looking for a connection in the warmth of summer in New Orleans.
Twenty-year-old Tulane University student, Emma Golato, is looking forward to taking full advantage of a summer full of making new connections. “I guess I haven’t really been trying to date because of the pandemic. I’ve been going on Tinder and Bumble when I get bored, but I decided it would not be safe to actually meet up with people. I just like talking to new people and this has been a great way to do that.”
Emma describes the online dating scene during COVID-19 as being “very weird.” Dating apps are full of people trying to make new connections but the dating pool is split between people who are willing to meet up, and those who don’t want to risk it.
“I think you can really see the difference in people who are taking COVID-19 seriously or not, which is something I use to filter out people.” Says Emma. “It’s weird to think that this whole time I haven’t been dating because I wanted to put my health first, which is not something I thought about before the pandemic.”
“There was someone I matched with in like April or May 2020 when we were still in hard lockdown and they were extremely adamant about meeting up. I had to block them. There have definitely been some funny moments though. My favorite COVID-19-related pick up line was ‘Hey the whole world might be getting sick, but I’ll never get sick of looking at you ;).’”
Like many people, Emma describes feeling isolated as her entire life was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. “I never seriously dated before COVID-19. I think the pandemic made everyone feel lonelier than usual, so sometimes I even felt like I would want romance despite never really looking for it before.”
When I asked Emma what she would be looking for as restrictions dissipate and more and more potential suitors get the vaccine. “A ‘hot girl summer” she laughs, “No, I just want to have a person to hang out with and go on dates with. Now that I’ve got my second dose of the vaccine, I finally feel comfortable enough to think about it, as long as the other person is vaccinated and safe. It’s just weird that we have to consider so much now when thinking about dating.”
As scientists around the world have called the COVID-19 pandemic a time of great fear, insecurity, and loneliness. It is good to hear that those looking for a connection in this strange new time might just be able to find one.