Long-Distance Romance In a Pandemic

Joy and me in Colorado.

A sinking, frozen pit bloomed in my stomach when I realized I couldn’t reach Joy in the pandemic. She was on a beach somewhere in the Colombia boonies, a place that was only romantic in my mind. It had no texture. The closest I’d ever been to that country was watching the Gen X adventure movie Romancing the Stone — which was filmed in Huasca de Ocampo, Veracruz, and Utah — and hearing a friend of mine describe being offered cocaine while defending his master’s thesis in Cartagena.

There was something visceral and hopeless in the thousands of miles between Joy and me. Anchoring those miles was an emptiness into which my instant messages disappeared until she passed into a signal and wrote me back.

Joy had been communicating with me over WhatsApp. She shared her location with me in Google Maps. But even when you do that, a troglodyte like me can’t find you. She was not inclined to cut things short. I imagined her on the beach with a beer, her hair in the wind, wearing her pretty red sundress. But in truth, she might as well have been on the drowned continent Mu.

Till now, Joy, an experienced traveler, had never been to Colombia either, but she has a bad case of wanderlust documented in a robustly inked passport. She divorced several years back, an ugly transaction she’s glad is behind her, and abandoned the life she had for one as a nomad. She spent time in Germany studying the language. She cavorted at bus stops with refugees from Central American social collapse, saw the sights in Beijing and Hong Kong, plunged into the cenotes in Yucatan. She came to Dallas to live with friends of a sister. She met me, and I tried to impress her with tales of high-elevation Colorado, my home state. I was deflated to learn her hometown, La Paz, Bolivia, was 4,000 feet higher than mine in the “mountains.”

It’s not uncommon for a person’s world to grow with the flowering of a new romance. It’s not uncommon to think yours grew more than others’ did. But I’m going to embrace it. How many Americans are dating Bolivians? I can’t be the only one, but I’m also not going to underplay it. Bolivia is incredible. It’s the fifth-largest landlocked state in the world but has only 12 million citizens. It has no coast because it lost a war to Chile a century ago. Yet, it maintains a navy. It has both the Andes and the Amazon. It has a protected coca trade. Last year, it underwent a dramatic shakeup spurred by protests and a mutiny that deposed long-time President Evo Morales. It went from hard-left to hard-right. The leftists called it a coup; the now-ruling right wing called it a democratic victory. Both sides have their partisans who take the event seriously, but no matter your worldview, Bolivia tells you something about the state of the world.

Its response to the pandemic was about to tell Joy something about the state of the world. After the virus surrounded the human species, she got to an internet signal and saw societies going dark, including her own. Bolivia would clamp down in 72 hours, she said. There was no more time to send me photos of Colombian folk dancing in small-town cuadrados, of herself supine in infinity pools or suspended in lounging nets in jungle canopies or her brown legs extruding from hammocks. No more trips on the teleférico.

Joy on a Colombia beach.

She disembarked the travel fantasy at a Santa Marta hostel. I hadn’t protected her by sending her panicky missives warning her to get home. I recently emailed her an apology for that. She wrote me back, describing how she found out:

“I didn’t know you were kind of worried about me getting stuck at some point of my trip. I haven’t thought about this pandemic before, until my mom and uncle called me on a Monday morning, telling me to take as soon as possible a flight back home. That moment I realized that this fucking virus was a big deal, and I wasn’t taking it seriously before. I was kind of laughing about it before. … I thought it was not going to reach South America… I was wrong… and lucky me, I listened to my instincts and the desire to see my family again. That I arranged my return home. I got really nervous at the airport, and there saw for the first time the scale of this shit. I’m happy I’m home and safe. Next time TELL ME if you see I’m not reacting quickly.”

My complicity in her fiasco opened a wormhole of guilt, which is a self-important thing. Joy is a world-worn woman, more capable in any scenario than I would be. I once watched her impressively berate a used car salesman who tried to screw her over. Her conviction that he owed her something sucked everything out of the room. It was an odd and intimidating experience, coming from such a diminutive package. I’d have backed down. But she seems eternally positive. She speaks four languages. She’s overwhelmingly positive. She cutely laughs when presented with pictures of herself. If the world ever ends, more than it already is anyway, I want her with me so I’ll be safe.

She has since settled in, and me too. Both to a quarantine and a long-distance relationship we didn’t schedule. No one expected it.

These are strange times, and not because a virus stalks every human. They’re times in which two people don’t have to rely on chance and word of mouth to find each other. There are paper trails, digital signatures, a network of trace contacts, ubiquitous wifi. But the connectedness is not yet total. Dead zones remain. Between all these points of confluence, there are a million little traps to fall through — human traffickers, wild animals. At one beach, Joy described being sucked out to sea in a rip tide, and a life guard rescued her. What a mind fuck. I realize now I didn’t have any way of knowing what happened to her if she’d not been saved. I had no plan to find out. I’d have waited dumbly, staring into my phone for days. I’d have started frantically contacting her more than 1,000 Facebook friends. Her family may have had an idea; they may have not. The pandemic would have hit, because it wouldn’t have cared whether the saltwater swallowed her. But — deep breath — that is not how it panned out.

Now we’re separated by a pandemic. My plans to go see her in a few weeks in La Paz are obviously scuttled, and all I can do is use the insurance policy I purchased with my plane ticket. But I know exactly where she is. She gets all my messages, and I get all hers.

It makes me wonder about all the love notes that must have been lost in the flu pandemic a century ago. The world was bigger, separated. Nothing like Zoom or instant messaging had been dreamed up even in the nascent literary genre of science fiction — the writers had skipped all of that and went straight to aliens and time travel. It all seemed so fantastical, and the reality was primitive. A beau in Germany had to wait weeks for his stateside sweetheart’s physical letters, which were prone to sinking on mail ships. One party might fall sick and die and never be heard from again. The other would check the mailbox each morning with succeeding levels of devastation and eventually move on.

Joy is safe in the walls of her mother’s apartment with a nephew and two sisters. They cook and clean on a rotating schedule. Her uncle lives in the same building, and they regularly get together for lunches. She exercises daily atop the building and leaves on Wednesdays for grocery shopping and to see her dad. Sometimes, she breaks the curfew, don’t tell anyone.

I know all of this because as practicing millennials we exchange dozens of messages each day and at least one phone call and often a video chat. Via email, we’re working out how we want to set our lives up when everything is normal again. She wants an orchard and a pet mink. It’s nice to actively pontificate with the help of another person about the specter of normalcy.

But this point on our timeline of cyber contact is only ephemeral; it’s going to become terrifyingly all-encompassing. Perhaps by the time the next serious pandemic hits, couples will live out entire relationships without ever meeting in their animal bodies. We might experience each other in utterly cerebral ways, via signals technology, in a digital ether. There’s plenty of science fiction exploring such ideas today, like in the hopeful tours of transcendent minds in Black Mirror.

Call me close-minded, but this inspires a special kind of dread for me. An animating motivation in my relationship with Joy is to see her in person. I want to have her actual hand in my actual hand on hiking trails and cook food together that we’ll taste with our actual tongues and hear her voice with my actual ears. I’m fond of the idea of progress, but I don’t want to leave our physical world for some kind of posthumanity in which our minds have been uploaded to computers.

It’s good to appreciate something instead of taking it for granted. If I’m grateful for something, it’s that there is still something at stake in our relationships. The transitory nature of our world makes every little experience rare and precious. Because why bother, if every experience were stored digitally, kept to be called up on a whim? Will we even be human?

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.

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