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Love in the time of corona: 6 Twin Citians' search for connection during isolation

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I. Sam

One night last fall Sam Riebs, a Hofstra University art major, went to a party with employees from the Long Island Trader Joe’s, where he worked. As he struck up a conversation with a co-worker, things started falling into place. They were both shy, introspective people who enjoyed quiet movie dates watching period films like 1917 and Little Women, and tranquil nights in with dinner and Netflix.

During the semester, it was hard to find time for each other around school and work. “We were kind of just looking forward to when we’d have the time to let things develop further,” Riebs says.

But with spring break on the horizon, the pall of coronavirus descended on New York, and its governor declared a state of emergency. Classes were canceled. Riebs returned to his parents’ house in Maple Grove, with no telling when he’ll return to the East Coast.

At home Riebs played Animal Crossing with his little sister. In that world, he’s a goggle-eyed blond boy with a bubble head, an infinite wardrobe, and an island where he grew fruit to pay down his debt to a local real estate developer, who is also a raccoon. Everything was cute, manicured, and more or less within his control. Even the game’s subtle financial exploitation imbued its adorable universe with nostalgia for normal times.

Riebs killed countless hours playing—exactly what he was after in the dismal and reclusive period of quarantine. A thousand miles away, the man he’d just started seeing in New York was going through similar things. Distance and depression stifled their budding relationship, and they didn’t talk for a few weeks.

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Getty Images

So they met again in Animal Crossing, meandering through each other’s islands while they talked on the phone. The boyfriend bought Riebs a virtual teddy bear. Riebs toured the in-game museum where the other man displayed the butterflies and fish he’d caught. They tagged each other’s island message boards with smiley faces.

“If he was coming over to my island, I’d clean everything up and change my character to look nicer. Instead of just wearing like a hat and jeans, I’d put on some nicer pants and a jacket,” Riebs says. “The few times we’ve done that, it’s just been nice to feel like I’m getting ready for a date, even though it’s in Animal Crossing.”

He and his new friend had known each other such a short time, it’s impossible to say where things would’ve gone if they’d had the summer together. As it was, neither wanted to compel a long-distance relationship into being. In this strange coronavirus summer, Riebs isn’t the only one stumbling upon intimacy in peculiar places.

II. Amy

Amy Min Williams, a data analyst who lives in Minneapolis, entered 2020 with no intention of getting involved in anything serious or sentimental. She married at a fledgling 24, divorced by 30, got engaged to someone else after that, then called off the wedding last year. Now in her late thirties, she’s studying part-time toward her master’s degree. Dating was a casual diversion.

In December Williams matched with a man in his early forties on Bumble. They went on one date, and then she skipped town on a three-week sojourn to Southeast Asia. Texting back and forth, they discovered they listened to the same music, had friends in common, lived within walking distance of each other, and were both childless by choice.

When she got back, they went on date no. 2. Then it was his turn to go abroad for six weeks, after which she had a business trip. Their budding courtship was trapped in an Austenian slow burn—pure and epistolary. “It was so strange knowing someone so well, but not having anything physical happen,” Williams says.

When their schedules finally aligned, they booked a trip to Miami for the middle of March. Before long, social distancing became the law of the land, and the spring-breakers overcrowding Florida’s beaches were being internationally mocked. They canceled their flight.

After some discussion, they chose to be exclusive so they could keep seeing each other during the pandemic. Soon they were shacking up together at his house, cooking meals, going for runs, and co-parenting Williams’s dog, who has idiopathic epilepsy.

“I don’t know if it’s because we are both older or if we are just a better fit than with past partners, but it is really working out,” Williams says. If it hadn’t been for COVID, she doubts they would have ended up together.

“I have fears that we’re moving way too fast, but it’s a strange situation we find ourselves in.”

III. Kenyon

Macalester graduate Kenyon DeVault concluded long before COVID that he wanted to settle down with a partner, but it took a pandemic for him to finally try matchmaking.

After college, DeVault moved to San Francisco, where he does fundraising for a youth mentorship program. Chatty by nature and sociable by profession, he’s just about had it with the number of men he meets on dates who can’t hold up their end of the conversation. In the teeming Castro district, where he lives, there are almost too many fish in the sea to date deeply. He frequents Tinder and meets plenty of people organically in real life, but ever since his last long-term relationship ended five years ago, he’s been unlucky in finding a new one. Either he doesn’t feel challenged, or men merely string him along before moving on. After a decade living out West, he’s sworn off new transplants and their short attention spans.

A couple years ago, DeVault looked into a luxury dating service called Tawkify, which promotes itself as a “personal concierge to your dating life” for “mature singles.” It employs real-life matchmakers to dissect clients’ dating history and curate matches. Access to its “exclusive” clientele costs thousands of dollars in yearly membership dues.

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DeVault did not have the budget for it at the time, but recently Tawkify offered a promotion to screen people for free as potential matches for its paying members.

“I’m tired. I’ve tried a lot,” DeVault told himself. “It’s not like I’m not able to meet people and make connections. That’s clearly not my issue. But it’s just not clicking. So I’m like, ‘Why not make someone else do the labor?’”

Normally, Tawkify would choose the restaurant of a blind date’s first encounter. In these virtual times, it instructed DeVault to set up a Facetime call, prepare his favorite cocktail or bar snack, and “dress like you’re going to a hot, hip restaurant.”

When he met his match, technological difficulties ensued. Facetime wouldn’t work on his laptop, so he had to switch to his phone, which had to be charged and propped at a flattering angle. DeVault lives with a roommate, so his side of the date played out in his bedroom.

“The first moments were a little strange because we’re in each other’s home suddenly,” he says. “I’m not opposed to sleeping with someone on the first date, but not normally when I first meet them.”

It was weird. But nice. DeVault poured himself some wine. His match fixed himself a lemon drop, a sugary vodka drink. They were comfortable enough to dive straight into dialogue, and ended up talking for two hours about missing their families and their gay-bar friends, the uniqueness of that social scene. Afterward, they filled out surveys about each other—DeVault made some polite suggestions for his date’s camera setup—and started texting.

The match lives in Sacramento, an hour and a half north. In the pre-COVID world, it may not have made sense to sink that kind of effort into someone so far away. But now all DeVault has is time for video calls.

He and his roommate made a pact allowing each a designated hook-up during quarantine, which amps the stakes of making the right choice.

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“At first it felt like I was being shunted back to high school where it’s like, ‘I’m never going to get laid,’” he says. “Within the first week I created a playlist of songs I listened to in middle school and high school because that’s where my mind was. I’m feeling more at ease around it, but it was odd.”

IV. G

“I think it’s funny you’re finding such chaste trends emerging in quarantine,” wrote a friend, G, in an email. He’s a handsome man in his thirties, sociable, a bit cocksure, and a self-described “proud pervert with a zesty sex life.” He requested anonymity to avoid injecting his non-monogamous social network with unnecessary drama.

G says the people in his orbit seem hornier than ever. They tend to be Twin Cities progressives concerned with public health, struggling to reconcile a mounting craving for human contact. Hook-up apps are on fire. G says he’s received a sudden flurry of suggestive texts from attractive women, the kind who never had to lift a finger to get a date, suddenly playing the role of pursuer.

“My sense was that people were boning as much as ever, if not more—just keeping it real secret and not posting about it on social media,” he says.

Ironically, G isn’t feeling himself at all. Since the governor’s stay-at-home order began, he hasn’t hit the gym or gotten a haircut. After lots of drinking at home, ordering pizza for too many meals, and justifying it all with a cynical refrain of, “Who cares, fuck it,” he’s never felt less virile with his shirt off.

Suddenly G realized that the gym was the lynchpin for discipline in all areas of his life, the thing that forced him to get out of bed every morning and don a fresh change of clothes. Without it, he went on a major depressive skid.

Eventually he decided enough was enough. His primary partner, an artist he’s been with for years, gave him a clipper fade. Then G got a flat bench with adjustable dumbbells off Craigslist. These days he drags the set over to the abandoned schoolyard behind his house, where he pumps iron on the lawn, a scene straight out of Muscle Beach.

“I do think the current time requires just a hefty degree of acceptance, of lowered expectations especially,” he says. “Accept that you will be 40 percent as productive, as attractive, as wealthy, as fun. As happy.”

V. W

W, a 27-year-old fashion designer from St. Paul, recalls the off-the-books warehouse raves she attended in north Minneapolis during the first weekend in March as some of the best nights out she’d ever had. Because the prognosis for partying in 2020 was so grim, people were dancing like it was the end of the world.

She’d started off the year learning to feel comfortable as a queer woman, exploring polyamory and BDSM. A few dates with a woman developed into a sexy and soulful friendship. She felt like she’d just entered a period of metamorphosis when COVID made landfall.

W doesn’t care much for relationships, preferring solitude. She did buy a new pandemic vibrator, but found she takes more pleasure in dressing up, so she’s spending quarantine collecting fetish fashion, staging kinky photo shoots, and sending pinups to friends who appreciate them.

“I’ve been really coming to terms with myself, my sexuality, and I’ve been feeling a lot more confident, able to love myself more,” she says. “Oh, and my biggest realization is that I love group sex.”

She’d only just learned that in the months leading up to the pandemic. Once dinner parties became taboo, group sex turned into even more of a forbidden fruit.

She can’t stop thinking about it—when people are going to feel comfortable again, how to establish consent and health histories, making that sexy.

Meanwhile, W has been using COVID to refamiliarize herself with the things she loves: sewing and knitting, collecting found oddities from the side of the road, reading books, and generally immersing herself in a fantastical internal life of crafting things. She also started anti-anxiety medication and sought therapy.

“It’s an important time for a lot of people to just accept what’s going on and take the time to work through anything we need to work through,” she says. “I’ve been really balanced, and I’ve accepted my reality.”

There’s no normal when it comes to sex and COVID, says sex therapist Dr. Eric Sprankle, an associate professor at Minnesota State University. The Kinsey Institute of human sexuality quickly surveyed thousands of couples across the country and found libidos scattered all across the board.

“Early predictions were people at home would have nothing else to do, so there will be a baby boom. And then we thought about that more and were like, ‘Eh, will people really stand each other for that much time?’ So maybe we’ll see a divorce boom. It’s a lot of unknowns.”

As a sex psychologist, Sprankle believes sexual health and satisfaction are essential to whole health. But without being a medical expert, he can’t condone leaving the house and risking it all for a lay.

“But the qualifier is sort of how are we defining sexual health and sexual satisfaction. They shouldn’t be dependent on sexual contact with others,” he says.

New York City’s health department, for example, published COVID sex guidance with such delightful advice as, “We know that other coronaviruses are not easily spread through semen or vaginal fluid,” but “you are your safest sex partner.” (Remember to wash your hands for 20 seconds before and after.)

“We need to explore how texting and video chats can meet our sexual needs,” Sprankle says. “And we can certainly touch ourselves. In fact, we should all strive to be skilled masturbators by the end of this.”

VI. Lucas

Lucas Anderson, who’s been traveling for his job as an events producer of music festivals and movie premieres for the better part of the last seven years, recently moved back to Minnesota to get his bearings in between projects.

In early March, the day President Donald Trump canceled international arrivals, Anderson touched down in Minneapolis after working a month in Berlin. His flight was like a ghost plane. The few passengers wore masks.

A nomad and no stranger to meeting new people over the internet, Anderson’s not looking for anything in particular. Feeling drained from Tinder-ing on the road, he says he’s content to wait for love to pop him in the face one day. “‘I’m a little focused on my career right now,’ I think that’s what people say?”

When COVID canceled all the work he’d lined up for 2020, Anderson thought he’d make the most of it. But big plans for guilty pleasures like watching movies, getting stoned, and surfing dating profiles gave way to a sedentary dread with no end in sight.

It was easy to talk to strangers online at first because everyone had COVID in common. But even the pandemic could carry a dialogue only so far. “It’s so hard to continue texting someone knowing you’re not actually going to meet them in person for what could be six months to a year.”

There was one woman who asked him on a virtual date. They’d followed each other on Instagram for six months, commenting on each other’s photos. All he really knew was her name and her penchant for dogs.

One day they hopped on Houseparty and talked for three and a half hours straight about losing their jobs, the state of politics, places they’d gone, music they liked. A couple of Anderson’s friends ducked into their chat to say hi—almost as if they’d gone out to a bar and run into people he knew. They played Chips and Guac, a game resembling Apples to Apples.

Absent the expectation of any physical touch, he found the minutiae of etiquette and innuendo that would normally flood his thoughts on dates had vanished.

“All we could do was just talk and tell each other about what was going on in our lives,” Anderson says. “It felt like I was actually able to get to know somebody without there being that thing in the back of my mind going, ‘What’s going to happen after we pay for the drinks? Am I supposed to walk her home? Is she going to think I’m weird and not want any piece of this?’”

A quick video call could be a good way to screen out bad chemistry in the post-quarantine world, he says. But then again, it’s the imperfect encounter, the awkward fumbling in uncertain situations, that makes dating less safe but more thrilling.

Ultimately, Anderson decided his time was best spent developing himself, so that when social distancing officially ends, he’ll be better prepared to understand the type of person he’s looking for.

“I’ve realized throughout the years that I have been unconsciously looking for flaws in others since I can remember, whether that be people I’ve dated, the friends I have, my family, co-workers,” he says. “I was spending all this time judging, I wasn’t taking enough time to evaluate myself and things I needed to work on.”

In lieu of dating, he began to self-reflect by journaling, meditating, keeping a list of things to be grateful for, and going on long, solitary walks in the afternoon. He’s taking online courses in marketing, film, events production, and tour managing to hone his professional skills.

At the beginning of July, he plans to sell most of his possessions, pack a bag, and move to Germany to embark on the next chapter of his life.

“What I’m hoping to do through this time is to dig deeper into finding out who I really am, where I want to be, and where my true happiness lies.”