The laptop is switched on, the screen flickers into life and, once more, I peer at my Guardian Soulmates profile and mull over what to edit, change and tinker with, to ‘maximise interest’. I wonder for the umpteenth time whether I should take down that silly picture of me in a shark suit that I once wore on a gameshow, but it stays. For now. Surely someone must have a fetish for being bitten by Jaws?
It’s mid-March and the excitement of Valentine’s Day is but a memory. A bold, anonymous Valentine’s card had led to a coffee date and a lot of excitement. A nervous fidgeting of earrings suggested there was something there but I torpedo everything by being overly enthusiastic and turn something promising into a friendzone icier than the landscape in Game of Thrones.
And then comes lockdown. No movement, staying at home. No more ‘real world’ dates. Boris tells us that we will beat this deadly virus, so I obey, like millions of others, and don’t go out. But the desire to connect isn’t easily extinguished (don’t sharks have to keep on swimming permanently?) and I send a few messages to fellow Guardian Soulmates, who are, I hope, thinking of racier things than hand sanitisers and online supermarket deliveries.
I strike up a connection with a primary school teacher with an appealing list of likes in a neat A-Z list, from bananas to pickles. She’s not put off by the shark outfit, or at least doesn’t mention it. (This inspires me to write a message as an acrostic to two other women who seem of a literary bent, but they don’t bite.) We cautiously message about how we are coping with quarantine. Sorting out cupboards. Endless tidying. Growing herbs, the legal ones. I watch Normal People and we exchange a lusty joke about Connell’s silver chain. Sadly Argos isn’t yet open to buy one.
It seems that she isn’t too keen to ‘Zoom’ but we exchange WhatsApp messages and the mutual messaging keeps spirits up through all of April. I’m mindful of not allowing myself to become too emotionally involved but the chance to connect with someone else feels good. Hell, it keeps you from feeling like some unremarkable pot plant on the windowsill.
Meanwhile, back on Soulmates, I’m smitten by a profile of a woman who says she likes wild swimming, a personal (and albeit left-of-centre) passion, so I mention this in my opening gambit. This time I get an enthusiastic response and an offer of a Zoom chat. Bingo! A Saturday afternoon is set aside and we have some light-hearted banter and a battle of Bananagrams, the word-building game, each of us using our own sets. It’s fun and frivolous, we avoid making any words that are too salacious, and decide to meet again.
Before the second date with wild swimming woman (hope you’re keeping up), I suggest another game, my online version of Would I Lie To You. You choose a small personal object or memento that can be presented clearly in front of the camera, and give three different explanations of why the item is important to you. One of these should be true, and the other two red herrings. The idea pleases me as it allows us both to relax and talk about something personal in an unpressured way. It’s a chance to do a bit of creative storytelling whilst also sharing some history. I showcase a souvenir seaside crab from Margate, which elicits much laughter and merriment (don’t worry, I keep things clean). In return I hear about her adventures in Thailand. So far, so good.
We arrange a third date using the Zoom whiteboard for Pictionary, with a random word generator which tests our online artistic skills. It transpires that we’re both quite good at pixelated stick people.
Now, knowing my date a bit better, I set an online multiple-choice quiz based on their interests, using MyQuiz. It’s not particularly subtle and I joke beforehand that she should get everything right. It was my way of demonstrating that I’d really listened and taken a genuine interest in her. (Making it light-hearted also kept it on the right side of non-stalkerish behaviour. I hope.) I double-check what kind of drinks she likes and this leads to an idle fantasy or two of sharing said beverage in a pub when all this is over.
I need to push myself out of my comfort zone with new experiences, so I choose an online origami guide as another date idea, as well as a dance tutorial to a Billie Eilish number. Stopping and starting the video to make our paper ‘escargot’ is a lovely shared experience and actually quite sweet. And, even with a bit of clumsiness, the dance tutorial also proves to be a hit, with us firmly in our bodies rather than our heads. Graceful moves are definitely noted.
Encouraged by the growing understanding of one another’s likes, we agree to meet up on a socially-distanced walk. The day dawns. But, after weeks of sunshine, of course there is greyness that hasn’t been seen since the John Major Government of the 90s. The omens are not good as I pick up a parking ticket on my car before hopping onto my bike to go to the park. At the rendezvous I notice someone standing alone, looking anxiously at their phone. I resist the urge to wink at them and wish them luck with their own meet-up.
A few minutes pass and I keep an eye out for my date. I spot her wheeling her bike and walk boldly forwards with a broad smile. “I was texting to say I couldn’t find you”, come the slightly irked first words and as I move closer (and not even to the two metre mark) I register a distinct flinch.
Sadly this is a clear reminder that, yes, we are living with Covid-19 and really do have to communicate at a distance. Disastrously, we sit on adjacent benches and I try to build a rapport but it’s really hard. I feel as if I need a loudhailer. The inclement weather and a slightly roundabout walk around the park don’t help either and the loveboat seems to be sunk. It’s all as flat as my dad’s flat cap and, when I ask to see her again after an hour’s conversation, it’s a message of ‘staying friends’, so we’re back to our Valentine’s doomsday scenario.
I’m not quite done, though, as the following day I send over a good-natured and slightly ironic feedback form, just to satisfy my curiosity (this is one of Rachel New’s tips):
Pick from one of the following options:
1 I’m not ready for a relationship. Not with you, anyways.
2 A bit disappointed that there was no new Billie Eilish dance sequence to learn.
3 The date would have gone a bit better with glorious sunshine, a pre-coronavirus hug and more jokes.
Alas, this elicits no response (and the feedback message remains unread to this day). Though I don’t have the heart to throw away the origami snail.
And the primary school teacher? Well, a similar ending. A long cycle ride once more to another park, on a much sunnier day and there’s no awkwardness around social-distancing, but … there’s no chemistry and although the chat is polite enough, we don’t click in real life. So we go our separate ways and I avoid having to buy Connell’s silver chain.
So what pearls of wisdom have I garnered during my lockdown dating adventures?
Well, here’s the serious stuff. You can definitely go through the stages of building emotional intimacy over Zoom. You can make, with a little effort, eight of the ‘emotional bids’ described by psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman, that are needed in a healthy, balanced relationship. Attention: making sure you remain fully present in your call. Interest in the other person’s life. Extended conversation about topics that are meaningful to both parties. Emotional support when things haven’t gone well. Fun, enthusiasm and play if you choose to engage in an online game. And self-disclosure too – though that, of course, takes time and repeated contact before trust can be built. The remaining one, affection, is perhaps the trickiest one to work on in a digital-only world. No hand-holding at the back of the class there!
But, in the end, it is still Zoom and, in real life, people always behave slightly differently when outside of their homes and away from their HD webcams. In some ways, the social mask can easily come back on. Would I have done anything differently? The answer is a resounding ‘no’. The old saying ‘the more effort you put into something, the more you will get in return’, seems to apply here. Having the time and opportunity to get creative while in isolation was good for me, and it was nice to dream about romance.
What next? Well, I’m not giving up on games and entertainment just yet. I’m dying to try out my own online version of Ex Libris, a bluffing game where you write alternative beginnings to novels, asking your partner to guess which is the genuine text, but for that I will certainly need a literary-minded conspirator who isn’t afraid of failure. I might need to finally get rid of the shark picture. And I’ve signed up to Bumble, so maybe I should look for a bee-keeping tutorial online as well – who knows where it all might lead?