Welcome to Love Lockdown: a new weekly column about how people are navigating romantic relationships in the time of coronavirus.
I like to think I’m the sort of person who would leave a date if the guy I was with made me sit through a 23-minute video of him and his friend on ketamine. Unfortunately, I know I’m not that person, because I did stay. I stayed again when I saw that his phone background was a picture of him smoking a roll-up. And again, when he said of the Manchester terror attack: "That’s why I listen to drum and bass – because they drop bangers, not bombs."
In fact, our date lasted until the Tube stopped running, until the cardboard straw I was sipping from disintegrated on my tongue, until the ends of my fingers were so cold they felt of nothing. As much as I didn’t like him, I couldn’t leave.
This was not the only bad date I endured after my five-year relationship ended. There was the guy who always made very specific excuses to go home after he had sex with me, like "I need to pick my sister up from the Tube station" or "Just remembered I forgot to put the Tupperware of leftovers in the fridge". The guy who thought conversation meant telling me to watch Ingmar Bergman films. The guy who asked me to give him a percentage estimate of how likely I was to have sex with him so he could work out whether it was worth making the hour Tube journey to New Cross.
Then there was me, alone, rubbing off mascara with a face wipe because another guy’s "after-work pint with a friend turned into seven" and it would make me look sad if I waited for him that long.
During this time I was eating a roast with my friend Hannah, who had broken up with her boyfriend six months earlier. She was telling me how the most recent guy she'd been seeing decided to end things literal seconds after sex. "He was still in me, and just went, 'It’s not working, is it?' My thigh was wet from his cum and he fully thought it was an acceptable time to say, 'You're just so distant all the time'," she sighed. "I can’t be bothered anymore."
Still on my manic two-guys-a-week rolling roster, I was confused by her apathy. How are you supposed to feel alive if there’s no man present to look at you as though you are?
Sometimes they made me feel bad but I needed these men. After my break-up a huge chasm broke open in my chest and men gave me the spare parts I needed to fill it back up.
Some men made me feel more human than others. One time a guy I had been seeing was sipping an instant coffee in my kitchen and he picked up my feet, looked at the way one of my toes curves around in a C shape and laughed: "It looks like a little cashew nut." As he held it between his fingers I had this image of what it would be like if we endured long enough to work out what it would be to make each other happy.
I’d buy him tickets to see Arsenal. I'd meet his mum who worked in the back of the café down the road. He’d go to put a cashew nut emoji by my name in his phone contacts and then when he realised there wasn't one he’d use a croissant instead because they look kind of similar. I would laugh at the way his north London accent pronounced the word 'coaster'. I would count all the scars on his body and name each one.
He left. I left others. Then after one too many "I’m feeling really crap, don't think I'm going to be able to make it tonight" texts, I stopped dating altogether.
What Hannah had said was starting to make sense: I couldn’t be bothered. But it was difficult to forget about men entirely when the possibility of them continued to suggest itself. Watching guys on Love Island pass heart-shaped avocado toast to their girlfriends, I would feel so empty.
Within seconds my head would be slumped against the pillow as I scrolled right-right, left-left on endless faces: Peaky Blinders dress-up, graduation with Mum, selfie from the driver’s side of a car, gun fingers and neon face paint on a camping chair. No-no-no-okay, yeah.
My thumbs moved until I matched with someone and then our ensuing lukewarm sexual innuendos would be enough to make me feel solid again. As though this guy had reached through the phone screen and coloured me in.
But since lockdown I haven't reached for a dating app. Swiping doesn’t have the same allure when you can’t pretend to yourself that you’re going to end up on a date. Legally my body has to be on its own. I have to be on my own. The very concept of getting near to anyone else puts me and others in danger. There’s a mandated 2 metre gap surrounding me, forestalling intimacy. I have to take an oath of abstinence. Boris Johnson said so.
For the first time since my break-up, I have had to fill myself back up all on my own. Or as best as I can given the circumstances. Sweating into a bath. A book I can’t put down. Running until my shins swell and endorphins make me forget that everything is bad.
Without the possibility of intimacy, I realise what it is that I miss about dating. It isn’t focusing on pushing my chin out so that pad of fat underneath it stays hidden. Or fake laughing through a video of someone on ket.
I miss holding hands. Legs brushing under the table. When they look at your lips for long enough for you to sense that they're wondering if now might be an okay time to kiss you. I know what I'm looking for because each one of those men gave me tastes of it. Hands on my toe, a cashew nut. The difference is that now I don’t need men to touch me to make me feel complete. I want them to touch me so they can see how complete I already am.