I’d met Jean* in late 2019 through mutual friends. He was tall, handsome, continental – and married. I was going through the break-up of a significant relationship, which had left me hollowed out and grieving. On a whim, I texted him "Happy New Year". I was newly single, he was newly separated and he asked me out. After an evening wandering the National Gallery, we had our first kiss on the platform of the District line at Embankment. The lights in my broken heart flickered on.
Jean was passionate, effusive, romantic: everything I’d been craving. As the first few weeks of 2020 unfolded and the pandemic threatened to turn the world upside down, I realised I was falling in love. I resisted, knowing we were both fresh from traumatic break-ups. But little by little, with romantic nights at the opera and intimate dinners, my resolve melted. And then lockdown hit.
It was a cosmic joke, to dangle happiness in front of us and then snatch it away. He decided, with only hours to spare before the borders closed, that he needed to return to France with his ex-wife and daughter. I understood his choice but I was frustrated to lose him so soon. We had a final 24 hours together, full of a tenderness that took my breath away. Then he was gone.
I first said "I love you" on one of our evening calls, the connection so dodgy he didn’t hear me. With my busy existence suddenly and dreadfully still, I’d decided life was too short to be cautious. Over the next few months, our relationship only got deeper, despite the distance. We talked for hours, sharing secrets and dreams. We dressed up for 'date nights', drinking wine and watching movies simultaneously. We wrote poetry for each other. The uncertainty of everything only brought us closer.
When depression and anxiety hit me, hard, I had no other option but to lean on Jean. He became my rock and the only glimmer of hope. I thought he understood my distress when he arranged to come over for two weeks in July, a fortnight of intense intimacy that lifted my soul more than any of the medications and psychological interventions I was trying. We cooked together and watched movies in bed, temporarily a real couple.
"We’ll move in together," he said. "It’s a big step." He told me he’d be back for good in September and wanted me to stay in his new place as often as possible. I cautioned him: we weren’t moving in, I would keep my own flat, it wasn’t a big deal. I should have seen the fear in his eyes.
He asked me if he could date other women in France. I wanted to be supportive of him, understanding his desire to explore. But knowing he’d slept with others while we were separated was hard to stomach. Still, I looked forward to September, hardly daring to believe we would have weeks and months of real-life love ahead of us.
The first night we were together again in London, he told me he'd arranged two dates later in the week. My heart sank into my shoes, although he said I was the only one he loved. I told myself to be happy. Our life together was about to really begin, although it seemed that he wanted to take a few steps backwards.
That same night, I mentioned I was on the waiting list for CBT. He grew quiet. The next day, he told me he hadn’t understood how bad my mental health was. That it scared him. Before long, he told me he couldn’t sustain this kind of relationship. That he didn’t want to be my only happiness. That he wanted something easy.
My fragile heart crumbled.
In the darkness of lockdown, he had become my greatest light, a role he wasn’t ready to take on. Of course, I wonder if things would have been different without COVID. Jean saw only my difficulties, without the fabric of normal life to soften them. The isolation of lockdown forced us into an intensity that might have been more measured otherwise. And we could have taken our time in building up to big life plans. In hindsight I should have been more guarded with my ugly truths.
Three months on, I am single, in lockdown again and without the hope of love waiting on the other side. I haven’t moved on; it’s not exactly easy to do that while the pandemic rages. Perhaps, by the time the world is ready to open again, my heart will be too.