When, two years ago, the world went into lockdown, I expected isolation. I wasn’t surprised when my social life turned into a series of Zoom boxes and the best part of my day became the chance to beat my highest Tetris score. The semester of Fall 2020 started and I took classes from a computer in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by posters of bands I didn’t like anymore and an entourage of stuffed animals. This is where I fell in love for the first time.
He first appeared in my life as an email in my inbox. Its subject was unassuming: “Study session?” followed by a one sentence introduction to who he was and a plead for help (“I’m kind of dying a little haha”). I was also dying a little, from more than just school. He was the first person from any of my classes that I’d interacted with in six months. We set up a time to FaceTime and work on the homework together the next day.
I was slow and awkward talking to him at first. I’ve always been shy. When my old babysitter, a Guatemalan woman who also worked as my dad’s house cleaner, came in and called me an embarrassing Spanish pet name, I felt myself turn bright red and accepted the fact that he would realize that I was a child and would never talk to me again. Instead, he made a joke about me being one of the white kids on the playground that he could speak Spanish to when he was a kid. Then he commented on the MF Doom emanating loudly from my brother’s room in the background. We started talking about music. My Coffee Bean drink melted, forgotten. Two hours and a promise to make me a playlist later, he hung up the call.
I’ve never believed in love at first sight. I still don’t. But I swear at that moment, it felt pretty close. And when he sent me the promised playlist that night, I listened to it on repeat. We started to text and I was surprised when he kept the conversation going. How was your day? Here’s a song I think you would like. I wish I was with you now so I could eat the cookies you’re making.
In class the next week, I started to notice his little Zoom box more than the others. Between the edge of his face and the boundaries of the box, I could see a perfectly made bed with an unusually large crucifix hanging above it. I started to get scared. Who has nothing on their blank white walls except a crucifix? When we FaceTimed again soon after, I brought up religion and the crucifix as casually as I could. He laughed, said he wasn’t religious and that the crucifix was there so his mom wouldn’t worry when she called. I made a joke about how his room on Zoom made him look like a crazy Catholic serial killer. He revealed that he did have crazy bed making habits— sometimes, he would iron his bed after he made it so it would be extra smooth. At least he’s neat, I thought, expecting much less of college boys. I felt like I had dodged the first potential dealbreaker. Then I realized I was thinking about him in more than a friend way and tried to backtrack.
We became fast friends, although it was clear in retrospect that we thought of each other as more than that. We texted everyday about what was going on in our lives, which for the most part was nothing because everything was closed. When we got bored about texting about nothing, we started to ask questions about our pasts. What was the story of your first kiss? Mine was at summer camp between 9th and 10th grade. His was with the cutest girl in his 4th grade class. I didn’t think that counted, but he wouldn’t tell me the story of his real one. What do you want to do with your life? I wanted to be a writer and he wanted to go to law school. A writer?? For some reason he thought that was so cool. I didn’t even think it was that cool. If you walk into an empty classroom and have to choose a seat, where do you sit? I always sit in the front row. I said I gravitate towards the left side, but I’ll choose the seat right in front of the teacher if I’m worried enough about the class. One time he sent me a song, “Motherland” by Julia Jacklin, that he said was one of his favorites. I listened to it, caught by the sad melody and the beautiful vocals, and realized suddenly that it was a song about menopause. I had no idea how he related to it, as a twenty year old man, but I found it endearing anyways.
I felt like something was happening, but I didn’t let myself assume anything in case I was wrong. One time we FaceTimed for five hours, our conversation ending with each of us listing the things we liked most about the other. Your nose, your smile, your honesty, I remember him saying. Your eyes. Your anger that the world isn’t a better place than it is, I said.
Even though school was online, he was living in Berkeley, so I felt connected to school through him. On one of our calls, I heard the rain against his roof in the background. He mentioned that he hated rain. I began to check the weather for both of our locations. I switched from talking to him on my phone to my computer. I would rest the bigger screen next to my pillow when we called so I could fall sleep next to his life sized face.
Towards the end of the semester, we started to talk about seeing each other in person. Every conversation circled back to I wish you were here for real. I made up an excuse to go visit and drove 6 hours alone the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
It’s weird to see someone in 3D for the first time, when you are so intimately familiar with their features already. I knew our height difference, but stepping outside to see him in person made me feel it. I didn’t know what kind of shoes he wore (well-cared-for black Converse). I never thought to ask. His hands in real life looked surprisingly like mine, only sized up. His fingernails felt like fingernails. He stood and walked like he had an underlying current of distracted energy inside of him that he was trying to temper. We walked around on campus and we sat on his favorite bench. It was empty except for us.
A week later, he told me that he couldn’t keep doing this any more. I didn’t understand what he was saying. I asked him to explain what happened and he said he didn’t know. He was afraid of leaving me alone so he walked me back to his place and I pretended to be ok. He gave me a spot in his twin sized bed for the first time, but I slept turned towards the wall, trying to avoid contact with his back in the cramped space.
The next day, I took a walk with my only friend who was living near our college and talked to her about what happened. The day after, I drove home alone again.
It’s been about a year since then, and I’m still not sure what happened. Was there something about seeing me in person that scared him? I was insecure for a while about having some mysterious defect that never showed over the Internet that turned him away when he saw me for real. Did I even know him? I sure felt like I did. I didn’t think that there was a better way to get to know someone than by talking.
This past semester, I unintentionally took a class that he’s also taking. I see him every Tuesday and Thursday morning in my peripheral vision, but when we make eye contact, I try to look away very quickly. It’s strange to see him outside of the boundaries of his room or a Zoom box. He’ll run to catch up with people he sits next to in class, striking up a conversation. He clicks his pen sometimes and people around him look up in annoyance. He sits in the middle of the middle row, the absolute dead center of the room. I sit in the front row now. Maybe we’ve changed. Maybe there was always something about him that the edges of my laptop cut off.
The second to last week of classes, I was waiting at the bus stop and made eye contact with him across the street. He smiled, wide enough that I could see his face change without my glasses, and waved. I smiled and waved back. When the bus eventually came, I watched his back get closer and closer until he took a turn and disappeared.
I still think about what would have happened had we met a year later. Just a couple of three dimensional strangers sitting at physical desks adjacent to each other. We would have been surrounded by the same air. I would have seen his face in profile first. Would that have made a difference?