Tough times may not bring love, but they do bring clarity.

By Jenna Klorfein

“Want to go on a 6 ft apart walk this afternoon?” I texted.

No response. A week passed as I wiped down every surface of my apartment, but those three hopeful dots never appeared. I began to face the facts. I had been ghosted during quarantine.

There are clear but unspoken milestones of app-mediated dating. The first is moving your virtual courtship offline. Unless you are highly unlikable, a second date is usually guaranteed. Tread slowly. Third and fourth dates are crucial. By then, you can no longer have the same conversation about siblings and work. You actually have to get to know a person.

At this point, you may begin folding them into the other parts of your life. You let them meet a select group of friends whom you can count on to dress well and banter lightheartedly. You’ve brought them to your hidden spots where the bartender knows your order, cooked breakfast with your roommates. You exhale. This could actually work.

The thing about this timeline, though, is it doesn’t account for a pandemic.

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We had been seeing each other for three months, my longest relationship to date and the most comfortable. He was the first guy whose place I didn’t feel the urge to flee in the morning after spending the night; instead, we would hang out and watch episode after episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He was training for a marathon, and often it was only his pre-scheduled runs that would end our TV binge.

I kept looking at my calendar, counting the weeks since our first date and bracing myself for the inevitable fade-out that had happened with all the other men I’d seen in New York. Each day felt like a small victory — one step closer to an actual, real-world relationship.

Two weeks before New York shut down, I was the fifth wheel to two sets of coupled-up friends at an Indian restaurant in the West Village. Between bites of chicken tikka masala, my friends assured me that it was time for the feelings talk.

Was this a talk of exclusivity? Defining the relationship? I wasn’t quite sure, but my friends insisted that there comes a point in all real relationships when feelings can no longer be left unsaid.

I didn’t want to be the one to initiate this talk. I wanted to carry on as the mysterious, chill girl who doesn’t discuss feelings — or even have needs. But as my coupled-up friends informed me, my escalating anxiety signaled that I was not, in fact, the chill girl, and that it was time.

Equipped with my friend’s advice (and with several seasons of “The Bachelor” under my belt), I was ready. I texted the guy saying that I needed to check in — direct but vague, as instructed.

“Let’s get lunch after my run,” he wrote.

He’s always running! I applied waterproof mascara, put on my best high-waisted jeans and headed to my execution.

We split French toast and chicken and waffles while talking about a job he didn’t get; he asked no questions about mine. He glanced at his Apple watch several times. We settled the check and headed to the park across the street.

I didn’t know it then, but it was a day of lasts. Last time dining out, last time sitting in a crowded park, last shared meal.

After several moments of silence punctuated by my offhand remarks about dog breeds, I told him about my feelings. We had spent an intense weekend together, after which he hadn’t contacted me for days, so I wanted to know where he was “at.” If I had feelings, I wanted to know if he did too.

What I got in return was confusing. Or maybe just upsetting. He told me he liked me but that he didn’t want to emotionally support someone or have someone emotionally support him. He valued his independence and boundaries and running. He had space for me once a week.

I held it together. We kissed goodbye. Then I met my best friend on the steps outside the Brooklyn Public Library and cried.

The next day he texted, asking about a play I had seen. I told him I needed space, that we should “check in next week.” Unknown to me, this was the week that New York City would ask us all for space by instituting social distancing policy. I would get my solitude whether I had asked for it or not.

The world would look a lot different during the pandemic. And yet my primary preoccupations remained the same. Like many New Yorkers, I experienced dread while reading daily headlines. I approached each morning anxiously, recognizing that the gravity of this crisis would continue to unfold. But the thoughts that kept me up at 2 a.m. remained as self-centered as they were before Covid-19: I’m lonely. I’m unlovable. What if I’m alone forever?

As the crisis accelerated, so did the panic for intimacy. There was no time to search for someone more right. You had to grab the best available thing. I wanted to stockpile romantic partners like toilet paper. The store was out of Charmin, so I frantically grabbed the 99-cent Scott. The runner and I started texting again. And then he ghosted me.

Lockdown was a turning point for many people in the early dating stages. As conventional wisdom was screaming at the time: If you’re a couple, be a couple. Quarantine together, or break up.

We broke up. I watched with jealousy as several friends overcame the hurdle I couldn’t. My roommate, also in a budding three-month relationship, bought walkie-talkies to communicate with her new suitor. It was nauseatingly cute. If others could do it, why couldn’t I?

In isolation, I spiraled into hypotheticals. If I could have kept up the myth of chill girl for a little longer, would we still be together, sharing a bed, shielding each other from the misery outside?

In quarantine you lose the excuse of life’s many distractions. There is no “Maybe he didn’t see that text,” or “Maybe he’s busy at work or out with friends.” You must remind yourself of the truth: that he’s sitting on his couch, looking at his phone, choosing to not respond.

You’re also drastically limited in terms of diversions, making the sting of rejection all the more painful. There is no bartender to flirt with, no movie theater to hide in, no live music to drown out your manic thoughts. It is a harsh but clarifying reality.

Our need for connection and reciprocity loom larger in times of crisis. The world spins off its axis and we turn to those around us to keep from spiraling out along with it. But even as social distancing presents challenges, the opportunities to support those we care for are vast. They just take new forms: 2 a.m. phone calls to your friend across the coast, shared playlists, House Party happy hours.

These moments of mutual connection offer the grounding we need. We feel that we are being held, even when no one is physically there to do the holding. His ghosting confirmed my fears that this relationship, by contrast, could bear no weight.

I was forced to confront my own needs. I was missing something larger than this one person, whom I had yet to really get to know. The aching was not just rejection but the disappointment of thinking someone might provide what I was so desperately seeking in all relationships: reciprocity, emotional matching, assurance.

Love during quarantine is no different from love during any other time. Instagram feeds signal an uptick in friends’ engagements, but quarantine does not make love out of thin air, nor does it break a relationship that was already off its hinges. It simply sheds light.

Jenna Klorfein is a social worker in New York City.

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