We were in the middle of promising to grow old together when the sound cut out. The officiant’s face pixelated and froze, and we couldn’t hear what she was mouthing. Until the Wi-Fi started working we wouldn’t know whether or not we were married.
It was 8 am. We were standing alone on the tiny front porch of an Airbnb in a country where we are both foreigners, with some string lights hastily flung over the metal grating. My mum, his mum, and two witnesses were just visible on screen, shouting soundlessly, all of us wondering if this was the internet raising a last-minute objection. It was cold. I cuddled into my giant rainbow stripey jumper, the comfort garment that got me through nine months of quarantine. I was glad I’d thrown it on in lieu of a wedding dress. He reached for my hand.
Nothing was going to plan—but then, nothing has gone to plan all year, and certainly not since I met the madman in the bowtie standing in front of me. My sister, who has spent lockdown in London organizing professional events and knows what to do when these things happen, texted me to translate what the officiant was mouthing. You’ve got to log back in to the platform. After some tense minutes of telling our guests on Zoom to hang on, sorry, everyone, talk amongst yourselves while we get this sorted—we finally got the sound back, sort of, although the officiant now sounded like an excited fax machine.
The line buzzed. Time seemed to go very, very slowly.
“As I was saying,” she intoned, “by the power vested in me by the state of Utah, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
All right, let me explain.
In love as in war, technology allows people to do what they would have done anyway, faster and with fewer immediate consequences. Before there was Match.com there were matchmakers and Miss Lonelyhearts; before there was Grindr there were gloryholes; the polyamorous millennials sharing their Google calendars with a constellation of partners are the inheritors of every fastidious hippie who ever took five hours to explain free love with flowcharts.
But there is no exact pre-digital equivalent of the 4 am status update. It combines the desperate passion of toilet graffiti with the intimacy of a barstool confessional.
It was June, and the world was on fire, and I was drunk. I had spent the first part of lockdown engaging in demeaning Zoom dating as an alternative to more debilitating methods of self-harm. This culminated with a chap I’d been going on virtual dates with for a month announcing that he had, in fact, been interviewing several candidates for the position of girlfriend and, regrettably, I had not made the cut. A few days later, lightly chemically altered, I made a post letting everyone on Facebook know that I was bored of being single, out of practice at flirting, and if anyone had any attractive single friends they should let me know.
In the morning, fumbling to delete the post, I saw that I was already too late. People had started to chime in, including a shy anthropologist from Australia with nice hair who I had met a total of once, three years ago. He was far too far away himself, he said, but he might know somebody in my city. I pointed out that in quarantine times, everyone not living next door might as well be on the moon. Well, he said, in that case, might I like to practice flirting? With him?
At this point, I got that tremulous feeling in my belly where you’re not sure whether something brilliant is happening or you’ve just swallowed a wasp. We’d only seen each other the one time, briefly, at a book festival in Melbourne. We’d met by chance and shared an obscenely early cup of coffee, one of those situations where you’re not sure if it’s a date and are too shy to ask. We discussed Doctor Who and anarchist theory, I admired his band T-shirt, and both of us came away with the impression that the other one wanted to keep things platonic, which was fine, absolutely fine, and not at all disappointing, and neither of us were at all wistful when we saw the other’s status updates go by over the intervening years.
Finding out that we had always fancied each other was an unexpected treat. Something was different—different enough, at least, to move right from Messenger to WhatsApp, which for no rational reason whatsoever has always felt like the most intimate platform for me. (Signal is more secure, of course, but it’s where all of my ex-partners hang out.) We talked about how we were both suspicious of the heterosexual couple form, which is one of my favorite ways to flirt.
I had long ago decided that if I had to choose between being trapped in one of the traditional, structurally imbalanced straight pairings that sucked the spirit out of generations of women in my family and being single, I would choose to be single. I had in fact specifically designed my life so I would never be obliged to shape it around a man, and was open enough about that fact that the issue had so far failed to come up.
It’s not that I don’t believe in the institution of marriage. It would make as much sense not to believe in football, which also clearly happens and is surprisingly popular. I just didn’t see why it had to apply to me, I don’t understand the rules, and would prefer it if we could all get along without having to decide, and was aware of quite how many people come out horribly injured.
And it’s not that I’m unromantic. The opposite: I have never been able to maintain the requisite level of laid-backery when I really like someone, and switch straight to the sonnet-writing. This rarely produces the desired effect, particularly in straight men. If normal heterosexuality means hammering your heart into manageable contours, I don’t want it. This year, though, the colliding catastrophes of pandemic, climate collapse, civil unrest, and economic calamity have made the entire question of normality somewhat moot.
When I finally saw his face on Zoom, we started out by watching a lot of the old classic episodes of Doctor Who together and talking about protest theory. We found out we had the same karaoke song, and talked about one day being able to go somewhere to actually empirically prove who’s better at it. There was also an eight-hour time difference, which we negotiated by calling to wake one another up. Without noticing, it became every day, and every night, for weeks.
The distance helped. I could tell myself that I wasn’t really falling for him, and even if I was, there was no danger of that interrupting all of my carefully laid plans. There was no way we could impulsively move in together. There were ludicrous difficulty levels in between us even seeing each other in person. It was exciting to meet, via the emotional prophylactic of a screen, another person with all the capacity for emotional strategy of a puppy getting its tummy tickled. It was safe to be vulnerable, to be enthusiastically non-neurotypical. It was terrifyingly safe to start to care about him, and what to do next was unexpectedly obvious. As I put it to him early on, and this is an exact quote: “I may be a wild and untameable trauma-twitchy anarcha-feminist fundamentally personally and politically opposed to het partnership as a social organizing principle, but I’m also not a fucking fool.”
At some point, my housemate intervened. My housemate is not a geek, but sometimes civilians have much to teach us. He told us that he couldn’t bear it any longer and please, for the love of god, would we stop talking about Doctor Who and start talking about sex.
We took his advice.
The most deviant commodity on the modern internet isn’t sex, it’s sincerity. By definition, it can’t be manufactured, and it’s difficult to replicate and resell, both of which make earnest enthusiasm suspect. But you can’t have romance without it, and people are craving romance right now, panting like parched spaniels for the sweet stuff. It’s beautiful and it’s stupid and we need it.
Online, it’s easier to tell people how you really feel. That’s not just true for the troll armies spewing their untrammelled spite across social media—it’s also true for people trying to strengthen communities, build relationships, try to find new ways of showing up for one another over months of social distancing and civil collapse. We started sending each other cakes and tiny treats, getting friends on the other side of the world to facilitate deliveries. By July, it was becoming horribly obvious that it wasn’t just the distance that made this different.
I had begun to do things that confused those who know me well. Things like wearing bright colors and going outdoors to enjoy the sunshine. My housemate caught me walking around the kitchen singing and tidying and asked if that was because I suddenly had faith in men again. I told him not to be disgusting.
Out of nowhere, I announced that I wanted to put on a small bikini and go to the beach. To give you a sense of context, this is like Mr. Rogers announcing that he’d quite like to put on a policeman’s helmet and go to the sex dungeon. There’s no law against it, it just doesn’t seem very on brand.
Flowers, too, were another thing that I had always found vaguely distressing. It seemed perverse to give someone a token of affection that they then have to watch progressively wilt and die. If I was ever given flowers, I rushed to give them away while they were still fresh, before the symbolism started, but I realized I had neglected to mention this when, one day in August, a fat, sugary bunch of sweet stocks and dahlias showed up on my doorstep with a note. It said, “More Anon.” That’s the code that he and I have developed for when we can’t talk right that second. They were beautiful, and they would be dead soon, and I shared them with my podmates on the principle that flowers, or at least the principle of flowers, are something everyone deserves, but I kept some for myself as an exercise in wild hope that one day there would be more flowers.
Obviously, we didn’t spend the whole time being adorable. There was an appropriate amount of time being horrifying in front of a tiny camera, just me and him and the NSA. It takes a lot more trust for me to send a nude—or, indeed, a love letter—than it does to be naked with another human being. But I’ve finally joined the rest of my generation in discovering that sex on the internet is just as magnificently weird as it is in the flesh.
By September, I was still preparing for the eventuality that I was being catfished, or the less dramatic but rather more upsetting possible future where we just smelled wrong to each other. There’s always that possibility. “We might smell wrong to each other” has become a shorthand for everything that could possibly go wrong, all the treacherous little tripwires that you feel feel when you’re trying to decide whether to hand a relative stranger the power to crush your heart into tiny pieces.
Which is how I found myself, on a baking day by my podmate’s parents’ pool, opening an airmail parcel and taking deep lungfuls of an unwashed band T-shirt with the determination of a police hound sniffing for crack. I determined that my true love smelled of stale band shirt.
Something had to be done. The distance between us that had once made whatever this was feel safe had gradually become frustrating, and was now intolerable. If these were normal times, I would have got on a plane, but these were not normal times, and he needed government permission even to leave Australia, before you even considered the wisdom of going to an airport in the middle of a raging plague. Covid has been something of a forcing function for all sorts of relationships. We had to decide whether or not this was as real as we imagined.
By this point, it was October, and the world was full of reasons to leave America. There were wildfires, police riots, a crackdown on political activists, a pandemic raging out of control, and now, a fraught election that could not conceivably end without major civil unrest. Many of my friends with reasons to fear their government were and still are looking for a way out. As a foreign national, I am not unused to being told to go the hell home if I don’t like it here, but never with such urgency by people who actually care about my wellbeing. I had not seen my family in England since 2019. But I stayed. I found another temporary sublet and packed all my things to move for the third time since the long limbo of quarantine began because, after years of circling each other online and months of wrangling international bureaucratic hellscapes and Covid protocols, my favorite person was getting on a flight so that we could finally have our second date.
I spent a while rehearsing how I was going to explain all this to my mother, my sisters, and my therapist. The latter was particularly nerve-racking because, while I have never had a manic episode, I feel obligated to inform the relevant medical professionals if I’m ever planning to do anything that sounds like someone in a manic state might conceivably do. Like declaring yourself wildly in love with someone thousands of miles and two pandemic borders away who you’ve only met once in person. My therapist said that it sounded sensible as anything else right now. She wished us luck.
Romance has always been the true utopian genre, the one that prioritizes wild hope and possibility over what is merely likely. But there’s nothing romantic about not having a backup plan, so we had several. We promised that whatever happened, we would be as kind to each other as possible, ludicrously kind, the way you’ve got to be in a year like this when the work of caring for other humans is the only work that matters. I told myself and anyone else who would listen that even if it didn’t work out in person, it would still have been worth it, that I had already had an interesting, life-affirming three-month love affair, that just because I couldn’t pick out the back of his head in a crowd doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.
None of that made me any less nervous on the 4th of October, waiting by the gate at LAX, double masked, trying to remember what normal people do with their faces. I glanced down to check my phone and saw two blue ticks appear next to my last message to him. That meant he’d passed through security. I fumbled in the search bar for a map of the inside of the airport and looked up to see that he’d already come through the gates and was lolloping toward me, surprisingly tall, grinning under his double mask.
I still don’t know what normal people do with their faces. I put mine on his.
The first few hours were the strangest. We weren’t used to each other in three dimensions; it was as disorienting as the first time I tried on an Oculus headset and spent an hour yelping at how high-def everything was while crashing into the coffee table. It was bizarre to be able to have a conversation without the connection crackling and cutting out every few minutes, but it turns out that if you’ve had to fight technology and move thousands of miles to be able to actually hear one another, you actually listen.
What does partnership look like when gender roles and domestic norms are collapsing along with every socioeconomic certainty? For us it looked like watching the election results come in from Georgia on the television in an Airbnb, clinging like a barnacle to the rock face of central Los Angeles, with a relentless symphony of traffic horns and screams and glowing promos for nightmarish children’s movies about neon sloths and minions blazing in through the front window all night, which is what happens when you commit to something online without looking it over in person to check that the plumbing works. Which it does. Thankfully.
It is preposterous that this appears to be working, and I’m frankly worried about how worried everyone else isn’t. Instead, almost all of my friends and otherwise sensible relations got invested in our story, in the preposterous sentiment of it. That was lucky, because I had not appreciated from the inside how much any individual relationship needs a web of other people around it. In pandemic times, people were falling over themselves to make sure that this one worked out, that this story had a happy ending.
But I write stories for a living, which is how I know that people aren’t stories. People don’t organize their lives around logical emotional beats, and people want different, contradictory things. I was aware that if for some reason a horrible misguided romantic explosion took place it wouldn’t just be me who was disappointed. If it all ended horribly, I had a plan for what I was going to do to take care of myself, because everyone I knew was already overloaded with emotional labor. I had a plan. I usually do. In the end, I didn’t have to use it, because he doesn’t smell wrong, he smells like sweet tea and boysweat and like home feels when you’ve come back from a long trip to find your favorite things right where you left them.
Romance matters, and right now everyone I know seems to be understanding that in a new way. Romance is about far more than relationships. Romance is no more or less than the triumph of the possible over the merely probable, the stupid and beautiful and human impulse to take wild risks knowing that there’s a strong likelihood they won’t work out, on the off chance that they will.
Everyone needs romance, and romance is not the same as love. Romance is to love as revolution is to governing a nation, as I explained on the fateful day when, trapped in a one-room apartment by a stay-at-home order, the Australian made the mistake of revealing that he had never heard Hamilton. There are compromises to make. Dealbreakers to identify. Someone is going to have an entire Broadway musical sung at them with occasional breaks to discuss the aesthetic of Obama-era liberalism.
“He sounds suspiciously perfect,” said my sister. “Tell me there’s something at least a little wrong with him.”
“He likes ska,” I said. “He played in ska bands for 20 years. I now know more than I ever cared to know about ska. Turns out there’s way more to it than just punk with a trumpet.”
“Oh, good,” she said. “That’s all right, then.”
My whole life, the whole of heterosexuality has felt to me like a school sports game I’ve been reluctantly made to play, and nobody wants me on the team any more than I want to be there, because I am obviously only here to watch the men in short shorts and get in the way. Nobody was more surprised than me when I suddenly caught the ball, in the shape of the heart of the kindest, most brilliant man I’ve ever met who somehow, inexplicably wants to hang out with me all the time, and there was nothing to do except run with it.
But our time was coming to an end. He had to go back to Australia, and he wouldn’t be able to leave again, and the borders were only open to citizens and immediate family members. Which led to a question we’d both been circling since approximately 24 hours after he stepped off the plane.
Romance is the same in relationships as it is in revolution: For every glorious moment on the barricades there are months of logistics and lifetimes spent trying to wrestle out of the dragnet of state bureaucracy. Which is why, after a lot of Googling, it became clear that the only way for us to see each other before 2021 was for us to somehow become each other’s immediate family. He asked how I would feel about the two of us becoming kin in a way that would be legible to the state.
I panicked and went to bed with my phone for the rest of the day. And after an hour I asked if he’d put his actual physical body next to mine while I thought about it.
I realized that we had spent two months in a very small one-room apartment together, mostly cleaning things, sorting out dinner, cleaning things again, dealing with paperwork, trying to care for each other through a terrifying time in human history, and doing laundry. It’s a lesson I have been learning all year, from my podmates and my community and from strangers—that this is what love is, that it’s the work of care, the essential everyday effort of sharing resources and dividing labor and being as kind as possible to each other in the process. That love is not the opposite of hate. It’s the opposite of entropy. And there is still plenty of time to give entropy a run for its money.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
“We’re doing the legal thing,” is how I put it to my mother on the phone. I was not prepared for her excitement, or my sisters’ excitement, or how damn relieved everyone seemed. We promised everyone that there would, if things worked out, be a real wedding one day, one with music and food and inappropriate family members and someone’s baby screaming and more than 15 minutes to plan and send out invites—this was just the legal wedding. Which we had booked less than a week before.
For a location, we decided to go back to the same place we fell in love: Zoom. It was clear that, with Covid infection rates getting exponentially terrifying and courthouse dates booked out for months, an in-person wedding wouldn’t be happening. We read a lot of reviews and paid the extra hundred dollars to get amendments to the boilerplate prenup they offered. We applied for the license while crammed onto the tiny, rock-hard couch of our temporary Airbnb, in front of a screen streaming a supposedly soothing eight-hour loop of a rainstorm outside a window in England. If you squinted, it almost felt like a real window in a real home.
Everything was happening in the wrong order, and nothing was solid in a way that the rest of the world could understand, not the way we met, not the borrowed bed or the boxroom we’d been stuck in together for two unbroken months entirely in each others’ company, and not the fact that we were both so far from sick of each other that we were prepared to do something objectively foolish to convince the governments of various plague-stricken nations that this was, actually, real.
We got married on the 5th of December, on the front porch, with the sun coming up and the Wi-Fi crackling. We did it with nobody else physically there for the same reason we did it at all: because neither of us is an absolute fool. From a safe distance, our Airbnb host took some photos, because she happens to be a wedding photographer and she’s not had a lot of weddings to shoot this year. Instead of a guest list we had a hastily thrown-together group email; instead of rings we exchanged orange bottle caps; instead of promising to love, honor, and obey we promised to be each other’s favorite, to go on adventures together, choose each other, to grow old together, and to be as kind to each other as possible for as long as we possibly can.
That night we drove to the beach, to sit 10 feet away from two of his old friends who had brought champagne in red plastic cups. We had promised them and everyone else that there would be a proper wedding someday. Driving home in the dark, in a borrowed car in a foreign country, we told each other again that next time we’d plan it better, that that wasn’t the real wedding, this was just something we’d done to make sure that we could carry on being silly and sincere and stupidly kind to each other, so that no pandemic could prevent us sharing our resources, dividing our labor, and spending the rest of our ridiculous lives waking up in each other’s arms—
“Wait,” I said. “That was the real wedding, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said, “I think it was.” And we got ready for the future to arrive. I have no idea what’s going to happen next, any more than I can explain why every bizarre thing he does is brilliant. As I write this he is re-enacting the video to Devo’s “Whip It” with raspberries on the end of his fingers, and this is the second time this has happened in the 72 hours I have been married, and I probably ought to stop buying him raspberries, but they’re his favorite, and he’s mine.