Everyone has to account for the risks of pandemic romance, at least in theory. Early on, local health departments recommended work-arounds to sex, such as masturbating together across a room, that amounted to comedy as much as abstinence. And as is the case whenever any kind of abstinence is preached, young people have still been dating and having sex during all of this.
But the young and sick are playing a different game altogether. Many people in their 20s or 30s who live with chronic or terminal conditions experience sickness as both a permanent and transitory state: We may or may not be actively, critically ill at any given moment, but we’re still living with underlying conditions that can mark every aspect of our lives. We’re stuck between two impulses: the need to be as cautious as elderly people and the urge to act our age. The constant balancing act can make dating unbelievably difficult, especially now, but it also fundamentally changes how we think about romance: If anyone understands just how important love is, it’s us.
Many young, sick people have spent years, if not their whole life, wading in the waters of restriction. For some, close contact has always been a hazard; for others, hospitalizations burn up whatever free time might go toward dating. And even for those who are able to date, disclosing an ailment to a partner can be awkward and thorny. Some of us were just gathering momentum after years of an underdeveloped social life before the pandemic introduced a frustrating new layer of restrictions.
“I have definitely had plenty of days during COVID where it’s like, Wow, did this catastrophic public-health event maybe just seal my fate as somebody who is not going to meet someone?” Callie, a 26-year-old grad student from Maryland, told me. (Callie, a heart-transplant recipient, asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her privacy.) Because of her illness, she didn’t really start casually dating until a few years ago, and she’s sharply aware that the pandemic has delayed her love life once again. She’s chosen not to date during the past year for fear of what the coronavirus might do to her. “I don’t want to add anything else to the pile of shit that is my body dysfunction,” she said.
Since young, sick people have experienced restrictions before, many of us are skilled at making calculations to maintain some version of autonomy in the face of all the risk. “You grow really good at adapting and establishing new normals,” says Kendall Ciesemier, a 27-year-old liver-transplant recipient who lives in Brooklyn. During the summer, she experimented with going on dates at restaurants with outdoor seating, but her prospects never panned out. In the fall, Ciesemier got sick (not with COVID-19) and temporarily moved back in with her parents in Chicago, but over the winter, she started seeing someone new. So far, all of their encounters have been over Zoom or FaceTime because he lives in New York, but Ciesemier will soon be fully vaccinated, and so will the person she’s been not-exactly-dating for the past few months, bringing closer the possibility that they might meet in person.