The author and her fiancé

Long Distance Love (and Hypochondria) During a Pandemic

Many blissful weeks ago, just before Italy became the epicenter of a pandemic, I ambitiously flew into Rome. It was nearly the end of December at that point — that miserable time of the year when the post-holiday slump kicks in and everyone takes up a gym membership — and I thought to myself, why not disappear for a month? I pooled all of my cash together, called up my long-distance boyfriend, and packed away all of my favorite dresses. I had no idea what I was in for.


My boyfriend, Aleksa, flew into Fiumicino airport the same morning I did. We hadn’t seen each other in over three months, our relationship tangibly maintained through our phones. We celebrated our twenty-first birthdays over Facetime and exchanged good morning texts as a joke. 


When you love someone who lives in another country, you must sacrifice all regularities of a normal relationship and adapt to different time zones. You must learn to accept the fact that no matter how much you miss them, they will not be by your side the next morning; they will not be able to grab dinner with you after class; they cannot kiss you; they can’t bring you soup and flowers when you’re sick. And if you were anything like us, there was the whole mess of Visa and travel restrictions on top of it all. 


This trip was huge for both of us, who constantly daydreamed and stressed about how and when we’d be together again. So when Aleksa spotted me at Gate C, he dropped his bags and lunged toward me with such prolific enthusiasm that I completely froze in his arms. I had forgotten how wonderful it was to be held like that, by all of his goodness. I cried. Later that night, we reigned in the New Year from a cafe. We ate tiramisu and watched fireworks burst above our jet-lagged heads. It was the start of 2020, and it felt hopeful for us. I skipped home toward our hotel among the happy crowds, feeling lovestruck and dizzy about it all. 


We waited over an hour only to enter the wrong section of the Vatican, broke our necks gazing up at the Sistine Chapel, dressed in head-to-toe glam for Milan’s fashion week showrooms, and drank marocchinos in the hills of Settignano. We were so wrapped up in our romance that we had tuned out the news completely. “What’s up with these World War III memes?” we asked each other one morning after opening Instagram.


In Rome, or maybe it was Milan, we braced ourselves for the rapid and noisy subway system. In  Manhattan, sometimes you will see the occasional rat or plastic shopping bag traveling through the train tracks. But in Italy, the platform was divided by large, holographic televisions. Aleksa zippered up his brand new Fiorentina sweatshirt as the floating, pixelated screen across displayed footage of Iranian protests.


A few nights later, in a Venetian hotel room, I was eating a chocolate zeppole when my phone went ping. That was the notification sound for The New York Times emails. I don’t know what came over me to finally check my email, but I did. I was half expecting a war declaration or another missile attack. I was surprised to read about a dangerous disease quickly spreading throughout China instead. 


My zeppole began to expire as I sat there, reading on, terrified. Chinese health officials recognized a growing rate in hospital admittees for a mysterious, pneumonia-like illness. A novel ‘coronavirus’ had been officially declared. I felt like a truck had hit me. 


I had already let health anxiety consume a part of my trip. The third day in, I accidentally inhaled hot shower water and feared the resulting headache was actually a brain-eating amoeba. And another time, after eating the most delicious carbonara, I panicked that my stomach ache was the blossoming of appendicitis. The news startled me. Who did this coronavirus think he was, didn’t he realize I was on holiday? No, this is a waste of time, I then thought. I closed the tab and promised myself that I would stop obsessing over illnesses that were rare, especially during my travels.


The next day, Aleksa and I explored a practically empty Venice. Months earlier, the city had flooded and as a result, lost tourism. We nearly had the whole island to ourselves when Aleksa got down on one knee outside of Doge’s Palace and asked me to marry him. Every part of me knew that the answer was yes, even considering our difficult long-distance scenario. I’ve never felt more happy or beautiful or myself than at that moment. We then traveled to Serbia where I met my in laws and ate way too much cevapi and ajvar. There was no concern for the coronavirus. The kafanas and cafes were packed with happy people — so happy that I felt foolish for even wondering if they were worried about it. 


When I headed home for New York a month later, I felt afraid rather than sad. It’s a difficult time for any LDR couple to depart at the airport. But something about this departure felt wrong. As I passed through TSA security and waved Aleksa goodbye, I had the sinking feeling that we would not see each other for a long, long time. 


On my first connected flight, I noticed that some people were wearing face masks. I was too busy ogling my engagement ring to care. But on the second flight, I noticed that more people were wearing masks. At that point, I realized something bad was happening. Throughout the eight-hour flight, I routinely rubbed hand sanitizer into my palms.


I wondered briefly, upon arriving in the USA, if I had entered a tangent universe. My friends and family gathered in the diner and buttered their bagels, laughing about my travel stories and pawing at my hands to have a look at the diamond. They endlessly swiped through my photographs and sipped their American coffees. “Have you guys heard about this virus?” I asked. Everyone pacified me. “We’re gonna be fine.” That was January 23rd, 2020.


I returned to my college in NYC with the same Donnie Darko feeling.  I discovered the r/coronavirus community on Reddit, which had less than 200,000 members at the time, and read about the Italians that were now encountering the virus. Now, that same subreddit has 1.8 million members. You already know what has happened. 


I feel as though I am slipping in and out of realities, however, waiting for the current one to collapse so I can fall into the next copy and paste. I left Europe as a newly engaged woman; I left with my fiance’s culture on my mind and the prospects of our future together. I felt down after my travels, or perhaps it was a reverse culture shock — the world around me was the same, but I was different. 


You must imagine how strange it is for me to now feel the opposite. Today, everyone is living just as I have been living for a while: incredibly paranoid over their health and uncertain when they will next see their loved ones. I want to clarify that I don’t say that out of superiority or because I think my hardships are worse off than others. Everyone is entitled to feel how they do. But certainly, for those of us who do have pre-existing hypochondria and/or are in a LDR, this pandemic has certainly raised the stakes.


Many friends have reached out to me because they miss their partner during this period of self-isolation, and then, they apologize. “I know you’re doing this all of the time,” they tell me, lowering their eyes on Facetime. “I know you’re always apart from Aleksa, so I feel ridiculous feeling this way.”


Other friends avoid bringing up my relationship during this time, perhaps afraid that they will strike a nerve with me. Some peers of mine have apologized and said; “I can’t imagine how you possibly feel”. I picture everyone coming to my doorstep with a large muffin basket for their condolences. But some people don’t know where to put the basket, and some people think I hate muffins, and others, as I have come to learn, will never show up at my doorstep because they are hurting, too.


What is going on right now sucks, but don’t use me to measure your own relationship. Don’t use anyone, as a matter of fact. Be arrogant about your love. 


My situation is messy. There is a travel ban in place, and I’m afraid for my partner’s health and the fact that I can’t be with him. I am sad to wake up in the morning and see the date duration for when we were supposed to reunite in May. That countdown is irrelevant now. I am hoping for good news, for Visa interviews to be rescheduled, for confirmation that he’ll come to the United States in the summer. It’s no fun, but your feelings about your own relationship, whether your significant other is down the block or in another country, is just as valid and legitimate as my own. I expect couples to break up during this time just as much as I expect couples to come out of this even stronger. We are living in a delicate situation. We must do our best to be delicate and kind to ourselves, too.


For myself, as much as I am deeply hurt, I cannot afford to be angry right now. This is a time to remind me and my fiance how much I still love him. In some nuance, our relationship hasn’t changed all that much. We’re still confined to Facetime and text messages as we were before. We’re still dreaming about one another in different time zones. With all the countless hand-washing and drying I’ve been doing, I’m still wearing my engagement ring and doing my skincare routine. I want to look my best when we’re reunited in the near future, whenever that is.