Disclaimer: The names of the couple mentioned have been changed to ensure their privacy and safety.
Karen and Huda come out of the theatre, hands interlocked, banter rolling off their tongues as they make fun of the horrible movie they just watched. To wash down the disappointment, Karen takes Huda to sit by the seaside in Downtown. They leave their muddy shoes behind, one with shoelaces tied neatly, and the other disheveled. They trespass barefoot to rest on the cold concrete blocks, while Huda cushions her curly hair on Karen’s lap.
That was their first date a year ago in April 2019. Karen was able to caress her partner’s cheek without fearing the virus, and the 7pm curfew didn’t hold back Huda from enjoying the contrast of Karen’s fiery hair with the sun melting in the ocean. Now, COVID-19 stands in the way of their anniversary celebration.
Rawan waits in the car, while masked Nadim hops off to grab a cheque from his university, the American University of Beirut. The guard who signs him in is wearing two masks, a plastic one that hangs by a headband, and the typical green/blue cloth covering his nose and mouth. The couple cruise around Hamra running mundane errands, hugging at every stop, cramping their hands around one another in the small space of the car. Nadim picks up a receipt from his landlord, delivers another to his scholarship coordinator, and passes by the bank to collect his money. They talk the whole ride, and Rawan realizes she misses routine outside of quarantine: “On normal days we run errands together, so it was nice to have that again.”
The day after universities had announced that they were closing, Nadim and Rawan lounged together not expecting the lockdown to last more than a week or two. They played video games and worked on a puzzle she had gotten him a month before. It was a perfect way for them to spend their last day together. They recommenced their activities later, a month and 19 days into quarantine.
Nadim drove all the way from Saida, through the empty roads to spend the afternoon with his girlfriend on the rooftop of her building. Due to the health measures, sitting in cafés and public hangout spots is not an option. Overlooking grey water tanks, they picnic with a “Jackaroo” board game and turkey and cheese sandwiches. Nadim has to be back in Saida before the 7pm curfew, so Rawan makes peace with his need to leave, reminding herself that the quarantine is only a temporary period. “We try to make the most of it and see it as just another stage, not something good or bad. I like to believe that whatever’s happening now is just a long weekend,” Nadim reassures.
The couple reminisce a simpler day before quarantine, Karen wakes up to find Huda waiting for her in the living room, both in sweatpants. They hang out with a friend of theirs, smoking shisha, playing cards, and joking around.
“I hope corona breaks out, so you get to stay here.”
“Your mom would come get you in a helicopter if it came down to it.”
MTV is on in the background when all of a sudden, the lockdown is announced. They realize in that moment that they won’t be seeing one another for a lengthy amount of time. Fearful yet holding on tight, they whisper words of love and reassurance:
“We’ll be okay.”
“We’ll be in each other’s arms again.”
“You’ll be in my arms soon enough.”
After a month of separation, Karen and Huda see one another for 10 restricted minutes. Huda’s mom waits by the car, signaling the brevity of their reunion, as if she were the white rabbit from Alice in The Wonderland. Feeling watched, the couple play with a stray cat and act as if they’re not more than friends.
“I don’t really care about being in my house for months. I just care about not being able to see her,” Huda sighs in frustration. Social isolation can cause many to struggle to connect in the face of a contactless period. Contemporary relationships, through patience and flexibility, hold the essence of classic love stories. Couples block the winds of the pandemic by sharing a jacket on the roof or bridge their love by building roads on online servers.
Rawan welcomes Nadim with open arms into her online chat, where Nadim feels he can express any thoughts on his mind. Video and voice calls aren’t convenient options in their busy houses. They attempt to balance their emotional dependency on the edge of their screens as the quarantine goes on. “We [usually] study together and Nadim is a lot more focused than I am, so that helps me in studying, but even that small element that I’m used to is gone [now],” Rawan admits. “Texting lacks the tone and intent that face to face communication has, and sometimes I really just want a hug from her,” confesses Nadim. They watch series and movies on Netflix party and text about their reactions. They feel connected knowing that they are having the same experience.
Nadim finds that even if he cannot meet with Rawan, she doesn’t pester him about how strictly his parents are taking quarantine. She is his number one confidant, and he extends that understanding to her. He is an enthusiastic debater, but it drains Rawan over text. So, they try to find common ground when physically apart and accept each other’s stances at the end of the discussion.
After the quarantine ends, with the Lebanese government working towards reopening public spaces and activity, Rawan and Nadim plan on crossing off of their lists the various places they have wanted to visit and road trips they have wanted to take for a while. Karen and Huda crave physical intimacy, with their wishes surrounding hugs and kisses.
They went from planning little dates to creating worlds on Minecraft servers. Like withdrawal from a drug, Huda kisses her phone’s camera repeatedly, sending digitized affection to Karen. In the morning, they call one another and lay in bed, smiling in silence for a few minutes. Sometimes Huda is so busy with her family such that Karen doesn’t get to talk to her properly until 2 am. Karen never thought she would survive a long-distance relationship, but with Huda she is trying her best.
Mud pools form on the streets of Beirut with no trespassing couples to jump over. It doesn’t matter if Karen’s shoes are tied or untied because they are tucked in her closet at home. Rawan keeps Nadim’s jacket as a small excuse for him to visit her all the way from Saida. Intimacy is being experienced beyond ears pressing against and fingers tapping onto cold metal electronics. Couples hang onto all forms of hope that the COVID-19 quarantine would soon be over, mirroring the larger need for people to reconnect and intermingle.
The following is a playlist filled with songs around the theme of Quarantined Love for readers to enjoy. The playlist features Daniel Ceasar, Jorja Smith, Alina Baraz, Oh Wonder, Bruno Major and Sabrina Claudio. Click here to access it.