It was June 2020, really early in the morning, still dark around the edges, and I was crossing the big intersection at Spencer and Bourke streets in Melbourne.
I was half asleep and the only people around were tradies. At the other end of the crossing, I locked eyes with one of them and, out of nowhere, suddenly felt weak with lust.
The whole thing – the whole long, loaded glance – only lasted a few seconds, until the lights changed and the road was crossed. But more than a year later I still remember the intensity of the feeling.
It was a blast of pure eros. Every cell was lit up. If it had been possible to just do it in the middle of the road with this yellow-vest stranger, I would have.
At Spencer Street, I caught my train, settled in and then proceeded to ask myself over the course of the 11-hour journey: what the hell was that? What just happened? My body was communicating something – but why was the feeling so overwhelming?
It was hot but also ridiculous, like something out of some Victorian novel, where whole pages were written about a look, or the sight of an ungloved wrist or the accidental brush of a hand on your arm, where the smallest thing starts a giant fire.
Get a grip, I told myself sternly. It’s just a feeling that doesn’t have any greater meaning. Stop being all DH Lawrence.
I guess it was no coincidence that the initial lockdown had recently ended and it was my first time in a busy, public setting. I had spent the months in a country town and had only seen the same four people since March. Locked down, a lot of things just disappear from our lives. The unmasked face of a stranger, chance encounters, spontaneity, curiosity, adventure. But a major one is eros, the big, invisible thing that can just slip away if the circumstances or the vibe is not right.
Often we only recognise eros has been gone when it reappears. Oh hello, you. Then you think, “of course, that’s what was missing”. The miserable walk without eye contact, the standing far apart from people, the absence of touch, no dancing, no standing around, no promenading or parading. Instead new levels of fear, a contraction, an inward focus. Eros is one of the many casualties of social distancing. Hard lockdown further removes and blocks us from other bodies, spontaneity, serendipity, the glint in the eye, the fleeting encounters that help animate life.
Sex therapist Esther Perel observed on a recent podcast, “This pandemic fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship with the stranger. The stranger represents danger. And you represent danger to a stranger. And that is an amazing loss of eros. When you live without that dimension, you mourn.”
Eros of course is not to be confused with sex – and whether we’ll be having a hot vaxxed summer. Some will, some won’t. But eros is available to all, and on good days it feels like you can just pluck it from the air. It’s an energy that moves lively from person to person, harmless and charming and fun.
Plato in The Symposium elevated eros above a purely sexual phenomenon, describing it as a transcendent, almost spiritual state.
Helen Garner in The First Stone called eros “the spark that ignites and connects”. She also called it unpredictable. It’s a thrilling and moving life energy that seems to buzz and glide. It doesn’t even have to be particularly sexual – it’s just an aliveness.
Now the long lockdown has ended in Melbourne and Sydney and after this strange, solitary, empty time, I’m happy to report eros is back, baby.
Last weekend as Sydney opened up, it was everywhere. Not necessarily in that slaying form that greeted me on the pedestrian crossing last June, but in a general joy and playfulness that seemed sprinkled like stardust on opening weekend.
At the pub on Friday night everyone was sitting on top of each other. There were a lot of hugs. One friend picked me up, spun me around and squeezed me so hard that my entire spine cracked like a book being opened for the first time.
Among strangers in the street, there were glances and smiles. Everyone looked great – dressed up, hair normal again, no one jaded or stewing in their own private bad mood, because everything for a brief moment was novel again. We are outside!
Walking down Darlinghurst Road at 4pm last Saturday, a man on the street stopped me.
“Excuse me, can I tell you something?”
“You have beautiful eyes.”
I looked into his eyes.
He had pretty great eyes too – and I told him so.
We chatted for a few minutes about nothing in particular, and then I went on my way. The man called after me, “You’re deadly!”
“Aw thanks – so are you.”
We both started laughing, said goodbye and walked away grinning.