It’s been 16 weeks since I found myself trapped in Sydney, just in time for the coronavirus lockdown. It’s 16 weeks since I last saw my partner.
As we parted, there wasn’t too much of the Casablanca about our farewell at Wagga Wagga train station – no hats, no mist, not even the soundtrack throb of a string section. There was just business with luggage, a cuddle and the shared hope that Sydney’s lockdown would be over in a few days and we’d be reunited.
Four months later, I now remember that day with the intensity of Doctor Zhivago watching Lara depart from view in the 1965 movie, though – even in memory – the visuals are far less spectacular. The dramatic experience of lockdown on so many relationships has felt like an epic romantic tragedy with desaturated colour and banal artistic direction.
In my case, I feel like I’m living in a re-enactment of Cold Mountain, but the mountain’s been swapped out for a suburban LGA. Instead of a brutal civil war, I’m living through a Twitter conversation about a state government press conference that will never, ever, ever end. One longs for the train to be ambushed by avenging Bolsheviks, for relief.
And yet I’m among the lucky. For everyone living through personalised variations on the theme of emotional frustration and chaos, the done thing is the verbalised reminder that someone, somewhere has it worse. This subject should only ever be engaged as a generality; real-world examples are almost too painful to hear.
A Facebook message from the other day informed me of a couple parting after more than a decade together. Before the pandemic, they had survived the geographical hardship of love across international borders with a careful long-distance relationship. After two years separated by lockdowns, they’ve just given up hope of ever seeing one another again.
Is it better or worse that these two still admitted love, even as they separated? The dark inverse of my own situation was the friend who discovered their partner’s infidelity just as lockdown began, finding themselves imprisoned both in the appearance of a marriage and in the family home – for months, with their children – with the sure knowledge their partner was deceiving them. Another friend’s marriage collapsed after the birth of a pandemic baby. With the family confined to the house, she had no means of distracting herself from the realisation that his inclination either to parent or to care for her was zero.
Studies compiled last December confirmed what many suspected; the phenomenon of the “Covid breakup boom” was worldwide. From Sweden to China, Canada to the UK, the trauma of the times, and the confinements, have accelerated the rate of divorce. One factor cited is resentment towards a pattern of gendered, unequal labour in the home. Another is that newlyweds have had their romantic ideals shattered by such difficult, unprecedented challenges so early. In Ireland, applications for divorce rose by 29% last year.
Little wonder that people are seeking out sweeter stories about love than the bleak tragedies of real life. The popularity of Ted Lasso is well earned, but hardly indivisible from the times.
The romances of author Sally Rooney are devoured. A locked-down friend in Sydney confessed she’s watching reruns of Love Island, moved to tears by the “moments of genuine connection” amid the confected intimacies of the cohabitants.
As for me, I’ve eschewed Casablanca and tended my sadness with a parade of teen romantic comedies – some beloved from my youth, some discovered recently – encouraged by the number of friends who are doing the same. She’s the Man. Drive Me Crazy. She’s All That. The viewers of the flawed and frothy He’s All That on Netflix weren’t drawn to it in their millions for its artistry, but for the comfort of fiction’s emphatic reassurances: honesty solves problems, true love finds a way, and how great was that time in your life where the most complicated thing going on in your life was high school?
This last is a privilege denied the current generation of nonfictional teenagers. Another friend lamented the other day of the developmental experiences her kids had missed due to the cloistering of their worlds imposed by coronavirus. I wonder instead if this experience may leave that generation wiser about love and discerning about their relationship choices, given they’ve observed – with few distractions – how the adult relationships around them have been tested by the catastrophe and how they’ve survived or not survived.
The lesson on offer is that life is not actually a series of glib, disposable encounters but sometimes a hard and desperate march through sudden snow. Only true love gets you to the Urals intact.
Rewatching David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago in 1995, the great film critic Roger Ebert described the film as “political in the same sense Gone With the Wind is political, as spectacle and backdrop, without ideology”. Living now through Covid’s vast and desperate health and political crisis, I think Ebert may have nailed these classics’ appeal.
We don’t experience history as an ideological summation or a dated process of events but as creatures of memory and emotion. Humanity is drawn to love stories because our lives, through good or ill, are love stories. When lockdown is over, I doubt its lessons will be remembered in statistics, but who and how we chose to love as we tried to survive them.