What Does New Love Look Like in a Pandemic?
As everyone’s lives ground to a halt in March, author and photographer Bill Hayes was in Manhattan’s West Village, navigating a new relationship under the strictures of social distancing and wandering the streets, camera in hand, to document the strange effect of the pandemic on his city. What follows are excerpts from his diary, published alongside his photographs in the new book How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic.
I’ve done some dating over the past five years, since my partner Oliver Sacks passed away. I gave it a concerted effort with two guys in particular, both good guys, both around my age, but neither relationship lasted more than two months. Maybe I never wanted to date in the first place, it strikes me now. What I wanted was romance. Electricity. The kind of electricity I felt when I moved to New York. Or when I first met Oliver. Or when I laid eyes on Jesse last Christmas.
I had made a deliberate decision to approach the holidays this time not as the holidays — which had made me blue for years — but just as workdays. I worked all day on Christmas and had no plans to go out. But by 6:00, I was feeling restless and I decided to take a walk. I wandered through the West Village, passed by a bar on Christopher Street, then, on second thought, went in to check it out. I was sure it would be empty — 6:30 on Christmas night, come on — but it was not. There were lots of people there, mostly people like me, I guessed, which is to say people who don’t dig the holidays or believe in Jesus and don’t have family here or a Menorah or a Christmas tree. I ordered a Corona and settled in on a barstool. I didn’t plan to stay for long.
That’s when I spotted Jesse. He was leaning against the back wall. He was tall and muscular, but it was the Santa hat he wore with exactly the right amount of irony that caught my eye. Somehow it made him even handsomer. And then he smiled. I’m a sucker for a gap-toothed smile, I just am. He held my gaze and just kept smiling this sexy, gap-toothed grin.
The bartender returned with my beer. “One for him, too,” I said, gesturing at the tall young Black Santa with the irresistible lips. “Whatever he’s drinking, tell him it’s on me.”
He came over and thanked me, one beer led to another, and we eventually ended up back at my place. I remember thinking later that night, This is the most fun I’ve had on Christmas in I do not know how long.
We saw each other throughout January and February, and into March. It hadn’t evolved into a full-fledged relationship, in part because we were both busy, I with my work and Jesse with not only two different jobs, but also with school — he was pursuing a degree full-time at a Manhattan college. There were other reasons too, the dominant one being that there was — there is — a huge age difference between us: I’m 59. He’s 26 (soon to be 27, an April birthday I won’t be able to celebrate with him in person for obvious reasons).
I know something about age gaps, about so-called intergenerational relationships: After all, Oliver was 28 years older than me. But this felt different: it wasn’t just that Jesse was much younger than me; I felt I was too old for him — too used to my routines, to doing my own thing. To being alone. The truth is, though, we rarely talked about our age difference. We’d see each other about once a week. We always had a good time, getting stoned, making dinner (and breakfast the next morning), having sex, taking baths together in my big tub, watching TV, hanging out, laughing. He made me laugh, and I him, which I loved and appreciated. I hadn’t laughed so much with someone in five years.
And then the pandemic hit.
In New York, the mandate to practice social distancing of at least six feet came in mid-March, so that made continuing a casual relationship such as ours challenging, if not risky. His college, where a few Covid cases had been identified in students, was shut down. On the same day, Jesse lost both his jobs — one at a downtown gym, where he worked at the front desk; one as a bouncer at an East Village bar, where he had to be in contact with hundreds of people. And for my own work, I’d often been out on the streets photographing complete strangers all over the place. We couldn’t know whether or not we’d been exposed somehow, could we?
“I don’t think we’re supposed to see each other, to be near each other,” I had to say to Jesse when he said he was heading over to my place that night.
“Nah, come on, we’re fine.”
“No, I don’t think we know if we’re fine, I don’t think we should, not yet.”
But gradually, with each text exchanged, my resistance weakened: “Okay, come over, but we can’t have sex.”
He agreed. But after doing our best to keep away from each other at either end of the couch, our willpower broke and we started making out.
I don’t regret it; on the contrary, I treasure it — that memory. Already, that seems like a different life, just five months ago. We didn’t know exactly what was going on, whom to believe, everything was happening very fast. Everyone was talking about handwashing (how many demonstrations of the proper handwashing method by celebrities did I watch on social media?). No one was saying anything about sex.
A text from Jesse in March:
“I feel like I’m losing you.”
“No. Not lost. I’m here,” I say.
We decide to meet at the Christopher Street pier. We’re not breaking any rules — people are allowed to take walks, to exercise, to meet in public, as long as social distancing is practiced. I wait and wait. Finally, I see him shuffling down the block in his hoodie and an overcoat — it’s really chilly and windy out. He looks adorable.
Reflexively, he leans down to hug me — he towers a good six inches above me — and I want to, too — I want to warm him up — but I gently push him away — “No, no, no, no hugging, remember, no kissing, not yet.” Which makes me feel at once guilty, sad, cruel, sensible, stupid, old — 33 years older than he is.
He steps back with a smile, and we walk to the end of the pier and have a pretty good chat. But it’s awkward, unnatural: to want something — someone — so near to you, you could have it if you really wanted it, but you can’t, you won’t, you don’t. And you don’t know if you will ever have a chance again.
Because I’ve worked at home for years now, the mandate to stay home and work from home is, I imagine, a little easier for someone like me. I’m also a loner and an introvert (except when it comes to strangers), which helps too.
Even so, there are times when I feel spooked — not scared but spooked. I wish Jesse were here to get under the covers with.
Making things worse, the wind has been howling all day and night like an overdone sound effect in a horror movie — one that goes on for 10 or 12 hours, not two. I turn on WQXR to drown it out — all three Bose radios tuned to the same station but in different rooms: one in the kitchen, one in my office, one in the bedroom. My entire apartment is filled with beautiful noise. Oliver used to love to do this at night — turn on all the radios at once — hearing Bach was his favorite — and just soak up the music, as if in a bath at the perfect temperature — 110 degrees.
It was nice to see his face, and that smile, even with eight stories between us. I wished I could tell him to come up.
Tonight, as I pace and worry, I am stopped in my tracks by a Clara Schumann composition: “Three Romances, Opus 11,” it’s called, I later find out. I hadn’t known it. I stand somewhere in the middle among all the radios, eyes closed. The stark piano music acts like a ghostbuster, ridding my apartment of all howling spooks.
I look out the window: there’s just emptiness — nothingness. I almost expect to see tumbleweeds blowing down 8th Avenue.
Clara Schumann’s music swells.
“I’ve got a present for you,” Jesse texts me out of the blue in mid-April. “Okay if I drop it off? I’m not far.”
“Aww really? Yeah for sure.”
I scrambled and found something small but perfect from my apartment as a gift in return. I left it for him at the front desk.
Jesse called as he was approaching the building. I could see him from a block away in his Carhartt jacket and cap. I opened my window and he stood on the sidewalk below, his mask pulled down, and we talked for a bit. Without traffic, the acoustics were perfect. It was nice to see his face, and that smile, even with eight stories between us. I wished I could tell him to come up. I’d give him a haircut. His hair was longer than I’d ever seen it.
“I know, I know,” he said, boyishly rubbing a hand through it.
It sure was a sweet moment in the midst of all this. I blew a kiss when I said goodbye. I closed the window, put on my gloves, and dashed down the stairs to pick up my present.
Two or three summers ago, I was on 14th Street near 5th Avenue when I spotted a striking young woman wearing a long, high-collared dress. She had close-set eyes and pulled-back hair. I think she was a Jehovah’s Witness.
“Instead of taking a picture of me, why don’t you accept Jesus in your heart?” she said after I’d asked permission to take her photo.
I put down my camera.
“Maybe I already have,” I replied with an easygoing smile, “maybe I already have accepted him in my heart.”
She looked like she did not know what to say back to that.
“Is Jesus love?” I asked her.
“Well, there you are.”