Currents of Affective Sparks

On intimacy and isolation

Currents of Affective Sparks

Illustration by Lucia Gaia

Caroline and I have known each other since we were kids, really. Both products of an antiquated American institution in crisis, we cut our teeth on adolescent trauma and the perils of its neglect, bound together by failures in adult oversight and the WASP-y frigidity it often masquerades as. On paper, we don’t have much in common anymore, but for relationships that stand the test of time, what can be pointed to or explained often bears little meaning. More accurately, bonds cast in the crucible of adolescence — those engendered as childhood transitions into a nascent if not turbulent maturity — are not composed of convenient lists.

Many of us have these friends, and while we may not articulate our bonds to them as such, more often than not, we find no need to articulate anything at all.

Under these terms, Caroline has drifted in and out of my life over the last number of years. Through social media and mutual friends, we’ve loosely kept up to date on each other, always careful to leave just enough unsaid that the next meeting is anticipated with sincere intrigue. As close friends are wont to do, we’ve flirted with flirting itself, and then done a little more. Once or twice we’ve committed the details of late nights to the annals of a shared history, mutually and graciously understood, but ours alone to share, and never referenced out of turn. Not for lack of consideration, we’ve never pursued anything more formal; no matter how close they might get, our respective paths have never quite overlapped.

Having spent much of her mandated isolation sequestered away with her parents in Florida, it was only last minute that I got the news she was returning to New York. We had been chatting casually, exchanging book and television recommendations, complaining blithely about the difficulties of being alone, with or without other people. All geographically indeterminate, mostly non-specific. Only when Caroline asked if I was in New York did I think to ask when she would be back, our answers painfully fortuitous – she would be back that Friday night, the day before I returned to London.

This was not the first time that we had only just caught each other; as two people in and out of the city frequently, we’d gotten used to last minute lunches and near misses. But there was a particular gravity to this instance, a pull that tugged at something much deeper than just my desire to share a bottle of wine. It is tempting to refer to it as a soulful yearning, but I reject the triteness of that sentiment and the requisite ineffability of that feeling. I, like everyone else, had been in isolation for the three months prior, and despite my semi-regular social ventures to Hudson River Park for overpriced rosé, I missed intimacy and its bedmate, vulnerability.

In the thrall of our socially distant new normal, I missed allowing, if only for a moment, my personhood to stand unguarded in the 6’1” frame I have never quite grown into; the feeling that my body was more than just a means to lower myself into the city’s public grassy patches, a safe six feet away from my neighbor. I missed knowing that I was more than just a walking, talking, rather foul-mouthed Tickle-Me Elmo, capable of finding safety in someone else’s company without hurriedly decreeing that I “really ought to change my mask” when my bag of tricks had emptied. And in truth, I was scared by the possibility that I had lost those things – that after months of relative solitude, I was good only for feigned intrigue and half hearted wit, the makeshift armor of self-sufficiency since ossified. With my and Caroline’s shared past, these feelings of course intersected with physical companionship’s more sensuous articulations, but they could never be one and the same; sex alone is a poor substitute for feeling valued.

So I told Caroline to give me a shout when she got home, and that we could play it by ear.

Wary of New York’s curfew, I expected plans to fizzle, but despite only minutes to spare, she hailed a yellow cab with ease and met me downtown within the hour. When I opened the door, I sensed that she too had felt this charge. She hugged me tightly, drawing the bridge of my nose into her shoulder, her hand moving to the back of my head. It was the gesture of she who needed to know her interiority could be made manifest; that happiness, gratitude, and equanimity could be physically affirmed, and exist as more than vacuous emojis on our screens. I reciprocated, pulling her tighter.

Our conversation quickly assumed its regular languid tone; we moved briskly through whatever developments had transpired over the last few months, interspersing the banal with gentle swipes and low grade gossip. Opening up a bottle of red wine, I began to make dinner, pasta water boiling, steak sizzling in cast iron. For a moment, helming the stove while Caroline spoke to my back in the quiet comfort that my attention was — and could only be — hers, I could forget that this was not all simply by design, the product of a stultifying pandemic.

Affection takes many forms, but I’m convinced that hefty chunks of butter remain one of its most powerful. Eating together, intimacy flooded back, vertiginous in its force. The ego-bending paradox of the COVID crisis had been reconciled: I was not forced to choose between “living” in the medical sense and “living” in an experiential one, and in that moment, I wanted to be no other place than in my kitchen. We had begun to inch closer to one another, using casual chair-shuffling as pretense. A knife falls, a hand touched; a glass poured, a knowing smile given.

Dishes in the sink, we settled on the couch to watch a movie, but we only got as far as the Netflix menu before agreeing that even scrolling was merely performative. However, we gave the film a chivalrous fifteen minutes, after which we scaled the stairs to my bedroom, thrilled by our own transgressions in the face of contagion. For the first time in far too long, my voice resumed its natural, relaxed tenor, the sound of my a’s drawn slowly out of my laconic telephone tone. The siege ended, I could assume a measure of comfort, the fear of acknowledging loneliness and isolation now moot as I stood with my forearms on Caroline’s shoulders, her hands resting on the curvature of my back. Infection for a moment robbed of its morbid valances, we smiled in hope of the expression catching on.

Despite our history of notably brief involvements, Caroline and I edged together towards the steep precipice of emotional investment, and promptly threw ourselves off with abandon. So devoid of tenderness had the preceding months of lockdown been that, when given the opportunity, we dove head first into reckless passion, with little mind towards how we might later have to extricate ourselves. When we slept, we slept soundly, our limbs interlaced, faces close, ever-eager to draw the other towards ourselves in affirmation of their presence – a stable dock to moor to, recalcitrant against our impending separation.

Waking up on Saturday morning, unburdened by the awkward tension often part and parcel of “the morning after”, we took things slow. I made breakfast while Caroline turned on the news, slowly traipsing around the kitchen in a pre-coffee haze. We watched a fun – if not generic – thriller, and while I’d love to tell you how it ended, I fell asleep three quarters of the way through, Caroline already snoring softly in my arms.

It being one of the now commonplace lockdown Saturdays when we both found ourselves freed from the binds of work and met with a real inability to do anything other than simply walk, we ran pre-departure errands together – CVS, the UPS store, the parking garage.

When Caroline asked if I minded her staying, I doubled-down in my appreciation; thank you, please stay longer.

As we walked we would occasionally stop to hug or kiss – a swift reminder that the other was still there, that the cruel parting moment had yet to arrive. It too conveyed a small melancholy – a gesture to enliven the present, given definition by the looming temporal division of “before” and “after”. It seemed unthinkable that just as we had been granted a reprieve from COVID detachment it could be snatched from us, but then again the entire COVID paradigm itself had once been unthinkable.

I spent the last hour of my time in New York asleep next to Caroline, the alarm she had set with me already snoozing alerting us that it was time to call our respective cabs. She left minutes before I did, kissing me goodbye before sitting into the back of her Uber Uptown. Arriving at JFK a bleary-eyed mess, I texted her from the gate: thank you for a great night, thank you for a great day, thank you for making me feel like a person again.

Once back at my apartment in London, the reality of isolation set in once more; the relief Caroline had offered had been chimerical, and again alone, I settled into separation.

Weeks later, I continue to try to make sense of this – personally; socially. Under the impression that a near-universal reckoning with intimacy was afoot, I began to read the extant literature, with the intention of finding some insight. Laurence Scott has already written fluently about a decline in intimacy with regard to more platonic circumstances, but that work doesn’t quite get to the questions that plague me. I want to know how we’re going to hug after this, and how we’re going to kiss – and how we’re going to fuck, and make love, and sense connection and feel devotion.

Never before this crisis had I so definitively been denied intimacy, and once granted the opportunity, the occasion produced a kind of overflow. Whatever that time with Caroline may signal (a need to seriously reconsider romantic commitment? A gentle personal chastisement for having been so frivolous with my own emotions?), it evades serious consideration as it becomes muddied in my own memory by the ecstasy of that first touch with her.

I’m left to balance two contradictory sentiments that must at once be true. On one hand, I’m drawn to celebrating – and seeking out – devotion and commitment; in the most basic of terms, this seems the most natural remedy to the loneliness that felt so burdensome over the last three months. The logic is very simple: once committed to another person, the likelihood of being left alone physically, or more concerningly, emotionally, is drastically lessened. Expressing human connection in exclusively functional terms is rather crass, but acknowledging the coarseness of such articulation almost makes it doubly appealing – experiencing connection, commitment, and love is a transcendent experience, in the face of which normal reason pales. But when the utilitarian reasoning subtending the behavior holds up, how could you ever say no?

But this thinking is far from unassailable. Firstly, it's founded on a personal logic that pursuing commitment and affection more broadly are (largely) personal choices. I believe there are many “right” people in the world, and that a primary factor in finding oneself in a long term relationship is actively seeking it out. But even while indulging in such thinking – which may or may not be correct – I could never have control over the most foundational elements of partnership: what if I don’t meet anyone I like? What if the person I like doesn’t want what I do, rendering my own plans inconsequential?

Maybe wholeheartedly boarding the commitment train in a response to COVID is less of an exercise in selective intimacy and instead the false assertion of self-determination – a product of the foolhardy belief that one can simply will lasting companionship into being. Expressed bluntly, it seems ridiculous to suggest that even matters of the heart are predicated less on connection and more on brutish volition.

This then leads me to an entirely different outlook: in response to a complete lack of intimacy, and the newfound knowledge that it can be capriciously (or unexpectedly) ripped away, I ought to strive for a kind of benign hedonism, taking affection and intimacy – however fleeting – wherever I can find them. There even seems to be some epidemiological precedent here — as Thucydides writes in his History of the Peloponnesian War, Athenians dogged by plague sought out only “the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure.” Unlike the former line of reasoning, this isn’t founded in maudlin sentiment, but rather in the simple pleasure of fucking, which as an independent adult, I feel entirely entitled to.

The loneliness was hard, sure, but I weathered it. In fact, in some ways, it allowed for personal growth. But the personal growth from a total lack of sex isn’t exactly clear. While I understand it that some of particular religious persuasions see things differently, I was brought no closer to God. Instead, I was mostly a little grumpy. So maybe it’s time to live it up! There is much to be said for commitment in the long term, but for the time being, knowing just how unpleasant a total lack of sex is, why should I not focus on doing that, or simply doing “it”, as frequently and with as many partners as I so choose?

But trying this on for size, it doesn’t feel quite right either. After all, it most certainly was not base bodily gratification that made my time with Caroline so moving. In hindsight, that all felt kind of like a sideshow – like it still would have been an important experience without any physicality, and the additional layer of pleasure, while certainly nice, garners little more than a figurative “neato”. Frankly, positing this as a potential option seems to ultimately be consigning myself to the pursuit of that initial moment with Caroline over and over, while knowing in my heart that’s impossible, entirely reliant on a misidentification of the current that begot that affective spark.

Talking to peers, I’ve found ambassadors for both polarities. Some have told me that lockdown (rather ill-advisedly) has been their most engaging sexual period in years. Propelled by the anxiety of lack and the thrill of defiance, they beelined to the nearest willing partner. Others have admitted that they’ve reconsidered getting back with ex’s, simply because, for whatever problems their relationship previously had, they could rest assured that they were in some way understood. Occasionally, and often humorously, some detail a crossing of wires: they’ll indulge otherwise fruitless conversations in hope of future sex, or simply to allay boredom, only to find their chatmate utterly devoted, and vice versa.

Since returning to London, I’ve spoken to Caroline often; there are of course new books and TV shows to discuss, and more idle talk to bandy about. And while not as jolting, the spark still remains – like a light filament, I like to think it is that which lights up our screens when we receive each other's texts, or powers the bubbling tune of incoming FaceTime calls. We have, per usual, decided to go our separate ways, but having informed her about this piece, it seems I’ve only extended the rope that binds us, and at which she tugs.

Jacob Barnes

is a writer and editor born in New York, raised in Dublin, Ireland, and currently living in London. After working in the film industry, he decided to start Soft Punk with Charlie in the summer of 2019. Since then, Jacob has worked as a writer, editor, publisher, and curator for numerous publications and organizations spanning the United States and Europe.

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