In Pandemic Times, I’m Having a Digital Victorian Gay Romance

In the summer of 2019, my girlfriend Plum came over to stay for a weekend and borrowed my copy of Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue. I had devoured it the previous week, and she powered through it on the couch in an afternoon while I sat next to her and binged through half a season of Great British Bake Off and entertained myself with her occasional reactions.

“This is so cute,” she said, halfway into the novel’s romance. “They’re signing their emails with famous love letter quotes.”

“Adorable,” I agreed, and she went back to the book.

If I had known then that we’d be spending most of 2020 in an unexpectedly long-distance relationship, I might have taken better notes.

Plum and I met on Tumblr in 2017 and started out as friends, bonding over fandom, queer poetry, and being absolute dweebs about social policy and literary analysis (truly, the coolest kids you’ll ever meet). We started dating in 2018 after she moved to New York for graduate school, and while she returned to Toronto during winter and summer breaks, we always knew about when she’d be back, and could plan a reunion.

Since the onset of COVID-19, it’s been an entirely different story. In early March, as cases and deaths were beginning to escalate in New York, Plum preemptively went home to be with her parents, anticipating—at the time—that she’d be back before too long. No problem, we decided. This is what WhatsApp and video calls are for, and she’d be back in a month or two. Easy! We do that all summer! We made a Skype date for virtual brunch, I made a note to send over extra pictures of the dogs, and we weren’t too worried. Things would be back to normal soon.

Oh, sweet summer children.

It was clear by May that she wouldn’t be back in the country before the start of the new semester, if her school returned to in-person classes at all. By the middle of the summer, it seemed like January would be the earliest chance she’d have to come back. As of this writing in October, we’ve still got our fingers crossed for January, but with flu season looming and the state of US politics being the state of US politics, we’re not optimistic.

Which, honestly? Sucks.

But we’re two empowered queers of the twenty-first century, so we adapted. Plum and I have always had a shared love of reading—one of our first dates was at The Strand bookstore in Manhattan—across genres from literary classics to fanfiction, but both of us have a shared place in our hearts for poetry. After a following spree of queer poets and the #queerpoetry tag on Instagram, I started sending poems that reminded me of Plum in our DMs and WhatsApp chats, from Andrea Gibson excerpts to screenshots from Chen Chen and Jericho Brown tweets to ramblings about my own scribbled-on copies of Mary Oliver and Pablo Neruda.

In response, Plum began sending pen-and-paper letters. They took their time to arrive, but the envelopes that showed up in my mailbox were covered in watercolor and washi tape, lovingly decorated. I have lines of poetry in Plum’s handwriting tattooed on my arm, but something about seeing a piece of paper that she wrote with her own hands made me tear up. The letter she sent was just household stories—here’s what I did this week, here’s something I saw that made me laugh, here’s something that made me think of you. Not to be outdone, I sent back a response (in a very boring envelope, unfortunately; she’s the artist between the two of us), and, in the spirit of the boys in Red, White and Royal Blue, signed off with a quote from one of Vita Sackville-West’s love letters to Virginia Woolf: “I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal.”

Something about exchanging letters—we’ve kept it up throughout the summer and into the fall—feels sweeter, more romantic, than sharing digital poems and sleepy selfies. We joke a lot, in queer spaces, that yearning is sapphic culture: because we’re all disasters who can’t tell flirting from friendliness, because we’re all romancing each other over the internet and ending up pining from afar, because Sappho herself got us started with “Sweet mother, I cannot weave – /slender Aphrodite has overcome me/with longing for a girl.” Plum and I had a virtual date to watch Pride and Prejudice (2005) and joked about Lizzie and Darcy being the only valid heterosexuals because they were having a queer romance, full of yearning, significant hand touches (oh my god there were significant hand touches) and horribly awkward flirting, but really, there’s got to be some reason why queers love that movie so much.

In the past months of distance, I’ve fallen in love with her all over again. From her handwriting to her delight in my horrible selfies to her vicious sense of humor to her immense capacity for resilience and compassion, the letters and Austen watch-alongs and poetry exchanges have reminded me more and more of all the reasons we got together in the first place. We’re still counting down the days until the Canadian border reopens for casual travel, but in the meantime, I put another letter in the mail this week, signed, this time, with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt to her lover Lorena Hickock:

“Funny was that I couldn’t say je t’aime and je t’adore as I longed to do, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.”

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Shelly Jay Shore (she/they) is a writer and nonprofit fundraiser in New York/Colonized Lenapehoking. Her creative fiction and nonfiction celebrates diverse characters and perspectives, and her activism centers on expanding civic engagement and social justice. In her limited free time, Shelly reads a truly alarming number of books, experiments with home bartending, wrestles with her dogs, and attempts to raise a functioning human being who will only need the normal amount of therapy. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Shelly has written 5 articles for us.

10 Comments

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  2. My husband and I were long distance for several years before we got married – and this was back when long-distance calls cost extra. (#OlderStraddlers represent! We had to phone uphill BOTH WAYS, THROUGH THE SNOW.) So we wrote letters constantly. We still have them. We still refer to in-jokes that got started in them. Here’s hoping in fifty years you and Plum are settled on the couch reading your old letters together and smiling. Good health to you both, may your reunion come sooner than you fear.

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