It was the Monday of the last week of classes before break, and the first whiff of spring was in the air at Stony Brook University. That was the night that Sean started talking to a girl. They were both political science majors, with almost exactly the same opinions on the things political science majors care about. She laughed at his jokes, even when he knew they weren’t funny. They’d both supported the same candidate in the Democratic primary. “I was like, ‘Hey, where have you been the last three years?’” he recalls.
Sean, who asked that his last name be withheld to protect his privacy and his love life, had not dated that much in college. Tall and messy-haired, he’d spent most of his time playing music, watching soccer and Star Wars, and working with the College Democrats. Now, on that Monday of his senior year, something changed. “Sometimes you just get that feeling that hey, there’s really something here,” he says. “And I had that feeling,”
He decided to ask her on a date. Maybe they could go for a movie downtown, or go to Barito for Mexican food, or Tiger Lily if she was vegan. Mostly, he just wanted to walk around with her. “Obviously I think she’s really pretty,” he says. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”
But the day after their conversation, Stony Brook announced that spring break would be extended. Then, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all SUNY and CUNY schools would start “distance learning” to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Four days later, they were both gone from campus. Sean never asked her out.
“I figured, ‘I think I’m ready for this, I think it’s time,'” Sean recalls. “The coronavirus disagreed.”
In the wake of a virus that has shuttered cities, ravaged health care systems, and left a trail of death in its wake, the small heartbreak of an unspoken crush can seem like a trivial woe. After all, both Sean and his crush are alive and apparently healthy, and besides, they can text. But in the early days of the crisis, before the scope of devastation became apparent in America’s largest cities, the disease triggered a series of quiet ruptures on college campuses across the country. Young people who thought they had all the time in the world suddenly realized they didn’t.
Aarshvi Patel, a senior at Tulane University, thought she had a few more weeks at least. She’d had feelings for a close friend for almost a year, and it was an open secret in their group of friends. “This entire time I’ve been like, ‘I have this much time with him left, it’ll be fine,’” she says. When she got the news that Tulane would cancel the rest of the spring semester and transition to online learning, “my heart just sank,” she says. “He was the first person that I thought about when we got the news.”
For other young lovebirds, the coronavirus had the opposite effect. Claire Colby and Madi McVan, both senior journalism majors at the University of Missouri, had been good friends for four years before Claire confessed her feelings for Madi at a journalism conference in early March. Madi felt the same.
Turns out, somebody at their conference had had the virus.
“We agreed to start dating on Monday, and then on Tuesday we were told by conference organizers we had been exposed to coronavirus,” says Claire.
“It’s been kind of emotionally intense, but in a good and happy way I think,” says Madi. “It is very characteristic of us to go from platonic to in an actual relationship in a span of 48 hours and to also be in a quarantine.” They’ve been spending the quarantine baking bread and watching Fleabag.
Not all the coronavirus-inspired romantic angst is welcome. Some college students are irritated by the sudden influx of lovelorn messages. Sarah Guevara, a senior at the University of Oklahoma, says she heard from three ex-boyfriends in one week. One messaged her “all melancholy” on Snapchat and another called her out of the blue while stocking up on toilet paper. (“I was in the middle of taking a nap, and honestly thought it was a different person,” she says.)
“My other ex, who I worked with on a professional level but I low-key hate his guts, started texting me: ‘Yo, you up, all this stuff on campus has me thinking,’” she adds. “I’m like, ‘I literally hate your guts. Go away.'”
Sean is still trading messages with the girl, even though they now live in different states. He hopes his graduate school plans might bring them to the same place again soon. In the meantime, the virus has made him re-evaluate his whole approach to love.
“This virus has given me a whole new sense of urgency, like maybe I shouldn’t wait so long,” he says. “It’s made me think I need to actually say things and not just sit here and wait and hope something happens.”