I Give Great Zoom

By Jennie Roberson

May 21, 2020

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The last time I hugged someone was after saying I didn’t feel enough of a spark to continue with her romantically.

Two days later, I started to shelter in place. That was on March 10th.

I don’t say that to depress anyone. It’s just the God’s honest truth. And a rather ironic one for someone who hadn’t really felt like dating for a while. But the opportunity was a rare one— Sheila was a gorgeous artist who I clicked with over some excellent whiskey after a fundraiser. So after a few hours of being a shy bi, I decided to go for it and just ask her out.

Sheila said yes. And she’s an exceptionally lovely person. But she wasn’t for me.

Maybe this pandemic couldn’t have been predicted (or at least, oh, I don’t know, contained more with intervention months earlier), but I don’t think anyone could have guessed what this global trauma would do to everyone’s psyche. Unless you’re an epidemiologist/psychiatrist. (If that’s the case: call me.) What has surprised me the most is the deep desire for people to keep (virtually) dating during this crisis.

And my bi dating life has never been more active.

But the more we look at the psychology behind it, the more this phenomenon makes sense. The apocalyptic hornies are very, very real. Between the heady mix of the fear of death, containment, and a lack of typical ways to let off steam, it makes an awful lot of sense why our digital dance cards are suddenly full. It brings to mind the running gag about relationships borne from intense experiences at the end of Speed. (I’d say SPOILERS, but the movie is almost 30 years old. Also why have you not seen it yet? It’s Die Hard on a bus.)

But the immortal Keanu Reeves has a point. We all need an outlet right now, and you can’t catch COVID from a teleconference call. So hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to Zoom we go.

And boy howdy, is it liberating.

And why wouldn’t it be? This form of communication used to be the hallowed land of the corporate world. But just like when Facebook opened up to non-college students, there’s a bottlenecking of video conferencing apps so we get the chance to see another face. Maybe we’re not meeting at a bar, but as long as I got the right supplies on my bi-monthly grocery run, I can fix my favorite cocktail and have a bar at home— and there’s definitely an appeal to that.

A friend of mine remarked she thought dating at this point in history was a wildly optimistic act. I want to “yes and” her point, like a good little improvisation player. Virtual dating right now is optimistic, but it’s also an act of rebellion— a refusal to shut down all forms of daily life because a pathogen forced the planet into a holding pattern. There’s something beautiful about that— something courageous. Life finds a way, rage, rage against the dying of the light, and all that stuff.

There are two sides to this corona coin, though, when it comes to bi dating. On the one hand, it lends courage to try things out I am normally too shy to give a go. I like to joke about perfecting my quarantine thirst traps, but the truth is, I’ve only taken two pictures of myself in my life without my shirt on (due to residual fears about revenge porn and repercussions for my public careers as an actress and a writer).

One photo I sent to a straight ex-boyfriend nearly a decade ago. The other shot went to a new bisexual partner, Jason, back in December. (Remember December? The one that feels like five years ago? In the “before?”) The first shot was headless, but the second one I trusted Jason enough to keep my face in it because I know he’s not the type of person to do anything illicit with the image. (Also I have a running theory that corporations in the not-too-distant-future won’t find lewd photos a fire-able offense because we all went through this together and, well, people have needs.)

Why do I bring this up? Because the shelter-in-place orders gave me enough courage to try a follow-up with Jason. International Horny Day rolled around last month, and I decided to use the occasion to state (as a matter of record) that if we both survived this epidemic and he was anywhere in the same ZIP code again, I would be happy to bang him senseless.

Thank God he said yes, or I would have probably lost my nerve for the rest of the quarantine. Now I really do need to work on my thirst traps to send him. (Maybe I’ll get so good at them they get re-categorized as an essential service.)

But the other side to the queer-antine dating coin is it gives some people the courage to come at you— in gross and unsolicited ways. Recently I got approached by an old work acquaintance, Tyler, who used my late-night live-tweeting about Tiger King to explain he had had a crush on me when we worked together, had made moves to make sure we spent time together during the production.

Then the unwelcome solicitations started flowing.

Luckily I can summon courage at a distance when I’m not hearing or speaking to the person in real-time, so I set down hard boundaries that I did not want Tyler to speak to me that way. I just wanted to be friends.

He said okay. Then immediately blocked me on all social media. Sometimes the worms find their way back into the woodworks— hopefully, to stay.

Living alone during all of this has its ups and downs. (Disclaimer: I’m not whining that I have it worse than anyone else sheltering with their family, loved ones, or roommates. Those set-ups come with their own trappings and I honor the stresses they bring.) The truth of the matter is, I’m used to being on my own for very long stretches of time. My auditions are more often on self-tape than in person. Most of my production work happens in one season of the year, and the rest of the year I’m at home.

Plus, I’m a writer. In many ways, artists are used to being solitary creatures.

All that’s missing from that picture is my cat.

That said, I’m not made of stone. Did I mention I haven’t been hugged since March? A woman can only take so much. (And only so much self-love— my poor vibrator started sputtering and smoking back in April.)

So because of this pandemic, I’ve been challenging myself to expand my dating horizons— trying new distances, new age brackets, and even new ventures.

It turns out my acting training gave me a leg up with teleconferencing, which has helped out with dating events. I don’t wanna brag, but a good actress knows how to find her light. And framing. And hair/makeup for camera purposes.

Basically, I give great Zoom.

bigstock/Dean Drobot

This situation has also been strangely helpful with my body image issues. Sometimes I feel like I get automatically dismissed in dating circles because, as a fat woman, I don’t fit a certain body type or aesthetic. But when someone is just seeing me from the chest up, that seems to change a lot of tunes. Ironic, considering that caring about what I look like has become nonexistent when I’m not in front of my computer’s camera.

That’s what led me to accept a date with Jonathan after chatting at a virtual happy hour. He was cute, ten years younger (that’s steep for me)— and lives about fifty miles away. But hey— pandemic brain does things to our rationalizing capabilities.

“I’m up in L.A. all the time,” he cooed, and I found myself surprised to be responding to this siren song. With the lockdown order, we could be six feet away from each other in forty-five minutes, door to door.

Unfortunately, Jonathan was sweet but we just weren’t clicking, even over a teleconference date. Maybe chemistry doesn’t travel well over fiber optics. Maybe it was because his conversation bored me to tears but I couldn’t react because he could see me.

Maybe it was the fact he started mansplaining to me how my recent career advancement was a bad one.

Wait. Yeah, that’s what it was. Lemme tell ya: clicking “Leave Meeting” felt like the relief equivalent of getting a great hit of heroin.

Then there was Bruce. A silver fox acquaintance of old, I decided to check up on him after I put the pieces together from a conversation in a discussion forum he had recently gotten divorced. We started hitting it off— almost to scary effect. It was lovely to just share about art, work, and our deepest thoughts and hopes as if we were in the same room. He was wonderfully accepting of my bisexuality, as well as my work. Yet I haven’t seen Bruce in person in five years. So it came as a surprise to both of us that chemistry came crackling down the digital lines— on both ends.

But then I double-checked our correspondence and saw he is not actually divorced, but separated. I know from painful previous experiences that this is a hard boundary for me. So Bruce was a no.

Dates, it seemed, were starting to bore me the same way most people are tired of pictures of sourdough starters. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but it wasn’t this.

I guess that’s what pushed me to try going to my first ever online play party.

I wasn’t planning on reporting about that section of this journey whatsoever. But, as it turns out, I’m not the only one who has been curious during these “uncertain times,” as all the commercials like to say now.

I know I am late to the party (literally) for my age bracket. As a member of the elder Millennial set, I’ve known these spaces existed for a while. But I cannot stress enough how much of a stretch this type of thing is for me. I’m a chronic romantic. I’ve been on a default setting of searching for a new relationship for years at this point. So even the fleeting thought of exploring anything like this environment usually got dismissed as something that was good for others, but not for me. (Please note I’m fully aware these forms of exploration and relationships are not mutually exclusive. My thought process was a residue from some binary thinking I had cultivated when I was younger.) Even if I had wanted to go to a sex dungeon or a play party, the only one I’d gotten brave enough to look at had Facebook events where my acceptance of the invitation would be public— and I didn’t want my entire friends list to know I was attending.

But when I came across a highly recommended club that offered virtual play parties that was explicitly queer-friendly, my courage outstripped my hesitancy. Like I said, I live alone, so no one could walk in on me. If I got approached online by a creeper, I could immediately report them to the host if I needed back-up in shutting them down with a few keystrokes. If I didn’t like what I saw or experienced, the “exit” button was right there. So I decided to give it a go.

I won’t say who was there, or what transpired. That would be a direct violation of confidentiality and privacy for people involved. But what I can say is I felt and explored a new sense of freedom I didn’t inhabit in a pre-COVID world. My reticence to flirt with other women shed, and I became unabashed in my queer expressions. I came out of my shy bi shell in ways I’ve only dreamt about. And because I could completely control my experience and how I interacted with everyone, my soul swooned, dizzy and heady with finally getting to find a full expression that had been denied by my own fears.

I emerged from the party experiencing a breakthrough, a sea of change within myself. My chronic desire for a relationship, I realized, was steeped in fear of being alone and retreating to a binary, heteronormative idea of acceptable happiness. Relationships are great. But there is an intangible zest to embracing my queer, single-as-a-Pringle self, and the liberation that gets ushered in with that mindset.

So I’m still open to dating. Even during this pandemic. But because I was able to virtually dip my toe into a space I’d only dared to think of, now I can explore a facet of my sexuality I’d left to go fallow. And for that, I am grateful.

I can’t wrap up this article with a tidy ending, because we’re not out of the woods yet. I didn’t find one person to resolve this story with a happy ending. Pandemics are messy. Exploration is thorny. But the revelations and growth I’ve found by breaking out of the hermetic seal of my own inhibitions leads me to think there is only more to come.

But I do realize it sounds like I left Sheila with a sad ending. I didn’t. We’re still friends. And not just a social media acquaintance left to wither in the reactions of my Facebook posts. I saw her on a Zoom hangout I hosted just a few weeks ago. And I’ll see her tomorrow, too. She’s changed her hair color, and I have too (#lesalonpandemique). She’s seeing someone else now, and I’m ecstatic for her and her newfound joy.

Maybe the two of us didn’t have that spark, but there’s still a connection. That’s something this pathogen can’t put asunder.

*** All names have been changed to protect privacy.

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