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27 May 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 10:46am

All the ways I knew how to flirt have disappeared overnight during lockdown

Faced with a new crush, I’ve reverted to the actions of my adolescence – letter-writing and mixtapes.

By Megan Nolan

A few weeks into lockdown, a friend of mine commented that the whole thing had the feeling of an interminable and dull teenage summer holiday. “I don’t know what kind of summer holidays you had,” I replied, “because mine were nothing like this.” I was thinking about my later teen years, when there were drugs and parties and gigs and sex. There were all the fun things about adulthood, and none of the responsibilities. Few periods in my life have felt as idyllically glamorous as that one did. 

Driven half mad by the now two months I’ve spent pottering listlessly around my mother’s house, this week I began to read over old adolescent diaries, and I saw that my friend was right after all. My earlier teenage years – before I became attractive in any commonly agreed upon sense, before I learned how to present myself, to dress, to chat, that is to say most of what came before I turned 16 – did indeed have the same damp impotent energy that most days do now. 

I had no social or romantic life to speak of yet, which were the only things that interested me or made me feel anything deeply; so all my journals are filled with demented, repetitive meditations on innocuous encounters. Thirty or 40 pages are dedicated to the sighting of a busker I fancied. A dozen more follow, all about the kind of shirt another crush of mine wore – what it was made of, what I imagined it might smell like, how it would feel against my face. If a boy I liked actually spoke to me, or presented even the vaguest of possibilities that he might feel positively towards me, it warranted months of detailed scrutiny, analysing text messages. Did his sloppy spelling and heedless grammar mark a carelessness intended in my direction? Or did it instead imply a comfortable relaxation, proof that he could really be himself? Ah! 

Very little except my age and glaring innocence stops these ramblings from reading as borderline prosecutable, but there’s something sweet about them as well. They pre-date my first kiss. It was before I had any concrete way to know that the things I wanted would ever come to pass. All lonely, awkward kids have a part of them that truly believes they will be the rare exception, the one out of everyone who will never be touched, will die a virgin. So what other choice did I have, in order to exhaust those feelings? There was nothing else for it but to practise the rituals of description, to maintain devotions such as these. 

I have retained a remnant of this kind of behaviour in adulthood: a bizarrely strong compulsion to draw the faces of people I am falling in love with, or have overpowering crushes on. When I am in the almost intolerable but also deeply pleasurable thick of it – the bit before I really know someone and my body is hot and prickly from all the endless questions I am trying to restrain myself from asking – I find this the one guaranteed method of relief. Spending hours not just thinking about the person, but doing something about them too, is a productive release – even if it’s solely for your own pleasure. I’m a terrible visual artist, and I would never show the results to anyone. That’s partly where the comfort comes from: knowing I’ll die without anyone having seen these strange, creepy iterations of desire. 

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I recall how rosary beads and novenas made me feel calm and comforted for years, decades, after I stopped believing in any kind of Catholicism; how my compulsive teenage descriptions acted in some ways like prayer too, circling around the great truth of my boundless affection, validating it and keeping it safe. And I’m thinking about what it is to care for someone, now, when our strange present circumstances forbid being physically together. What do devotions such as this mean during lockdown? 

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All the ways I knew how to flirt disappeared overnight. Faced with a new crush, I’ve reverted to the unbearably earnest actions of my youth. It is impossible to play it cool during lockdown, I’ve come to accept. Instead, there have been letters. There have been playlists, packages, poetry. The playlists are as painstakingly selected as the analogue mixtapes of 15 years ago, and as capable of inciting wild affection. They have the added benefit at this moment of my boredom – in my normal, hyperactive life, it would be impossible to get me sitting down and listening to 90 minutes of music I hadn’t heard before, but now that’s a big Friday night. Favourite poems get copied out by hand. The sketchbook has come out again. Care packages arrive and are sent off, torn open with childish glee as I stand in the porch. It feels briefly incredible to have this bulky physical thing in my hands, when there is so much that I can’t hold. 

When I left adolescence I quickly forgot my fear that I would go through life alone, unloved and unlovely. I learned to take for granted my ability to connect with people. I did not want to remember the sad, strange girl who came before – who was full of love and of tentative hope as well as all the fear and superstition. I’m back in it now, and I can remember her perfectly. Logically, I know this time will end, but still it has the feeling of indefinite suspension, that same kind of stagnant endless Sunday afternoon. 

The height of excitement for me now is the moment my crush and I light a cigarette at the same time, or press play on a film at an ordained minute. And when we talk about the what ifs: what we would be doing, what we will be doing. It’s the small things that make me sink into myself with pleasure. Banal, asexual things, things I don’t think I’ve really valued since those teenage years, before I had access to them. He talks for a minute about us holding hands on a walk and I flush, feeling as daft as I did all that time ago, before I’d ever held a hand in my life and wrote page after page on how I thought it would go, what I imagined it might feel like. 

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This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak