I realised my playlist had finished and I had yet to start a new one. Had I been quicker, I might have missed the ring of a bell, indicating a new message. I frowned, it wasn’t from social media. Cycling tabs on my computer showed me it had come from the company instant messaging system...but who was working at 2AM?
Aside from me that is, but I’m strange. Listening to music and talking to friends on Instant Messaging programs in the early morning was the story of my teenage years. As school turned into sixth form, and then university, it became more work and less socialising, until a 9-5 office job put a stop to the whole thing. When lockdown hit going into summer I found myself working remotely, quickly falling into this familiar pattern; awake at unseemly hours, typing away in the glow of a warm, soft, lamp, with nothing but the breeze from the open window and music through my headphones to keep me company. And I loved it.
I opened the message and took in a sharp, involuntary breath. It was from Cerys Jones, a writer in marketing. Our teams often talked on IM, it was their job to sell what we designed, and occasionally they needed to fact-check their claims. Cerys was always spot-on. She has these beautiful flowing descriptions that make me actually believe in the products we design. I would say she is the best writer there. I may be biased; I do have a thing for her...
I asked her out just before we went into lockdown, or at least I tried. I couldn’t just ask her, so I left an invitation to dinner on her desk; a pretty card that I hoped would be cute enough to swing the deal. That was nearly a week ago, and she’d never accepted.
I opened up her message.
“Hey! I saw you online and just had a quick question about the wing struts, what metal are they made of?”
I answered her, a functional, boring explanation of metal alloys. With some hesitation I added, “Working late?”
A few dots appeared and started a Mexican wave in the corner of the chat screen. I flicked tabs to load up another playlist but the reply came first. I went back to her message and my eyes opened wide – she could type very quickly.
“Thank you! So we can say that they save weight. As for the time, I couldn’t sleep. More accurately, I couldn’t sleep last night, and then I woke quite late this morning. Actually it was the afternoon. I didn’t realise how late it was until just now when you mentioned it. Why are you up so late?”
Me? That was a tricky one. How do you explain that at night when the world sleeps, it seems smaller, safer and easier to navigate? That you prefer to converse from behind your computer screen where you can carefully consider every word you write before sending it. That you were online at strange hours even before the lockdown, a pattern that continually cropped up in your life? How do you say that to a girl you are interested in without scaring her off?
I didn’t explain it. “Yeah, I think I’m on a strange sleep schedule too.”
Barely a few seconds went by before she replied, “I’m sure we’re not the only ones! Sorry for bugging you about work. I was sick (not Covid-19, I had food poisoning or something) for a couple days before we locked down, so I didn’t get a chance to grab all my notes and stuff from work. I hope I won’t ask you too many questions, and I’m sorry in advance if I do!”
“You’re welcome! I’m happy to answer.” I am not an exceptionally fast writer, so by the time I had sent that a new message had already come in.
“I’m going to try and get some sleep. Talk to you soon!”
I sent a reply, but I think she was already offline by the time I sent it.
I still hadn’t chosen a new playlist, so it seemed like a good time to try and get some sleep myself. Before I dosed off, something occurred to me that snapped me back awake. I had left the invite on her desk in the last week before we closed the office. If she hadn’t been in since I put it there then maybe she hadn’t rejected me, she just didn’t know I asked?
My eyes stared at the dark ceiling, my thoughts going around in circles. Maybe I should invite her out now, before she gets another offer? Maybe she had seen it, and would reject me a second time, only more forcefully? I groaned and buried my head under my pillow. Maybe I could suffocate myself to sleep?
I had been hopeful that Cerys would come online the next evening, so I could try and find out some more details. She did not. In fact it took nearly three days before she finally came online, by which point I had gone nearly insane thinking it over, resolving to just ask her the next time I could.
I clicked open a chat with her to find she had already said “Hi!” I took a deep breath and typed.
“Hey, up late again? Need more clarification on work?” The wave of dots started almost immediately.
“I actually don’t, not today! I was able to get some stuff from work so I think I’m set for that. Still on an ungodly sleep schedule though!”
I felt myself sink into the chair. If she’d been to the office she would have definitely seen the invitation, and if she hadn’t said anything...well it was pretty clear what that meant. I started typing, “Oh, good,” debating to myself whether it sounded like I was happy she didn’t need my help. Another message came in, cutting short the internal debate.
“I will need something sooner or later. I just got emailed the standard PDFs from work. My printed version, the one with all my annotations and value propositions is still at work. Words cannot describe how lacking these PDFs are. It’s nothing less than a miracle that they ever sold anything!”
My jaw clenched and I started typing something. I wanted to know if she’d seen my invite or not. I deleted it. Then I retyped it, and then stopped. Leaning back in my chair I took my headphones off and went to the window, forcing a breath of fresh air into my lungs. I had promised to ask her.
“You were typing something?” her message read. Damn those little dots for giving me away.
I took a deep breath, and hit send. “I left an invite on your desk but I don’t know if you saw it and turned me down or if you hadn’t seen it yet. I wanted to ask you out on a date.”
If I was feeling anxious before sending it, then the following moments were practically a panic attack watching those dots dancing about.
“Oh my god! I haven’t seen the invite at all, but I would definitely say yes! Bethany told me you were infatuated with me but I didn’t want to believe it. My luck with romance might be described as ‘star-crossed’. Bethany just says ‘rotten’. ”Another message followed quickly. “I hope I didn’t put you off with that last bit...”
I breathed out, a long-held breath that seemed not to end as I took everything in. She had said yes...enthusiastically yes! God, this was the best day of summer!
Now what? I took another breath, calming myself and clicked the bottom left of my computer screen to bring up the calendar. Lockdown was due to be reviewed in a week’s time, so why not first thing after that? I suggested the Tuesday evening at a nice Greek restaurant in the town centre. She agreed almost instantly and I sat there grinning to myself in the computer light.
We moved the conversation away from the work IM, and over to Social Media IM and talked for at least another hour. We must have covered every topic in a meandering, aimless conversation: Her current love of Keith Urban’s “Long Hot Summer” which seemed very appropriate, to the odd sleep pattern we shared, from our hobbies to our thoughts on working from home. I was on such a high that I didn’t even realise the time until she pointed it out. We agreed to call it for the night, but I knew I would barely sleep.
The high stayed with me for the next few days, where I occasionally caught her online. The conversation was effortless, picking up wherever we left off from the night before. It could only get better from here.
I believed that until the date that lockdown was being reviewed, when I got a text from Cerys saying: “Have you seen the news? Lockdown is being extended for another month.” I fumbled the TV on to see, desperate for it not to be the case. It was. Another text: “Ideas?”
My heart sank. It had never occurred to me this was a possibility. If we weren’t allowed to eat out in restaurants or go to people’s houses how was I supposed to take her out? I’m awkward enough in person, let alone being forced to shout at each other from 2 metres away...
I shook my head. Even that wouldn’t work; the police would just move us on if we weren’t exercising. We could go on a run together, but I can’t run. We could cook a recipe at the same time, socialising virtually but I can’t cook. My head ran at a thousand kilometres an hour, what could we both do? I tried to remember all of our online chats over the last few days when it hit me.
I winced knowing it was going to sound absurd. Slowly I thumbed out the text, re-reading it at least four times before hitting send. “I remember reading about zoom-dates. Maybe we could try that? We both order from the restaurant, and eat it together on webcam and microphone?” I waited for the inevitable text saying that we should just postpone until after lockdown, but it never came.
I stood staring at my phone, unable to move myself to do anything. Clearly she was disappointed with the suggestion. My tongue tasted blood. I frowned, and realised I had been chewing my lip while waiting. I shook my head and walked over to my computer, to my safe space. We had been doing so well.
My game library did nothing to excite me right then. I tapped my fingers and scanned over the installed titles. My phone vibrated and my head snapped round so fast I thought I could have given myself a concussion. It was a text from Cerys.
“Hey, check your IM!”
I clicked on the little messaging symbol and waited while my PC loaded up the program. A new message was waiting. It had been for nearly 10 minutes, apparently. With my breath held I opened it.
“I can’t type on a phone, so since I’m at my computer I’m switching to this. Let’s do it! It could be fun! I was reading that Greek food is traditionally a shared-meal, with a variety of small dishes and mezzes, so I was thinking we could each pick three things for ourself, and then 3 for the other person. Then we can try each other’s choices, like we would if we were really at the restaurant. What do you think?”
What did I think? I thought it was a stroke of brilliance. I hammered out my reply, eager to make up for the lost time. “Perfect! I’ll find us a Greek-music playlist to listen to at the same time.”
“I can’t wait! I have to run now, I’m doing a shopping run for my grandparents. See you tomorrow!”
I let her go, incredulous. I could barely get any work done that day, flicking between the restaurant menu and the messenger window. No new messages came, but I stayed online anyway.
Finally it was Tuesday. We had everything: Rice wrapped in vine leaves, moussaka, a tzatziki that she had picked, fava beans, and some kind of sour cherry drink. I can’t read Greek, so I have no idea how to pronounce it, but it was delicious.
There was only one problem – her microphone just wouldn’t connect. We tried walking through the troubleshooting but eventually had to concede it was a lost cause. We tried to use the phones but it constantly cut out, citing ‘reconnecting’. The webcams were working fine, and on my computer screen I could see her sitting at her desk, plates of food spread haphazardly around her desk and keyboard.
“I guess we have to type instead of talk?” I suggested. She looked a little dejected. I tried to think of any options. We had come this far, there was no way the date wasn’t going ahead now. “If you want I can stay on microphone and talk at you?” I offered, raising my eyebrows at the camera.
I saw her laugh on the video, and she shook her head. She only took a moment to type back, her long fingers a blur on the keyboard.
“No, either both of us or neither of us. Otherwise it’s just awkward. You’ll be talking and I’ll be trying to keep up with you...Let’s stick with typed words this time. Also I am famished, so let’s start?” I breathed a sigh of relief to myself. She was completely right, and I was secretly glad to be typing rather than talking. It gave me those few extra seconds to think about what I would say.
I looked at the food and settled on the vine leaves, pointing at them for her. She lifted her eyebrows, and picked them up, showing off the plate to the camera as if she were on a cooking show. I laughed, taking one of them and tasting it. It was very good. She did the same, nodding enthusiastically. She wiped her hands and began typing.
“Those are really nice, I like the herbs in them! You chose well!”
I smiled and typed back. “I’m glad you like them! What should I try from your choice?”
Cerys looked around at the plates for a moment. “Try the pita, with a spoon of the fava and a touch of tzatziki.” And then, just to illustrate, broke off a hunk of pita bread and demonstrated. She smiled at the camera and indicated for me to do the same. I was happy to oblige, and it was delicious. She grinned, clearly seeing my enjoyment on her screen. I had another piece and looked at her new message.
“Thinking about it, a meal that we eat with our hands is probably the worst choice for a typing-date!”
I had to laugh at the absurdity, but we kept going. We worked our way through all of the dishes, ending up with plenty leftover. Neither of us minded, it meant lunch was set for tomorrow. I must have relaxed a little too much because as the conversation started to wind down I said something stupid.
“Would you like to come upstairs for some coffee?” I don’t know why I said that. I don’t drink coffee, and I don’t have even so much as instant coffee at home. Also, I was already upstairs...what kind of suggestion was that?
She laughed but didn’t type anything for a moment. She started a couple of times, but erased whatever it was before sending, her face now creased in thought. For a few moments I wondered if I had said the wrong thing until I saw a cheeky smile creep onto her face as the message came in.
“While I am tempted by your offer, I don’t think that would be entirely appropriate for a first date...”
I smiled and tried to let my breath out without making it obvious. Too close. I tried to recover. “It’s been really fun. I hope the same for you?”
“Definitely!” she was fidgeting, looking around at all the plates. “I have to go clean up all this, and I have another shopping run early in the morning. It was a great date though.”
I couldn’t help but grin like an idiot at the camera, and nodded enthusiastically. She kept her eyes on the screen as I typed, waiting for the message to come through. “Shall we do this again? I don’t know how long lockdown will go on, and I don’t think I can wait until it’s over to take you on another ‘date’.”
She replied immediately. “How about on Thursday night? I’m free all week, but I know an Italian that does free delivery then...”
I agreed. She looked straight into the camera and blew me a kiss before singing off with a final message. “Talk to you tomorrow!”
I leaned back in my chair, watching the screen until her profile changed to ‘offline’. Summer was looking pretty good this year.