During the two months of lockdown last spring in Shanghai, residents were mostly confined to their homes and hallways. For a single woman like me who, at 29, lives alone and is self-employed, my entire life was reduced to me, myself and I.
Many foods became unavailable during this time; people were anxious, isolated and bored. Coke, cake and chocolate became rare luxuries. You could trade for almost anything with a can of soda, and the taste of chocolate could send you to nirvana. Bartering and group purchasing became the new normal, along with five-minute “dates” behind face masks near the PCR test booth, which was one of the few places outside of our apartments we were allowed to go.
Naturally, everyone was excited when our building finally got the chance to order burgers and Coke from a local fast-food place. However, when I asked the hundreds of members of our building’s WeChat group — hastily created during lockdown — if anyone wanted to help with the delivery, the silence lasted for 10 minutes. Then my phone lit up with a message from a man I didn’t know: “I’d be happy to help.”
After our initial chitchat about burgers, he wrote, “How do you keep yourself busy?”
“I’m learning French,” I replied.
In perfect French, he replied, “You can practice with me.”
And, voilà, it turned out he’d come from France, which actually isn’t so unusual here; our high-rise complex has many foreign residents.
When the food arrived, I had six volunteers, including myself, to help distribute the bags around the building. Everyone said a casual “hi” when they came downstairs, but there was no “hi” from him — only a half-second pause in his footsteps. As my eyes met his, a little voice in my head said something was going to happen between us.
I divided us into three groups of two and asked him to pair with my friend. Each group was responsible for seven floors. My group was the last to finish. And he was the only one who offered to help after he finished with his floors.
“Will you say something in French to me?” he said. “I want to check your pronunciation.”
“Je ne comprend pas,” I said. (“I don’t understand.”)
He laughed, then said, “Pas mal.” (“Not bad.”)
When I finally returned to my apartment, my phone lit up with a message from him: “Enchanté! You have good pronunciation, btw.”
Over the following two weeks, our relationship progressed from chatting every three days to chatting every day, and we even took a walk together with another neighbor. Lockdown really puts you back in high school, I guess.
One day, when I commented, “Oh, pretty,” after seeing the picture of a fox he had sent, he replied, “You’re pretty.”
“Technically,” I said, “you’ve only seen half of my face.”
“Haha, true. Longing for the day.”
That day arrived the next morning, when one of our neighbors had her packages stolen and wanted to check the security footage and catch the thief. However, she doesn’t speak Chinese, so I volunteered to help. We spent seven hours playing detective, and he joined us after learning I was there.
The first time I removed my mask to take a sip of water, he said, “I saw that.”
I turned around and saw his smiling eyes. No, we didn’t kiss. Not yet.
When we had our first face-to-face conversation under the moonlight, I asked him to tell me his life story. Being an artist, he got to move from country to country. He was always on the run, exploring the world. Which, I was sad to learn, was about to resume: He told me he was leaving China for good in five months.
“Don’t get attached,” said the voice in my head. “Just be friends.”
Later, I told our story to my friends, how he and I met, what a good person he is, and how he made me happy in this or that way. Their pleased expressions turned grim when I explained that he was leaving.
He was leaving. That sentence was like a dagger. Every time I thought about it, I felt stabbed in the heart.
Over the next month, he and I grew closer. We started to take evening walks downstairs, playing badminton with neighbors, and messaging each other day and night.
One day, when he was sick and I half-jokingly asked him how life was without seeing me, he replied, “Meaningless.”
“Oh wow,” I said.
“I like that I can still surprise you,” he said.
I seemed to have made peace with the fact that we were still under lockdown, that everything was super expensive and difficult to get, that people were sneaking out of Shanghai every day, and that the whole city was silently suffering. While I savored how he made everything easier to bear, I also dreaded the uncertainties ahead. We were getting closer to freedom. I was getting more depressed.
June 1 was the official date for the lockdown to be lifted, but by late May people were already going out and drinking and urinating on street corners. The city went from one extreme to another.
When he and I were finally able to go on a walk together outside of our compound, he said, “You OK? Your energy level seems a bit lower than usual.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “I feel weird seeing the world again after more than two months of lockdown.” But I was just saying that; it wasn’t the real reason.
An hour later, when we were sunbathing on the stairs in front of a row of trees, I told him that I wasn’t good at saying goodbye.
He looked at me without saying anything.
I went on: “Before, it was very extreme because I would have mental breakdowns when I had to part with people I truly care about. Then I dug into my past, my childhood memories and realized that I have abandonment issues.”
“I was waiting for you to reach that conclusion.” He lit a cigarette and said, “You just have to remember one thing — it’s nothing personal.”
After that conversation, I could breathe again.
In Shanghai, finding a suitable partner can feel impossible. Everyone is so busy, exhausted and guarded that opening their heart can seem too risky. After almost seven years of living here, I too have become a tough nut to crack. With no intention of putting the blame on my rough childhood or the men who have disappointed me, I do think those experiences have made me never want to be vulnerable again.
The lockdown changed all that. Something eroded my tough exterior enough to let him in. We read together, discussed philosophy, biked around the city and talked. Damn, we could talk. I thought Céline and Jesse in “Before Sunrise” talked too much — but they were nothing compared to us.
His apartment faces east; mine west. He would send me a picture of the sunrise every morning, and I would send him a picture of the sunset every evening. Old school romance is exactly my cup of tea.
One day when we were sipping wine, I shed tears while watching a video he composed after going through a major depression, and he held me tight while listening to me open up about my past trauma. This is the kind of intimacy that I could die for. I know it’s unrealistic to say that external factors can resolve internal issues, but I felt like I was healing in his presence.
My friends asked: “Why don’t you ask him to stay?” “Why don’t you go with him?”
The answer is that neither of us should stand in the other’s way when it comes to making life choices. I believe that everything happens for a reason. We had been neighbors for months, having drinks in the same bar, reading books in the same bookstore, walking on the same street and taking the same elevator, but we had never met.
I once asked him what would have happened if we had seen each other in a bar, and he said, ‘Knowing myself, nothing.”
Our goodbye did happen after the lockdown ended — but not in the way I expected.
Lockdown jolted us out of our lives and created this bubble of vulnerability and romance, but bubbles always burst. When the harsh reality of normal life started to kick in, I returned to being the tough and rational person I was before. Unfortunately, my heart never wins battles against my brain.
So here we are. Still in the same building but acting as if he already left. With our conversations diminishing day by day, I no longer look outside my window when dusk approaches.
However, very rarely, when I do chance upon a sunset, I find myself wondering if the darkening orange hue promises a beautiful sunrise.