Love in a Time like This
A different dimension of love during Covid lockdown
During the 2021 lockdown, Jules Lee would log onto class, greet the teacher- turn off his camera, change tabs, and browse the internet for half an hour until the teacher said 'goodbye' and class ended. This way of life worked well for 18-year-old Jules until a cold day in June when Mr Bailey, the politics teacher said:
‘'Okay guys let’s do something different. I’m gonna separate you into groups of two so you can revise what we talked about in class with your peers. Whoever you get today will be your partner for the rest of the lockdown.’ Then Mr Bailey continued in his droney, pleading voice: ‘And please, put your cameras on. Some of you haven’t seen each other’s faces for weeks now.’'
When Jules switched from YouTube to Zoom, he found his screen was taken by a girl with blond hair and brown eyes. Her name was Sami, and Jules shared no other classes, or connections (for that matter) with her.
‘'Hey Jules.’' She said as he put his camera on.
‘'Hey, sorry Sami.’' Jules smiled back ‘'I was a bit errrr, distracted before. What were we meant to talk about?’'
‘'I don’t know.’ Said Sami. ‘Mr Bailey never specified what we were doing, just other than talking about Afghanistan.’'
Sami leaned over her computer and grabbed a piece of paper. She wore a light blue jumper that gently scraped the camera lens, and Jules could make out the nice curves of her hips and thighs.
‘'I don’t know if I'll be much for conversation though.’ Sami continued, seating herself back down. ‘Only thing I know about Afghanistan is that my dad served there.’'
‘'Yea back in the early days of the war.’'
‘'Huh funny that,’' Jules said, trying to start a genuine conversation. ‘'My uncle was in Kuwait during the Gulf War.'’
‘'Oh, that's interesting.’'
‘'Yea, he wasn’t fighting. But he was in Kuwait when the Iraqis invaded, and saw the Americans response-’'
The conversion was cut short when a 30-second timer came across the bottom screen.
‘'I think we're going to go back now.’' Sami said.
‘'What do we tell the teacher if he asks us how we spent this little session?’'
‘'I don’t know. Say we talked about the current Taliban offensive or whatever.’'
Jules looked at Sami a final time: the blue jumper brought out her sun-kissed roundish cheeks, and he could make out she wore little foundation. Her lipstick was thick and crimson and went up just before a stubby button nose. But it was those eyes, deep and brown, that captivated young Jules and made him for the first time in a while, smile.
Then the timer went off, and Mr Bailey's face took up the screen again.
That night lying in bed, arms stretched behind his head and eyes glued to the ceiling, Jules thought about Sami. The awkwardness and shortness of the conversion annoyed him for a while, and then as the night stretched on, it angered him. Here had been the first girl he’d spoken to since lockdown, and all it was brisk and pathetic. The anger became fuel for motivation, and he promised himself that he would not let the next conversation with Sami be dull.
The day after, Mr Bailey once again broke off the class into smaller groups. Sami's face lit up Jules' screen, and they began talking.
‘'Hey, Sami. Nice to see you again.’'
‘'And you too.’'
Today Sami's hair was in a fluffy yellow bun, and she stretched her arms up to reveal a barbie-pink hoodie. ‘'Mr Bailey I think wants us to talk about the recent Taliban offensive. Do you know anything about it?’'
‘'Nah not really’ Said Jules. ‘I thought you would since your Dad is an Afghan vet.’'
‘'Huh, what makes you think that he would know anything?’'
‘'Well, I just thought that since your family fought in the war, they would be pretty on top of the news.’'
Sami lightly chuckled and twiddled with a loose hair lock in circles. ‘'Ha no. My dad never talked about the war. I only know what my mum told me and what I remember.’'
‘'Is that because of PTSD?’'
‘'I don’t know. Really don’t. All he told me is that he never wants me to join the army. Didn’t you say your uncle fought in the Gulf?’'
‘'No no, my uncle didn’t fight,’' said Jules ‘'but he was in Kuwait when Iraq invaded. Can't remember why he was there, but when the Americans came he told me that the Iraqis didn’t put up a fight and just bolted.’'
‘'Hm.., I wouldn’t want to die fighting in a foreign country either.’'
‘'No but seriously. My uncle would walk around and see all these burning Russian tanks and endless rows of Iraqi POWs huddled together with American guards. Said it looked straight outta hell.’'
‘'Yea.’' Sami said. ‘'War is hell.’'
The following politics class, after making her laugh and kickstarting a conversation that flowed like a river, Jules finally had the courage to ask Sami:
‘'Do you want to go on a walk with me?’'
‘'Hmmm.’' Sami stroked her hair. ‘'Well, do you live within my 5k radius?’'
‘'I live in Malvern’'
‘'And I live in Caulfield North, so that could work.’'
Jules had to restrain the flood of happiness that rushed through his system. He smiled politely and said: '‘Sounds good. I was thinking Friday we could meet at Caulfield Park after school.’'
‘'Couldn’t be any better. I'll be waiting for you near the small playground.’'
When Jules finally hung up from class, he felt light and happy. Butterflies stirred around in his stomach and a large, goofy smile emerged.
It was cold and miserable when Jules walked to the park on Friday. He had his chin snuggled deep inside a puffy jacket and hands buried within warm pockets. Chilly winds rustled the leaves, and grey clouds drifted slowly to block the sunlight. Those who walked past Jules looked drained and colourless, eyes empty of life and expressions hidden behind blue masks.
The playground had been cut off with yellow tape, and a large sign placed onto a streetlight nearby stated: PLAYGROUND OUT OF SERVICE DUE TO COVID RESTRICTIONS.
But Jules took little notice.
Standing behind the playground, eyes glued to an iPhone and face covered with a fabric mask, was Sami. Jules took a couple of thick, deep breaths to flatten the nervous butterflies, and marched up to her.
She was dressed in a purple hoodie, and her hair, freely falling to her shoulders, seemed to dance with the wind as she waved at him.
'‘Did I keep you waiting?’' asked Jules.
‘'No, not really. Come on, let's walk.’'
Feeling both excited and nervous, Jules followed Sami into the deeper parts of the park. The wind had calmed down and the ground was littered with yellow, dirty leaves. With no one else around, Jules pulled his mask underneath his chin and took a deep breath.
'You still got a job, or have you been kicked out like 90% of us?’'
‘'Oh, I used to work at a little Cafe in Richmond, but they shut down during the 2020 lockdown. After that, I couldn’t find a job. When I walked to the park all I saw were empty stores and for lease signs. I don’t know how any business is meant to survive in these conditions unless they are a criminal front for something.’'
‘'Huh, Talking about fronts, I used to work in a dodgy tool shop that my Uncle, the same one who was in Kuwait, owned off Chapel.’' said Jules ‘'I always thought it was a front for something cause he would have these weird guys in Adidas come over and give him bags. Of course, I was right. They were handing him weed, but I didn’t know that back then and when I told my dad, he forced me to leave.’'
‘'Yes ma’am. This was before Covid, mind you. Now I know exactly what weed looks like.’'
‘'Oh jeez, tell me you're not one of these weed junkies are you?’'
‘'No, my friends smoke quite a bit though. As for me, I don’t need weed to make me feel all floppy. I have Covid lockdown for that.’'
Sami chuckled, and Jules could tell she was smiling behind her mask. The clouds above were fading away, and cool clear sunlight illuminated the grey park.
‘'Say’," Sami said ‘'if the sun comes out tomorrow, you want to go on a walk again?’'
‘'Yes, I would love to!!’' Jules blurted out excitedly, but not wanting to sound desperate he said slowly: ‘'yea, err, want to meet here again or whatever?’'
‘'Sure! Same time?’'
And the pair continued walking, talking and laughing as good friends do.
The meetups between Jules and Sami began expanding from just small occasional walks, to bicycle riding, late-night Instagram calls, and eventually going to each other's houses. There were loud laughs when the two were around, and strangers who looked at them thought they must have been a couple.
In one conversation, Jules found out Sami’s dad owned a commercial chain of three bicycle shops around Burwood, but in the early days of the 2021 lockdown, the shops weren't able to support themselves and he had to cut two of them off.
‘'After that, he said he wasn’t going to take the vaccine, and that the government was running the state into the ground.’' Sami said. ‘'Mum was a bit worried he was going down the path of some looney right winger or something.’'
Jules nodded. They were lying in a field of grass together in what had once been a racetrack before lockdown. The clouds floated lazily above, brushing gently against the pinkish-blue sky. Across a western horizon, the sun crashed down into the land with an explosion of golden colour.
‘'I know Some of my mates don’t support lockdown or Dan Andrews either.’' said Jules, watching a cotton turtle drift slowly across the sky. ‘'But everyone else I know in my group supports Labour, though. But I've lost contact with most of the boys since lockdown so I'm not quite sure if their politics are the same.’'
‘'Aw that's really sad, I’m sorry about that.’' Sami said, squeezing his hand.
They stayed like this for a while in silence. Watching the clouds and the funny shapes they made. Jules tightened his hand around Sami’s and said:
‘'Do…you… do you want to be more than friends?’'
Jules watched as Sami shuffled closer until he could feel her breath against his.
‘'Yes,’' She finally said, ‘'Yes I would.’'
‘'Ah sweet.’' Jule’s heart was pounding when he said, ‘'Do you want to make out?’'
Sami smiled in confirmation, and they embraced each other. Sami swung on top of Jules and lay on him, her golden hair tickling Jules’s nose, and soft fingers grabbing onto his hand, tightening like a cobra. She smiled at him again and said softly:
Jules felt a deep, heavy feeling of love down his throat and kissed her straight on the lips.
A week passed and Jules felt happier than he ever did before lockdown. They walked together through the parks, holding hands and flirting.
‘'When the lockdowns end,’' Jules had explained '‘I will take you out to dinner one night. Somewhere nice in the city.’'
But as fate would have it, that never happened.
One day, the calls, the walks and everything else ended so suddenly that Jules was only left with his tormented thoughts. He would stress-text Sami every couple of days if she wanted to catch up, but the responses always were: ‘'Sorry, busy today. Maybe later.’'
During politics, Sami never appeared, and Jules was instead partnered with a round bloke called Martin.
‘'Have you seen Sami recently, she was my partner?’'
‘'Nah,’' said Martin, eyes glued to a messy bundle of notes in his thick hands ‘'But I heard you guys were a thing, no?’'
'‘Hm. Let’s just concentrate on the work, shall we?’'
It was only on a cold, August afternoon when the world watched as Taliban fighters entered Kabul when Jules heard from Sami again. It came as a long text, and Jules read the entire thing shaking, and feeling butterflies trying to rip out of his stomach.
“The last thing I'd ever want to do is harm you, but I feel it's best to be upfront with you.” Sami had written. “My father got Covid around a week ago. It was pretty mild at first, but over time it got worse and worse. The doctors said his immune system was already low, and I'm guessing that's because of the recent news that we just lost the war. Or maybe because he's not vaccinated. Regardless, Dad’s not taking it very well.
“And quite frankly, I'm not taking it very well either. School, final year exams, lockdown, these things were all pounding against me until you came along and illuminated my life. But now knowing my dad is in the hospital and they don’t know if he's going to live, that was the final straw for me, and I don’t know if I can keep up a relationship while all this other mental sh– is piling up. You are a great person, Jules, but I think it would be best if we part ways at the moment.
PS: I'm here to talk if you have any questions and truly hope you understand where I'm coming from."
Jules finished reading. He sat on his bed, watched the sunlight drift across the room from his window, and felt a strong, empowering urge to cry.