When I logged on for my first Zoom date in lockdown, I got a shock. She was sitting naked in a bubble bath, drinking champagne.
“Hiya, Ben,” said Valentina, a 40-year-old communications director with sculpted eyebrows and hair pulled back in a fierce ponytail, her head leaning against a backdrop of white marbled tiles. “Pleased to meet you.”
She explained that Covid-19 had led to her approaching life more adventurously. “We all might die tomorrow,” she lamented. “Why don’t you come round and jump in with me?”
When I suggested that it wasn’t a good idea, given we were supposed to be social distancing, she replied: “Don’t be a bore…”
I said: “I think I’m going to go.”
“Oh, whatever,” she replied, and promptly logged out.
In the first two weeks of lockdown, I scanned 1,000 faces and had five video dates, and was just considering giving it all up when I connected with Candice, a 44-year-old art director and painter from north-west London on Hinge. She was divorced, with a five-year-old son. She had narrow eyes, a thin mouth and pronounced cheekbones.
“Those cheekbones look sharper than a scalpel,” I said to her, as my opening line.
“Thanks,” she replied. “I’m making extra cash during lockdown – as a bread slicer.”
Apart from her wit, what attracted me to her profile was the fact that she was smiling in her photos (she’s happy); she had no semi-nude images (she’s classy); she talked about art (she’s cultured); and she didn’t have a moustache (phew!).
When we progressed to a video date, finally here was a woman with the best Zoom curation I’d seen. In the background, she had a mixture of paintings, wild plants and big art books. On a table next to her was a glass of Vionnet, and a wooden sculpture of a seagull next to a Santa snow globe. She had done her hair and make-up, and wore an amazing vintage dress with silver chainmail epaulets that glistened under the light. I was mesmerised. As we signed off, we were both smiling at each other.
I continued setting up Zoom calls with other women, but no one impressed me like Candice. After a month of activity, I’d looked at 2,000 profiles and gone on 11 video dates. But with Candice, it felt different.
I began to wonder if I had a hope of forging a real offline connection. Was this simply to be a digital version of a holiday romance (or pandemic romance) — a fantasy love affair that runs on the fuel of the current heightened circumstances — that starts and finishes online? Is there a danger that what happens in corona stays in corona?
When the lockdown rules suddenly changed, we met up in person – a “walk-n-talk” in Hyde Park, now the number one venue for first dates in London. When she arrived, my heart bumped a little in excitement, and I took a step toward her, to give her a hello hug, but then I remembered the protocol and stepped back again. We stared at each other silently, and then started giggling like children. It took all my willpower not to try to hug and kiss her.
We spent two hours walking around on the grass, staying off the busier pathways, and also out of each other’s orbit. Thanks to our long Zoom chats, it already felt as if we knew each other quite well, and so in this regard it was not like a first date — although physically it was. Many times as we walked she caught me scanning her form, but she pretended not to notice. As time went on, resisting the temptation to touch her actually got easier. Under lockdown, avoiding human contact means that, like many, I have now deprogrammed myself from the instinct to touch. Nevertheless, as we parted, saying goodbye from a distance felt rude, almost disrespectful. We didn’t quite know how to do it.
“When this is over, things are going to get seriously physical,” I said.
She smiled. “I am really looking forward to that.” She got on her bicycle and rode away.
Video dating and physical isolation have made me value human interaction more than ever before in my life. Have I met a new partner? I hope so. Even when lockdown is fully over, there will still be a place for video dating with Candice.
Between her busy work schedule and having a young child, she won’t always have time to meet. For us, Zoom will now form part of our modern romance.
My Terrifying, Shocking, Humiliating, Amazing Adventures In Online Dating by Ben Arogundade (White Label, £9.99) is out now