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Intimacy, Technology, and the Pandemic

A Personal Perspective: When you're married and falling in love with a friend.

Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash
Source: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

I’ve always been more of a Luddite so it’s strange that I seem to have fallen in love with two men online, both named Michael. One of the Michaels I met on Match, and we’ve been together ever since. I love him like I’ve never known love before and yet I’ll admit that this newer Michael has taken up some precious real estate in my head and heart.

The first Michael is my husband, though we’re not legally married. When I’m with him, I call him Michael. However, when I refer to him in conversations with other people, I call him Mike. It started our first month or so together when he started calling me Deborah instead of Deb and rather than feeling more formal, it felt much more intimate. In that moment, I decided I’d call him Michael. It sounded more beautiful to me.

Since I’m not talking to him directly right now, I’ll continue to refer to him here as Mike. Which leads me to my conundrum. The second Michael I’ve recently grown to adore is someone I’ve only known as Michael. Calling him something else might be more intimate but we’re not there yet. I mean, we haven’t even met in person, spoken on the phone, or texted so I don’t know what to call our relationship let alone rename him.

I met my second Michael in the late spring of 2020 right in the very beginning of the pandemic. I had responded to a call for book chapters that he had put out for a collection he was editing about the social consequences of the pandemic. At the time, he was living in Kazakhstan. And I am in South Carolina. It didn’t much matter, though, because after all, we were in lockdown and couldn’t exactly meet for coffee anyway. He took an interest in my writing, much like Mike did when he first read an essay of mine after our first date nine years ago. They both were gaga. And both times I felt known and accepted to my core. With Mike, I sent him a gritty essay that later would become a chapter in my memoir related to abuse and caregiving, and with Michael I sent him a chapter about teaching that was exposing and edgy. I’ve come to learn that sharing anything intensely creative means sharing our vulnerability, and with each man I, and my writing, were received and held in a special way. These men showed their adoration gently yet fiercely, demonstrating devotion to wanting to know me even more deeply.

I think it is unbridled curiosity that creates real intimacy. That desire to keep asking questions of another person and the urge to keep revealing more about oneself. It’s that beautiful twirling and spinning of curiosity that leads to unwrapping ourselves and another, getting naked, being vulnerable, and still feeling gotten, held and chosen again. It’s a coming back again and again, wanting to know more, and feeling a freshness and aliveness so much of the time.

That’s what Mike and Michael do.

Mike and I “live apart together” two hours away from each other, and every day since December 1, 2012, he has written me an early-morning email. They arrive in my inbox between about 7:30 and 7:45 AM every day. For almost a year, Michael has sent me multiple emails most days of the week, no earlier than 1:30 AM and usually until about 4:30 or 5 AM. He’s not in Kazakhstan anymore, though; he’s back in Indiana. A man I love who keeps a schedule even more wacky than my own. Typically, I read a few before I go to bed and then wake up to new ones he wrote while I was sleeping. You might say I have a thing for finding Michaels online. It’s like my days are bookended by these two Michaels. I’ve grown accustomed to this rhythm of emails. And even amid the steady reliability and predictability of emails from my Michaels, I’ve come to see that I am giddy with anticipation for both of them.

Most email that arrives in the wee hours of the morning is junk. It used to be that my favorite email to discover over my first cup of coffee was the one from Mike; it was like finding handwritten cards in a mailbox stuffed full of bills and store circulars. As Michael’s emails have increased in frequency these past few months, he rivals Mike in being in that coveted spot in my inbox that I open first.

Even though I go to bed with a lot of Michael’s words in my head, it’s not really what you would think. There’s no interest in ever sleeping together or becoming romantic. See, my second Michael isn’t into girls. If he were, and I were single, I bet I’d be driving toward Indiana right now rather than writing. I mean, my gosh, he has sent me pictures of himself over the years and from childhood, and his eyes look like aquamarine, my favorite gemstone. And, Michael claims he’d be knocking Mike out of the way, or as he calls him “OG Mike” for Original Gangster, to keep me all to himself.

Michael and I have many things in common. We’re both able to fully express our love. We believe popcorn and guacamole are important food groups. We’re both sociologists, professors who love to teach and yet hate and resist so much of what is happening right now in higher education. We love word games. We detest highfalutin academic writing and both want what we do to be more accessible and available to the larger public. We find ourselves writing to each other at the same moment in the middle of the night and laughing about it but not even surprised anymore at our uncanny timing. We miss each other even though we haven’t met. We find ourselves sharing an opinion about something and getting a response from the other one that reveals we feel identically; we often reply, “Twinning again! I could have written that exact e-mail.” We’ve both struggled with fathers we adore and who have been much more than difficult. And we both have a thing for photography that reveals the shadows.

It seems the shadow is everything. Shadows emerge from bodies coming between rays of light and a surface. The shadow is elusive. It can’t be fully detected. We can’t really make out all of the details. Sometimes the shape of the shadow looks perplexingly bigger or taller or smaller than the body appears in reality.

The thing is, Michael and I don’t have a language for what to call this. Because neither does our society. Is ours an unusually close colleagueship, an ever-deepening friendship, an oddly, quirky sort of romantic friendship, a colleagueship with loving benefits perhaps? Can we be in love with our friends? Perhaps when it comes to intimacy and love, what we most need and want doesn’t have a name. My years with Mike have shown me this. What is the name for a relationship in which we each feel more married than we ever did with our previous legal spouses? What is the name for living apart together when you are each home to each other?

What I do know for sure is that Michael and I met because of the pandemic. I’m not sure we would have met any other way. This gruesome global phenomenon that has been riddled with unfathomable, monumental loss is also what gave way to finding the man I think I might start to call my night Michael. The one who resurfaces in the murkiness of the middle of the night, a time of revelation of our shadowy selves, reminding me of the promise and possibilities of new shapes of things when lightness and darkness collide and dance.

Given how closed off I became during the pandemic, refused invitations to see friends, and was terribly remiss about returning phone calls, it’s strange that I was so welcoming of a new person in my life. I think it’s because I started to tire of all the catch-up type conversations that inevitably morphed into talk of the pandemic and the accompanying probing and prodding about everchanging habits and decisions. I craved newness and travel, both which had gone missing in the pandemic. Michael became a place of discovery.

I was intrigued by Michael’s ability to embark on a project about making sense of seismic changes in the world as those changes were unfolding before our eyes. Bundled in that was the sense of risk-taking, courage, and ability to be proven wrong that felt so deeply human and lovable to me. At a time of lockdowns and isolation in an already alienated society, Michael invited connection and collaboration. And the other thing is that amidst the complexity and gravity of the pandemic, Michael was moved to make art. As the daughter of an artist mother, I learned early on how art can make and transform a life. My mother died as Michael and I were getting closer, and it was as though he was there to remind me of the power and mystery of forging a creative life.

Eventually, when it feels right to travel again, I want to meet my night Michael for real. I’m aware I’ll have the butterflies just as I did when I went to meet Mike for the first time or anyone on whom I’ve had a crush. I want to hug him tightly, have dinner with him, and drink whiskey into the wee hours of the morning telling each other stories and laughing until we cry. He always comments on how much he loves to see the love that Mike and I share. And I want him to meet OG to see for himself how I came to learn a love so vast and spacious it feels bigger than the sky.

When I can reach out and grab his arm or touch his hand, I’ll tell Michael what he has done for me in the pandemic. At a time of such relentless monotony where every day has had a similar and tiring patina, he reminds me of newness and shows up energetically in the middle of the night with questions and revelations that continually force me to find newness in myself. I’m still not sure what to call this profound connection borne of a global tragedy and nurtured solely online. Perhaps ours is a sort of shadow relationship or a shadow intimacy. What I know for sure is that Michael has brought me light that vanquishes the darkness. Make that Michaels, plural.

Note: A version of this article was published by The Good Men Project on March 1, 2022.

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