That was before the coronavirus stretched its terrorizing claws over our planet and upended our lives in ways few of us could have imagined. For couples whose normal included virtual visits, constant time difference calculations and puzzle-like calendar sessions, the pandemic has brought the clocks to a figurative standstill.
Italy faced a growing emergency last month, while New York-based chef Odette Fada was teaching Italian cuisine in Puglia. Married to chef Philippe Bertineau (Benoit, The Polo Bar both in New York), she had settled into a part-time long-distance relationship. But when her American students were sent home, Fada made a quick decision, rented a car and drove 12 hours north to be with her elderly parents in her native region of Lombardy — now the national epicenter of the pandemic.
“By then, I couldn’t get to Italy,” said Bertineau, who was born in France, “So I took the last American Airlines flight from New York to Paris to stay with one of my brothers, near Bordeaux.” The chef self-quarantined for 14 days and is now attempting to create a new semblance of routine.
“At least we are on the same time,” he said. “Our daily rhythms are parallel.”
Recent conversations between the two have included, “I can’t talk, I have to ming the risotto,” and “You’re making gratin dauphinois? I’ll try it, too.”
Will they stay in Europe when things get back to normal? Unclear. They say they will have to weigh their options.
For now, there are few options for Hermanus-Pieter Bakker, a Dutch musician, and his partner Karen Nimereala, a former opera singer, now vocal coach to the likes of Mylène Farmer and Sting. Both felt comfortable living a nomad existence between New York and Paris since Nimereala, who was born in Ohio, coached students on both sides of the Atlantic.
But when France closed its borders, she was in New York while Bakker was in Paris, and because they are neither married nor legally partnered, Nimereala feared not being allowed into the country.
“I had to change my ticket,” she said, “but I didn’t know when I would be able to go.” The couple speaks on the phone regularly, but Nimereala says, “The nights are terribly long.”
The nights and the days are long, too, for Lauren Whitmore, a psycho-oncology research coordinator, and Jake Altobello, an attorney. After four years of long-distance dating between New Jersey and Miami, the young couple had just come to the conclusion that they needed to live in the same city when covid-19 struck.
“We spent a weekend together in the Bahamas in early March and had plans to meet at the end of the month,” said Whitmore, who experienced 15 minutes of fame when Tom Hanks found her Fordham University ID card in Central Park in 2015 (he tweeted about it to find her and returned the card but she never met him).
Whitmore and Altobello met at Fordham University in New York, but when Altobello was accepted at the University of Miami Law School, he decided to move.
“We have been very focused on our careers,” he said. But the pandemic is making their bond more urgent.
“If this lasts too long,” he said, “I am getting into my car and driving up to be with her.”
Urgency also permeates Jess Buslewicz and Natalia Iannucci’s 11-months relationship. The sophomores at Smith College suddenly received an email announcing they needed to vacate their rooms and go home within three days.
“I stayed with Jess’s family for a few days in Connecticut,” Iannucci said. “But then I had to go home to Florida.”
While both women lived on different sides of the campus, they sometimes dragged their feet to walk the five minutes it took to be together. “Now, even in the snow,” Buslewicz said, “it will feel totally worth it.”
To get professional advice on how couples can navigate this crisis, I reached out to relationship expert Susan Winter.
“This is a good time to deepen a relationship and ask questions,” she said. “Couples can plan, brainstorm and negotiate.” Here are the key questions she recommends couples ask each other:
●What do you need from me now?
●What do we want to experience in the future?
●What have we not taken the time to discuss?
“The idea,” she said, “is to tend to your current garden, but plant the seeds for the future.”
The news is full of reports of a potential spike in divorces, but the long-distance couples I spoke to feel the absence more acutely than ever. Longing has always fueled literature, music and film. As soon as borders reopen, this longing will lead to a rush to travel again. For freedom, for awe and for love.