Since the beginning of lockdown, my neighbour and I have been flirting from our bedroom windows. What I mean is, we smoke out of our windows at the same time – usually around dinner or just before I go to bed. We look at each other across the back gardens littered with children’s toys and men trying to start barbecues, as the sun sets behind the rooftops. I always finish my cigarette first, he winks at me and I shut my window. It’s oddly intense – and under normal circumstances, I would find a wink creepy – but something about the interaction has kept me going back to the window each day.
At a time when the touch of another human is a distant memory for single people or those quarantined away from their partners, these moments with my neighbour are the closest I’ve been getting to physical intimacy. They’re a placeholder for the real thing, of course. Catching a stranger’s gaze over the street is no substitute for the connection with someone who admires the very specific way you hold your head when you’re reading, or how your nose wrinkles when you’re annoyed. My neighbour doesn’t really know me. But until lockdown, I didn’t realise how much being desired mattered to me. While it goes without saying that physical desire alone isn’t enough to build a relationship, it’s definitely intoxicating. It’s the thrill of feeling someone’s eyes on you as you walk through a crowded bar, or a crush admitting that they watched your Instagram Story.
Before the social distancing measures were announced, I had only lived in my house for a couple of months and rarely ever opened the blinds. It was winter, dark when I woke up in the morning and dark again by the time I got home from work. On my street, the backs of the houses face inwards. Now that everyone is isolating, my neighbours and I are spending a lot of time on the inside, looking out at each other.
I’m not the only one feeling strangely closer to my neighbours lately. At the end of last month, a video showing a love story between two neighbours in New York went viral. Twenty-eight-year-old Jeremy looks out of his window and notices a woman filming herself dancing on the roof of her apartment block. He decides to fly a drone to her with his phone number, and lands himself a virtual video “date”. The coronavirus meet cute also earned him nearly 400,000 likes on Twitter. But my neighbour and I aren’t going to end up emulating Jeremy, mainly because I don’t own a drone but also because that is America, and we’re in the far more reserved south London.
When I explain my situation to sex and relationship psychologist Lucy Snider over Zoom, she says that the distance between my neighbour and I might actually be what’s so appealing to me. “You’ve got an intimate connection with somebody but you also have the freedom around not really knowing that person,” she explains. “You don’t have to run the risk of getting close to them and them hurting you, while still enjoying that connection that we all need and crave.”
What Snider says about having control over how close you get to someone definitely rings true. When I’m debasing myself by learning the TikTok dance to “Savage”, or eating a pile of oven chips smothered in mayonnaise, head propped up by one single pillow, the blinds stay closed. But when the sun gets just high enough in the sky to leak through my window and throw a spotlight over my bed, where I sprawl flatteringly across the sheets like the lead in a rom com, the blinds are open – and my neighbour is watching.
There’s no space for disappointment with him because there are no expectations. Neither is there the possibility of what usually happens when you meet someone on a dating app: they send you a voice-note before the date and you fall in love with their voice, and they "lol" at your jokes, but then you meet and you realise that the iPhone microphone did wonders for them and they’re not as funny as they were over WhatsApp. It’s nice to be able to ignore the fact that my neighbour could easily be one of those guys. I need never know whether he's a snob about reality TV, or a Tory, or someone who chews with their mouth open.
One thing I do know is that, when this is all over, we’ll go back to just being neighbours. I don’t have a crush on him. I probably couldn’t draw his face from memory despite looking at it everyday – it could be a different man at that window every day and I probably wouldn’t notice. But being watched is just enough to tide me over, until we’re all allowed back into the real world.