The Ultimate Social-Distancing Relationship in Fiction

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Christine Ro

Staff Writer

Christine writes about books for Literary Hub, VICE, and the Ploughshares blog. She occasionally writes about other topics, because someone once told her (although it seemed implausible) that there’s life outside of books. Blog:

The small moments of Helen Schulman’s 2018 novel Come with Me that express the most intimacy come not on an exciting reporting trip that doubles as the kickoff of an affair, or during the day-to-day business that makes up a long marriage, but via phones, between teenagers in different states. Lily, in Texas, “liked to cuddle up on his chest near his armpit” – the armpit in question belonging to Jack, in California.

These aren’t unusual moments for Jack and Lily. They dated for two weeks IRL before her family moved out east, so physical proximity, rather than separation, is what’s strange. They have meals together. They go on walks together. They’ve developed their own gestural version of the private language any long-term couple generates: while watching sports, for instance, they high-five each other onscreen using their index fingers.

Lily is there when Jack delivers a speech at a funeral. And their family and friends are wrapped in this relationship cocoon that Jaly (Lilack?) creates. As Jack sleeps with his phone on, his mom, Amy, reminds Lily to go to school in her time zone. Amy also sets a place for Lily at the California dinner table.

So there’s a clear physicality to this almost entirely online relationship. They keep each other’s images in their laps. And the boundaries they’d erect IRL are dampened online, like people feeling more comfortable swearing in a foreign language, which is real-but-not-too-close:

“Jack took her with him wherever he’d go. She graced the routinized tedium of his days. He spent more time with Lily when she was away than when she visited. When she was in Palo Alto she had other friends to see. His mom wouldn’t let her sleep in his room, even though they slept together by Skype every night. When she was in town, he couldn’t go to the bathroom with her, or watch her put a tampon in; things she let him do by phone. In person, she was too embarrassed and uptight. But when Lily was in Texas, she could be in her class and he could be in his class, and still their phones could be sitting in each other’s lap, almost as if they were holding hands. Via her iPhone, he could perch on the light green toilet tank in her condo near the jar of pastel Gulf Coast sea glass petals Cindy, her mom, liked to collect, while Lily showered and washed her hair, and still watch the 49ers on TV with the Things and his dad in the redwood-paneled family room. He could be splitting a Mission-style burrito on one of the benches downtown on University Avenue with his buddy, Kevin Choi, on a Saturday afternoon while Lily was getting a pedicure with some girlfriends in Fort Worth.”

This passage gets at why Jack prefers the digital. He sees Lily more when she’s not physically present. He also enjoys the sex more. Lily sends her panties to him through the mail, in an almost charmingly old-fashioned complement to their relationship. With the underwear as a physical prop, Jack has a more visceral experience as he can see Lily from all angles, on two devices, and she’s more compliant online:

“What was so amazing about Lily was when they did this, when they had phone sex, she just obeyed him. In real life, she sometimes talked. In real life, she’d say, “You’re on my hair,” or “Your face is too scratchy,” or even something potentially dick-wilting, like “You’re so cute” while pinching that extra inch that sat above his hips even though water polo made him strong, thin, and bony. But on the phone, it was like she was in a trance, like she’d do whatever he wanted.”

What Lily prefers is, troublingly, not made clear.

Of course, tech-mediated long-distance relationships are nothing new. But this depiction has taken on special resonance in a social-distancing era where so many relationships have replaced the physical with the virtual.

Physically distant couples have been taking advantage of Skype for years to synchronize their movie-watching or dinner-eating, but now during the pandemic this is the setup for the Guardian’s blind-dating column. Now Netflix Party, which allows people to sync up their streaming and commenting, has gotten a popularity boost among people who live in the same city. Now pundits debate skin hunger, the benefits of physical touch, and video-call exhaustion. Now social isolation is seen as distinct from physical isolation. Now Lily and Jack’s reality is mainstream; these two would fall into that rare subset of lovers whose relationship would be unaffected, possibly even improved, by stay-at-home orders.

However, the view readers get of this long-distance relationship is one-sided, as the focus stays on Jack’s family. There are some allusions to Lily’s lack of concern with transmitting sexual images of herself—a trust more likely to be held by a teenage girl, but more likely to raise red flags for privacy advocates.

As well, the comfortable routine of their at-a-distance relationship leaves question marks hanging over the sustainability of their love. If they graduate high school, find jobs, and live together, it seems that Jack’s interest will wane. They could continue with a less conventional, permanently distanced relationship, but that would come with a host of social pressures that aren’t yet clouding their high-school relationship.

Come with Me is all about the terror and exhilaration of the internet colonizing our daily lives. The lockdowns triggered by COVID-19 may have changed many people’s perceptions of this balance. The relationship between Lily and Jack seems less outlandish and potentially sinister, and more like a resourceful adaptation to circumstances, even if it’s only temporary.