Three days before my breakup, I cried while watching Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 film, Wendy and Lucy. The award-winning independent movie stars Michelle Williams as Wendy — a drifter who travels to Alaska with her dog, Lucy. The pair are in Oregon when Wendy is briefly arrested for stealing dog food from a supermarket; when she gets out, Lucy is gone.
Wendy spends several painful, tense days looking for Lucy before finding her four-legged friend, alive and well, in the care of a nice old man. In a surprising but completely logical development, Wendy decides to leave her canine companion behind. I couldn’t stop bawling.
It’s not unusual for me to cry during a movie, but by the time I found myself breaking down during the film’s final sequence — a few weeks into sheltering-in-place in my Castro District apartment — I was feeling quite numb to the world. The tears caught me off guard.
I had recently skipped virtual game nights with friends whose company I normally enjoy. It was strange enough to not be able to see anyone, other than my two roommates, in the flesh; it was even stranger to accept the fact that my relationship with a man I really liked was about to end.
I met Christian almost three years ago, but we only started dating in late 2019. I liked looking at his face, and when I looked close enough, his red hair and beard became a forest of colorful specks, ranging from silver to crimson to various shades of brown. In his apartment on Market and Church, I introduced him to a British sitcom called The IT Crowd, and when we didn’t feel like watching something new, we put on an old 30 Rock episode — reciting Liz and Jack’s lines to each other as we giggled together on the couch. I felt like I could talk to him about anything and he said he felt the same. I have been single most of my life, but I somehow felt easy around him. While I felt unsure about the future, I was hopeful.
One Saturday night after he got back from his New Year’s trip home, Christian turned serious as we sat together at a crowded ramen restaurant in Lower Haight. Over the break, he learned that his mother had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. He planned to move back home to be with her permanently in a few years. Doing so would help delay her symptoms, he said. He choked up at the possibility of her not remembering who he was. My face grew hot. All I could say was that I would probably do the same in his position. But the reality was my parents had no health conditions and for that, I felt lucky. I was suddenly less hopeful about our future together.
Like me, Christian had a tech job, except his was in big retail. It was February when he learned that his company would shutter its San Francisco office and that he was among the 10 percent of employees who would be transferred to the New York office in April. While we ate Korean food in the Fillmore District, I assured him this was not bad news for us. I was excited at the prospect of visiting him in New York, even though I did not know what to make of the idea of not seeing him on a regular basis. His move back home was still years away but this relocation was going to happen in a few months. I had been catapulted into an unknowable and uncertain future.
On the last Monday of March, in response to my very mundane text (“What is the name of that wash-and-fold service you use?”), Christian told me that tomorrow would be his last day at work. At that point, COVID-19 had taken many lives in New York and was ravaging the retail industry, his relocation was undoubtedly called off, but I still could not help feeling sharp pangs of guilt and grief reading his message. Once again, I was the lucky one. He shared a screenshot of the last Zoom call with his colleagues on Tuesday. I counted the tiles — 25, and possibly more that were not shown on the screen — and asked him how many of them were laid off.
“All of us,” he replied.
We broke up over FaceTime a week later. Christian had decided to move home on the same day he would have flown to New York for the job he no longer had. We wished we could hug each other. Our actual farewell embrace had come weeks earlier, although neither of us knew it at the time. We talked about practical things — where he would stay before flying out, what the job opportunities in Raleigh looked like — filling the silence with shrugs and assurances of “I know.” I was at a loss for words; the future I had been dreading was here.
Perhaps that was why I cried at the conclusion of Wendy and Lucy. Wendy loses just about everything — her money, her car, and her best friend — leaving it all behind before hopping on a freight train to Alaska. She allows herself to let go and free fall into the unknown. As I watched that bittersweet ending, I realized I could not change the fact that my best friend would soon be gone. All I could do was to come to terms with my grief.
Christian would text me a photo of his emptied apartment or to let me know how his brother and sister-in-law were not sold on IT Crowd. I would read his messages next to my bedroom window — grateful to look up at a sky that is as blue as ever.
I feel unsure about the future, but I am hopeful.
Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, social distancing mandates and the economic fallout of COVID-19 is impacting locals. Read more essays here.