Most Princeton students in relationships plan for summers apart. Few plan for global pandemics. But less than a month after Valentine’s Day — just as the New Jersey winter began to thaw, trees began to blossom, and the temperature finally edged above 60 — the coronavirus crisis touched down on campus. In an instant, everything changed.
As the student body grapples with the emotions and logistics of a remote undergraduate experience, a select few face an additional hurdle: adjusting to an unplanned, indefinite long-distance relationship. The Daily Princetonian checked in with a few Tiger couples to see how they’re faring in this new, isolated world of Zoom.
Anna McGee ’22 and Benjamin Ball ’21 had just settled down for a nap when, on the night of Wednesday, March 15, the University announced that all students had to return to their permanent residences.
“I woke up,” said McGee, “and said ‘Ben, Ben, the world is ending!’”
Ball referenced his utter shock at the news: “The whole thing was just very unexpected. We never could’ve predicted this.”
McGee is co-chief copy editor for The Daily Princetonian; Ball is a managing editor.
While Ball and McGee prepared themselves for the inevitable trials and tribulations of long-distance dating from Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively, couples hailing from opposite sides of the world faced an even larger problem.
As an international student from the Philippines, Mandy Qua ’23 was confronted with the frightening decision of whether to fly home, her relationship with Michal Kozlowski ’23, a native of Tarrytown, N.Y., at the forefront of her mind.
“I kept thinking, ‘If I go home now, I’m not going to go back to America until school starts, which is half a year,’” said Qua. “Half a year is significantly different from summer.”
While Qua decided to stay with her extended family in New Jersey until the virus settles down, just the thought of moving back to the Philippines, so far away from her partner of 14 months, left her shaken up.
The two worried about missing their “Wednesdates,” a tradition they started during their time on the Novogratz Bridge Year China Program, where they met. Each week — in China and on campus — the couple would carve out a chunk of face-to-face time for a date. They came to treasure the moments spent watching Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience” and cooking ramen together.
According to Qua, what makes this time apart even more gut-wrenching is the fact that Kozlowski, in Tarrytown, is just a train ride away.
“If I were in Manila,” she said with a laugh, “it might’ve been easier, because I literally cannot swim the Pacific Ocean.”
Kozlowski nodded. “I’m a big-time hugger, especially when stuff goes wrong. And right now, I’m missing my big-time hug partner.”
Maressa Cumbermack ’21 and Jeremy Pulmano ’21 have had a similar experience. Reminiscing on being each other’s “study-and-meal-buddies” for the past two-and-a-half years, the two explained that now they can only “text each other about random stuff that’s happening throughout the day” — not exactly the most romantic pastime.
The time apart means that every couple will miss out on in-person milestones and memories — McGee and Ball, for one, will not be able to celebrate their anniversary or Ball’s 21st birthday together. And, said Ball, the fact that he can’t see McGee in person isn’t the only thing he misses.
“Part of the fun of dating is getting to [date] around other people,” he said. “So it’s a shame that we can’t do it in front of other humans. I talk about her all the time, but now the same three people are hearing me talk about her, and I think they’re getting tired of it.”
Some family members may indeed be tiring of hearing about their relatives’ love lives. But in this time of crisis, others have become even more supportive.
Aware of how difficult it is to purchase medical supplies in New York, Qua’s mother bought a thermometer in Manila and shipped it to Kozlowski’s family. And mindful of the struggles her daughter and her boyfriend were going through, Qua’s mother did her best to stay in touch with both of them.
Wanting to check in on Kozlowski, Qua’s mother sent him hopeful messages to try and cheer him up. He couldn’t help but laugh as he remembered a quick text exchange the two shared during his Zoom Chinese class.
“I didn’t have the number saved on my laptop,” he said. “But I saw a bunch of hearts and a bunch of prayer emojis, and I knew it was from Mandy’s mom.”
None of these couples have ever experienced a time quite as unpredictable as this, but all of them have dealt before with the pressures of distance.
Last summer, Pulmano’s International Internship Program (IIP) sent him to the U.K., and Cumbermack’s to India. Due to the time difference, the two only talked three times a week. Kozlowski can relate: “Last summer,” he said, “I would wake up at noon in New York, and Mandy would be going to sleep in Manila.” Ball and McGee recounted their summer story with a laugh; they’d begun dating immediately before Ball traveled to Cambodia for the summer to teach English and critical reading to Theravada Buddhist monks.
For the time being, each couple interviewed for this article is at least in the same time zone. And, to use Ball’s words, they’re “pretty experienced in the frequent Skyping and calling arenas.” They all feel that their love can endure the distance, but that’s not to say that the couples don’t realize the difficulties that the next few months may bring.
“Right now,” said Cumbermack, “it feels like extended spring break. But in the coming weeks, it’s going to be realizing we’re apart because of something that’s out of our control that will be the hardest part.” Over time, she said, this “forced separation” will definitely make her feel “sadder and lonelier.”
Aware of the stress and heartache that can come from a long-distance relationship, especially a forced one, Kozlowski credits Qua for being someone he can lean on. He addressed Qua directly during our Zoom interview.
“Mandy,” he said, “I’ve been super, super thankful for you always checking up on me and being there for me.”
From their high-intensity lives on Princeton’s campus to navigating the new terrain of a global pandemic, these couples have each other’s backs through it all. So does absence really make the heart grow fonder?
For Ball and McGee, Qua and Kozlowski, and Cumbermack and Pulmano, the answer is yes.