I was one of those sad, lonely people who lived alone during the height of the pandemic. Poised to graduate college online with most of my family miles away from me and not even a cat to keep me company, I was starved for the kind of human connection no Zoom meeting could provide.
After jetting around to all of the writing conferences and literary happenings I could get my plucky little hands on the previous year, I had accrued a sea of acquaintances from coast to coast, only to find myself stunned in isolation. I watched people thrive and struggle on my phone screen while I was living in a sort of social limbo.
Numbed out on excessive meditation, weed and lofi beats, I came across the Instagram story of Sara, a woman I’d met at a writing conference the year prior in Portland, Oregon. A schoolteacher in Mexico City, she wanted to write a memoir about love. Do any of my women friends want to start a weekly writing group? she asked against a selfie with beaming sunlight. I replied immediately, Yes!!! Me!!! Please!!!
The pandemic relationship became a hot topic. Did you have a pandemic relationship? If you did, why? If you didn’t, why not? And what does that say about you? COVID-19 was either the biggest cockblock or the biggest aphrodisiac in years, depending on whom you ask. Even decades-strong couples and bona fide bachelorettes found themselves shaken by the forces of lockdown. People rushed to move in together, dating apps terrorized the masses, babies were made, intimate weddings were thrown. And I joined a writing group.
Soon after replying to Sara’s post, I found myself dropped into a group chat with a vibrant and enthralling cast of peers. Ann: a witty, imaginative, animal-adoring teacher from Portland. Violet: an upbeat and lovably quirky copywriter in the process of moving her life from New York to Oregon. Sara: an adventurous, authentic teacher healing gracefully from her divorce in Mexico City. And then there was me: the baby of the group, English literature degree in hand, fighting tooth and nail to be a real New Yorker and finally find my people.
The group chat ― and eventually the group itself ― was called Certainly. At first just a placeholder, it soon became the only thing we could call ourselves. We had to have our writing group. We must. Certainly.
Before long, everybody agreed to give up their Friday nights, no questions asked. Once an evening filled with social interactions, events and hangouts, the pandemic rendered the turn of the weekend free to become our sacred solstice of logging onto Zoom and putting the rest of the world on hold.
Even within the first few meetings, I could tell just how lucky we all were to find ourselves in our new circle. Each week, we’d spend a bit of time catching up about our lives before working on a writing prompt and having one member of the group sharing a piece of writing for a workshop-style discussion. Each time somebody shared their words, a deep admiration and care radiated through our screens. We got to know Sara’s wild heart, Violet’s adorable creativity, Ann’s insightful originality. I fell in love with these people one by one. By the time the first month had passed, we all deviously admitted that Friday had become our favorite day of the week.
It had been a long time since I’d enjoyed the sacred domain of a genuine girl group. I almost didn’t realize how much I’d longed for a crew of sisters until the space opened up in my life, and Certainly arrived to fill it. And it was this that seemed to be the magic ingredient: We all had the time and space to devote to one another creatively, and personally.
Our meetings soon ballooned longer and longer, the social call spanning into intimate corners of our lives. The group chat became a hub of memes and inside jokes. These women became the people I rushed to tell my good news to. We cried to one another, laughed together, recommended books, texted each other at 3 in the morning because Oh, my God, this is kinda weird but I had a dream and you were in it!
It’s a complicated feeling ― knowing that some of the deepest connections of your life were forged due to the pandemic. But I have to give credit where credit is due. If not for the lockdown, the ensuing loneliness, the space that it opened up in each of our lives, we never would have found one another, and we definitely wouldn’t have embraced a friendship like ours so quickly.
COVID brought some people together. Friends in foreign countries and on opposite coasts might as well have been down the block ― we were all on Zoom anyway. All that mattered was that we showed up for one another. And that’s exactly what we did, time and time again.
Friendships are a funny thing, in the way we allow them to ebb and flow in our lives. And it’s clear to me now just how deeply the pandemic shook and formed more friendships than anyone realized.
When I was talking to an IRL friend recently, she mused, “I feel like I came out of the pandemic with an entirely different set of friends than the ones I started it with. I’m close to very different people now.”
At least for me, I know I’m not rejoining an identical social circle to the one I left over a year ago now. Just like many romantic relationships incubated through lockdown, plenty of the friendships I valued and held dear during that time were essentially built for quarantine.
In August of 2021, my stepsister was getting married in California. Around the same time, Sara was making a temporary move from Mexico to Portugal. Lockdown was lifting, we were all fully vaccinated, and we figured it would be the perfect time to meet up and host a weeklong writing retreat, bonding experience, and slumber party all rolled into one.
The more the world began to open up, the more demanding our personal and professional lives were becoming again. We each found ourselves skipping a Friday night every now and then or showing up to writing group unprepared to do any of the writing associated with it. But this trip was our opportunity to transition our squad to the real world. We were giddy with excitement as we booked our flights to Portland, Oregon. I texted the Certainly group chat a photo of my suitcase on the subway platform on the way to JFK, and we all erupted. I can’t wait to see you! No, I can’t wait to see YOU!
Meeting everyone in person was the surreal experience that we all expected it to be. “Holy crap, Jamie,” Ann said when I arrived at her house. “I guess I never expected that you’d be so tall!”
Throughout our retreat, we journaled, wrote new material, and edited one another’s work, but mostly, we spent time together. The world melted away as we basked in the bubble of our perfect girl group. We laughed, read one another’s tarot cards, swam in the pool at Sara’s childhood home, and celebrated Violet’s and my birthday, which we coincidentally share.
That whole week, I prayed like a little child that this would become my life. That I could wake up every day enveloped in the love and understanding of these people who had become my family.
But the week ended, as all vacations do. Ann and Violet returned to their spouses and responsibilities, I boarded my flight to my family in San Diego, and Sara was off to Portugal. We decided to skip the next week’s Zoom meeting. We were all just so busy.
None of us knew it at the time, but looking back, I can see clearly that our writing retreat was a goodbye party. It was the best one I’d ever attended by a mile, but a goodbye nonetheless. After skipping the next week’s meeting, we all forgot the meeting the week after that. Violet and I worked late. Ann was prepping for the new school year. Sara’s European time difference proved to be a steeper hurdle than anticipated. We skipped another week. We tried meeting on Saturday afternoons. Our lives swallowed us again. We ventured back out into the world.
For a few weeks, I thought to myself, I know I’m busy right now, but after this project ― after this event ― after this date ― I’ll have my Friday night free for the people who matter most. But as we all repeated that same mantra, time began to slip away. We never stopped caring about one another, but soon we realized we’d gone a month without meeting.
It was Sara ― the one who started our wild love affair ― who pulled the plug on things. In a long and heartfelt text message to our group chat on a regular Monday morning, she broke up with all of us. Not because the love wasn’t there, but because it’s better to leave the party when you’re having a good time than to stick around and watch it die.
I’ll admit, I cried for my writing group the way I’d never cried for romance. Like so many people, I was sure that the bonds I’d forged during the pandemic would be lifelong. I had finally found my people, and suddenly they weren’t mine anymore.
There was no bad blood between any of us. We cherished one another and the times we shared as a buzzing artistic community. We still leave updates in the group chat, call and text one another, and cheer for each other’s wins. But we do so knowing it’ll never be like it was before. Certainly was my pandemic relationship, and it was the best one I could have asked for.
Ever since the pandemic relationship was identified as a part of our culture, the term has felt derogatory to me. It has an air of superiority to it ― what, you couldn’t make it through the pandemic without your little boyfriend? That’s not a real relationship. It’s a “pandemic relationship.” But that’s the point of all human connection, isn’t it? To help each other get through the tough stuff. To make one another laugh and smile. To care about the lives of the people you love.
There is something so special in that. Some things are not meant to last forever, and that doesn’t make them any less real.
My pandemic relationship ― my writing group, my squad, my friends ― ushered me through the darkest hour I’ve been alive to see. Even if it’s a friendship that doesn’t last a lifetime, I know that it still counts for something. In fact, it counts for everything. Certainly.