The Bizarre Intimacy of Video Chat

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About a year ago, a guy I hadn’t been seeing for that long FaceTimed me out of the blue to show me something outside his window. I don’t remember what the thing was that he wanted to show me, but I do remember that it was a Sunday, and that I had already practiced my nightly routine of removing all my makeup and slathering myself in unguents until I look like a large potato dipped in lube. “Oh, cool,” I said out loud to whatever it was he showed me (that it was snowing, maybe? An interesting rock? I really can’t remember), but in my head I was spiraling. What was wrong with this man? Had he no sense of decency, or boundaries? I thought I had some sense of who he was as a person, but clearly there was an element of mayhem in his soul that had previously escaped me.

Yes, he had been in my home before, and I had been in his, and he had already seen me looking haggard first thing in the morning, but video-chatting was a level of intimacy I wasn’t sure I was ready to reach with him. FaceTime was a means of communication reserved exclusively for my family and closest friends, people with whom I either shared a significant amount of DNA, or to whom I felt comfortable sending a picture of a mysterious rash on my body. Perhaps someday, if this man and I ever had a child together, or shared a joint checking account, we could start FaceTiming, but anything earlier seemed premature.

But that was then, before the coronavirus pandemic, and this is now. Now, though my physical boundaries are higher than they’ve ever been, and I haven’t been within six feet of anyone besides my roommates in days, my video-chat boundaries are nonexistent.

Before, there was a vulnerability about video chats that I found disconcerting. It wasn’t just the glimpse you got into people’s personal spaces, and how they move through them; it was the fact that you get to watch someone watch themselves. Though we may pretend to be looking at another person when we FaceTime or Zoom, really we’re just looking at ourselves — fussing with our hair, subtly adjusting our facial expressions, trying to find the most flattering angle at which to hold our phones. Seeing someone else do this feels voyeuristic, like watching them from behind a two-way mirror.

Now, I, like many people with the luxury of working remotely, spend my days staring into the faces and homes of my colleagues on my computer. I see what colors they’ve painted their walls, what sort of art they’ve chosen to hang up. I see whether they sit at a desk or on a couch. I watch them watch themselves, see them fix their hair, and straighten their posture. At first, it felt odd, wrong, like when you were a kid and you would see your teacher at the supermarket, but everyone seemed to get used to it pretty quickly. People are starting to seem less self-conscious, more relaxed in front of the camera. The corners of the homes in which my colleagues work have become familiar to me; already, I don’t scrutinize the edges of each person’s chat square as much anymore. Occasionally, a child, pet, or partner will wander through the frame, and remind me that I’m somewhere I don’t belong, peeping intrusively into my co-workers’ personal lives. I wonder what it will be like when this is all over, if we’ll feel closer than before, or if we’ll pretend to forget everything we’ve learned about each other.

When work is over, I shut Zoom and FaceTime my friends, family, therapist. People I haven’t spoken to in years. Anyone, really. It’s comforting. The vulnerability of video chat seems so insignificant compared to the vulnerability of being afraid. The other day, a friend texted me after I tried to FaceTime her and said that she wasn’t camera ready. We’re so far beyond that, I wanted to say. Who cares what you look like during a global pandemic?

It’s been ages since I stopped talking to that guy who FaceTimed me a year ago, but I’d happily do it now. I wonder what’s outside his window.

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The Bizarre Intimacy of Video Chat