Club Penguin may well be the new Hinge, at least for Janet Hernandez ’24 and Charles E. Neuhauser ’24.
At the beginning of quarantine — the 15th of March to be exact — the two of them hopped on a group call for early admits. Torn from the pages of any classic love story, Hernandez caught Neuhauser’s eye from across a crowded Zoom.
Neuhauser, from Massachusetts, had “noticed” Hernandez before on social media. So, when the Floridian asked the group of early admit students, “Does anyone want to play [Club Penguin]?,” his response — “I do!” — was instantaneous. Assuming Neuhauser was just being friendly, Hernandez could never have guessed that a game of Club Penguin would lead to a nine-month relationship — two-thirds virtual, one-third together on-campus.
We live in a dystopian era where the bottom of your face is a mystery to be uncovered, where you often have no idea if the person you’re speaking to is 6-foot-4 or 4-foot-6, where instead of standing “one bible distance apart” (as many of us were advised in middle school) college students are being instructed to stand six feet apart. How on earth do two first-years find each other, let alone stay together?
As we oscillate between our pixelated and embodied selves, we must elevate the status of digitally developed relationships, and appreciate the ways in which these platforms allow us to be uniquely available to one another.
Zooming with the freshman couple, despite sitting in a different room from them, we shared an air of levity. Throughout our conversation, their eyes continually drifted back to one another, as they exchanged cheeky grins and knowing giggles.
The two characterize their relationship as “unexpected.” Neither one had planned to have a relationship in college, especially given Harvard’s dating culture mythos (or lack thereof). “Either you hook up a lot, or you’re married,” Hernandez succinctly put it.
After months of speculative texting, Snapchats, and FaceTime calls, everything suddenly became very serious when Hernandez visited Neuhauser in June, while en route to seeing another friend in Martha’s Vineyard. Without the obvious boundary offered by a screen, Neuhauser said that as they were “actually interacting and figuring things out” for the first time, they had to navigate the new challenge of “balancing expectations” for an in-person relationship.
“It’s different to be available virtually than to be available physically,” shared Hernandez.
Descending onto Harvard’s campus two months later, they were confronted by additional, unexpected challenges: Hernandez described the difficulty of forming new connections with friends, since she was already attached to someone headed into college. Neuhauser, on the other hand, had more time to socialize during quarantine, meeting new classmates in group chats and other forums, so he struggled less to balance their relationship with new friendships.
The heightened need for clear communication, presented by the pandemic, however, has served to strengthen their bond.
“I feel like it makes it easier in the pandemic to really get to know a person beyond physical stuff, because you're just kind of forced to be without that physical aspect of the relationship for a little bit,” Hernandez said.
Overall, despite social distancing measures attempting to keep them apart, they easily found ways to spend time together. Their fall in love was filled with walks by the river, ventures into Boston, and outdoor meals. They ritualize “countdowns” to special occasions, punctuating their burgeoning relationship with little moments of planned celebration.
I learned that our call was during one of those moments. The carnage of empty pizza boxes lying before them memorialized their final night on campus together.
After three months of seeing each other nearly every day, their relationship will fold back into its mostly two-dimensional form, as Neuhauser returns home for the rest of the semester, and Hernandez, granted a housing extension, continues to live on campus.
Assessing the landscape of Harvard’s first-year dating scene, Neuhauser speculates that “there are definitely fewer hookups.” Finishing his sentence, Hernandez adds that this is “because people are a lot more cautious bringing people into [their] dorms.” Although they assure me through laughter that there are still “plenty” of first-years going out: Harvard’s not-so-infamous dating scene is very much alive.
While their story is uniquely theirs, it also illuminates wider trends emerging across the United States: People are forming deeper connections online, and the number of quality conversations on dating apps is increasing. In March, the in-app video chatting feature on Bumble increased by 93 percent in America, while Hinge observed a 30 percent increase in its messaging feature, during the same period.
Hernandez and Neuhauser’s story is a testament to the authenticity and creativity of relationships, romantic and otherwise, that can be catalyzed and maintained via a multitude of online platforms.
I recently noticed that I frequently refer to the friendships that I have developed online over the past few months as “virtual friendships.” There’s a slippage in the language here, as if I’m saying not only that they’re virtual but that they’re virtually friendships. And that’s not fair to me or my new friends — diminishing meaningful connections. We need to overcome the mindset that a relationship only becomes “real” when we are together in person. That just can’t be true anymore.
At the same time, on that fateful day when we do finally unfold into our three-dimensional forms, we cannot expect that the relationships we have formed online will be perfectly replicated. Just like we had to adjust to online social life, we’re going to have to adjust back to in-person relationships, which will necessitate open lines of communication and consent, as we strive to reintroduce physical ease into the nuanced contours of our new relationships.
For Neuhauser and Hernandez, the weeks ahead, apart again, don’t worry them that much; perhaps surprisingly, at this point, a month or two away from one another seems very manageable.
“Hang in there,” Neuhauser says to those looking for love. As in any relationship, he advises, the key is to listen, communicate, and be patient.
Whether you lock eyes in a crowded Zoom or during a masked encounter, love remains as contagious as ever.
Aysha L.J. Emmerson ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a special concentrator in Resilience Studies in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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