| Arts & Culture
Movies Making the Grand Romantic Gesture
In our seven years together, we’ve thrived on routine. We’ve done long-distance before, but never quite like this.
When we arrive at the Green World Hotel, it’s well after dusk, but the block is lit up like a carnival. There are street sellers in metal carts, bicyclists jousting with cars down narrow alleys, neon awnings bursting with light. It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve been to Taipei, and the traditional characters for hotels, hospitals, and pulled noodles look thick and cluttered, like the crowds of people that we’ve spent ten months trying to avoid.
Meghan and I ride in the back seat of a taxi specifically dispatched to route us from Taoyuan International Airport to the quarantine hotel. We’re each bugged with a fourteen-day SIM card that tracks our location. Our clothing and luggage are moist from being sprayed down with disinfectant. I pay the driver and step out onto the sidewalk. At the 7-Eleven on the corner, people mill about of their own volition. It’s still warm for February, and the air smells of roasted sweet potato and skewered meat. For a fleeting moment, I imagine taking Meghan by the hand and making a run for it, escaping our two-week fate in separate rooms. How romantic and futile it would be: setting off like vigilantes.
The receptionist at the front desk glares at us through a curtain of transparent plastic. He looks to be in his early twenties, neatly coiffed hair, glasses. His face mask is distorted in the plastic like in a fun house mirror.
“Welcome to prison,” he says, a jovial lilt to his voice. He stands up to greet us and his body from the neck down is wrapped in Tyvek. “You can call me Terry.”
“Thank you,” I say to Terry. “What’s our crime?”
He doesn’t miss a beat. “Being American.”
Terry instructs us to report our temperature readings to him at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. each day. We may get called randomly by the CCDC to check up on our health. Our phones should be kept fully charged, so that we’re always reachable.
“What if someone calls and we don’t answer?” Meghan asks. Terry raises an eyebrow.
“You may be subject to additional scrutiny.” He gives her what I imagine to be a wry grin. “Besides, what else will you be doing?”
I take the elevator with Meghan up to the ninth floor, feeling the guilt rise in my chest. I may have been better off coming to Taiwan alone.
“I love you,” I tell her. “And I’m sorry.” I kiss her through my mask, tasting my own breath.
“See you in two weeks,” she says, before disappearing down the hall.
My room consists of two single beds, a desk, and a landline telephone. In the US, the average prison space is forty-eight square feet per person, and I wonder whether Taiwan’s quarantine hotels employ the same guidelines. There is just enough floor space for my suitcase and an unrolled yoga mat. A small, screenless window opens onto a busy cross street. On my tiptoes, I can touch the ceiling.
“I love you,” I tell her. “And I’m sorry.” I kiss her through my mask, tasting my own breath.
Our arrangement might have felt less discouraging had I expected to be in Taiwan in the first place. In April 2020, I had been awarded a Fulbright grant to Guangdong to finish a novel that probed my family’s ancestral past. But following Trump’s abrupt termination of the China program, I was reassigned to Taiwan. For months, I wasn’t even sure the trip would happen. By December 2020, the US was battling its then-largest surge of Covid-19 cases, and Taiwan suspended all foreign national visas.
Even when, by a small miracle, the visa for my wife and I came through a week before our flights, there was a new wrinkle: To reduce the risk of infection, each of us would be required to quarantine separately. Meghan and I were married months before the pandemic started and had spent nearly every moment together since. Being split up felt not only pointless but personal.
Still, we jumped at the chance to travel, and it felt wrong to fault a government that was willing to accommodate any visitors from the most Covid-ravaged nation on earth. We knew that Meghan couldn’t stay long—time zones would make work hell—but since we didn’t want to be separated for ten months, we didn’t consider an alternative. It did mean, however, that two weeks of Meghan’s monthlong stay would be spent apart. Depending on how cases progressed, there was some uncertainty about whether she’d be able to return to the US at all. But, given all that I was putting her through, it wasn’t clear whether our relationship would make it that long either.
Breakfast the next morning is a saran-wrapped, four-decker sandwich made with egg, cheese, cucumbers, and peanut butter. The light switches in the room are covered in saran wrap, too, presumably because they’re too hard to sanitize otherwise. I don’t question how thoroughly the checker-print carpets, on which we roll out our yoga mats and take our meals, are cleaned.
“You should roll up your mat when you’re done,” Meghan tells me, on one of our daily mealtime calls.
“Why? Then I’d just have to unroll it again.”
“You have to think long-term,” she says. “Time management. We’re here for two weeks and have to feel like time is passing. Keep your mat out and all the days and meals blend together.”
In our seven years together, we’ve thrived on routine: meal prep, errands, weekly date nights. We’ve done long-distance before—cross-country moves, grad programs, job changes—but never quite like this. It’s hard to imagine something bad happening and neither of us being able to help the other person through it.
“Variety. Stamina. Flexibility. That’s what’s going to get us through,” she continues between bites. It sounds like good advice for a relationship too.
We’ve always been good at observing milestones. Years ago, when Meghan and I started dating, I would have sent flowers to her office, planned a special outing, made a reservation somewhere. It was never much, but in our new reality, it feels even more necessary. Now, Valentine’s Day 2021 is in two weeks, and I’ve done nothing to prepare.
I decide to fill my days by watching romantic comedies for inspiration. I’ve always appreciated rom-coms for their grand gestures—spontaneity, serenading, heartfelt confessions in the pouring rain—if only to imagine what a more dramatic relationship might feel like. But in the situation I find myself in now, they might offer something more, like a remedy.
Meals are delivered to our door three times a day. I never see it happen, but I can hear the plastic rustling outside, the sound of footsteps growing faint, the ding of the elevator. We’ve already been warned about the woman who was fined $3,500 for leaving her room to retrieve boiling water for instant noodles.
But there are no rules on looking past the doorframe. Meghan and I start coordinating when we poke our heads out to get our meals. We linger as we make eyes at each other down the hall, just far enough away that we can’t stretch out and touch, before withdrawing back inside.
I unwrap a container of cold dumplings to the opening credits of You’ve Got Mail. In the movie, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan flirt over instant messenger before they ever know who the other person is. Sure, I can text or call Meghan whenever, but there’s something charming about outdated technology. Maybe I could slip a note under her door? Going past the door’s threshold is off-limits. I could write something and fold it up into a paper airplane, but what if it sails over to someone else instead?
Just then, I hear a noise in the hallway. It sounds like a person’s voice, feet scampering, and then a slammed door. I immediately hook the chain lock.
“Did you hear that?” Meghan asks over the phone.
“Yeah,” I say. “Do you think that was someone leaving their room?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I just locked my door.”
“Me too.” I pause. “They think they’re the ones keeping us inside,” I declare, “but we want to be here.” We both laugh. Of course, neither of us want to be there at all.
I receive a message from Terry that’s a diagram of how to properly knot our trash bags. To prevent disease and maintain sanitation, the message says, garbage is only collected at 4 p.m. every day and should not be left at the front door outside that time. We communicate over Line, a messaging app that offers an inordinate number of emoji stickers for purchase. I send him images of my thermometer readings and he responds with a sticker—an excited rabbit shaking tambourines, a Shiba Inu giving a thumbs-up, a prancing duck.
Meghan and I eat our meals faster so that we spend less time on the floor, but our rooms smell perpetually of food.
“Can you believe we’re having bento boxes again?” Meghan asks at dinner. Most of the time, our phones are propped against the bedpost, aimed at our crotches. “I’m going to lose my mind if I have to eat pork and boiled cabbage one more time.”
We’re being fed and housed with American tax dollars. It seems indecorous to complain about the food. But increasingly, our lack of agency over what we eat feels like a metaphor for our entire experience.
“I’ll text Terry about it,” I say, though not very convincingly.
It’s past 4 p.m., but I decide to leave the box outside my door anyway. Every night a canary-yellow truck blaring Für Elise pulls up on the street beneath my window, and scores of people from the neighboring apartment buildings shuffle downstairs to throw out their trash. Across the street, a wall of AC units looks like it’s about to topple. On the corner is a small temple, where a man in robes lights incense every evening.
Meghan and I have never had the kind of roller coaster romance that preempts cycles of betrayal and winning someone back. But I can’t help feeling like Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You , like I’ve somehow deceived Meghan into coming to Taiwan based on my own self-interest and now she’s wise to the bet. I watch the man as he sits outside the temple in his tan linens, smoking a cigarette, making a phone call. I wonder who he’s talking to this late, whether he’s calling his wife, trying to assuage her, however futilely, that everything will be all right.
The weather turns from sun to clouds, like someone lowering a dimmer switch.
“I’m sorry to inform you that today’s provided meal will have some changes,” Terry’s message starts in Mandarin. “Restaurants we’ve been patronizing have begun to close for the holiday break. The change may not be welcome by all. Happy New Year!”
Spring festival has begun, and people are out on the streets with firecrackers and sparklers. Terry tells us in his next message that he himself is going away for a few days to be with family. I still send my temperature readings twice a day but there are no more sticker responses, and I wonder whether anyone is watching us at all.
At noon, a paper bag arrives at our doorstep.
“I didn’t even know Burger King existed in Taiwan,” Meghan says. She’s lying horizontally on her yoga mat; evidently, we’re done with normal sitting. Inside is a chicken burger with a side of chicken fries that feels obscene.
“Maybe we should switch to vegetarian meals?” I offer.
“Or go on a hunger strike.”
I take the bread off my burger and pour half my soda down the bathroom sink just in case there’s a witch downstairs in Terry’s place intent on fattening us up. I picture Meghan growing increasingly gaunt down the hall and my heart sinks. And then it dawns on me: for Valentine’s Day, I’ll find a way to order us dinner.
Meghan and I have never had the kind of roller coaster romance that preempts cycles of betrayal and winning someone back.
I can see the countdown ticking before me like the days until Christmas in Love Actually . For all the film’s faults, I’ve always been impressed with how far the characters are willing to go for love: going door to door on a dodgy London street, evading security at a crowded airport, buying a one-way ticket to Wisconsin with a suitcase full of condoms. Colin Firth learns Portuguese to propose to the woman he loves, for Christ’s sake. I could at least figure out how to get delivery to a quarantine hotel room in Taiwan. But I would need Terry’s help.
It’s Valentine’s Day and one day before our release from quarantine. The air outside smells like gunpowder and cigarette smoke. There were fireworks and a lion dance on Chinese New Year that paraded around the neighborhood, but the only sounds now are of confetti being swept into a metal pan and the beating of my heart.
“I need a favor,” I text Terry. He’s already agreed to help ferry a food order I purchased to Meghan’s door, but he doesn’t know yet that I intend to deliver it myself.
“You can only leave your room when you check out,” Terry writes back, doubtless vexed that we’re rehashing the protocol he went over when we checked in. “After you check out, you can’t return.”
“But it’s the last day of quarantine,” I insist. I’d just finished When Harry Met Sally , where, in the final scene, Harry races across New York on New Year’s Eve to profess his love for Sally. It’s not as if Harry sent a proxy. Without Terry’s permission, the dinner felt suddenly pointless. What good is a romantic gesture if you can’t be there to perform it yourself?
A few minutes later, my landline phone rings, and I pick up.
“Just go,” a voice says in English. “No one will notice.” It’s Terry.
“What do you mean?”
“Government tracking is not all that high-tech,” he says. “It can only tell if you leave the hotel, not if you go to a different room.”
“So does that mean—” I stop myself. Could I really have been able to see Meghan this entire time? How could he have possibly not told me this before? My mind goes blank. I want to shout about injustice: that being in love means taking risks, or that some rules are meant to be broken, but Terry cuts me off.
“But just to be safe,” he says, “go over after midnight.” As if some magical spell will by then be broken.
I peek out across the carpeted hallway and hold my breath. One foot past the threshold of my doorway, then two. I look back at my room, suddenly worried about a key card to get back in, but remember that we’d never been issued one.
“What are you doing here?” Meghan asks. Her voice is full of surprise like in the movies, but also a sense of menace that I’m not expecting.
“It’s okay,” I tell her, “Terry said I could be here.”
“But quarantine ends tomorrow,” she says. Meghan had never considered leaving the room. I married a rule follower, who would have been mortified at the thought of getting caught.
“I thought you’d be happy to see me.”
“I am,” she says, rubbing sleep from her eyes. “But what’s a few more hours?”
I ready myself for my best Billy Crystal: “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of the life to start as soon as possible.”
“We’re already spending our lives together,” Meghan assures me. “Even if they’re sometimes apart.” She smiles. “Why do you think I’m here?” Her grand gesture was coming to Taiwan in the first place. It was enough for her to be in this hotel for two weeks, halfway around the world, with me.
She opens the door wider. There are no triumphant reunions or exasperated tears or Whitney Houston crooning in the background. But that’s not what our relationship has ever been anyway. It’s the much more mundane compromises—not the over-the-top displays of affection—that have been the foundation of our love story.
I walk into the room. The layout is slightly different: desk pushed up by the door, her bed against a large window overlooking the road. I’m certain the room is bigger than mine but manage not to say it. Meghan takes my hand in hers, leaving the food in a bag on the doorstep behind me.