Thanks to Covid-19, My Relationship With My Roommates Is in the Gutter
The pandemic has shown that when it comes to what really matters, my housemates and I were not as close as I thought
How long should someone quarantine in their bedroom when they’ve just flown on Thanksgiving weekend? This is the question my roommate Johnny and I found ourselves debating two weeks ago as our other roommate, Claire, planned her return to Boston after months spent with family in the Midwest. The three of us have shared an apartment in Boston’s leafy, lefty Jamaica Plain neighborhood for more than a year. Until now, our most arduous household challenges have been fixing the projector screen we use to watch movies or finding the source of a sudden sour stench in the fridge (spoiler: a bag of moldy cabbage from the farm where Johnny works). Claire’s return amid the fall Covid-19 surge changed everything.
Johnny and I concurred that Claire would ideally self-isolate from us upon moving back in — given the risks of getting on a plane and the Thanksgiving holiday weekend — but we disagreed on the duration of isolation we’d ask of Claire. (The word “ask” is important here.) I wanted 10 days, if not the full 14 required by Massachusetts for arrivals from Covid-19 red zones. Johnny was comfortable with five. Since Claire evidently hadn’t been planning to self-isolate until we brought it up with her, this put me in the position of being the Covid-19 hardass, the bug-eyed roommate whose paranoia feels oppressive. With the pandemic raging across America, I was becoming scared for our collective safety. But I also didn’t want to become the bitter roommate, demanding that the other roommates make sacrifices to make me feel safer and alienating them in the process.
Before Covid-19 jumped species, the idea of catching a virus from one of my roommates never left me lying awake at night. I’ve worked in Boston as a freelance writer since 2012. In those eight years, I’ve split rent with enough roommates to staff a Covid-19 testing clinic. And I’ve enjoyed having them, actually. Co-living with roommates allows you the choice of doing your own thing or being social depending on what you’re feeling. I initially met Johnny and Claire through Craigslist, and it took us just a few weeks to learn that on top of being able to take turns vacuuming the kitchen or carrying the recycling crate down a long flight of stairs — without a chore schedule! — we enjoyed each other’s company. We’d team up for recreational adventures like shirtless runs in nearby Arnold Arboretum. Other times, we’d invite friends over to make pizzas or drunkenly build with Legos. We talked with each other, honestly, about dating, work, and our families.
In theory, Johnny, Claire, and I were perfectly situated to figure out how to keep each other healthy during a coronavirus pandemic. And at first, everything went smoothly. The three of us agreed via text messages to wash our hands upon coming home each day, which — in early March — seemed like enough. When the weight of the pandemic really hit us, Claire and I fled the apartment and shacked up with our families, who had been urging us to shelter with them. (Each of us was initially reluctant to make that move, given Covid-19’s variable incubation period.) But we didn’t leave at the same time. I was the first to bolt on March 13, just a few hours after learning that Claire was going on a date at a bar that night. Maybe my sudden exit made the pandemic feel more real to Claire because she departed shortly thereafter. Johnny, who was still going to work on the farm, suddenly had the apartment to himself.
Many of my friends with roommates in Boston and New York went through this — an exodus to live with family as the spring surge began. In retrospect, it was a high-stakes gamble — and one I’d never repeat. It wasn’t until early June when I returned to Boston and only after the three of us had agreed on a few ground rules: not to let anybody from outside our household into the apartment, to always wear our masks and social distance when we were outside the apartment, and to avoid any nonessential trips to indoor businesses whenever possible. By mid-summer, the three of us were settling back into familiar household exploits. We had groups of two to three friends over to watch Speed and Point Break on our open-air porch, but we spaced the chairs six feet apart.
Once fall arrived, Johnny and I began giving each other permission to engage in certain higher-risk activities, like swimming at the YMCA when it got chilly outside, or in Johnny’s case, having the occasional sleepover with a romantic interest from another shared apartment whose Covid-19 safety practices and exposures were similar to ours (but not identical). Even as Covid-19 infections began to creep back up in September, an empirical sign of things to come, I felt healthier and happier than I had in months.
But this peace was a mirage. It was co-living on borrowed time. Because the thing is, both my roommates and I had still not faced a serious Covid-19 challenge together in real time. When the pandemic kicked off, we fractured and fled instead of talking about how our household would adapt. When we did eventually talk, it was from separate households, where we had no day-to-day obligation to care for each other during a dangerous chapter of the pandemic. Two weeks ago, as we careened toward the worst Covid-19 outbreak yet, a single text from Claire announcing her return flight was an electric jolt of reality.
The problem was not just Johnny and I disagreeing on how long we could ask Claire to self-isolate for — it was the precedent this might set for our household as we got deeper into the winter. Johnny felt that asking Claire to stay away from us for almost two weeks could be a slippery slope toward similarly zealous precautions being applied to lower-risk (but not risk-free) activities that he was still participating in, such as dating. Inversely, I feared that if we couldn’t even ask Claire to stay in her room for a while after flying across the country during a Covid-19 surge, would I be able to ask Johnny to put his overnight dates on hold if Massachusetts went back into shutdown? Or would this request be taken as an encroachment upon his autonomy?
Having roommates you enjoy offers toasty camaraderie without the backbone of real sacrifice.
I realized, suddenly, that household history was repeating itself. Covid-19 was roaring back, and the three of us were adjusting to the bad news at varied paces. I was ready to hunker down until the curve started flattening again. Johnny and Claire were not. And there was nothing I could do to change that.
So, just like back in March, I left again, this time for a friend’s granny flat in New Hampshire. I’m not sure how long I’ll be here for. I can’t afford to pay rent for multiple apartments at once. I also don’t want desperation to be my catalyst for moving altogether. And I’m kind of embarrassed. Running from your shared apartment seems kind of nuts and overdramatic, even in a pandemic. For me, it’s short-term protectionism and a sad realization that my roommates and I were not as close as I thought we were despite the chummy relations we sustained.
It also speaks to the central irony of co-living in America.
When we talk about “living with roommates,” what we’re really talking about is sharing a space with other people out of fiscal necessity or expediency. Friendship is a welcome perk, too, but a secondary one. To live with a partner or parent is to share life itself. This involves sometimes making sacrifices that can actually change your respective lifestyles: spending less money on alcohol, for instance, or spending more time at home. Having roommates you enjoy — the dream that many of us borrowed from shows like Seinfeld and Friends — offers toasty camaraderie without the backbone of real sacrifice.
The greatest concessions I’ve asked of roommates are nothing compared to “don’t go to the gym all winter” or “stop having sex until the R0 is below 1.0.” You can’t ask roommates to make those sacrifices, even if you should. Because in America, having roommates means getting to choose between hanging out with the built-in community sharing your living room and spending no-questions-asked time to yourself in whatever space you’re afforded.
I used to love having this choice — the convenience, the variety, and most of all, the freedom. Now, I dream of more substantive co-living arrangements, like the mixed-income social housing communities in Vienna, where residents have their own flats but congregate for community dinners and basically run the building together. In America, we tend to cohabitate out of economic necessity first and foremost. In Vienna and other cities that aren’t afflicted by manufactured scarcity in housing, living with people is something you choose. You have to want that closeness to other adults and the compromises that come with co-living.
Rugged individualism is at the heart of America’s Covid-19 response, and it also explains the ironic loneliness of living with roommates during the pandemic. It would be awful if this disaster caused more Americans to forsake co-living altogether and shack up alone. But that’s a cushier solitude compared to the isolation of living with people you can’t actually live with. Even if it feels friendly.