Roommates in quarantine

Living in isolation with the family you chose on Craigslist

5 minute read
Isolation breakfasts. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
Isolation breakfasts. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

Every night, before she goes to bed, my roommate stops at the bottom of the stairs, one hand on the worn wooden bannister. There’s a dramatic pause until I look up from my book or laptop. “Another fun-filled day,” she trills.

After more than two weeks of isolation in our rented South Philly rowhouse, it’s the mantra for our pandemic.

The missing question

When Cora (not her real name) knocked on the door last fall, after finding my ad for a roommate in the wilds of Craigslist, a faux-fur leopard-print jacket swaddled her petite frame. She wore a jaunty beret and flawless makeup. In my hoodie and leggings, I worried about my obvious lack of effort. Shouldn’t I have looked at least as nice as I would have if I were going on a first date? Luring in a good roommate is so much more important than romance.

I asked Cora all the questions I thought you should ask a potential roommate: work life, partners, hours, habits, hobbies, allergies. The importance of maintaining my lifelong goal of having the only cat-free household in the City of Philadelphia. But “how do you think we would manage our home life in the event of a dangerous pandemic?” wasn’t on the list.

Roommate of yore

The stakes were high enough in the Before Times. A few years ago, I had a roommate who trimmed his luxuriant beard in our single bathroom and left the blizzard of brown clippings all over the sink. He’d leave his laundry in the dryer after bartending shifts and depart for the weekend, insisting that I could not touch his clothes, lest I ruin them. Once I took a pair of his pants out of the dryer, which I needed, and draped them over the upstairs railing. He texted me in all caps when he found out.

Finally, he moved to Brooklyn to pursue a screenwriting career. He wanted to be the next Judd Apatow, he said.

Home life

After Cora moved in, I didn't feel so bad about my outfit when we met. She meets the world in high style every day, and I...just usually don't.

One of the first times she made dinner at home, I was editing at my desk and heard a screech in the kitchen. I ran downstairs and dug out an ice-pack for the burn from a splash of boiling soup. Weeks later, she said she was embarrassed, worrying about what I might think of a roommate who couldn't heat a can of soup without injury. And I was afraid she thought I was the kind of roommate wouldn't render first aid.

We decorated cookies in December and vacuumed pine needles in January. Throughout February, we planned and executed a series of elaborate soups—chicken noodle, shrimp bisque, roasted root vegetable, broccoli cheddar—and she discovered my gourmet cheese cookbook, which took up permanent residence on the dining table. She calls it “the hot cheese book” and reads the recipes while she eats.

A canceled world

About two weeks ago, she came home wide-eyed and hung up the leopard-print coat (one of at least three she owns; sometimes the IKEA coat-rack falls over). “No more in-person meetings,” she said.

I immediately understood some of what she was feeling. Keeping a full calendar, with lots of arts events and socializing, helps me cope with my mood disorder. She’s in recovery from addiction and attends meetings every day.

Her workplace shuttered at about the same time my original editorial calendar fell apart. We went through the fridge and our cupboards, finding out what we had and what we would need for the weeks ahead.

Another bedtime in quarantine. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
Another bedtime in quarantine. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

Oatmeal, dumplings, and books

Since then, we’ve found a new routine of sorts. She’s up long before I am, usually joining a meeting online. By the time she’s finished, I make oatmeal with cinnamon apples for us both (I feel like a rugged, ingenious survivalist because I’m now using powdered milk). Planning meals is one thing that gives us a sense of normalcy—and something to distinguish the long housebound days. We’ve cooked everything from grilled cheese to a whole roast chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes, and on Saturdays, we get soup dumplings and bao buns delivered from Dim Sum Garden in Chinatown.

We instituted a book club, featuring Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. Our Girl Scout cookies are almost gone, and we both felt that our privations could use a little perspective.

Jane, Uma, and Lupita

Cora talks to her sponsor every day on the phone. My therapist offers remote sessions via Zoom. We’re realizing that we’re still going to be inside when Cora marks five years of sobriety next month.

“Could we celebrate?” she asked me, over leftover chicken and potatoes. “Of course!” I said. Fortunately, the hot cheese book is already out. I’m planning a cake.

We don’t have a TV, and we devote many evenings to “art club.” We take turns reading Jane Eyre aloud, from my cheap hardback, gold-edged Barnes and Noble classics edition, which feels satisfyingly scriptural as we pass it between us. I’m making whimsical freehand patterns in colored pencil, and Cora is doing a pastel series of women in hit movies, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill and Lupita Nyong’o in Us.

Nobody knows how long this is going to go on, but there are worse things than riding it out with the family you chose on Craigslist Philly. Each morning we wake up in the bizarre silence where construction sites used to be, ready to make our own version of another fun-filled day.

This story is shared with permission.

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