All I wanted was to live alone. After coronavirus swept through New York City, solitude became my worst enemy
- When she turned 30, all
New York Cityresident Rebecca Fishbein wanted was to live alone.
- But when the coronavirus swept through the city and her roommates fled, solitude became her reality.
- She bought a dutch oven and named it Gertie, talked to herself in the mirror, and felt like celebrating when she saw a single other human.
- Living alone, it turned out, wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and one new roommate later, she's delighted to have someone around again.
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For months, all I wanted was to live alone.
In the decade I've lived in Brooklyn, I've had a handful of roommates. Some were excellent, and are now lifelong friends. One was a monster who had no business living with other people. Another was downright regrettable.
For the most part, cohabitation was perfectly fine — a standard, necessary function of surviving on a low salary in a city full of sky-high rents and fellow young people trying to make it. It didn't occur to me to fantasize about living alone, because
But then in the relative halcyon days of September — before the coronavirus pandemic bore down on humankind — I turned 30. For the first time it occurred to me that living with two relative strangers was maybe not so great. My friends with better jobs and/or serious romantic partners were starting to move into one-bedrooms, and I was envious of their newfound independence.
I started dreaming of my own space
I liked my roommates a lot, but the politics of managing shared space were starting to wear on me. Imagine not falling into the toilet in the middle of the night because someone else's boyfriend left the seat up! Imagine decorating a living room with my own furniture! Imagine only taking out my own trash!
I set alerts for rent-stabilized studios in neighborhoods I thought I could at least consider one day affording. I put bookshelves and comfy chairs in online shopping carts. I ramped up my freelance roster and applied to jobs outside of the media, ones that looked stable and financially prudent enough to net me 600 square feet in an affordable Brooklyn neighborhood. I was willing to give up a lot to live alone — takeout, vacations, the occasional overpriced pair of boots.
The final straw came this past February, when life changes hit both of my roommates at the same time and left me scrambling to fill two rooms at once.
I had spent so much time moving into rooms and filling rooms and having my space change on me with little notice, and I was tired of it. Living alone was still not the least bit financially feasible, but I swore I would find a way to make it happen once my lease was up in the summer, even if I had to sell all my belongings and/or used underwear to make it happen.
In the meantime, March began, and COVID-19 crept closer
People who came to look at the apartment asked about quarantine and working from home. Someone asked me if I thought we'd be able to "support each other emotionally" in a time of crisis.
When my last roommate moved out on March 11, things still felt relatively normal in New York, if not in my apartment. For the first time ever, I was the only one with the keys. The space was mine, at least until April 1st, when I assumed one of a few people who'd expressed interest in the leftover room would move in.
That Thursday night, I invited three friends over to drink wine and hang out, for once not worrying about giving anyone a heads up. We debated going to a bar, but panic over the pandemic was beginning to surge. My own apartment, which now belonged exclusively to me, felt safe.
On Friday morning, however, I got an email from two friends alerting me that a guest at their wedding, which I'd attended the previous weekend, had tested positive for COVID-19. The following week, cases surged, businesses shut down, and rumors started spreading about a total lockdown. Two potential future roommates dropped out. A dude who took one of the open rooms dropped his stuff and drove to his family's place in New England, where he intended to wait out the pandemic.
I had gotten what I wanted. It looked like I would be living alone — and, in general, would be alone — for a very long time.
My wish ended up being more of a curse
The first week I took advantage of the space, cooking elaborate meals with my own Spotify on blast, marathoning Scrubs in the living room, throwing myself dance parties at 2 a.m., having full-blown anxiety attacks on the couch without worrying about anyone walking in on me.
By week 2, the novelty wore off. Deaths ticked up. Positive cases skyrocketed. Experts started suggesting we'd be social distancing for 12 to 18 months. And I started to fear my brief period of isolation would last a lot longer than a few weeks.
There are, of course, much, much worse things than being in quarantine alone. Still, the lack of real-life human contact was unsettling. I panic-bought a Dutch Oven, named it Gertie, and started calling it "my only friend." At a Zoom game night, I introduced Gertie to the other attendees. "She's my pal! She makes me food!" I said proudly. They asked if they should check in on me more.
A giant mirror lives in my living room, and by week three, I started having conversations with my reflection. At first, these chats were light — "Should I wear my blue leggings or my black leggings or just go pantsless, do you think?" — but eventually they entered a deeper plane. We chatted about death and heartbreak and loneliness. I asked her when she thought I might see another person. I talked to her about my parents, who live in Manhattan and about whom I worried incessantly. She didn't have a lot to say, but it was nice to have her there nonetheless.
I took to staring at other people on my brief jaunts to the grocery store, watching their faces move, grateful to see someone who wasn't a pixelated box on a screen. I delighted in listening to my upstairs neighbors stomp around. My friends complained about their roommates and I seethed with jealousy. I started pouring drinks for two, even though I drank both of them. One day, on a park run, I spotted someone I knew. He waved at me from six feet away. I might as well have been at a party.
At some point, in the middle of the night, I had a panic attack. I feared death and loss, but I also feared being alone. I envisioned long stretches of nothingness, of anxiety, of forgetting how to interact. "It will always be this way," my anxiety-brain screamed at me. I cracked open a window, told my brain to shut up, and watched six hours of Scrubs.
Eventually, a friend desperate for a new apartment emerged to cure my loneliness
At the end of March, I got an early-morning phone call from a friend who lived in a nearby neighborhood. "I have to get out of my apartment," he said. "Is that room still open?" It very much was, though I'd started going into it during the day to pretend I was on a short trip. We settled on a move-in date in mid-April.
Once I knew my complete isolation would be temporary, I started to enjoy living alone. The midnight dance parties were more joyful, the late-night living room TV binges an embrace of brief freedom, the piles of my own dishes more a purposeful statement than a symptom of depression. It was still nice to have space, I decided. But having someone answer me when I spoke out loud would be even nicer.
My new roommate eventually did move in, and it took me a minute to readjust to cohabitation. I bristled briefly at the dishes that weren't mine, the negotiation over couch-sharing, the fact that my late-night dance parties were now verboten. But the benefits of having a living, breathing human only feet away from me far outweighed the negatives. Little things that annoyed me before quarantine — footsteps in the living room, loud music, hair in the shower drain — were now a reminder that I wasn't the last, lonely human on the planet.
When it comes to shared apartment-dwelling under normal circumstances, hell is the other people in your home. Your space is a place to disconnect from the outside, to reset, to withdraw from friends and family and strangers into a world of one.
In a pandemic, though, the other people in your home are all you have. People talk about how quarantine has given them the opportunity to feel closer to their family, to feel connected to the people they live with, to lean into relationships with the people you love while separating from strange bodies presumably throbbing with a strange virus.
But when you live alone in a pandemic, you are perpetually disconnected. Phone calls and video chats help, but they're brief and filtered through technology. Knowing that everyone else is folding further into their shared households is even more isolating.
And so, for the most part, I am so thrilled to have company I could scream, even if I've had to abandon my chats with the living room mirror, and invite someone else to the late-night dance parties. So much for living alone. I'll never do it again — unless I get an email alert for a great deal on a studio. Just in case.
Rebecca Fishbein is the author of "Good Things Happen To People You Hate" and a contributor to Jezebel. Her work has been published in Gothamist, Baltimore City Paper, Time Out New York, Vice, Splinter, Adweek, The Cut, Lifehacker, and Curbed NY. She lives in Brooklyn.
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