When night fell on Thursday evening last week, I was stooped over a pile of dishes in the kitchen sink. Adam,* one of my two housemates, stepped into the room. For an odd moment, he stood behind me. Then he said, “Have you seen my text message?”
I had not.
“I had a telemedecine appointment with a doctor.”
Adam relayed the details quickly and without flourishes. On Tuesday, he had begun to notice that walking was a chore—he was getting winded just from moving around, until he was unable to walk and talk at the same time. Then his eyelids began to feel hot.
On Wednesday, he woke up with a strange sensation he’d never experienced before: soreness in his lungs. The feeling reminded him of running sprints in the freezing cold while hopelessly out of shape. By now, it had become painful for him to breathe.
Adam had tried to see his physician, he said, but the office was overbooked. They sent him to do the telemedicine clinic instead. The physician listened intently for a few minutes, before issuing his opinion: Adam had likely contracted the coronavirus. What he was experiencing were the early stages of Covid-19.
“I’m going to quarantine in my room for a while,” Adam offered. I was still standing frozen over the sinkful of dishes as I took in this news.
Adam had a way of speaking that made him sound cheery in almost any scenario—he sometimes reminded me of Benjamin from The Graduate—but one that also made it impossible to decipher his inner moods. We had never shared a crisis—much less a hardship of any kind—and in that moment, I understood how little I really knew him.
“So,” he added, in a tone I found too buoyant, “I guess we’ll all have to be really careful.”
Was he concerned or not concerned? In the friendliest tone I could muster, I started asking questions:
Was he in pain? Somewhat.
Did he have a fever? Not yet.
What about testing—would he get tested?
No, he would not: The doctor had strictly warned Adam not to even try. Only 300 test kits were available in Washington, he told Adam, and doctors weren’t going to waste scarce resources on a healthy male in his twenties. Adam’s body would heal itself: The most important thing he could do was not to transmit it to others.
Adam and I had never carried on a conversation longer than ten minutes.
This last comment sparked my morbid imagination. “I don’t suppose you know—” I was monitoring my words with a new apprehension, uncertain of the etiquette for a pandemic. (Dear Prudence: My housemate has brought Pharaoh’s plague upon our house…) “You don’t happen to know how, right? How you got it?”
It was impossible to say. Adam retraced his steps: He had been to the Phillips Collection, the National Mall, taken the Metro. And there was a recent encounter with someone who mentioned a recent trip, having just returned—good Lord—from Italy.
It was after the word “Italy” that the weight of the situation, for the first time, entered the room. Adam was sick. Our third housemate was still at work. It would fall to me to make some kind of plan.
But could there be a plan? As Adam headed back to his room, it occurred to me that we had been sharing living quarters every day since his exposure. My God, I realized, with obvious embarrassment. We share a bathroom.
Dazed, I picked up my phone and texted my boss:
“Please call me first thing tomorrow morning.”
When your roommate is diagnosed with Covid-19, the first thought is predictable: Should I run for it? I did have relatives in the area. But this idea contained its own rebuttal: It would be irresponsible to ask someone to take me in, since the fact that I felt no symptoms meant nothing. I had to assume I was now a carrier. We were trapped together.
At a few years shy of 30, I have lived in the same rowhouse in Northeast DC, always with two others, for nearly four years. Housemates have come and gone, the home’s domestic DNA uncoiling and reforming into new. In this current iteration—me, Adam, and a third housemate, Steven—the three of us had lived together for less than a year.
Adam’s entree was particularly rushed. He had secured pride of place, essentially, by being the first person to respond to a Craigslist ad who did not appear crazy or disturbed. The three of us met in a nearby wine bar, where the conversation lasted 15 minutes. Then we offered him the room.
In a flash, our house had transformed into an obstacle course.
After that, with one exception, Adam and I had never carried on a conversation longer than ten minutes. Things I knew about him: His family was from upstate New York. He favored Bernie Sanders. He liked the Netflix show Turn. Things I didn’t know: whether he was religious, if he had any life-threatening allergies, whether he was dating anyone, or even if he was straight or gay.
My housemates tended to eat alone in their rooms. Our separate lives, combined with late hours, meant that entire days might pass before we saw one another. This was not the life I had imagined when I moved here. But it was acceptable.
There are Washingtonians, I suspect, who might recognize their own situation in these details. Nationwide, a quarter of adults under 34 live with housemates. The trials of securing a roommate (or a room) have become, for city-dwelling youth, an Alice-in-Wonderland ordeal; how many would delight at the chance to never speak to their housemate? Small wonder, then, that the coronavirus work-from-home orders have forced cohabitants who encounter each other as infrequently as once a week to suffer their near-constant presence in tight domestic quarters, reintroducing—or rather, introducing—them to one another’s lives.
So when it came time to plan for how we’d handle Adam—how Steven and I would miraculously avoid getting this virus—the feeling was a mix of curiosity and dread. Who, really, were the people with whom I had been living all this time? And who was I to them?
Could they be trusted to make a pact? To pull their weight? To care enough about their housemates not to go to a crowded bar? To not lie if asked when they washed their hands? Could I?
Later, we assembled in the kitchen. Adam’s symptoms had not improved. Everyone stood several feet apart. But Adam wasn’t wearing a mask—this was already against CDC guidelines. I tried to hide my nervousness.
I had spent hours creating a “game plan”: a menu of about 15 options, mostly recommended by the CDC. They ranged from habits we already had (eating in separate rooms) to more extreme measures (bringing meals to the door).
I’d also been driven to desperate measures, steps that I would have laughed at, even feigned contempt for, just 24 hours earlier. I tracked down the phone number of a pop-up entrepreneur who I heard had stockpiled Clorox and masks, and I spent about $150 to stock the house. (She also threw in some isopropyl alcohol and bleach for good measure.) When the woman opened the door, she stood behind the iron-barred portcullis and wore a face mask. Without a word, she used her foot to push a cardboard box onto the stoop. As I walked away, she gave me a gloved thumbs-up.
To my consternation, Adam and Steven rejected the idea of wearing masks and gloves.
Back in the house, the task that loomed largest was psychological. Yes, I had bought the crucial items. But would anyone use them? I toyed with the best way to present a plan: If I calibrated toward overreaction, it might move the Overton Window in a preventative direction. But overreacting could backfire, painting me as a hypochondriac and a controlling Nurse Ratchett—or worse, tarring Adam as a leper whose existence should be denied rather than looked after. And his buy-in was the most essential—something none of us could risk doing without.
Now the three of us stood, unmasked, staring at the iPad that displayed my 15 ideas.
We had barely begun discussing them when Steven interjected quietly: “I understand everything that’s going on. But I think all this”—he gestured with his hand toward the window—“has gotten a little overblown.”
I was prepared for this scenario. I maneuvered the iPad to an episode of the New York Times podcast “The Daily” and played an interview with its senior health correspondent, who addressed Steven’s same question. No, came the reply. It’s as bad as the media says, or worse.
We proceeded through the checklist. To my consternation, Adam and Steven rejected the idea of wearing masks and gloves. But they agreed to other things: using paper and plastic dining ware, wiping down surfaces zealously, banning loitering in common areas. Adam would use his own bathroom, while Steven and I would share his. The main breakthrough came in the form of social distancing: Only one person would leave his closed room at a time. I felt this was the greatest victory of the negotiations.
The consensus was heartening. But there were still teeth-gnashing moments of dread. When Adam rejected gloves, he said in his upbeat way, “I think it’s okay. I’m just grabbing things with my shirt,” and then proceeded to demonstrate by sticking his hand under his T-shirt and opening the fridge with it. I felt the urge to scream, “DON’T YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW SERIOUS THIS IS?” Instead, I said nothing.
Maybe I should just catch this damn virus, I thought. Quarantine seemed like an all-or-nothing game. Perhaps we’d survive for a week and Adam would improve; but if Steven got lazy and caught the virus at its tail end, I’d be trapped in the house all over again. And after surviving that, then what? An endless 18 months of dread and doubt? How many hundreds of times could I reasonably sing the “Happy Birthday” song before I crumpled, carrying on conversations with my lampshade and gargling bleach just to feel alive again?
Catching the virus once, getting it early, could put an abrupt end to it all. I started to imagine how it would work. Hey, Adam? How would you feel about coughing into my mouth…?
As I would come to find, the isolation of a pandemic swings the lonely mind between extremes. Just days before, I’d been the employee who strutted around the office with latex gloves, trying to project insouciant defiance. Soon, I would be the fear-stricken husk of a man who once returned from the Metro, stripped bare in the living room, and frantically sprayed the pile of clothes with a Lysol can I gripped like it was the conch of freedom.
Later, reflecting, I would remember that luck is the residue of good design. But stupidity is the artifact of a crisis.
Quarantine was an all-or-nothing game. For the next 72 hours, time dilated into a slowness that felt completely foreign. We almost never left our rooms. When we did, it was for minutes. The house was quiet. The kitchen was plastered with printed warnings: WIPE DOWN. DO NOT USE. KEEP DOORS CLOSED.
Adam stayed in bed, sleeping. But Steven continued to go to work. We couldn’t tell if his brazenness was intended to spite the constraints we had put in place or if his work left him with no options. Was he telling his coworkers, as I had, of Adam’s condition?
Adam and I debated confronting him. But for what gain? By now, the quarantine had magnified the smallest conversations into a diplomatic ordeal on the order of Grand Strategy. As bad as things were, the situation could always worsen. When that happened, we would need political capital with Steven—capital that didn’t seem worth blowing in the first 48 hours.
Steven’s risk-taking heightened another bizarre feeling of quarantine: In a flash, our house had transformed into an obstacle course. Banal conveniences suddenly took on a lethal edge. Where could the virus be hiding? On the light switch? On the sink faucet? The banister? When most of your day has been spent inside the same ten-foot radius and it suddenly occurs to you with true terror that all this time no one has been using the hand soap to sterilize the hand-soap bottle—well, that’s when the mind briefly touches the void.
“I think it’s okay. I’m just grabbing things with my shirt.”
But the virus was revealing something about myself, too. There was something in my nature, I was pleased to find, that commends itself nicely to preparing for mass death. It brought out a competitive mindset that I hadn’t felt since high school. Of course, I knew that coronavirus wasn’t a game. But if it were, I was determined to be Tom Brady.
Thus, leaving the bedroom took on the procedures and weight of departing from the International Space Station. I kept a pair of “exit clothes” in a plastic bag, black jeans and a long-sleeved shirt; removed them; deloused them with Lysol; dressed; rubbed my hands with isopropyl alcohol; donned my single-use black latex gloves; rubbed those with isopropyl alcohol; fastened a rubber band around each glove to secure it, and put on a baseball hat (the effect of this step was uncertain). Lastly, I applied my respirator mask, my glasses fogging with each nasally exhale. Then I opened the hatch and stepped out into the twinkling cosmos, typically to retrieve peanut butter.
Still, my thoughts returned to the housemates. Were they washing their hands? Were they following protocol? After Steven’s comment in the kitchen, I wondered if I should view him with as much apprehension as Adam. One night, I woke up to hear Steven’s footsteps outside my door, lumbering across the upstairs hallway. I shouted toward the ceiling, as if waking from a bad dream: “Wash your hands!” The footsteps stopped, but there was no reply. I heard his door close.
If the virus was shrouding Steven in mystery, it was pulling the curtain back on Adam. He had done everything right: taking his temperature daily, washing his hands at all hours, and notifying me before he left the room so we wouldn’t bump into each other.
We’d even begun to share texts, which we’d never really done, two prisoners communicating through the walls.
“How are you feeling?” I texted.
“Doing well! Just tired.”
“Bang on the walls if you need an ambulance :)” I replied.
“Will do lol.”
Adam was doing something else: trying to call the CDC to report his case. He waited on hold for two hours. When he finally got through, a woman read from a script: She advised him to call his physician. Adam called his physician—who told him to call the CDC.
To cheer him up, I proposed we order some pie—in pancake-batter flavor, his favorite. “Sounds heavenly,” he wrote back.
In truth, I was laying the groundwork for asking him to start wearing a mask. Maybe my guile was obvious—this was Washington, after all. But political capital doesn’t just spring from nowhere.
On Sunday morning, I awoke to my phone ringing. It was Adam.
“I’ve been cleared,” he said.
He was calling me from GW Hospital, where he’d just visited an urgent-care clinic. The doctor did a pulmonary exam and cleared him almost immediately.
“He thinks it’s allergies, and probably asthma,” Adam said. He still had no fever, a factor that the doctor claimed allowed him to rule out coronavirus instantly.
The phone call brought no relief. Could it really be true? I knew there were cases in the news of Covid patients who shrugged off their symptoms as allergies and often didn’t have a fever for several days.
On the other hand, it was true that this was Adam’s first spring in Washington, and he was also asthmatic. He hadn’t used his inhaler since the soreness in his lungs first arrived—he simply hadn’t thought to.
When we hung up, I ruminated. The odds had seemed tiny that Adam would have gotten sick so quickly; what were the chances that a healthy 28-year-old male was among the first 100 cases in a city of 600,000? Were the odds of being a false positive, then, really that hard to believe?
But if the doctor was wrong then our fate was sealed, since the hazmat protocols would all have been scaled back.
For the next day, as Adam strode around the house, enjoying his newfound freedom, I tried all I could to conceal my feelings of trepidation, even displeasure. Soon, though, his health became obvious. He never showed further symptoms.
One week later, it’s clear now our ordeal wasn’t special; it was just early. And our triumph lasted two days at most: When Steven’s office finally closed, social distancing was the new normal and we found ourselves sharing close quarters once again, indefinitely. Our weekend with the Andromeda Strain was merely a dry run.
We’ve established new protocols: Leaving the house for social gatherings, Adam and I decided, should be a group decision. I had badly wanted to see friends for dinner, but Adam politely vetoed it. Far from bitter, I was delighted he took the matters so seriously—heartened that we had gotten so lucky, I realized, when we chose him as our housemate.
When I mentioned this to Steven, he was silent. I suspected he’d bristle at the notion of seeking permission for anything. Look, you’re your own man, I told him. But whatever you decide to do, it’s key that you just let us know. Open channels of communication. He looked me in the eyes and appeared to nod.
But a few hours later, I knocked on Steven’s door. There was no answer.
“Where’s Steven?” I asked Adam. Neither of us had a clue.
Steven’s room was empty, and his car was gone. He had left the house.
*The names in this essay have been changed.