What It's Like to Live Alone While 'Sheltering in Place'

Thoughts on life within 650 square-feet.
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Until four weeks ago, my apartment felt like it belonged to someone else. Since moving in last December, I’ve been slowly furnishing it with vintage rugs, mid-century furniture, and all my latest reads in an attempt to make it feel like “me.” Until now, it’s felt like a place I return to after work, but not yet like my “home.” Since COVID-19, my apartment and I have had nothing but time to get acquainted. For the first time in months, this 650 square-foot box has become my refuge from the world outside; the place I have been asked, encouraged, and directed to stay until further notice. I live here alone (if that’s surprising to anyone, I haven’t been ready to directly address it, but promise that I will), and adjusting to my new life in several different ways over the last few months has been a test of my resilience and faith that things can, and will, get better soon.

I can hear my new next-door neighbor, who moved in just weeks before the coronavirus was reported in L.A., assembling IKEA furniture next door. Sometimes I hear the tenants below me; a son often comes to visit his elderly parents, speaking loudly because they can’t hear very well. The neighbor across called last week to make sure I was doing okay–her daughter moved out just two weeks ago, and she’s now alone for the first time in 27 years. Many of us in my quaint six-plex live alone, and it’s the often eerie silence I can’t stand the most.

I keep almost all my windows open so I can hear sounds from the outside. I hear dogs going outside for their walks, and neighbors chatting six feet apart on the sidewalk. I listen to parents yelling at kids on Razor scooters to “slow down!” and welcome the sound of delivery trucks backing up or heading away to their next destination. Love Island UK streams endlessly from my TV between the hours of 8am-5pm, to distinguish the “work day” from my “home time.” The cast members have become my co-workers, and I dread having to start another season and learn an entirely new set of personalities. I suppose I’ll switch shows eventually, but I like that it’s brainless so I’m not tempted to watch too closely.

When the work day is done, I pause the TV and switch gears into personal time. I walk into the kitchen to discover the piles of dishes I’ve used either drying in the rack or stacked up in the sink, desperately longing for the days when I had a dishwasher. I sigh and roll up my sleeves for the twelve-thousandth time since quarantine began and wash the dishes from lunch or last night’s dinner. I’ve been trying to clean up immediately, like I usually do, but something about being in my house 24/7 has somehow made me more likely to leave my dishes in the sink until morning. I know for a fact that if I didn’t live alone I would absolutely lose my shit over even one unattended dirty dish, though, so this is a new behavior I honestly can’t explain.

Adjusting to living on my own again has been one thing, but feeling essentially locked inside my home has been quite another. Has my apartment become a prison, or my sanctuary? I try to remind myself every day that I am not, technically, locked inside. I go for a walk every afternoon to FaceTime with Jess, and empty my recycling a little more than usual. I head to the grocery store once a week, completing my trip as quickly as humanly possible and sanitizing my hands, phone, cart, and car door as I go. I forget things constantly in my effort to spend as little time in the store as I can, and have yet to make cardamom buns because I haven’t yet collected all the necessary ingredients.

I’ve tried to keep my mind as busy as possible to distract from our current reality. With no one around to capture my attention with a random conversation, it takes a little more effort to keep my brain fully occupied these days. Sometimes I’ll call a friend or text my parents, but most often, I default to picking up my next book. When I slow down and begin to think about all the people who are losing their jobs because of this or have died from exposure in the hospital trying to help others, I start to lose it. I’ve burst out crying more than once from nothing but the thoughts of people I don’t know swirling around in my head.

Although I technically have hours upon hours to read after “work” and on the weekends, I still never feel like it’s enough. Perhaps it’s because reading has always felt like my escape from the world, but my need to devour new literature has become insatiable. I’ve heard plenty of cases where people just can’t seem to focus on a book right now, but I wonder to myself whether those people live alone. I spend around 80% of my waking hours without any human interaction (real or virtual), so when I immerse myself in a new book, I want to stay there.

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I’ll be honest: My solo quarantine situation could be infinitely worse. Over the years I’ve had to learn how to be comfortable on my own, so I’m doing relatively okay at the moment. I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have a job I can mostly do from home, and that I have a job at all, when more than 10 million Americans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 thus far. It’s been 27 days since I’ve been more-or-less stuck inside my apartment and working from home, I’m not showing any symptoms, and I haven’t descended into madness yet. I guess there’s a certain peace that comes from being alone; never worrying about a fight erupting over dirty dishes, getting sick of another person’s quirks, or having to figure out how to have multiple conference calls going simultaneously in a small apartment. My space is mine and mine alone to do whatever I want with it–whether that’s working out at odd hours, watching bad television, re-organizing my books (again), listening to Billie Eilish on repeat, or leaving my dishes until tomorrow.

When this is over, I don’t think I’ll revel in the thrill of cancelled plans like I used to. I can’t wait to finally watch Mulan on the big screen with my “movie crew,” hordes of contraband candy in hand, feeling relief at the idea of sitting in a crowded room of people rather than fear. In my mind, I’m already sipping a glass of wine with girlfriends on a patio somewhere, talking about how COVID-19 has changed us, and what we’re the most excited about doing next. There’s a bright future ahead of us, but forgoing the magic of physical proximity to other humans is the only way we’ll get there. So, for now, I’ll be alone inside my apartment, patiently waiting for the future to make its way into the present.

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