When I first met Mark in my living room on March 10, the world looked much different.
I was looking forward to seeing “Hamilton” for the first time on Broadway in late March. I was planning which outfits I’d wear at the Cannes Film Festival while covering it for a French publication in May. I was still going into work every morning and dancing in ballet classes and riding the New York City subway with cavalier abandon.
The only thing to fear back then was, well, fear itself, but any fear felt on March 10 was manageable in a way that seems luxurious now.
As an Airbnb host at my apartment in West Harlem, I primarily host guests from other countries. No shade to Americans, it’s just kind of how things played out. As a French speaker, I’ve hosted guests from France, Belgium, Switzerland, and also a fair share from Italy, Spain, Japan, Germany, Australia and Ghana.
In early March, I received my first cancellation. Rika from Chuo City, Japan, sent me a message saying she needed to cancel because of potential 14-day quarantines of international travelers. More cancellations quickly followed: Stéphane from Paris, Alexandre from Puimisson and Hélène from Lyon, France. Like many others, my income was taking a fast and heavy hit as a result of the growing COVID-19 outbreaks. Having my finger on the pandemic pulse via Airbnb reservations, I saw how things were escalating, and I knew I needed to take action.
I posted an ad on Craigslist advertising the spare room that usually holds interesting guests with lovely accents and sought someone equally interesting but much closer who could move in, well, as soon as humanly possible. Within 48 hours, I found Mark and arranged his move-in date.
Mark told me he was from Oklahoma and worked at a nonprofit. I told him I was laid-back, clean and “pretty on-the-go, so I’m not home a lot.”
(“Anne, you like to think you’re laid-back, but you are not laid-back,” my friend Dale once said as we planned our Christmas movie marathon, and I specified the order in which we should watch the films and why, when to order takeout, and what “fun, impromptu activity” we could do as a break from watching the movies at “3:15 p.m., sharp.”)
So I’m not as laid-back as I tend to claim; it’s why I like surrounding myself with people who are truly laid-back. Mark seemed sweet, easy-going and laid-back. I could see us living well together for the next few months. The woman who came to see the room after him arrived wearing an N95 face mask. I knew her nervous energy would only exacerbate mine. I needed Mark.
“The room is yours!” I texted him ― and received his Venmo payment of $1,000 shortly thereafter. Neither Mark nor I could’ve predicted that our informal rental agreement meant we’d be spending a lot more time together than we bargained for.
Like any two people living in a 600-square-foot Manhattan shoebox together, there were, of course, adjustments. I prayed Mark was a heavy sleeper on the days I had to begin work at 5 a.m. He likely wondered if I had any other music than the “In the Heights” soundtrack, maybe thinking: “Does she listen to it out of necessity because it’s the only music she has? Or is she just the most devoted song-binger ever to walk the Earth?” (The latter, Mark. It is the latter.)
We’re two strangers thrown into lockdown mode in a confined space for what appears to be at least another month or two. It’s what I imagine it’s like being stuck in an elevator with someone, but for weeks on end and with intermittent delivery service from the wine shops and the Italian restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue.
Thankfully, we get on like a house on fire. We’re both introverts, so we rarely talk to each other. It’s perfect. Mark and I face each other at our desks every day with just a paper-thin wall separating us and our laptops. There’s the occasional Zoom call for work or FaceTime with family afar. Otherwise, the apartment is silent and peaceful, save for the frequent ambulance sirens heard outside. I picture us each at our desks with the wall between like the split-screen scenes from the Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie “Pillow Talk.”
We keep our respective bedroom doors closed and have gone days without seeing each other. When we do, it’s in the kitchen, making idle talk about the usual topic these days: the alarming pandemic upending life as we know it. And there was that one time I spilled wine on my sweatpants during a happy hour FaceTime chat with a friend in Jersey City. Mark and I laughed at my clumsiness as I pointed to my red-wine-soaked pink sweatpants.
In the kitchen, our electric kettles sit side-by-side on the countertop. When he first moved in, I noticed Mark’s mug, which read: “There is no greater pleasure than reading a good book.” Relief swept over me as I filled my own mug of coffee, which comes from the Drama Bookshop. We’re just two bookworms making do, keeping caffeinated, isolated and socially distanced.
In the kitchen, my ramen cups and sugar-laden cereals sit on cupboard shelves. Sometimes, I worry about Mark judging my food choices (though he doesn’t really seem like the type to judge). So disinterested in food preparation am I that I opt for foods that are easy and quick to prepare. On a shelf containing my three bags of string cheese from Trader Joe’s, you’ll find Mark’s organic chicken and fresh vegetables.
My kitchen, once rarely used beyond pressing buttons on the microwave or clicking a coffee capsule in place, now has home-cooked meal smells wafting through it. That’s been a nice addition to the unpleasant new reality we’re living in. The bits of food residue on the countertop and errant dish here and there, however, were not. I smiled at him, pretending not to notice the food crumbs as I silently lost my shit.
My standards of cleanliness and organization could be kindly described as “tidy,” realistically described as “hyper-neat,” and most aptly described by those who know me best as “Oh my God, Anne, chill out ― it’s just a crumb/loose paper/rogue dust ball that escaped your clutches.”
In short, I can see how I’d be no picnic to share a small space with during a pandemic.
Thanks to my therapist, I generally have no trouble inciting and handling conflict when necessary. But I couldn’t bring myself to talk to Mark about the kitchen and how I’d like it to be a little neater. He was just too sweet, too seemingly sensitive. If Mark had been a jerk or an aggressive type, I’d have had emphatically zero trouble broaching the topic.
But his sweet demeanor made me want to do everything possible to preserve the status quo. We’re each trying to navigate this unfamiliar terrain creating as few waves as possible. Especially because it looked like this lockdown could last for months. I wanted him to feel at home when he was at home.
So, in perhaps a major step toward my lifelong quest to be more laid-back, I decided to let it all go. “This is temporary,” I’d remind myself when seeing a lawless piece of pasta on the stovetop. Mark was a wonderful roommate, and I couldn’t have hoped for a kinder stranger to share a pandemic with.
But he must’ve sensed my slight annoyance at the state of the kitchen because, like the flip of a travel alert switch to Level 4, the cleanliness bar was raised. The kitchen was back to its pre-pandemic state.
Messy countertops are still woefully ― offensively ― unimportant when looking at the big picture: Times are dire. The economy is in crisis. People are dying in record numbers from a virus for which there is currently no vaccine and no known cure. The state of the world feels increasingly concerning and uncertain.
Mark’s mere presence, on the other side of my bedroom wall, has made life feel a bit more normal and a bit more manageable. And I hope when his time living in this apartment is over, the world looks better, brighter and different.
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