Image Credit: Sylwia Padiasek
A Thursday afternoon marked two months that I had been living with Ryan. Before, we were just a girl and a guy who’d been dating a few weeks in Manhattan. We were the couple twirling their pasta at little Italian places with their elbows touching strangers, kissing outside bars, returning to separate apartments, phones lighting up with I had so much fun texts. Then the quarantine began. Now I was also Ryan’s roommate, staring at his bananas, waiting for them to ripen so I could bake them into bread, skirting around the question: should I leave?
I used to have an idea of what love felt like in your early 20s: thrilling, short-lived, apart from daily life. I was accustomed to leaving and being left, and it alarmed me to think of relying on anyone other than myself.
In January, I matched with Ryan on Hinge and met him for drinks at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen. We sat in a corner booth, sipping on cocktails, our knees touching once in the night. He was earning a medical degree, smart and even-tempered, with brown eyes and undercut black hair. He had a big aquarium, he told me, where he took care of fish and coral and hermit crabs. In February I told Ryan that I was the star and he was the rock. He found this funny.
“Do I have to be a rock?” he said.
“You can be a coral,” I said.
“Which makes you,” he told me, “my zooxanthellae.”
Later, I looked up the word. I read about the little organisms that attach to coral and make it their home, giving the coral its color.
So we began dating. We walked through downtown Manhattan, met friends in tiny bars, kissed goodbye in the Port Authority underground.
Then one morning I woke up in Ryan’s apartment to Governor Cuomo’s stay-at-home order. The next couple hours distorted. We entered a wormhole. I don’t remember choosing to stay; I just stayed. I watched as Ryan cleared out a drawer for me, as our motions compressed within the walls. We made gnocchi for dinner and talked politely at the table. Balancing our plates in the dishwasher, I wondered what was going to happen to us.
I began to acquaint myself with his apartment, with the correct way to maneuver around the hard corners of the bed in darkness, with the silverware drawer and each TV remote. At night, I listened to him sleep and moved my knee closer against his back to make sure we were still alive. One day I drew Ryan at his kitchen table, the sun filtering in through the window, sketching his face, shadowing below his eyebrows, shaping his chin. I watched him play Animal Crossing from the other side of the couch and felt like he was my brother.
All day, we heard the sirens. They cut through the silence, the red lights flashing on the street. 20 minutes later, there was another one. How many of the people strapped into the stretcher in the back would die from coronavirus? 538 deaths in a day. A tent hospital in Central Park. A Navy ship docked in Hell’s Kitchen, a few avenues over from where we had our first date.
We went for a walk along the Hudson River and passed a dog park locked in chains. A woman pushing a baby zipped up in a stroller. She was saying something, to herself or the baby, her lips hidden behind her mask. We did not meet eyes as we passed by, each clinging to opposite sides of the pavement. Ryan and I were holding hands, did not let go until we arrived back in the apartment, washed with soap and water, threw our clothes in the laundry. We discovered the flowers on our Animal Crossing island, Ryland, had bloomed.
One evening, Ryan rested his head on my lap. I brushed the skin of his cheek with my hand and forgot the time. He was falling asleep. There was only this moment—I lost track of the others: a career I had been planning for, nights I used to have to myself in bed with a book, dinners with friends. I craned my neck until the second it hurt, whispering as close as I could to his ear, that I loved him.
I knew I had come to rely on him, that now he, and he alone, was my daily life. I felt like the couple in the last scene of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. They are sailing together and make the Captain hoist the yellow flag of cholera. They bypass the ports, forget the other passengers. Their ship is in quarantine. They only have each other. I remembered the lines: “they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.”
I looked at Ryan and knew we had not been living together long enough to possibly understand these things, and yet I felt that we did. What was the truth? Because it was a lie, of course, in Love in the Time of Cholera: their yellow flag, the quarantine itself, fabricated to shut out the world. For them, quarantine was born from love; it was something they chose. Any form of separation amounted to death.
But for us, love was born from quarantine, and I knew our separation would come, like the end of a magic trick. Making this life together was a false start, a temporary fix for conditions we could not control. I knew there was something bigger looming—something solid—that was waiting to come back to us. Yet the dreamlike monotony of the days began to seduce me. I felt more and more like an heiress, making her way through the rooms of an apartment that is suddenly hers, stealing time. We were young. I had just met him. Nothing was owed. And yet, everything was amplified. 10,022 deaths.
I began to dream of children, plan for a mortgage. How to merge finances? How to make a mask for a baby? Pancakes in the morning, casserole at night, lunches Tupperwared and labeled. Aprons, sewing machines, oven mitts, a dust rag and Clorox. Ryan the then-doctor, leaving the house to save lives. Me: the wife. The mother. During the Spanish flu, in 1918, that woman was my age.
That’s when the bananas started to go bad. We’d bought them on the seventh week and left a few untouched in the bowl. Brown streaks were creeping up the yellow peels, sucking out the starch. They smelled sweet, deadly. Ryan mentioned his mother’s recipe for banana bread. She sent a photo. The recipe was handwritten, dated August 2013, with stains across the paper. It had been in their family for two generations now, and I wondered if it would be in mine. I smashed the bananas, whisked the eggs. The golden brown bread steamed as I knifed it in half. I felt thwarted, like there was something I was not seeing clearly.
That night, I held Ryan’s face in my palms. His beard was growing out; he was shampooing it when he showered. We were in bed.
“At some point, I’m going to have to leave,” I reminded him.
It was the first time I had mentioned it out loud. We both knew the point to which I was referring: the return to my own apartment. And yet Ryan was quiet. Then he said, “Stay.”
I looked at Ryan. I realized what I had not seen before. In the other room, the water turned on in the fish tank, trickling like a pipe leak. Every time I had asked Ryan why he wasn’t going back home to his mother, he said it was because he couldn’t leave his fish tank for more than two weeks. If the water doesn’t get changed, the zooxanthellae break away from the coral, which then bleaches and dies. They rely on one another to live, Ryan told me. But they are not inseparable. They need the right conditions.
Through the crack in the curtains, the morning light was coming into the room. As we spoke, Governor Cuomo was extending the quarantine for another two weeks; both our parents were working in hospitals; 25-year-olds were dying. Ryan had fallen back asleep, but I felt awake. All this time, I had thought our arrangement depended on quarantine; now I saw it also depended on us, that each day we determined its conditions. The trick had ended: we wanted to live together as much as we had to. I was no longer playing a role. And I realized, though the tricks were different, we had reached the same fate as the couple in Márquez’s story. We were sailing in close quarters up against death, with some vague, timeless destination in our minds, making the choice to stay afresh each day. And it reminded me of another Márquez line: “it is life, more than death, that has no limits.”
I looked back at Ryan, murmuring something in his sleep.
“Okay,” I said. “I will.”
Erin Winseman is a recent graduate of New York University’s Cultural Reporting & Criticism M.A. program based in New York City. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Middlebury College in 2017, where she was the recipient of the Mary Dunning Thwing Prize.