At the end of February, I texted my boyfriend: “If we get quarantined, can we quarantine together?”
“Yes, together!” he responded.
A month or two before New York’s stay-at-home mandate, we had talked about doing a trial run of living together before our proposed move-in date of May 1. Back then, we didn’t expect to be together 24/7, bound by the fear of infection and the possibility of being an unknowing virus carrier to others. It’s one thing to want to live with someone, and another to spend every waking, and non-waking, hour with them.
When we stopped commuting to our offices, I packed my most comfortable clothes and favorite condiments for an intermittent stay at Gates’s place. There were practical reasons: His one roommate was preferable to my three, and his proximity to Prospect Park meant morning walks would have that many more trees. We developed a routine, and started a card game tournament—Spit, the official sport of coronavirus. I saw Gates do dance moves I’d never seen before. He made me fried rice for lunch. He started saying “baybeeee” to punctuate his sentences. (“It’s breakfast time, baybeeee!”) As our city spun away from us, we entertained each other.
We celebrated our one-year anniversary the same week we started working from home, and I felt glad for all the steps that, at the time, I worried we were taking “too soon.” Over the past 12 months, we’d gone on road trips and plane trips and slept in a tent. We’d stayed at each others’ parents’ houses, and met our family pets. We didn’t just work well in the controlled environment of quarantine; I had a bank of memories to reassure me that we were capable of being in a bigger world together. With his lease up at the end of April, we decided to take steps towards getting our own place, not knowing if it would even be possible in the middle of a pandemic.
I told my roommates I would be leaving, treading cautiously. I would do all the work to find a new tenant, I promised, but that didn’t seem to matter. “This is a terrible position to be put in,” one texted me. We had a phone call during which two of them asked repeatedly: “Who moves during a pandemic?!” They seemed to think the only people looking for rooms were unsavory characters, rather than very normal New Yorkers who didn’t plan on a global health crisis. They wanted Gates to move into my room, or for me to stay until the coronavirus faded, which I knew could take months. I had been wanting to move out for a long time, though it had been easy to ignore the apartment’s faults—the moldy bathroom, the disintegrating hallway ceiling, the bedroom door that was falling off its hinges—when I was barely there. Now, my environment had shrunk to four walls and a few blocks’ radius; finding a reliable place seemed more urgent than ever.
I kept looking for moving guides online but there wasn’t much, furthering my fear that I was breaking the unspoken rules of lockdown. The New York Times had some recommendations for recent home buyers. The Listings Project was a resource, with empathetic Wednesday emails and spaces on offer by individuals, not brokers. When I posted my room there, I got immediate replies from a food writer, an employee of the U.N., and a student working on a digital art master’s at NYU. I had felt like such a villain for moving, but seeing these emails reminded me I wasn’t alone.
Gates and I made a list of what we wanted in an apartment. We didn’t exactly reach for the stars: The place should have a bedroom with a door, a window with sunlight, and close proximity to the subway. Anyone who has apartment hunted in New York can attest that those qualities can sometimes feel out of reach, even in the best of times. We considered a “one bedroom” before realizing it was really more of a studio, with a miniature kitchen sink and a first-floor view of the building’s trash cans. The current owners, while lovely, had promised a socially distanced tour that was actually impossible—as they sat on the couch in the middle of the kitchen-living room while we took in the space, we were definitely less than six feet apart.
Two weeks of searching later, I was about ready to give up when Gates spotted something on an evening trawl of StreetEasy. We saw that the apartment had rented in one day the last time it was available. I felt a rush of adrenaline (admittedly all too easy after days sitting in the same room, on the same couch). The broker wasn’t doing tours, but they sent a video the current tenants had taken. The scene opened in the recently renovated bathroom, tracked back to a pile of jackets in the (brick!) entryway, before panning through the kitchen, living room, and bedroom, where light streamed through bay windows (the true selling point). I started fantasizing about the plants we could grow, the shelves we could install. We put in a deposit.
After a weekend worrying that my sad credit score would sink the whole proposition, Gates approached me on my corner of the couch to tell me our application had been approved. In the weeks after the lease signing, we “walked” the surrounding blocks on Google Street View, looked up the landlord on Who Owns What, and watched and rewatched that 37-second video tour daily. I figured out which IKEA items they had, and used those dimensions to analyze what of our furniture could fit where. Other details were harder to ascertain: Was that closed door in the kitchen a pantry, or just an unusable utilities closet? What was the view out of the living room window—of an alley, or a flat brick wall? We’d have to wait and see. We kept asking each other, “Is it crazy we signed a lease without ever seeing the apartment?”
When the building owner finally revealed how we could pick up our keys, we were so eager to see the place, we jogged in the rain to get there. They had left the door unlocked for a contactless pickup, and we opened it to realize the apartment was much smaller than expected—the tour video must have been filmed with the new iPhone and its ultrawide lens, Gates guessed. Or, more likely, our imaginations simply inflated the space. There was no pantry, but the bedroom closet reached to the ceiling. It would work. (It had to work.)
Moving services have been deemed essential, but we wanted to involve as few people as possible, so decided to do it ourselves. We rented a U-Haul—another contactless pickup!—and spent the weekend packing and ferrying our stuff, huffing down the stairs with our masks on. I kicked myself for my consumerism: Why do I own so many elephant figurines? With Beacon’s Closet and Goodwill temporarily closed, I moved with clothes I need to give away or sell. (After an eventual closet cleaning session with Schmatta Shrink, I learned The RealReal and ThredUp are still accepting items. I retired a duplicate duster, and said goodbye to an ill-fitting jumpsuit.)
Even as I was confronted by my stuff, I was surprised to find that everything had its place. My Roly-Poly chair nestled near the window, and my collection of face oils—necessary for quarantine skin-care experimentation!—had free rein to rule the bathroom cabinet. Gates was good-natured as I adjusted and readjusted the magnets on the fridge, and found the best surface for my light-up croissant. We figured out which furniture landed between my inclination towards color and pattern, and his appreciation for neutral minimalism (which in less generous times I have been known to call “boring”).
Across the country in Oregon, where I grew up, my dad has been keeping busy by attacking the overgrown blackberry bushes. “It’s so satisfying to have a clear impact on my environment,” he told me on FaceTime. I felt the same about the move: After weeks of channeling all my energy into a laptop screen, it was a joy to do some heavy lifting, to hammer nails into the wall, to figure out where the plates should stack. The year 2020 will be defined by chaos, but on this new corner of the couch, I get to control the view.
Originally Appeared on Vogue