The week after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, I moved into an Airbnb on Capitol Hill, just 30 minutes from my house in Maryland. It was mid-March, days after I took the train down from New Haven. I shared the Airbnb with my boyfriend Hugh. His mom had booked it for the two of them months earlier, planning a vacation during our spring break. But the pandemic changed her travel plans, so she stayed home in England, and I moved in with Hugh instead. Hugh was returning from a friend’s house in California. We had planned to self-isolate together on Capitol Hill after his flight, then stay with my family for the rest of the semester.
Our Airbnb was a basement suite about a mile from the Capitol building. An eclectic mix of rowhouses lined our street: the simple twin gray buildings where we stayed, several sand-yellow houses with pyramid roofs to the left, and, towering over the others across the road, a red-brick Italianate trio with castellated balconies. Inside, a scratchy tan carpet covered half our common room, with pointed corners that ripped our socks when we stepped on them. On the rug, a cream-colored sofa faced a TV on a wooden table with children’s toys underneath. The other half of the room was a miniature kitchen with a gas stove and a smooth white-tiled floor on which I danced around while we cooked. Hugh could not move so freely, as he is very tall, and a low ceiling left him hunching over to avoid banging his head.
The bedroom had pale blue walls and two windows with yellow curtains that cascaded over the windowsill and onto the floor. The curtains opened to a dark underground storage area. The whole suite was dimly lit, with no natural light. Every time we left, we squeezed our eyes shut as sunlight hit our faces. Once, passing the storage area on the way out, Hugh asked what I thought was inside. Probably dead bodies, I said. We peered in, and saw the frail white fingers of a skeleton peeking out from under a blanket: Halloween decorations waiting for fall.
We moved in on a Tuesday, exactly a year after what we call our first date — the day I learned Hugh is from Bristol, not London, that he’s obsessed with history, and that he has two older sisters. That was spring break in 2019, which we spent with our track team on campus for training. If the pandemic had occurred this time last year, I’m not sure I’d know a thing about Hugh today.
The ceiling in the Airbnb was thin, so I learned a lot about our host Tim, who lived upstairs. He listens to Beethoven and the Kooks. He uses Alexa for timers while cooking. He has at least two toddlers. He gets angry when they leave crumbs on the table.
I also learned some things about Hugh. It was our first time living alone together, not to mention our first time living through a pandemic together. He has different voices for different people on the phone. When he calls his sisters, he starts with “ohhh, hello” in a vaguely Midwestern accent, apparently inspired by the movie “Fargo.” He and his “mates” from home use terms I didn’t know anyone ever says unironically, like “blokes” and “lads.”
My favorite development: Unfamiliar locations and uneasiness bring out his sleepwalking habit. One time I woke up to him on his knees, clawing the wall behind the bed, trying to climb onto the ceiling.
“My dad’s up there and he needs my help,” he said. “I’ve just got to give him this money.” He waved his empty hand in the air, his fingers clutching invisible dollars.
Another night he was standing by the door with my drawstring bag over his head.
“Where’d she go?” he said. He took the bag off and looked around. His honey brown hair stuck out in all directions. “There was a girl in here who needed my help!”
Hugh loves hearing about these episodes in the morning. He never remembers what happened. I think it’s sweet, how he’s so often on his way to help someone when he’s sleepwalking, as if only helping can motivate him to move.
On Wednesday, we Ubered to my house to pick up a couple of bikes. My dad leaned out of the upstairs window like a pope at the Vatican, wishing us well and making sure we’d applied hand sanitizer after our Uber ride. On the bike ride back to the Airbnb, we stopped near a boathouse by the Potomac River. We walked to the water’s edge and watched as planes descended toward the airport, one every few minutes, as if nothing were wrong.
On Thursday, we picked out a cake at the market to celebrate our anniversary, two days late. We were in the checkout line when Hugh read a text from his parents: He should fly home immediately, they said, given the increasingly severe restrictions on travel. When would we see each other again? We put the cake back and walked quietly to our Airbnb. I didn’t want to cry until we were alone in our room.
“Hey, everything okay down there?” Tim asked. He was on his porch when Hugh and I stepped outside for a run, a few hours after we returned from the market. I wondered if Tim heard us talk about the news from upstairs, or if he was simply checking in as a host.
“Yeah, thank you,” we both said.
This was the first time we saw Tim. I hadn’t really thought about what Tim looked like, but seeing him startled me, though his appearance was not startling in itself: He had brown hair, pale skin, and a beard. He simply didn’t match the picture I had subconsciously imagined when I heard him talking upstairs.
“I’d shake your hand,” Tim said, “but, you know.” He gestured to the air, the world around us. We nodded, said goodbye, and began our run down the sidewalk.
That night, Hugh booked a flight for the next Saturday. The next day, he returned to the market and bought the cake we had picked out. But that weekend, as the pandemic continued to escalate, Hugh switched his flight to the Wednesday before, then to Tuesday. That meant we only had a few more nights to finish our cake. It was a large cake, but we’re both college distance runners.
Online classes started after that weekend. My data science class carried on with business as usual, but with recorded lectures. My English professors said we would absolutely not carry on with business as usual, that deadlines were flexible. My Spanish professor said, sorry, he would have loved to host our seminar, but Zoom wasn’t working on his computer — maybe next week?
We biked back to my house on Tuesday morning. Light rain pattered on our bike helmets. We passed through the National Mall, which was nearly deserted. Even the reflecting pool was almost empty, with a line of shallow water down the center, as it was undergoing maintenance.
My dad met us outside so we could bring the bikes in. “This is sad for you guys,” he said.
“What?” I couldn’t tell if he was asking a question. We were sad, but against the backdrop of a pandemic, our personal sadness didn’t seem worthy of recognition.
“It’s sad for you guys, because you’re dating, so you want to be together,” he said. “In case you didn’t know.”
Hugh and I laughed, nodding.
I don’t want to sound too dramatic about it. Last summer, when we reunited after three months apart, we promised we’d never go that long again. But here we are, and though I don’t know when international travel will reopen, I’ll see him when this is all over.
Hugh’s flight was in several hours, so we returned to the Airbnb for our stuff. Tim keeps a book in the basement where guests can leave short messages. My favorite read: “This is the best hotel in the world. – Paula, Barcelona, June 2017.” I looked around the dimly lit room, at the low doorways. I pictured the message I might write: “Thanks so much, Tim. – Zoe, D.C. area, spring of the COVID-19 outbreak.” I put the pen down, writing nothing.
Hugh and I saved packing for the last minute, perhaps to delay the impending goodbye. When we finally stepped outside, I pictured the moment he left for home last June: We walked under the shade of Phelps Gate’s tunnel with his bags, up to its Gothic archway, and back into the heat on the sidewalk, where Hugh’s ride was waiting. In hindsight, knowing how the following three months felt, I never understood how I was so calm when we said goodbye. Yet that March afternoon, we did it again, on the wet brick sidewalk by our flat gray rowhouse.
Back in my neighborhood, I noticed the stuffed bears. They peek out from street-facing windows, sit in parked cars, even hang from ropes tied to trees. I wanted to show Hugh, but he was somewhere over the Atlantic with his phone on airplane mode. So I continued on my way home. The houses around here are all different styles, built in the late 19th century until shortly before World War II: Colonial Revival, Craftsman, Shingle; yellow, gray, and blue. In all of my walks down these roads, since my family moved here from a mile away in 2005, I had never noticed any bears. A Google search tells me they help neighbors connect during the pandemic.
When I got home, I unpacked my clothes into my wooden dresser. I felt as if I were suddenly younger, as though the whole business of growing up and moving out for college had simply been a joke. My bedroom looks the same, with its rainbow rug and purple patterned walls, save for the white crochet blanket that hangs over the window, replacing the blinds that broke last year.
Some afternoons, the four of us (me, my parents, and Kate, my 17-year-old sister) meet in our dining room to call my grandfather, who’s stuck alone in a retirement home lockdown. He asked once if we like being home together all the time. We looked around at each other and laughed, and my grandfather joined in, laughing, too.
I’ve returned home from college several times, but never like this, without any sense of a departure date. Sometimes living here again means mundane fights over the remote, the popcorn, the shower. Sometimes it’s more like a renewed childhood. The other night Kate knocked on my door around 1 a.m., saying there was a strange light outside her window. I stepped in her room and laughed. It was just the moon, particularly large, full, and bright, casting stripes of white light on her blue quilt. We sat on her bed, and I thought of the night before I first left for college, when we had cried in her room together after a summer spent distracted by our own separate lives. Before any of our various friendships, relationships, and plans for the future, it was just me and Kate, dancing, running around, tossing stuffed animals down our laundry chute onto each other’s heads.
After his flight, Hugh began to quarantine on the top floor of his house in Bristol. A week later, he started coughing. Soon, he got a fever. He couldn’t get a coronavirus test in Bristol, so he assumed the worst. He wasn’t worried for himself, but he constantly thought about things he had touched in his house, and how his dad had driven him home from the airport. His mom wanted to care for him that week, but out of love, he asked her not to come upstairs.
Hugh’s fever passed after a few days, and his family is still healthy. So is mine. I remember the first day it seemed that everything would be okay. I called and there he was, honey brown hair falling over his ears, in need of a trim, smiling, calm as ever. He’s out of quarantine now, so he can call from his garden, the sunlight around him showing on my screen, while I sit by my crochet-blanket window, light streaming in through gaps in the thread. We’re lucky, we know. We don’t forget it.
Names related to the Airbnb have been changed.