Shelter in Place

The family is the chosen unit of measurement for so many things. During the pandemic, we were instructed to shelter in place, and this meant holing up and hunkering down with your immediate family. Nobody else.

I am in an open marriage, and COVID brought into sharp relief the fringe-ness of my arrangement with Stewart, my husband of 21 years, and Nik, my boyfriend for the past two. By conventional definitions, Stewart is my family, and so we, along with our two teenage sons, sheltered together. Nik, however, is not my family, and so we sheltered apart.

 

In the middle of March, within a matter of minutes, I developed a cough. It felt like nothing else I’d ever experienced. The cough came from deep within my lungs, but no phlegm was produced. It was a pathetic cough, really, my only symptom besides feeling a little short of breath. If I were a kid and it weren’t a pandemic, the school nurse would’ve told me to stop faking and get back to class.

Nik thought his wife, Ayem, had also already had the virus—which meant Nik had probably been exposed. Perhaps he even had antibodies. But we couldn’t be sure.

And Nik didn’t qualify as family.

He wanted to come by my house, though, the first time he’d ever done so. While my kids knew about our marriage in the abstract, I’d shielded them from the details—especially Beck, my youngest. No 15-year-old wants to have a visual image of their mother’s lover, right? But Nik had a care package from Ayem to drop off: cough syrup and latex gloves; four coveted N-95 face masks, one for each of us; an empty Tupperware container in which I’d given her some home-made pesto last fall.

Nik arrived at the bottom of my stoop early on a Friday morning while the kids were still asleep. I stood in the doorway to say hello. His chin was covered in stubble. Nik had told me when we met that he didn’t like the feeling of short bristles on his skin, so I took this hiatus from shaving as a sign of his mental state.

I wanted to touch his stubbly face, to hold him and be held by him. Instead, I reached for the bag of masks and cough syrup, careful not to make contact with his hand. The tears started to fall—for me, for Nik, for the world. I mouthed “I love you” so the neighbors couldn’t hear and rushed back into my house, to my quarantined family.

One Saturday in April, Stewart went to see his girlfriend, whose New Zealand roots had earned her the nickname of Kiwi. This was a violation of the lockdown orders, but I couldn’t tell him not to go, couldn’t tell him that Kiwi didn’t count as family. I’d also planned to see Nik, after all, until he got a migraine and cancelled. So Stewart had left, and I’d stayed home. The kids were buried in their own worlds, sheltering in places within themselves, places I could no longer enter without an explicit invitation.

And so, I found myself alone.

For much of my life, the feeling of aloneness had been one and the same as a feeling of loneliness. In this lone, lonesome space, I sensed the me that was incomplete as I was, the me with a hole in her bucket, letting all the good things leak away. Open marriage, in fact, is what alerted me to this problem. In our early days of openness, I’d sped from one man to the next—sometimes in the same day—searching for more attention, more validation, more, more, more. I scarfed down every item at the dating buffet but was still emaciated. I could sense the presence of something unhealthy, an emotional tapeworm.

But I thought I’d patched the hole, killed the worm, made myself complete. Now I saw with a hollow sadness that I was wrong.

Without Nik, without Stewart, without the needs of my children, I was nothing all over again. How could this be? What had happened to all that “progress” I was so sure of just a few weeks ago?

I lay in my bed, crying into my ears, wishing Stewart were not with Kiwi but here with me to fix me and make me whole. I recognized this all-too-familiar place and despairingly thought, Here again? I’m back here!?

 

On the next Saturday, Stewart was off to see Kiwi again. She was lying to her husband in order to leave the house. Kiwi was also in an open marriage, but her husband understandably wanted to suspend dating privileges for the time being.

Again, I could not judge. I was also lying—to Beck, anyway. As the two family extroverts, Beck and I were frequent companions, and except for the times when he sequestered himself in his room, he seemed grateful for my company. We worked on a series of 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzles together, and kept up a lively banter. Beck told me about two dreams he’d had. In the first, I was kidnapped. In the second, I abandoned the family and moved to Paris. Beck’s anxiety about my leaving hadn’t helped my own anxiety about the same thing. Though in my defense, I was only planning to cross Flatbush Avenue, not the Atlantic Ocean.

I told Beck I was going to see my friend Emily when really, I was seeing Nik. I took solace in giving him what felt like a credible shred of truth.

“Emily thinks she already had it,” I said. “And we’ll be alone with each other.” If I replaced “Emily” with “Nik,” then I had been honest.

How early can you get here? Nik texted.

Ayem had been going to her boyfriend’s place every Saturday, from roughly 11am to 7pm. I suspected the answer Nik wanted to hear was 11:01, but I hesitated. Beck said he was fine being alone, and I knew it was true. I knew that the puzzles and chatting were as much about my needs as his. Still, I wanted to make sure he got good and sick of me before I bailed on him, leaving him with nobody to talk to for the rest of the day.

It was 2:00 by the time I finally left the house. I donned one of the heavy masks that Ayem had gifted us and set out to walk the 1.8 miles separating my shelter from Nik’s. I bobbed and weaved to avoid other pedestrians. My upper lip started to sweat, and the elastic slipped down the back of my head. I heard the wail of an ambulance, then another, as I continued my somber trek.

I texted Nik from a block away and he met me in front of his building. His face was also covered with a mask, but I could see his beard poking out, grizzlier than it had been when he dropped off the care package. He came in for a hug, but I leaned away.

“Let’s wait,” I said. Hugging on the street had become the moral equivalent of drunk driving.

Inside, I shed my mask, shoes and jacket like a contaminated hazmat suit, and ran to the bathroom to wash my hands, pee, and wash my hands again. When I emerged and saw Nik’s unmasked, bearded face up close, I started to cry. This was the real reason I had delayed coming over. I knew that seeing him would crack open all the places I’d been desperately trying to hold together.

“I think I need to fall apart for a little while,” I said, stepping into his waiting arms and putting my sweaty face on his shoulder.

“I know,” he answered.

Later, we made love on a pile of blankets on the floor. Ayem had requested that we not have “naked time” in either the living room or their bedroom—boundaries which seemed eminently reasonable to me if not entirely convenient—so we created a make-shift bed on the floor of the empty nursery. Ayem and Nik had been trying to adopt a child for years, to create a family of their own. Sun streamed through the windows, and I felt joy at being merged with Nik’s body again. But there was also sadness in this room, which was serving such a different purpose than the one for which it was intended.

In lieu of the frequent in-person dates we’d had in The Before Times, Nik and I tried Zooming, but it wasn’t the same. For one, Nik’s introversion did not translate well to video. Stewart could see how that might go.

“How do I put it?” he said. “You require a lot of feedback during conversation.”

Stew was right. I read an article about Zoom fatigue. We are primates, the author wrote, and we need physical cues. We aren’t meant to look at our own enlarged faces as we talk to one another. I sent the article to Nik so we could discuss it in person the following Saturday, but we never got around to it. Even sitting next to him on his couch, he felt far away. Nik still didn’t feel comfortable resuming hotel visits, and we’d decided not to have sex in his apartment anymore. More accurately stated, I decided and he decided, but we never talked about why, and I suspected his reasons were different than my own. For me, it boiled down to this: Nik’s home was a space he shared with his wife, not with me.

And so, for many weeks, my Saturdays with Nik were spent in a familiar and chaste routine. We ordered takeout. Sometimes we drank beer. We watched Family Feud—five, six, seven episodes at a time. There was something comforting about the ritual of Family Feud, the mindlessness of it, the friendly camaraderie of families, with host Steve Harvey making jokes and putting everyone at ease. From Appleton, Wisconsin, it’s the Oliesewski family! From Mobile, Alabama, it’s the Walker family! From San Diego, California, it’s the Lopez family!

In between episodes, Nik and I talked. He told me he was becoming increasingly introverted during quarantine. I’d noticed. But I was shocked to learn that other than meeting me directly outside on Saturdays, he hadn’t left his apartment in weeks, not even for a socially distanced walk. What did this mean? Was he using the pandemic as an excuse to give in to his reclusive ways? Were Nik and I completely mismatched? Did it matter?

Before I left his apartment one Saturday, Nik’s cats, Frito and Neptune, let me pet them. For weeks, they had skittered away from me, but Nik insisted they were growing more comfortable in my presence. He seemed to care about this more than I did, and I remembered my friend Emily’s observation when her husband’s cat got sick a year earlier.

“Now I get why people with kids talk about them all the time,” she’d said. “I’m the only person who cares about this damn cat as much as Dave does.”

Her point resonated with me. Long ago, Stewart and I created a rule not to talk about the kids on date nights. But it was futile. Our conversation would inevitably turn to funny things one of them had said, the little dramas in their lives, our parenting victories and foibles. We discovered we enjoyed these discussions, and abolished the “no kids talk” rule. There was an intimacy in sharing a common love object—our children.

Conversely, I didn’t care about Nik’s cats because they weren’t mine.

 

Two days later, I was watering my basil plants when I got a text from Nik.

Hi Molly! We just got a call from the adoption agency. It’s a girl! We’re packing up now to drive to the hospital! He added the emoji with the clapping hands.

I stood holding my phone, frozen. My first reaction to this news—the arrival of a baby that Nik and Ayem had been awaiting for years—was a wave of grief and sorrow. I began to cry, and felt ashamed. I ran downstairs to find Stewart and let him hold me.

A few hours later, I received a picture of Nik’s daughter. I cried again, but this time it felt closer to tears of joy. She was beautiful. I decided to nickname her Little Miss.

The next Saturday, I walked to Nik’s place, a bag of books for Little Miss’s library in hand. Goodnight, Gorilla was my favorite of these. I read it to both of my boys for years, and a pang of nostalgia hit me as I opened the scuffed pages. A mischievous gorilla has stolen the zookeeper’s keys, and opens the cages of each animal after it has been wished a good night. “Good night, giraffe,” says the zookeeper, then moves along to the next cage, not noticing that the giraffe has joined the wily gorilla tiptoeing behind him. Beck used to love finding the little mouse that appears somewhere on every page, dragging the gorilla’s banana by a string.

When I arrived, I washed my hands and sanitized and washed them again. I asked to hold Little Miss. She was smaller than either of my boys ever were—her perfect head that fit into the palm of my hand, the lightness of her body in my arms, the faintest hint of eyebrows, the sweet heart-shaped mouth. When I left a few hours later, I said goodbye to Nik, but it was almost harder to leave his baby girl. Maybe cats and children were different after all.

Nik sent me pictures and videos, several times a day. She was hiccuping, or sleeping through a jackhammer, or lying on a blanket next to Neptune. And I felt myself missing her, I felt a small ache of longing to see Little Miss, and especially to hold her again.

When my previous boyfriend, Todd, wanted me to meet his son, I had declined, partly because of guilt. Although it sounded crazy to say aloud, I felt as though I were cheating on Beck. It was one thing to date another man, with Stewart’s full knowledge and consent. But to see another little boy behind my own little boy’s back? Something smacked of betrayal there.

I didn’t have any guilt about my burgeoning connection with Little Miss, however. Perhaps because Beck was older now, and required things like privacy and autonomy rather than snuggles and kisses. Perhaps because a baby girl and a teenage boy were such different animals in so many ways. Or, perhaps it was because I had learned something more, something about the infinite capacity of the heart to love.

 

It’s December now, and as COVID surges through Brooklyn once again, Nik and I have decided to take a break from seeing each other. The needs of his wife and baby come first; there simply isn’t room for me. Not right now, anyway. I couldn’t agree more with his priorities. And he doesn’t need to worry about me. Somehow, my bucket has stopped leaking.

So Nik shelters with his family, and I shelter with mine. There is sadness in this arrangement, but not emptiness. Mostly, there is love.

I think of Nik, holding Little Miss, and I let both of them go.

 

 

Image: “I Will Never If You Never” by Christian Gonzalez, licensed under CC 2.0.

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