Collages by Maya Sugarman
Living with another person has taken on an entirely different meaning. During a pandemic, our housemates — be they significant others, relatives or friends — may be our only source of extended human interaction. They are our near-constant companions, witnessing our quirks and habits, what we eat for breakfast, how our voice carries when we’re on the phone. They are our dinner dates, TV-watching buddies, errand partners and perhaps, every so often, our antagonists.
Last April, we ran a story about women living alone during the pandemic. This article is the corollary: a look at women living together. Below you’ll see snippets of conversations between women who have been quarantining in the same space over the past year — roommates in New York, a couple in North Carolina, and a mother and daughter in California.
Transcripts have been edited for length and clarity.
Arielle Siegel and Kim Blanck are both actors in their early 30s. Both graduated from New York University. They live in Queens in New York City, and they’ve shared an apartment since 2019.
Nneka: Where are you from? Are you from New York originally?
Kim: I’m from the Bay Area in California.
Arielle: We’re both Capricorns; we talk about that a lot. That’s part of the reason that we’re compatible. We both come from parents who are scientists. We actually connected — because we didn’t really know each other in college — at an audition. It was many years after college. And we’re both like, “Oh, you’re still doing this?”
I’m from New Mexico originally. So that was another thing that bonded us, being from the West Coast. One of the things we did during the pandemic was we bought a car together and did a cross-country road trip to see our parents.
Nneka: I feel like you two are doing better than lots of couples, relatives.
Arielle: Yeah, we joke that we wish we wanted to be together in a romantic way, because we are very compatible, which we have learned in this. Have we ever had a fight? It’s all very easy. To have a complicated living situation within the global situation would have been — I can’t even imagine. I’m so grateful for her. It would have been tough to do this alone or with somebody you didn’t like.
Nneka: So how were you two thinking and feeling when lockdown began?
Kim: I was in rehearsal for a concert, which was going to be March 15, 16. We canceled it, obviously, I think Tuesday of that week. And then Thursday, Broadway shut down. By Friday, Saturday, everything was kind of falling down.
Arielle: Kim and I were both kind of dating these guys and trying to figure that out. And then we were like, you know what? We’re just going to stay inside for four days. We’re going to see what happens, see how it feels. And then cut to —
Kim: Years later, right? [both laugh]
Arielle: But it’s good because Kim actually got covid that weekend. The rehearsal process that she was in —
Kim: A lot of us got sick. I got a fever and I was like, oh my God, I’m so stressed. I don’t know what this is. Arielle was the absolute sweetest. [to Arielle] I think my mom is still so grateful to you for, like, going to CVS and getting me Mucinex and stuff.
In hindsight, probably shouldn’t have left the house, but we didn’t know at the time. Miraculously, Arielle never got sick. That’s also one of our big successes of this time. So that was the beginning.
Arielle: It’s very rare in previous times that we would be in the apartment at the same time or even at all.
Kim: Exactly. We started bingeing TV shows and it started to feel kind of like summer camp.
Arielle: We thought it would be two weeks. We’re like, let’s do push-ups for every day. We’ll start with one push-up and then we’ll continue. I think we got to like 20 and then stopped.
Kim: [laughs] Yeah we were doing like, YouTube fitness videos and puzzles.
Arielle: Got really into puzzles.
Kim: Arielle had long been thinking about fostering dogs. When was our first dog? May?
Arielle: The first dog wasn’t then. The first dog was a tiny puppy who kept me up, and I cried for days because I didn’t know what I was getting into. But he was only with us for like two days. It was very weird. We picked him up from a van in the middle of Brooklyn at 10 p.m. It was all very strange.
Nneka: When the pandemic is over, are you still going to live together?
Kim: What a rich question.
Arielle: I’m looking to move to a solo apartment just because of timing and stuff, not in any reflection of my current roommate.
Kim: I think we are going to live together for a little bit longer, but I do think we’re probably going to go our separate ways in terms of roommate-ship.
Bernise Lynch, 74, and Julia Schelly, 67, live in Swannanoa, N.C. They have been together nearly 40 years. Julia retired in 2020, just a couple of weeks before offices shut down and self-quarantining began.
Nneka: At the start of the pandemic, were you scared? How were you feeling, what were your dynamics like?
Julia: It was hard for me because I was used to being around people all the time at work. And when I was retired, it was like, okay, I’m stuck in a house.
Bernise: With me! [laughs]
Julia: It wasn’t like that. It was like, what am I going to do with myself? How am I going to fill my day? And fortunately or unfortunately, we had just moved, so there were things around the house that we wanted to improve, that needed to be fixed. There was plenty of yard work to do. So for the first four months or so, I kept busy that way.
Bernise: Our house is such that Julia’s study is upstairs and mine is downstairs. So Julia has a place where she can go, and she doesn’t even have to know that I’m here.
Julia: And vice versa.
Bernise: We have our own little private places that we can go. And that’s nice, because we love each other dearly, but being together 24/7 is difficult.
Nneka: Is there anything that has surprised you about each other or about yourselves during the pandemic?
Bernise: [to Julia] I don’t know if I’ve been surprised by anything about you. What surprised you about me?
Julia: I honestly thought you would spend more time working on projects. She has a lot of craft-type projects that she has supplies for that she’s been wanting to do.
Bernise: Doesn’t surprise me. [laughs]
Julia: The great procrastinator.
Bernise: I can procrastinate with the best of ’em, let me tell you.
Julia: I’m surprised that I’ve been able to adjust to not being around people all day. That’s probably the thing I enjoyed the most about working, is interacting with my co-workers. I love the people I worked with so much.
Bernise: I guess what surprised me is my ability to get involved in other things and commit and actually stay focused. I have a hard time with focus. In the quiet, I’ve been able to sit and focus and do a good job.
Nneka: What are you two looking forward to when the pandemic ends?
Bernise: Going out among people, going to restaurants and different places. I’d love to check out the library and go to museums. I’d love to find a place to box again. And going to the movies! Although I said to Julia, this has made me think about movie theaters — they really are a petri dish all unto themselves, even in the best of times. So that’s going to take some doing to get used to again.
Julia: Movies, eating out, trying new restaurants, going to museums, checking out things in this area. And also getting together with friends and hugging each other.
Bernise: Hugs. Hugs! Oh yeah, hugs.
Julia: Big hugs.
Soojin Min, 29, moved back in with her parents, including her mom, Yeunjin Min, 57, in Sunnyvale, Calif. Soojin, who co-founded the skin care company Seknd, had been living in San Francisco before returning home.
Nneka: Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves?
Soojin: I started my career at Google. After working there for a few years, a fellow Googler and I decided to found our own start-up. We had no idea that the pandemic was just around the corner. We founded the start-up in late 2019. We were just getting started, basically, when the pandemic hit. We decided to go remote. As a result, I felt it was a good opportunity to save some money, move back home and spend more time with my family.
Yeunjin: I’m a full-time housewife, but sometimes I get a part-time job. In the pandemic, I know there are a lot of sad families who lost their members. But I can share my space with my kids in the pandemic. So I think it is kind of a blessing, for me.
Nneka: Soojin, how did it feel to move back home?
Soojin: We’re Korean. I’m Korean American, but my parents are from Korea. Culturally, in Korea, a lot of times the children live at home until they’re married. So I think for my parents, it was something that wasn’t too far off from what they might have expected, had they been in Korea.
I had preconceived notions of what it could be like. Because oftentimes, I think, in the States, it’s very individualistic and you want to have space and live alone. But moving back home was really great. I really appreciated the emotional support that I got living at home, being able to talk to my parents about some of the ups and downs of entrepreneurial life.
Nneka: How is it for you, Yeunjin, having your daughter back home?
Yeunjin: Most times I’m so happy to live with my daughter, but, you know, many families have some conflict, even very small things. We have some conflict and sometimes we disagree and argue, but I’m very happy to help her. Even if she’s spoiled, I’m okay. [laughs] This is a joke.
Nneka: What are some things that have been hard during the pandemic?
Soojin: The hardest thing for me probably has been psychologically having to spend so much time in the house and in the room. Entrepreneurship and running a start-up is a very dynamic type of business. You want to meet investors and you want to understand if there’s a good fit, and then there’s recruiting. Obviously, with the pandemic, I’ve basically had to resort to Zoom calls for everything.
Nneka: Has there been anything that has surprised you about each other or yourselves in this time?
Soojin: For me, it’s gaining more clarity and understanding of who I am and what I need to be happy. Because I was always running at 100 miles per hour and my focus was always on work, I never really slowed down enough to think about what makes me truly happy and what I need to live a sustainable lifestyle. Going to the gym or playing tennis, having that physical activity is something that’s so important to me. I always considered myself an introvert. But when you actually don’t have those things, you realize that carving out time for loved ones is so important and so integral to happiness.
Yeunjin: Living together, I can understand her more and more, and I realize we can overcome the generation gap. At the beginning of a conversation, we might disagree with each other’s different ideas, but gradually, we understand each other more and more. And I empathize with what she has to confront in her life, especially in the pandemic.