I’m not sure I want to be vulnerable or join a community. I’m not sure I even remember how.
The movie is both morbid and funny. I cry and laugh and drink too much, but so does everyone else. Watching the scenes of a broken marriage with friends is cathartic in some indescribable way and makes me feel like I’m part of a community—something I had in California, in my past life as a married person, and need here.
But when they slowly filter out the door that night, I feel deflated.
There are days post-divorce when I feel like I’m still living out a nightmare.I cry at inopportune times, like on the bus heading to work, smearing mascara all over my cheeks. The future I imagined for myself was refracted through the lens of my marriage, and now that it’s all gone, what lies ahead is shrouded in smoke.
In August 2020, during the worst wildfire season California has experienced in decades, I fly to the Central Valley—the new epicenter of the state’s Covid crisis—to visit my parents. Weeks after the pandemic began, my mom called and told me that my dad has Stage 3 throat cancer. Now, his health is worse. He spends weeks at the hospital and a doctor says he has nearly no white blood cells left.
We decide to only see each other outside and from six feet away. While my dad rests, my mom and sister and I go for walks. We cook pasta and eat it on the patio, even though my father can’t swallow much anymore.
“Let’s try to watch a movie together,” I suggest one evening, desperate to take my dad’s mind off of the pain. I grab a folding chair and set it next to the screen door outside. If I crane my neck, I can see most of the television in the living room.
“You doing okay out there?” My mom asks, laughing at my awkward positioning.
“I’m fine,” I say, applying copious amounts of bug spray to ward off the mosquitoes.
We watch Minari that way. It’s about a Korean American family who moves from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s to start a farm, and there’s something about watching another family go through travails of their own that resonates. For a while, we’re all distracted from the talk of ailments and cancer and can just be together, even though my dad sleeps through part of it. At the end, I feel like some of the waves of fear and sadness inside me have settled.
Some days the smoke is so bad, though, that my family and I can’t meet up outside and everything feels on the edge of breaking apart. To avoid focusing on my loneliness like I do in my apartment, I go for walks by myself in suburban neighborhoods, wandering around, lost in the smoky haze.
Back in DC, the winter is cold and long. My dad is in and out of the hospital. On Christmas, my ex-husband and his new girlfriend visit his mom. She posts a photo of herself holding a cocktail, with a caption about how she’s enjoying the holidays with family and friends. It feels gutting to be replaced so quickly. Another person I dated suddenly gets married; it’s all over Instagram. I spend Christmas in my apartment scrolling and pacing, wondering if my dad will survive the year.
Later that year, my dad seems to be improving after chemo and radiation but I learn that I need a major surgery on my hip. The doctor tells me that someone must accompany me to the hospital and stay overnight. I’ll be on crutches for a month, with a six-month recovery.
“But I don’t have anyone,” I hear myself say. The doctor furrows his brow like that can’t be true. My closest friend in DC just moved to Chicago. It’s still a pandemic. I live alone, I explain. I start to tear up in the doctor’s office and we sit in silence for a moment.
Three weeks before the surgery, I take the metro to the edge of the district to see the group house I’ve been invited to live in. It’s a cottage painted in bright blues and greens, with a porch—whereas my apartment is a tiny one-bedroom with no outdoor space. I wander around to the backyard and look at the trees and imagine buying patio furniture so we can drink coffee and sit outside, having Sunday dinners around a wooden table, and setting up a fire pit in the yard for colder weather. It looks friendly and has character. It looks like a place where a person could picture a new life.
On a sticky day in August, I move into the group house, leaving the ghosts of my marriage, divorce, and the pandemic isolation in my old apartment.
“Am I regressing?” I ask my therapist.
I explain that I’ve grown used to handling my own grief and the idea of moving in with others feels almost like giving up. Opening myself up to trusting other people and depending on them again makes me feel uncomfortable and, quite frankly, terrified. She tells me that women of this generation are creating models that work better for them than old ones and not to judge myself too harshly.
Opening myself up to trusting other people and depending on them again makes me feel uncomfortable and, quite frankly, terrified.
Early in the pandemic, I read Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell, which describes how people form communities and find courage in helping one another when faced with catastrophe. They form collectives, start soup kitchens, offer shelter to strangers. “Disasters are extraordinarily generative,” Solnit writes. They are “a crack in the walls that ordinarily hem us in, and what floods in can be enormously destructive—or creative.”
I’m still healing from the surgery, and in the past few months, my roommates and I have eased into a new way of life that’s subtly but breathtakingly different from the past year and a half. While on crutches, I learn to ask for help in small ways, whether it be carrying a glass of water to my desk or taking my laundry to the washing machine in the basement.
It feels strange to integrate into other people’s lives and have them pull me in too, but I’m getting used to it. One of my housemates loves music—so the house is almost never silent—and the other one loves plants. Tiny seedlings and cuttings from the garden are spread out across most of our indoor surfaces. It’s messier here than when I lived alone, but things are growing, and it feels alive in a way my old apartment never did.
One night, not long after my surgery, my housemate offers to cook dinner.
The three of us sit down at the dining table and share eggplant-and-tomato pasta and wine and just talk, the wineglasses and silverware clinking around our low voices. I tell them about my marriage and we talk about their relationships, our families, the bad habits we’re trying to kick. The wind blows loudly through the trees outside but inside, it’s warm.
A few weeks later, I break up over text message with someone I’ve been dating. When I go into the living room, one of my housemates sees the look on my face.
“What happened?” she asks me. “Do you want to talk about it?”
At first, I don’t. If this were last year, I would have turned inward and felt miserable for days. But we talk on the couch together and her kind attention makes me feel like it’s not a disaster—like it was, in fact, a smart, rational decision. When my dad goes back into the hospital in late September for major surgery, I know I have them, and that makes everything feel less desperate and more manageable.
At Christmas, I plan to fly home and visit my family but cancel at the last minute due to the Omicron wave sweeping DC. The last thing I want to do is get my father sick. It’s the right call, because that week I stand in line with sixty other people, take a test, and find out that despite my best precautions, I’ve got Covid.
My mind goes into planning and containment mode, and I frantically scour the internet for a place nearby to quarantine for a week. One of my housemates is gone, but the other one is here and I don’t want to get her sick. “Just stay here,” she texts me. “It’s safer, and if we both get sick, we can help take care of each other.”
We spend the next week quarantined in our house on different floors. She leaves me a care package with tea, magnesium supplements, and an oximeter outside my door. On Christmas Day, a friend drops off homemade tabbouleh and dolmas. As the week continues, my housemate and I text each other dark jokes about the situation, describe the shows we’re watching and the things we’re reading. We take turns using the kitchen, and after I’ve recovered a bit, I cook huge pots of pasta sauce and chicken curry and leave some for her on the stove.
We find small ways to be cheerful: she paints her nails and sends me photos from upstairs. We both marvel at the amaryllis blooming inside the house in the dead of winter. Though contracting Covid was one of my worst fears, it’s infinitely better than being alone in my apartment like I was last Christmas.
By New Year’s Eve, I’ve recovered. We bundle up in layers and gloves and hats and go to a friend’s rooftop party and stay out late. Just being near people feels life-affirming.
By contrast, my closest and oldest friends back in California are spending the day at home with their families, playing games with their kids and watching movies on the couch in their pj’s. “We went to bed by ten thirty!”someone texts. Other times, they talk about navigating diseases and life obstacles, and it’s always in the context of “we,”—the collective—never singular. I still feel the contrast between us keenly, but I’m not saddened by it as much anymore. Now I’m able to note the difference and move on because I don’t feel like I’m totally on my own.
Right before midnight, I step away from the group and stand by myself on the terrace, overlooking the city’s row houses and streets, and breathe in the cold air. I feel like I’m still searching for some lesson, or perspective, as if that could ever be quantified or distilled into a single moment of moral clarity. I take a few more deep breaths and decide that it’s enough to just be here, alive, and be grateful.
For my thirty-ninth birthday in October, I invite friends over and my housemates transform the living room by lighting lots of candles and cleaning up the house.“Your place is beautiful,” a friend tells me. I haven’t seen her in months; we sit on the floor and catch up. “And your new living situation seems great.”
I nod in agreement. My intense anxiety about getting sick and dying alone has abated. I’ve started pitching stories to magazines and writing fiction again after a long dry spell. I don’t ask our mutual friends in California about my ex-husband anymore, and he and I haven’t spoken in more than a year and a half. It’s still difficult, but there’s something about it that feels good. I’m finally able to start processing what I never could during all that time in isolation.
We’re in another pandemic winter and I’m staring forty in the face. I’m not where I thought I would be at this stage in my life, but that feels much less frightening now. Coming out of this collective loss of the pandemic, we’re creating new models, new ways of being. And as I heal from my grief and isolation, I’m learning to hold space for other people again and let them hold space for me.
Alexia Underwood is a writer and award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her reporting and essays have appeared in Guernica, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Vice, Vox (where she previously worked as an editor) and other publications. She currently works as an editor with Al Jazeera.