what i learned

How Did I Not Know This About You?

Blackout series. Illustration: Jules Julien

Last month, for the first time, I climbed out my living-room window and onto the roof. It felt miraculous to be so suddenly someplace new. As outdoor spaces go, this one was not especially picturesque or legal, but still: What had taken me so long? Why weren’t we out here all the time? We could be sitting out here, reading out here, eating dinner out here, whatever. Feeling pleased with my discovery, I looked around. The roof would be the secret to the summer, I told my husband.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’ve been out on the roof before.”

This was news. In the five years we’d lived together in this apartment, I had never once seen him go out on the roof or heard him acknowledge it was possible to do so. What other secret behaviors was he up to? What other useful facts did he walk around knowing unbeknownst to me?

After ten years together and two months as one another’s sole companions, the possibility of fresh revelation carried a certain thrill.

The beginning of the shutdown was a period of bracing for the worst, which applied to the world outside but also life at home. An early commonplace of the coronavirus era concerned divorce rates in China: They had “soared,” “skyrocketed,” and “surged,” according to the headlines of late March and early April, a pattern Bloomberg Businessweek described as “an ominous warning” to couples elsewhere. Other warnings were more ominous still. A spike in domestic violence was predicted and then arrived. Even for the very lucky—the healthy, safe, and employed—staying home often meant a collision of responsibilities, the collapse of fragile domestic arrangements under strain. Staying home meant new frontiers of exhaustion and pressure and stress.

But staying home meant other new things, too. It meant, for one thing, a greater understanding of one another’s days. Family members now heard one another’s every conversation, smelled one another’s every meal. And if it was wrong to speak of silver linings in a time of mass death, it was also possible, over the course of almost three months inside, to catch the glimmer of something not entirely bleak. Life at home together was life about other people.

A pandemic made individualism untenable and relationships of all kinds inescapably real. Lockdowns and social distancing operated by the logic of selflessness: You changed your behavior for the sake of someone else. (“Your grandma” was the figure you were called on to protect, a figure those impatient with communitarian thinking seemed eager to dismiss.) When it came to the others inside our own homes, the project of coexistence wasn’t just epidemiological; it was personal, a matter of shared couches, toilets, and beds. It was a matter of paying attention. Between holing up in bedrooms for work calls and cooking a 23rd or 80th dinner, we watched each other. We chose for the moment to ignore the dishes in the sink; we scooched some stuff aside to make room at the table. We tried not to interrupt, and we learned.

Even those who escaped the direct toll of the virus have now seen each other through ordeals unimagined in January. We looked on as those closest to us lost jobs, lost plans, lost any grasp on the future. We watched them absorb news of the daily racial injustices that persisted even when ordinary life ceased. What worried them most; what reassured them some? What did they miss? What did they eat for lunch? How good were they at teaching fourth-grade math? These were the people we’d lived “with” but never quite so fully alongside: What secrets did they hold?

“I wanted to watch you have sex,” Marianne tells Connell in the Hulu adaptation of Normal People, future relic of lockdown pop culture. In Sally Rooney’s novel, Marianne does not say this; she just thinks it, which makes more sense. Intimacy is nothing if not affectionate, unspoken surveillance, I thought, as I watched the horny Irish teens. It means getting to see someone under conditions other people don’t get to—seeing how they have sex but also how they sleep. Now we see each other do everything. Any relationship, romantic or otherwise, is in part long-term observation: How do you look when, how do you sound when, what do you do when, what do you say when. Circumstances change, details assemble. Circumstances changed fast.

Of necessity, we learned one another’s boundaries. (A friend said her fiancé had banned hugging during business hours—tough but fair.) Respected mutual privacy was the complement to all that observation, the other part of intimacy, essential in close quarters. When did they want company, and when did they want space? Perpetually together, we learned to leave each other alone. Here, I think not of horny Irish teens but of the movie Best in Show: “We both love soup,” Jennifer Coolidge says, of her ancient husband, to the camera. “And talking, and not talking. We could not talk or talk forever.” This is a joke, because her husband is totally silent and looks like a mummified ventriloquist’s dummy, but also it is wise. If you love soup, and talking or not talking, you could manage a lockdown. The key, in addition to the talking, was the not talking—comfortably, peaceably. An ability, as my husband once put it, to be “catly by.”

Somewhere around the sixth or eighth week of shutdown, I realized the two of us were defaulting to the first-person plural. In some cases this was practical (“Are we out of toilet paper?”), and in some half-joking (“ We just finished the last roll”), and in others genially passive-aggressive (“Maybe some of us should have remembered to get more”)—in any event, the habit formed. A public-facing we (“We’re free on Saturday”) is an inevitability of coupledom, an internal we felt perhaps more extreme. (“What should we do tonight?” “We’re not sure.” We would not talk this way if anyone else was around.) I imagined looking back on this tight time and feeling a little wistful: Humid domestic bubbles would give way to careful park gatherings and regulated friend pods, and the intensity of shared isolation would leach back out into some semblance of social life.

This, of course, was not what happened. Lockdown did not end in tentative steps outdoors; lockdown ended when the marching began. The protests that followed George Floyd’s death represented a sweeping embrace of the first-person plural in all that it might grow to hold. Collective purpose had kept the streets empty, and now it filled them. We were learning what we could do.

*A version of this article appears in the June 22, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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