I knew social upheaval was on the horizon for my friend after she texted me a plaintive message: “My pod is not very good at podding.” Her quarantine pod formed with pandemic micro-era precision in early spring of 2020. Seven months later, it had splattered.
Quarantine pods — also known as quarantine bubbles — are maybe best summarized by MIT Technology Review’s Gideon Lichfield as a small group of people “not taking precautions with each other but taking precautions with the outside world.” These bubbles were cautiously sanctioned by public-health officials across the land as it became clear that lockdown measures would last more than a few weeks. People in a quar-bub, theoretically, create hermetically sealed modern covenants in order to share each other’s resources, sit on each other’s couches, eat each other’s snacks. When I started to hear from friends and about acquaintances in pods, their commitment seemed astounding. The trust! The promises! By July, an Axios survey found that just under half of Americans had formed some sort of social bubble. How warm and secure it must be on the inside of those germ-bonded loopholes, I’d jealously thought back then.
I’d also thought wrong. Even in desperate times, people who need each other are still very, very good at driving each other nuts.
An outside observer could just lean back and wait for the eventual flare-ups. Nadia*, my boo’s friend, had a pod splinter when her drummer friend couldn’t quit any of her bands. The drummer had promised, but after seven months, there they still all were: the Afro-Caribbean band, the feminist one, the jazz one. Nadia, a kind dancer interested in restorative justice, tried to work through it, but the foundation eventually cracked — as many of the other people in her life thought it would.
Like a tea-leaf reader with very specific skills, I could sense splits were in the offing based on just the tenor of a single text message. Perhaps because I had the clarity of being without a bubble, having moved to a new city where there were no best friends to tempt me, I often knew that pod break-ups were starting for my friends before they had admitted it to themselves.
From the distance of social media, I’d watched my friend — let’s call her Hilda — form a magical-looking pod. I’d gazed at all their gorgeous unmasked faces on hikes and bike rides, deemed the pod an enviable bliss rung of heaven. Then, over a series of FaceTimes, I began hearing about annoying miscommunications, extraneous trips, and one pod mate’s popping social life. “She joined a polygamous crew of people who were all dating each other and even went on a trip with them to Mexico to this nudist town,” said Hilda. “Truly no judgement, very cool, but group sex seems like an interesting hobby to pick up right now.” At the time, Hilda’s pod was six people, but also a number that was impossible to calculate. “With partners and roommates it expanded to ten, and then all those partners and roommates likely had their own pods that I didn’t know about which expanded into infinity.”
This was always the problem with the pod: “The closed loop is a fallacy,” as one of my snippier, un-podded friends put it early on. The pod is a tantalizing but hard-to-tame beast. Something that seems like a cushy, surrounding embrace suddenly has an unknowable number of potentially dangerous tentacles.
Unpodded myself, I had assumed such groups would disintegrate in the face of lax safety. But pods that split up because of too much constriction? I couldn’t have foreseen that. Turns out the exclusivity inherent to a quarantine bond is vulnerable to a co-dependent intensity. A couple months ago, I was very surprised to learn a community organizer friend was moving, as they were a heavy in local mutual aid in their neighborhood. More surprising, I learned, Eliza was moving neighborhoods to escape a quarantine pod they didn’t know how to quit. It was the equivalent of leaving the country rather than suffer through an uncomfortable break-up chat. “I was at this point, man,” Eliza told me over the phone, “where I was like, I gotta make some pod changes … We’re nine months into this and people set up these pods in the beginning — from this framework of feeling stressed, being in this emergency, and needing connection. And we’re still in these things nine months later? How is a relationship like that supposed to last that long?” they asked, a little rhetorically.
When Eliza and their friend paired up, they thought it was going to be for a couple weeks. Initially it was filled with homey warmth, co-working sessions, lots of Scrabble, gin rummy, tequila and sodas, good-night texts, good-morning check-ins — and a general pressure to be conjoined. Meanwhile, full-time community organizing corroded Eliza’s social energy for their friend. “I ran more towards the political and economic upheaval, and they ran further from it,” Eliza said. In a relationship built solely on the initial need to be with someone else, it seemed impossible to lessen the intensity without shattering the whole thing. “In terms of figuring out how to navigate a potential change it felt as stressful as figuring out a romantic change, if not more so,” Eliza told me. “Neither of us took a blood oath in the beginning, but,” pause for a sensation that it might have felt a little like taking a blood oath, “it felt like breaking a promise.”
Even the most perfect-seeming pod scenarios — limited loop, great boundaries, tiny children exactly the same age — proved vulnerable under the tricky safety math of the pandemic. Last March, my childhood friend Mia had just had a new, new newborn and an almost 2-year-old. “Playgrounds were chained shut. It was all so new and scary,” she told me. There was a family directly next door with a kid exactly the age of Mia’s oldest. “Ours was a pod made by necessity with no concept of how long it would last,” she said. “We didn’t know them that well but they offered to connect, because they wanted their kid to have a playmate.” And the families became close. Their neighbor’s daughter was “the only guest” at their son’s birthday (the heart breaks) — and the parents “would come over after the kids went to bed and we’d play Cards against Humanity and get drunk.”
Then Mia and her family went to stay with her parents for a few months. “By the time we came back, two-and-a-half months later, their daughter had gone back to school and we had hired our own nanny. We still see them outside but we haven’t gone back to podding together now that there are two nannies and two separate schools in the mix too.” This mutual break-up was even worse to hear about than the asymmetrical fissures. When the set-ups of these arrangements are so fragile, just several weeks’ distance and just one shift of the puzzle piece, and you can’t get what you had back.
Not to armchair-psychologize, but I noticed a flurry of these collapses just as news of the vaccines began to emerge. With a viable end to the pandemic in sight, it no longer seemed so crucial to make knottier social arrangements work. It’s rare to feel like a whole way of life has an expiration date; and it can be a real relief to let things fully fall apart when you know the whole thing is going to collapse anyway. It reminds me of the way that friends and I lived in big shared houses in college the month before we would move out: looser, sloppier, messier, letting the water stains ring forth. If there’s going to be a demolition of this way of life anyway, letting things fall to pieces, for just a little bit, can feel so gloriously easy.
*Names have been changed.