This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.
The first year of the pandemic was also, for many, a year of secrets. As the vacations and events people used to broadcast on their social-media feeds became both dangerous and illegal, those who chose to flout COVID guidelines increasingly made efforts to conceal their behavior. Others found that, freed from the judgmental gaze of friends, family, and co-workers, they had an opportunity to pursue plans or acknowledge truths that might otherwise never have come to light. As the anniversary of the U.S. lockdown approaches, the Cut spoke to seven people about the secrets they kept during the pandemic — some shameful, others liberating. As one woman told us, “It’s kind of like I’ve stepped into a new, sacred privacy that I probably haven’t really ever experienced in my life before.”
Names have been changed for obvious reasons.
“We told people we were going to the cottage, but then we actually got on a plane.” — Sara, 30, New Jersey
My boyfriend and I flew to Aspen for a ski trip the other weekend. We told people we were going to my cottage, but then we actually got on a plane. We told some of our friends, but I have one group of friends that is very judgmental. There’s the group I lie to and the group I don’t lie to. I once mentioned having dinner with, like, one other couple and they were like, “That’s not COVID safe!” And I was like, Okay, obviously can’t tell them that I’m going skiing next weekend. That was what started the lie, just feeling judged by something that was definitely less bad than what we were about to do. Then we actively lied to people when they were like, “What did you do last weekend?” Our other friend came and met us to ski who lives in Aspen, and we were all in like a group message with our friends back home, and we had to lie about the fact that we were together. She posted one photo where I was, like, deeply in the background. And she was like, “I don’t know, like, I don’t think I can post it. People might recognize you!”
It definitely is not a nice feeling to lie to your best friends. But most people didn’t ask, so it was a very easy thing. Like, I just wasn’t being honest. You know what I mean? I would definitely say I’m not one to lie in a normal situation. But this is certainly not like the first COVID lie I’ve told and probably won’t be the last.
“I even drove her boyfriend to the airport.” — Paul, 19, British Columbia
I have this female friend who I’ve always had a flirty vibe with, but we never did anything because she has a boyfriend, who’s also in our friend group. And then of course, March 2020 rolls around, the pandemic hits, our school says, “Hey, here’s a week off,” and almost everyone goes home, including her boyfriend. He’s an exchange student from the U.K., so he flew home. But she and I were both staying in town. We’re like the only people left, and immediately, the vibe changes.
I even drove her boyfriend to the airport. It was me and her boyfriend in the front seat, her in the backseat. And, you know, we go drop them off at the airport, they have a tearful good-bye or whatever. Then once he leaves, she hops in the front seat and puts her feet on my lap and says, “Okay, what now?”
Her boyfriend ended up being stuck in England for months, and us [hooking up] kind of became a weekly habit. Nobody in our friend group knows about it. I wouldn’t say I felt guilt, but it was like I was sticking my fingers in my ears. I guess a part of me imagined that, because of the pandemic, they would have broken up anyway at some point, so it never would have become an issue. So I’m kind of sticking my fingers in my ears and saying, like, This is fine. Everything’s fine. Right?
But then, at the end of the summer, she phoned and was like, “Hey, boyfriend’s coming back from the U.K. and moving in with me.” We kind of set ourselves to secrecy. She’s like, “So these last couple of months … Don’t tell anyone.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I won’t if you don’t.”
“What would have been a fairly bad decision under normal circumstances was in fact a supremely bad decision.” — Lauren, 30, New York
This time last year, I woke up in Bangkok the morning after heavily making out with a stranger in the bathroom of a strip club the night before and discovered that what would have been a fairly bad decision under normal circumstances was in fact a supremely bad decision given that the seemingly distant and contained virus had made its way to Thailand and Italy and had ostensibly become an official global pandemic. I haven’t told anyone else except my husband — he’s cool with that stuff — although I guess it’s not so much a secret as something I didn’t brag about. But I didn’t want people to know I could have gotten COVID from a stranger in the bathroom of a strip club.
“We’ve been together a year, and I still haven’t told my family about it.” — Georgia, 30, London
Prior to the pandemic, I was operating through life in a really different way. I had just separated from my husband, I was living out of an Airbnb, and I wasn’t speaking to my parents. Around that time,I entered into a relationship with someone new, who I’d met a few years before. He’s 19 years older, and we’re having the best sex of our life.
We’ve been together a year, and I still haven’t told my family about it. It wasn’t that I didn’t think my parents would approve more than I finally had the chance to just really just be with myself in the experience without outside approval or influence. I’ve just been able to honor my experience because the pandemic has created this boundary. Physically, spatially, energetically. It’s not like a dirty little secret, but it’s kind of like I’ve stepped into a new, sacred privacy that I probably haven’t really ever experienced in my life before.
“I was feeling like Hermione Granger with the time turner.” — Mia, 29, New York
Someone had contacted me last January who I used to freelance for and said that she was doing a lot of work for this tech company and was I interested in working with them as well? I said “yes.” Then February came around, the whole world went nuts, and I promptly forgot about it. And then in April, I got an email from somebody from the tech company asking to set up a call.
The tech-company people were based on the West Coast. And the job I was already working in, in media, was on the East Coast. So I manipulated my schedule to maximize that. I shifted my hours from my first job from seven to three. And then I worked the other job from like three to seven or so. So nobody could really tell the difference. The tech company sent me a computer and a phone, so that helped me to compartmentalize things.
I generally have a lot of anxiety and for many, many years was really consumed by my student loans. And I was able to pay them off last summer, which felt really amazing. Both of my parents ended up losing a lot of work during the pandemic and feel a lot of anxiety about that. And so I’ve just been kind of trying to put everything away, setting up a lot of savings accounts for myself, and hiding money where it’s hard for me to get to it. I do have this feeling all the time that the other shoe could drop.
Eventually I realized that the tech job, even part time, was gonna net me enough money that I could leave my first job, which I was feeling dissatisfied with for a lot of reasons. But then the trouble was I had to work full time for the tech company for a month before I qualified for benefits. And I wasn’t about to give up health insurance in the middle of a pandemic. So there was a month where I had to work full time for both jobs, which was really hard. For the most part, I got really lucky with meeting schedules not overlapping. But there was this one time where I remember I had meetings that I couldn’t miss for both at the same time. And I was like toggling between like camera off and muting from different meetings during the same half-hour. I was feeling like Hermione Granger with the time turner, basically. The tech company never found out.
“We don’t want people to be like, ‘Oh, can I come?’” — Daniella, 28, New York
I’ve gone to Burning Man for the last three years now, and it obviously didn’t happen last year. So a couple of my friends decided, “Well, why don’t we get a mansion outside of Zion National Park and we’ll have our own Micro Bur?” So around 60 people went to this house together. We all got tested before. Each night, we had themed costume parties. We have a lot of friends who DJ, which is how all this comes together. We rented this ridiculous soundsystem. I think I might even have a photo of it but like a bunch of speakers. It was insane.
We’ve been traveling and partying all COVID. I think it is really just the fact that my friend group is very ingrained in this lifestyle. There’s a lot of secret house parties. I remember over the summer there was a prohibition-themed boat party, and it was all over the news the following day, because they didn’t get their liquor license or something. And the organizers got arrested. It was really fun. I went to another party last week that was at a warehouse in Bushwick. And I mean, these days, it’s kind of like, if you want to go to a party, you just have to know who to ask, and then you’ll find out. You have to enter a password, and someone has to send you the link — it’s pretty under the radar.
There are people out there who are very judgmental about leaving your home. With those people, it’s like, I can’t really tell them, “Oh, I’m about to go party with 60 of my friends. I found out about it on a WhatsApp chat.” We have so many group chats for all of these houses. That’s how we all communicated with each other, how to get to the house and planning and all of that stuff, all the activities. It was secret because you couldn’t just buy a ticket and attend. You had to be friends with these people and get accepted to the house. When people go to these parties, generally they won’t share it on Instagram. Partly because it’s like I don’t want people to judge me for going to a party. But it’s also like, well, there’s probably a little bit of an exclusivity aspect to it as well. We don’t want people to be like, “Oh, can I come? Why wasn’t I invited?”
“I realized I can’t stand cohabitating with him.” — Jane, 72
My husband and I have been married for 40 years. I’ve just never had enough time alone to myself, starting in childhood. I used to put hangers on my door knob so I could tell if somebody was about to come in. I’m basically an introvert. This is the first time in my life when I’ve had all the time to myself that I could possibly desire. And, unfortunately, guilty, I am loving it.
I was completely alone from April to September — when the lockdown happened, he was at our summer house out of state and I was at our place in the city and we didn’t want to travel. And I found that I loved it. I love waking up in the morning and knowing this is, you know, my day to do whatever I want with. I hadn’t had that since childhood and probably not even then. And after that, I made excuses of why we couldn’t be in the same place for very long. I realized that I can’t stand cohabiting with him. For 40 years, I begged for occasional time alone. Now that I finally have my fill, I’m reveling in it and not keen to reunite. Maybe I’ve been sort of overplaying the dangers that we pose to each other, in terms of exposure, so we could keep living apart. I just took advantage of the situation. But that time is coming to an end.
I’m not rocking the boat. I’m not asking for a divorce. We’re much too old for that. And the brunt would be borne by our children. So that that’s not really a possibility. So I don’t know what the next step is going to be, I really don’t. I just know it was like gulping spring water after being in the desert.