I was in a new apartment, on a new block.
I started noticing all the weird sounds of my building in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights – the clacking of the radiator, the groaning and banging of heating pipes. Out my window, I could see into other peoples’ lives, people like me who were self-isolating. My neighbors exercised, cooked, took walks, made phone calls, watched TV. On the street, a man wearing protective gear blasted “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and wielded two leaf blowers, each at full blast.
The TV pundits kept saying we’re all in this together, but I had never felt more alone.
My neighbors across the street gawked, shook their heads, and closed their blinds.
My parents asked if I wanted to come back to Los Angeles. There were 700 reported infections in New York at the time: an elderly Brooklyn woman was the first local death.
But I didn’t want to leave. So what if museums, bars and restaurants were closed? I could still walk to Prospect Park. I could still FaceTime friends and family. I didn’t need to be in L.A. with my parents and their anxieties. I was just fine on my own, thank you very much.
I’ve lived in New York since 2011. Nine years of building my career and relationships separate from my parents, staking out my independence. Moving back without a plan, just because of coronavirus, seemed like a concession I wasn’t ready to make. Plus what if I was a carrier for the virus, and going home would threaten the health of the people I love most?
One friend packed his pickup and headed to Texas, where he grew up, only to turn back in panic after an hour. He didn’t know if he’d be bringing the virus to San Antonio, to his parents and grandmother. When he got back to Brooklyn, my friend calmed himself. He turned around, and drove outside the city once again.
My parents called again. Mayor Bill De Blasio was poised to ask all New Yorkers to shelter in place within 48 hours, a lockdown like they imposed in Italy. I had to face facts: I could be alone like this for weeks, if not months.
The sense of isolation was creeping up on me. I was creatively barren. Within 36 hours of not being around another human being, I was already having dark thoughts about my future. FaceTime, Zoom and Skype couldn’t replace being present with another person. I was afraid of spending so much time by myself.
I thought of an old story a teacher in Jewish day school once told us. A man is trapped on his roof during a flood. A boat appears, and the people on the boat tell the man to jump aboard. “I am waiting for God to rescue me,” the man says, and the boat rows away. The floodwaters keep rising. A second boat appears. “Jump on board!” the people yell. “I can’t!” says the man. “I am waiting for God to rescue me.”
The floodwaters are lapping at the man’s ankles. Finally a third boat comes. It stops directly in front of the man, and the people onboard demand that he joins them. “I can’t,” the man says sadly. “I must wait for God to rescue me.”
The man drowns in the floodwaters. And when he reaches heaven, he encounters God, and demands to know, “Why didn’t you rescue me?” And God says, “What are you talking about? I sent three boats.”
Maybe my parents’ phone calls were those boats.
The flight to LAX cost only $87. My parents FedEx-ed me facemasks for the airplane. I had to shave my beard so the mask could form a tight seal on my face — as soldiers in World War I had done to ensure gas masks would have no leaks. After the war, beardless faces came into fashion.
It was the first time I’d used a razor in five years. I toweled off and looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. I looked 10 years younger. How appropriate.
I couldn’t sleep. I was panicked they would close the airports. That I wouldn’t be able to leave. Two more friends texted, telling me I should get out of the city immediately.
I woke up at 7 a.m. on Wednesday. The number of infections in New York had passed 2,000. There was no “shelter in place” order, but how long would that last?
FedEx was running late. I had to decide whether to delay my flight and risk being stuck in my apartment, or fly mask-less. It felt like a life-and-death decision. Maybe it was.
I packed a small suitcase. I looked at the houseplants I was likely sentencing to death. Oh well.
My Lyft arrived around 12:30 p.m. The driver wore a black facemask that was pushed just below his nose. We’re all pretty new to this, I thought. I threw my luggage inside and we sped down Eastern Parkway: a drive that usually takes an hour took 20 minutes.
The American Airlines terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport was empty. The few travelers that were there wore face masks and gloves. People stayed far away from each other.
I was one of three people in the security line. I passed through and went straight to the gate. We boarded. I texted a friend that I was heading back: he didn’t like that. He told me I was taking a huge risk of passing the infection on to my family. He told me I should’ve sheltered in place and waited things out. He told me I wasn’t taking care of humanity, that I was acting selfishly.
He might have been right, but I was taking all the necessary precautions. I was trying to make the best decision under the circumstances with very little information, which is what we’re all trying to do.
My Lyft driver at LAX was named Louis.
“You’re my first ride in four hours,” he said.
“Are you doing O.K.?” I asked.
“We’ll see, another two weeks of this, who knows?”
My parents found me an empty guest house –- a converted garage –- to self-isolate for two weeks. My dad dropped off dinner, meeting me in the alley behind the garage. He brought two plastic cups and a flask. We toasted to our health from several feet apart.
Welcome to corona – you can’t be alone, and you can’t be together.
Adi Eshman is a playwright, screenwriter and teacher living in Brooklyn — and, for now, Los Angeles.
A dilemma of being alone vs. risking infecting