A woman living alone

Seven stories of solitude during the coronavirus, from ages 24 to 86

The last time a virus forced Americans indoors, women did not go inside alone.

When the 1918 flu pandemic started to spread, the average American woman got married at 21. Most went straight from their parents’ home to their husband’s; others spent a few years at a boardinghouse full of women their age, working in shops and factories as they awaited their proposals. A woman rarely made enough money to live by herself.

The novel coronavirus has confined many women to a very different living situation: Today approximately 23.5 million American women live alone, more than ever before. That’s largely because we’re staying single longer. The average woman now waits until she’s 28 to get married. More women are getting divorced or opting out of marriage altogether.

Women who live alone are not necessarily lonely. Over the past few decades, women without partners or roommates have triumphed by developing “strong social networks,” says Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage: A History.” When women live alone, they invest in their hobbies and maintain friendships, studies show, building connections with other people more effectively than men.

“I saw more people every day when I was single than I do as a married person,” Rebecca Traister writes in her book “All the Single Ladies.” Before she met her husband, she spent more nights out, went to more baseball games, more concerts. There was always someone around.

“This is a cold water bath,” says Coontz. “This removes almost all the advantages of living alone and amplifies all the hard parts.”

Now friends can only be seen on a screen. Almost overnight, the social networks that buoyed women living alone became far more difficult to access. Meeting up with even one or two people is widely considered an unnecessary risk.

“This is a cold water bath,” says Coontz. “This removes almost all the advantages of living alone and amplifies all the hard parts."

The Lily asked to hear from women who are self-quarantined alone. We received almost 1,300 responses.

To pass the time, these women have been trimming hedges, dancing barefoot and baking cookies without flour. They are happy to have Zoom, they say, even if video calls sometimes make them feel more lonely. One woman remembers the exact moment she last touched another person: March 6, around midnight. She was saying goodbye to a friend after a long night of dinner and dancing. They hugged.

From one decade to the next, women are alone for different reasons: A 24-year-old is stranded when her graduate school cancels classes; a 33-year-old has been looking for a partner but isn’t having any luck. At 46, one woman is relishing her freedom, while another, 61, mourns her husband’s death. Some are living alone for the first time; others have been alone a lifetime.

It’s never felt quite like this.

Age 24Maria Salinas lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Boston.

The call might as well be an alarm clock, coming in at exactly 8 a.m. every day. Maria Salinas rolls over in bed, pulls her phone from its charger, and wills her voice to sound as lively and conscious as possible.

“Buenos días, Ma.”

She knows exactly who it is, because her mom, Trinidad Salinas, has called from her home in Lima, Peru, at precisely this time since the middle of March, when Maria’s master’s program canceled in-person classes. She wants to know: Is her daughter sitting up? Is she standing? Sometimes Maria tries to lie, gaming for a few more sweet minutes of sleep. It never works.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, how did you know?’” Maria says. “And she’s like, ‘I’m your mother, how do you think I know?’”

Maria has been living alone since she rented her own apartment as a sophomore in college. But she wasn’t alone then — not really. Her best friends lived right down the hall, always ready to “just do nothing together, for the hell of it.” It always felt a little bit like home, where Maria’s parents, cousins and grandparents live in matching houses, side by side and easy to access through a door in the garden fence.

“Are you eating?” her mom will say with a sigh. “At least eat an apple.”

Many of her friends from college have stuck around, and she’s made new ones through grad school. But now almost everyone has gone home. By the time Maria started thinking seriously about leaving Boston, Peru had closed its borders. She thought she might go to New York to be with her sisters, but they told her not to come: Things were getting bad, they said. She should stay put.

It only took a few days before Maria called her mom for help. She knew enough about her own depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to recognize the red flags cropping up almost as soon as her city shut down: not showering, barely leaving the house, not bothering to take the few steps from her couch to her bed when she was ready to sleep. There was no one around to hold her accountable, Maria told her mom. She needed someone to help propel her through her daily motions. Because right now she couldn’t quite propel herself.

The calls began immediately.

“Are you eating?” Trinidad will say with a sigh. “At least eat an apple.”

She will nudge her daughter to make the bed, do laundry, clean her room — then FaceTime her until she’s finished vacuuming. When Maria goes out to walk her dog, her mom reminds her to take her coat.

“This all probably sounds a little silly coming from someone who is almost 25," Maria says.

Maybe she’s too old to need this kind of help from her mom, she adds.

Then again, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. So maybe that makes it okay.

Age 33Gina Fernandes lives in a studio apartment in D.C.

Whenever Gina Fernandes mentions her love life, her mother always has the same response.

“Take your time, Gina. Don’t worry. You’ll meet somebody.”

Gina reminds her mom that she got married in her 20s and was pregnant with Gina by 30. If she doesn’t meet someone, Gina says, she’s not too worried about it: She would be happy moving back to Seattle, single and living somewhere close to her family. But she does sometimes linger on a particular moment from “Sex in the City” when one of the characters says, “I’ve been dating for so long. Where is he?”

“I never get the quote quite right,” Gina says, “but it’s my favorite scene.”

Lately it’s been harder than usual not to be part of a pair. Gina has been avoiding the game nights and movie nights that friends from college have been hosting on Zoom. They’re almost all in relationships. It’s hard to see partners sitting together on the couch, hands on knees, arms draped over shoulders. Kids wander on and off the screen, tugging on wrists, climbing over legs.

She hasn’t touched anyone in weeks.

“At my age, everybody is coupled up, like Noah’s Ark,” Gina says. “Here we are at the end of the world, and I am in my apartment for one.”

She’s not jealous, exactly. There is plenty she likes about living alone. When she’s not working as an architectural designer, she’s been “printing pears” — slicing open the fruit, coating the insides with pastels and charcoal, then pressing down hard into heavy paper. Left undisturbed, pastel dust settles in ways she doesn’t expect, blown across stray papers and books. There is no one to tell her to wipe it away.

Gina has always talked about dying alone in her apartment, mostly as a joke. When she was younger, she read a magazine article about the number of women who die alone in their bathrooms, while taking a bath or drying their hair. She’s been thinking a lot about that story since self-quarantine started; she can’t help it. If she was unconscious on the bathroom tile, how long would it take someone to find her?

A day? A week? More?

“At my age, everybody is coupled up, like Noah’s Ark. Here we are at the end of the world, and I am in my apartment for one.”

She tells herself that fear is irrational: She has plenty of friends nearby who check in regularly, who would drop everything to take her to the hospital. Still, she lives in an apartment building that locks on the outside, with no doorman. If she gets covid-19, how would she get groceries and medicine? She wouldn’t want to risk spreading the virus in the elevator.

When the anxiety starts to take over, sometimes she’ll call up her family. Gina and her cousin just challenged her dad and uncle to a virtual game of Codenames.

“Oh my goodness, we cleaned the floor with them,” she says. “We were like, how are those PhDs working for you now, guys?”

This was the kind of game night Gina enjoyed. There is no pressure to appear “perky and happy,” she says, because “family is family.” Next week, she is planning to play another game, inviting cousins and second cousins in India, Germany and Australia. She wants to see how many time zones they can span.

Age 46Jennifer Jachym lives in a three-story townhouse in Philadelphia.

Jennifer Jachym was supposed to be in Costa Rica right now, wading into the waves with her board and her 25-year-old surf-instructor-turned-love-interest.

They’ve been texting and calling on and off since Jennifer’s last surf trip. It wasn’t anything serious, but he made her laugh — although she could have done without the joke about her being older than his mother.

“He is, stereotypically, about as hot as it gets,” she says.

She had already picked out her Airbnb and was waiting for the right moment to book her ticket, hoping she might get a coronavirus discount. But then Costa Rica closed its borders.

“I was like — eh, you know, I’ll go down, surf, hook up. It’ll be great,” Jennifer says. “And then it’s like, no. No, you won’t.”

Jennifer misses sex. No other way to say it. She’s heard people complain about the lack of touch: missing hugs or holding hands. Her needs are more specific.

“I don’t think, ‘I can’t wait to hug my sister’ or ‘I can’t wait to pat my dad on the back.’ Nope, my mind goes right down to the gutter.”

It’s not like she was having a ton of sex before self-quarantine. “I’ve had some not-so-great relationships the last few rounds,” she says, so she’d been taking a break. “I want to be in a relationship with a kind person.”

“I don’t think, ‘I can’t wait to hug my sister’ or ‘I can’t wait to pat my dad on the back.’ Nope, my mind goes right down to the gutter.”

Five days a week, Jennifer used to spend an hour at her gym with her personal trainer. All the men at the gym know her, and they all have their little flirtations, ribbing each other about boyfriends and girlfriends, flexing their abs in somebody’s general direction. She didn’t realize how much she would miss that.

Self-quarantine feels like puberty, Jennifer says. She does what she can to wring out the frustration. Talking to the surf instructor helps a little. Porn helps more. She still works out with her trainer on video chat, sliding her coffee table against a wall and rolling out her yoga mat every weekday afternoon.

As much as she would like to have sex, Jennifer says, she’s glad she not cooped up with somebody. When she signs into a virtual happy hour, her friends are with partners and kids: eating dinner, dancing around in the kitchen, heading upstairs to put the little ones to bed.

Jennifer takes a sip of her signature cocktail — raspberry liqueur, lime and silver tequila — feeling not even a little bit jealous. She just thinks to herself: The minute the borders open, I am on a flight to Costa Rica.

Age 52Joi Cardwell lives in a beach bungalow in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Joi Cardwell has two rules. In her house, there are never shoes, and there is always music.

There is not usually booze at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, but today is a special occasion: Her friend is hosting a live stream, DJ-ing from his home in the south of France. She pours herself a glass of rosé.

The friend’s set is exactly what she hoped it would be: The songs make her move, swaying her way down the hall, wine in hand, bare feet moving quickly over the cold Mexican tile. A few minutes in, a lyric catches Joi off guard: “I want to feel your heartbeat.” The last time she touched another body was March 6, more than a month ago: She went out in Miami with a group of her friends. She starts to cry, but keeps dancing.

Joi knows top musicians all over the world. “I was — ” She pauses. “I still kind of am a big deal in dance music.” In 2016, Billboard named her No. 43 on its list of greatest all-time top dance club artists. (Madonna is at the top.) Recently, she’s been taking a break from all that. Coronavirus has given her permission to pause her projects and spend a whole morning laying mulch and trimming hedges. To sleep long and well.

“I don’t feel burned-out anymore.”

She hears people talk about insomnia and nightmares, complaining about how the days have begun to run together. They’re “in despair,” she says. She has those feelings, too — sometimes she’ll catch herself fantasizing about the first person she’ll hug once all this is over. But she refuses to dwell on the negative.

“I don’t feel burned-out anymore.”

If she could convey one message to the universe right now, Joi says, she would tell it to “chill”: Stop worrying about things you can’t control. Put on music that channels a pool party in Ibiza. Have the kind of three-cocktail afternoon that becomes evening before you realize that somehow it’s now dark. Stand right up close to the pulsating speaker. Sing. Dance.

“It’s not like, I don’t know what day it is, and I’m in despair,” Joi says. “It’s like, I don’t know what day it is, and I don’t care.”

Age 61Irma Villarreal lives on the top floor of a Victorian house in Evanston, Ill.

It’s Saturday, and Irma Villarreal is out of excuses. Today, she will make herself an egg.

Irma hates to cook; She doesn’t even really like to eat. It’s something she does because she has to, like dishes or a load of laundry. She knows she could easily spruce up her regular breakfast — Cheerios or shredded wheat and almond milk, with a sprinkle of sugar — but she doesn’t see the point.

“It tastes horrible, but I don’t care. I don’t think about it.”

Most of the time, she can blame her diet on her job. Since self-quarantine began, Irma, a corporate securities lawyer, has been working in her home office from 8 a.m. straight through to 6:30 p.m. When she moves to the kitchen for dinner, then to the living room for a Lifetime movie, her laptop stays open, balanced on a countertop or coffee table. Her law firm has furloughed many of its workers: The employees who remain have to work extra hard, her boss said, so the rest have something to come back to.

Irma is grateful for the distraction. Douglas Uhlinger, her husband of 35 years, died suddenly 18 months ago. He was admitted to the hospital on a Thursday evening, not feeling particularly well and not knowing why. He died from complications leading to sepsis and was gone by 9 a.m. on Monday morning. They didn’t have any children.

“He was my life,” she says.

She’s been talking to him more. There are no shows to go to, no friends who want to take a walk. She takes the egg to her sunroom and looks up at his urn. She took her time picking it out: brassy and blue — his favorite color. It shimmers a little in the light.

“I really miss you,” she says, curled up in their favorite wing-chair. “This is a really hard time.”

It was their Saturday morning ritual: sitting with coffee and breakfast, reading the paper, talking to each other about interesting stories they found. She doesn’t get the hard copy anymore, instead scrolling through a few articles on her phone.

“He was my life.”

With her husband, the time passed quickly. Their 10th wedding anniversary sneaked up on her — then they were married 15 years, then 20. Whenever people talked about how difficult marriage was, how hard you had to work at it, she listened quietly. It was never that way for them.

“I thought, ‘I’ve never done anything in my life this long. This is crazy,’” she says. “Then at some point, the relationship just becomes who you are.”

Irma knows how her husband would have responded to self-quarantine. “We’re fine,” he would have said. “We’re together.” When she turned on a sappy romance movie, he would never have complained. “Lifetime,” he used to say: “The network for women, and the men who love them.”

On this particular morning, he probably would have been the one making eggs. He didn’t like cooking, either, but he would have noticed how hard she’d been working lately.

“He would have wanted to make sure I had something to eat.”

Age 70Hazel Feldman lives in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City.

Hazel Feldman is almost out of cinnamon. She uses it for everything: a sprinkle on cereal or stirred into vegetable soup. She always adds a few shakes of the jar to her coffee grounds.

“Now, you don’t want to be heavy-handed with it,” she says. “But a little cinnamon adds a layer to anything, gives it a little something more.”

Hazel has been constantly surveying the contents of her fridge, keeping two lists in her head: what she wants and what she needs.

The dish soap is out. Need.

She finished all her fat-free vanilla meringues. Want.

The cinnamon jar is empty. She stops to think. Need, definitely need.

Hazel hasn’t left her apartment for almost two weeks; She has a nasty cough she worries might be coronavirus. She’s been getting creative in the kitchen, Googling “What can I bake without flour,” and finding a recipe for peanut butter cookies. She wouldn’t have given them as a gift, she says, but they were edible. At least it was a pleasant way to pass an hour.

When a neighbor offered to bring her a few things from Trader Joe’s, Hazel was relieved. She immediately sent pictures of all of her staples. She’s shopped there enough to know exactly what she likes.

That was over a week ago. She’s been hoping the neighbor will offer again but hasn’t heard from her.

For over 40 years, Hazel has lived in a large complex of identical red-brick apartment buildings in downtown Manhattan. She recognizes lots of people there. They pass each other in the hallway, ride together on the elevator. But she isn’t really friends with anyone.

“The news keeps saying, ‘People are coming together.’ They might be coming together, but not here. Not in these types of buildings.”

It’s hard to know who to call. Hazel has never been married and doesn’t have kids. Everyone she knows in the city is busy with their own problems. Hazel spent days debating whether to call her physician. The cough was bad, she thought, “but is it worthy of a call? Am I sick enough? Am I worried enough?” When she finally dialed the number, the doctor didn’t answer. She probably won’t call again.

“I can’t expect her to calm me down,” she says. “These things are very unimportant.”

“The news keeps saying, ‘People are coming together.’ They might be coming together, but not here. Not in these types of buildings.”

Hazel has been agonizing for days over how to ask her neighbor for groceries. She decides to write a short email: She wishes the neighbor well, then adds a quick line at the end: “If you go to Trader’s, would you please let me know?” She won’t ask for anything specific. That might seem too pushy.

“It’s easier for me to have a root canal. I really mean that.”

The response arrives a few hours later. Her neighbor isn’t planning to leave her apartment. She says she might order online from Whole Foods in a couple of days. Should she tack on a few things for Hazel?

Hazel doesn’t want to shop at Whole Foods: It’s too expensive and she wouldn’t know what to buy. Besides, now she feels too much like a burden.

Thank you, Hazel replies, but no thank you. She will go to Trader Joe’s when she feels better.

Age 86Bettye Barclay lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, Calif.

Just before California issued stay-at-home orders, Bettye Barclay started working on the church buddy system: Of the 250 people in her Unitarian Universalist church congregation, about 100 are elderly or immunocompromised. Bettye has helped to find someone for each of them.

She’s not sure exactly what the buddies will do: She has left that largely up to them. If someone can’t get out of the house, she hopes their buddy might pick up groceries or prescriptions. If someone just wants to talk, she hopes their buddy will pick up the phone.

It’s important to make yourself useful, Bettye says. Especially now, she feels lucky: She has three kids, five grandkids, and six great-grandkids, some who live within 50 miles of her house. Her phone rings regularly with smiling children wanting to FaceTime. If she ever needed something, someone would be at her door in less than an hour.

For years, Bettye was in charge of finding quotes for her church’s weekly order-of-service. She’d Google words like “hope” and “love,” finding quotes from Desmond Tutu, Erik Erikson, the Dalai Lama, saving her favorites in a Word document. Bettye had been wanting to somehow use that collection during coronavirus. Her friend suggested she create a daily “meme.”

She looked up the term.

“You just put words over pictures,” Bettye said. “Easy.”

“If I should die from either covid-19 or something else during this time, I die alone.”

Every day, it’s a different quote and painting, mostly photos of old watercolors or acrylics that Bettye painted herself. The “memes” go out to 60 people: family, friends from her poetry group, people from church who Bettye thinks could use a “bright spot.” She pastes the list in the blind carbon copy field, reading over each name before she hits send.

“I like to remind myself of who I’m sending it to,” she says. “It feels like I’m actually making touch with each of the people who is on my list.”

Bettye has been thinking about death more than usual, she says: How could she not? She updated her trust and made sure her end-of-life documents were all in order. She had always imagined a “loving farewell,” several generations of her family gathered around her bed, sending her off with hugs and kisses. It wouldn’t be that way now.

“If I should die from either covid-19 or something else during this time, I die alone.”

That used to scare her, she says, but she’s been making peace with the idea. She takes a little time each day to sit quietly, eyes closed, paying attention to her fears and why she has them. She imagines lying in the hospital, her family safe and healthy somewhere else, wishing her well.

Being alone wouldn’t really be so bad.

Credits

Editing by Neema Roshania Patel. Design and development by Christine Ashack. Art direction by Maria Alconada Brooks. Copy editing by Julie Bone. Courtesy photos.

Caroline Kitchener

Caroline Kitchener is a staff writer at The Lily, a publication of The Washington Post, where she covers women and gender. Before joining The Post, she was an associate editor at the Atlantic. She is the author of "Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College."

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