She was high energy; he was more relaxed. But spending time apart during the pandemic highlighted her boyfriend’s special qualities.
- Posted on Apr 27, 2021
“You have to burp the pickles every day,” I said, pointing out my jars of home-pickled carrots, kale and lemon lined up neatly beneath the microwave. “Otherwise the CO2 will build up and the jars will explode.”
“Put it on the list,” my boyfriend, Alex, said. He remained sprawled on the couch, remote in hand.
“See all these plants? These need to be watered every three days. Water the two in the bathroom once a week. Don’t touch the succulents. And the ones on the fire escape—”
“On the list, Mari.”
I bit my lip. God, I asked, is Alex even listening to me? Doesn’t he care about how I want things done while I’m away?
Alex and I were wildly different. He was so unlike the well-educated, middle-class public servants I’d grown up among in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Alex had been born in Soviet Ukraine a year after the Chernobyl disaster. His family immigrated to New York when he was six, and his parents had a hard time gaining a foothold in this country. He’d enlisted in the Navy at 17, struggled with alcohol and gotten sober.
I had a master’s degree and was working on my second. I thrived on tackling new projects, making order out of chaos, planning. He was happy to let things pile up around him, totally at peace as the world turned. He did his thing, and I did mine. We coexisted comfortably.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and New York City went into lockdown. Before that, I’d spent most of my waking hours outside our apartment. I was working full-time as an editor, going to grad school or out on the town. Alex stayed home, visited with his close circle of friends and went to work—he was a bar trivia MC. We crossed paths for dinner in the evenings, after my workday and before his. We laughed and joked and simply enjoyed each other’s company.
Quarantine turned my schedule upside down. My office shifted to working remotely. I finished grad school over Zoom. All the places I used to go shut down. I worried about how Alex and I would get by without his income now that bars weren’t holding trivia nights. I worried about my parents, who were over 60 years old and at a higher risk for severe Covid.
Trapped in our apartment, I tried to fill the hours productively. I had to reestablish order somehow. Painting for the first time since I was 15? Sure, I ordered some supplies online. Fill the house with plants? Yes, lots of them. Pickling? Cheesemaking? Bring it on! And how had we never composted before? “It’s so easy once you get the hang of it,” I told everyone.
Alex was unruffled by pandemic chaos. “I’m going to watch the next season of my show,” he’d say, flopping down with the remote and a mug of tea. For the first time, his steadiness, his long hours on the couch, didn’t seem like the natural resting state of an introvert. Not in comparison to my busy domesticity. How had he gotten so lazy? How come he wasn’t interested in building a routine with me?
“Why not come home for a few weeks?” Mom asked over the phone. “You can work from here. You and Alex have been cooped up for months. It will be good to get out of the city.”
Yeah, maybe that would be best. Maybe we’d just been spending too much time together in a small space. Dad agreed on a date to come pick me up. (Like many people in New York City, I didn’t have a car.) I scheduled a Covid test to make sure I wouldn’t be bringing anything to my parents. I went over the chores with Alex.
As my departure drew near, my anxiety boiled over. What if Alex didn’t burp the pickles or forgot to drain the compost? What if the Roomba, which I’d insisted we buy, ran over a puddle of water in the bathroom and short-circuited?
No wonder I found myself repeating all my instructions the day before I left. “Just make me a list of what to do,” Alex said. Of course I had a list! But it wasn’t as if a list could communicate all the nuances of what I needed.
The next day, I stuck the list on the fridge, where Alex couldn’t miss it, and we kissed goodbye. I arrived at my childhood home a few hours later and settled in. It did feel good to get out of the city, really good. Wasn’t it nice to walk in the woods? Hear crickets at night? Do yoga in a room that was not also my bedroom?
The first week continued in relative happiness, but I did wonder, had all my plants died? Should I check in? What if Alex wasn’t burping the pickles?
On the fifth day, I got a call. It was Alex. “Can you talk now?”
“Sure. What’s up?” Oh, man, here it was. Something had exploded, or Alex had gone into information overload and given up completely. Why did I think that the list would work? That he’d been listening?
“One of your plants—parsley or something?—has been looking yellow for the past few days. I’ve been watering it on your schedule, but I thought you should know.”
“I can change something if you want. And I’ve been draining the compost, but there’s no more liquid. Maybe it’s done.”
“Yeah,” I said slowly, “the compost might be done for now. And the plant—it’s lovage—hasn’t been looking great for the past few weeks. It might be its time.”
“Okay,” Alex said. “Just wanted to check. I’ll let you get back to work. Love you.”
We hung up, and I stared at my reflection in the phone screen. Stop trying to control everything, I told myself. Maybe the pandemic made me feel the world was so out of control that I tried to create a world I could control. I needed to trust God—and Alex—more. After all, they both wanted the best for me.
Maybe Alex didn’t like draining compost, cleaning Roombas, watering plants or burping pickles. Maybe he didn’t want to busy himself with a thousand household projects in the middle of a pandemic. But he was willing to try, and I loved him for it.
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