By Laura Black
I love my husband. However, I never anticipated round-the-clock confinement with him for months on end. Nor he, with me.
Charles and I have been married for 28 years. We met on a blind date. I was a recently divorced attorney/ businesswoman with three children. He was a long-divorced insurance broker with none. I was immediately attracted to this 6’1” graying, bearded man with the teddy-bear physique. His full-faced smile drew me in; his crushing hugs, made me stay.
He is a scotch and cigar kind of guy who maintains a running conversation with our Cavachon, Einstein. “Good morning, buddy. Daddy’s going to the gym, but don’t worry, Mommy’s here.” He walks around the house with his Kindle, reads while brushing his teeth. He wears super-hero socks for a smile from our grandchildren and traded in his Audi for a minivan so that they can watch movies on the flip screen when we drive back and forth to the beach. He’s an extravagant tipper who regularly performs acts of kindness. He sent an inflatable pool to the bellman of a hotel to celebrate the purchase of the man’s first home and gave Raven tickets to a barber who had never attended a game.
While Charles is a tall, open-hearted, live-in-the-moment hedonist, I am a slightly Rubenesque, driven entrepreneur. I completed college in three years. I began law school when my boys were four and seven and graduated nine months pregnant with my daughter. A friend and I started a legal services business which we later sold to a public company. Last year, my mother died, my colon burst, and I overcame sepsis — I also planned a trip to Southeast Asia and learned to read Hebrew.
So, it was no surprise that, horrified by early reports of the suffering and deaths from Covid-19, I sprang into action, set on winning “best at handling a crisis.”
Charles was willing to wait and see “how things play out.”
In early March, when some still compared coronavirus to the flu, I pulled out the dozen protective masks in our storage locker left over from the 2002 SARS scare and ordered gloves. I stocked up on hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial soaps, sprays, cloths. I bought anything with the word “disinfectant” in its name. I filled our freezer with meat and chicken, the pantry with boxes of pastas, cans of tuna fish, and jars of peanut butter and jelly.
Charles bought Sauvignon Blanc for me, Johnny Walker Black for himself, and extra dog food for Einstein — just in case.
Considered vulnerable because of our age, we hunkered down in our Baltimore condo. I scrubbed and sanitized, beginning with the toilet bowls. I polished wood floors with Bona, dusted glass tabletops with Windex, washed the clothes and changed the linens. I disinfected faucets and doorknobs. I cut Challah into thick slices for grilled cheese sandwiches and peeled potatoes and carrots to accent roasted chicken. I made matzoh balls for Passover and a tenderloin for Father’s Day.
But soon, the novelty of homemaking and sequestering wore off. I became frazzled, exhausted. The hot compresses that I used for my back and the anti-inflammatories I took for my knees, no longer provided relief. It was time for Charles to jump in and take over — or at least carry some of the burden.
It turned out that while Charles professed parity in the workplace — he was content with inequality when it came to cleaning counter-tops and mopping floors. He was willing to schlep with me to business conferences and charm prospective clients. He kept the ladder steady as I climbed up the rungs. But now, stuck at home, he’d rush out to the balcony for a cigar when I pulled out the rug cleaner; logon to his laptop when I announced, “We need to organize the pantry.”
Charles was raised by a scholarly, intellectual father and an indulgent, “do-it-all” stay-at-home mother. He has four sisters — he’s the only son, the golden boy. Growing up, he and his father discussed politics, while his mother and sisters set tables, lit grills, and poured drinks. Through our years together, he’d, reluctantly, hopped off of his entitled perch, but now, he had reverted to old patterns.
Before the quarantine, allocation of domestic duties was never a cause for marital discord — neither of us did them. We were fortunate. When the children were younger and we were ensconced in our careers, we had the means to hire housekeepers, babysitters, and gardeners. As empty nesters we could afford to frequent neighborhood bistros, rely on cleaning services, and carry-out. But now, like most of the world, we were forced to fend for ourselves.
As a couple accustomed to socializing and traveling, condo confinement was claustrophobic, challenging. Admittedly, harder for me than for Charles. He can sit in our white fabric barrel chair, reading historical fiction, for inordinate lengths of time. Though I flirted with meditation and downloaded Headspace, I am better at doing than being.
The ever-present stress of the virus took its toll. We feared for friends and loved ones, grieved for loss of lives, worried about escalating unemployment and contamination from those who refused to wear masks and distance. It was not the time to fight. I did not want his laissez-fare attitude to trigger a “why do I have to do everything” meltdown.
Therefore, I kept it together when we ran out of chocolate milk and I offered, “You can mix Hershey’s syrup with regular milk.” He looked at me as if I had suggested dancing naked on a Zoom call.
When he bit into a burger and said, “Is this a turkey burger? You know I don’t eat turkey.” I fibbed, “It’s beef.”
I held my breath as he took a catsup and mayonnaise saturated bite. He didn’t say a word but checked the label on the ground beef the next time I went to broil burgers.
And there was the time when I surprised him with his favorite bagels and lox breakfast, delivered by a neighborhood deli, sanitized by me. He thanked me then studied the lox as if he were a gemologist differentiating a cubic zirconium from a diamond.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
Shaking his head, he said, “This looks like nova. I prefer belly lox.”
He put his nose to the fish, inhaled, and said, “It is nova. I knew it was nova.”
I didn’t tell him where he could shove his breakfast.
Instead, I exploded. “Who made you king? When are you going to help around here? It’s time for you to be productive! This needs to be an equal partnership.”
He looked up from his Kindle and said, “Well, if you want equality you have to stop doing so much.”
I couldn’t help it — I laughed.
He added, “And are you insinuating that clipping my nails this morning wasn’t productive?”
I shook my head. Against my will, my fury began to dissipate.
But I still managed to delineate a precise litany of complaints.
When my tirade softened, Charles conceded that he’s not a self-starter when it comes to household chores. And, especially, with food, he is set in his ways. Then he added, “Seriously. I don’t need you to cater to me. I’m happy with frozen pizza. And there’s lots of places around here that deliver. I can wash my own clothes, just not on your schedule. You can’t sit still. You’re always vacuuming or dusting. It’s just the two of us, relax.”
He was right.
It was for me, not for Charles.
It wasn’t just to prove I could glaze a corned beef or clean a hard-to-reach corner with a toothbrush. To graduate from the pandemic with honors was my way of taking control. I was relying on old coping skills to get me through this new threat. It was what I had been doing my entire life.
Charles understood. That night he ordered Chinese food. And, like the Charles I love, he bought enough spareribs, egg rolls, orange chicken, and beef chow fun to share with the staff in our building.
The next morning, when I came into the kitchen for my coffee, he said “I filled the Keurig cannister with water — on my own.”
When I stopped laughing, I said, “There is no one in the world I’d rather quarantine with.”
And thought, I can’t wait until it’s our turn to take the vaccine.