SAN ANTONIO — She manages to keep busy by day — the garden needs tending, she sewed herself a new dress, she patrols the web to see who’s delivering what — but the nights, Esther Reschman says, are ferocious. Darkness brings long hours of gloom.
“I hate going to bed,” she said.
At home in San Antonio for more than a month now, Reschman is the kind of wife and mother who takes pride in keeping it all together. “Every little thing, I’d solve it,” she said. But she’s running out of problems to solve in a situation controlled by microscopic, unseen forces.
Even for those who have not fallen ill with the novel coronavirus, this is a time when many Americans don’t feel in control, a time of loneliness, a time when home is more a cage than a refuge, a symbol of a world flipped upside-down.
Across the country, the homebound are finding ways to cope, creative sources of joy, or just mindless pursuits to make the days go by. They are also bickering with the kids, missing their parents, counting the Oreos left in the bag, counting the hours.
In Vermont, tension over what the virus has done to daily life is revealed in Josh Manheimer’s house as repeated tiffs over the dinner dishes. “I can’t get my family to stack the dishwasher correctly, despite individualized in-person training, PowerPoint presentations, and graphic comics,” quipped Manheimer, an advertising copywriter who has long worked from home — but not with his whole family there all day, every day.
In Redmond, Washington, Vanessa Kritzer and Trevor Willett have been working from home for more than a month, but the hard part didn’t begin until their 15-month-old daughter Fiona’s day care closed two weeks ago. Now, Kritzer, who works in marketing for Microsoft and serves on her city’s council, and Willett, a researcher for a consulting firm, pass Fiona back and forth between conference calls, “depending on who has the more urgent meeting,” Kritzer said.
“I’m on teams for calls, like, eight or nine times a day,” Willett said. “You end up thinking about the level of priority of the calls, to figure out which ones we can have the baby in the background screaming during the call, and which ones we can’t.”
The constant togetherness of the new life within four walls can feel like house arrest, or like a second honeymoon — or both in the same afternoon. The extended home stay is a novel experience for most people, and they are casting about for comparisons, for something to make this seem a touch more normal.
Reschman, 57, was trapped in an anxiety dream the other night. She was screaming but she didn’t know it. Her husband, Noel, 61, shook her awake. Esther got a glass of water and, at 3 a.m., started her day.
Her mind wouldn’t rest. She took stock of every minute, searching for meaning in the meaningless. Her mind wandered to Noel’s grandmother, and how, after living through the Great Depression, she stored canned food and clothes in every room of her house. Esther used to laugh at the hoarding.
Now she understands: The old woman was worried it would happen again and that she would have nothing, again.
Esther recalled an old co-worker she used to think was crazy for washing her hands obsessively. The woman had lived through a tuberculosis outbreak decades earlier. The woman had explained to Esther that they had to wash everything they touched. And now, Esther thought, a thousand Americans die of the coronavirus in one day. Some days more.
The memories bounce around in her head. Sometimes, she and Noel talk about the situation. But after four decades of marriage, they’ve found their equilibrium. When they get on each other’s nerves, they just stop talking.
“What do you want for lunch?” Esther yells through the back door.
“What do you want for lunch?” she tries again, louder.
“I don’t know,” he yells back. “How about a burrito?”
“Well, you have a choice between a sandwich and rice.”
“Why do you ask if I don’t really have a choice?”
Reschman has not left her South San Antonio home except to pick up groceries curbside or try to clear her head with a slow drive down Roosevelt Avenue. She has found relief in art. Noel fixed up the living room with a desk where she keeps her paint and other materials; she embosses and paints aluminum from old beer cans, making sacred hearts, roses and other pop art. She had always wanted to make her own clothes, so she watches YouTube and recalls her mother’s design patterns, sewing dresses, blouses and purses made of old bluejeans.
To lift her spirits in the evening, she has started dressing for dinner. She puts on the earrings she once bought in Mexico but never got around to wearing. Then the finishing touch: a flower in her hair.
On her birthday on March 29, there were lemon cakes. Her husband grilled steaks and she watched her grandbabies play in the waning afternoon sunshine. Then they sang to her.
That was a good day.
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Alex Lohman likes to sing. Stuart Rimland, her husband, likes to rap. These days, they’re combining their talents for an audience of each other.
They watch “Westworld” together. They talk about their day and their dog. And sometimes about how very alone they are, because husband and wife are 2,700 miles apart, stuck on opposite coasts.
Their movie nights are parallel viewings on Netflix; they share their comments on the flick via FaceTime or text. That’s as close as they’ll get to each other for as long as this virus keeps everyone inside.
“Sometimes we’ll just have to pause it, and say, ‘I’ve had a really rough day,’ ” Lohman said.
Rimland, 29, is a lawyer who clerks for a federal judge in South Florida. Lohman, a lawyer as well, took a six-month job with a firm in Los Angeles to learn about representing clients in human trafficking cases.
She planned to be home in May. They had it all set, “in terms of how many times we would visit each other, and we’d be texting and all that fun stuff,” said Lohman, 31.
Now, instead, “We’ll be on the phone, and there are times when we’ll both sit in silence,” she said. “It’s tough for us.”
She’s living with relatives in Los Angeles, but Rimland is by himself at their place in Palm Beach County. He likes to be around people, likes to talk, likes to make people laugh.
But “I have bronchitis and I realized I should start staying at home,” he said. So it’s just him, his work, and the couple’s rescue dog, Albie. Other than walking the Maltese-Shih tzu-poodle mix, he’s left the house four times since March 2, mainly to pick up takeout food.
After 10 days without an in-person conversation with anyone, he visited the Falafel House in Boynton Beach. The falafel guy was blessedly friendly.
“We chatted back and forth,” Rimland said. “It was like a bonding experience. He used hand sanitizer before he gave me my food. We stayed several feet apart. But … it gave me a sense of normalcy. I miss that.”
Aside from the takeout ventures, Rimland, not much of a cook, is living on leftovers and supplies he and his wife had squirreled away ahead of last year’s hurricane season.
“Stuff that’s almost expiring,” he said. “Ritz Bits cracker sandwiches, applesauce, instant mashed potatoes. There’s Almond Silk.”
He isn’t worried about running out of food, but “I’ve noticed that, almost subconsciously, I’ve been rationing a little,” he said.
Rimland has been playing lots of NBA2K on Xbox. “Being able to hang out with people in that virtual world is helping me,” he said. “We’re on the phone or FaceTime or headsets, so we’re together.” He also plays online trivia daily at 9 p.m. with friends he’s known since high school.
Rimland and Lohman say they have no regrets about the decision that has kept them apart.
“But I don’t think I’ve struggled as much with anxiety as I am now,” she said. “This is incredibly difficult.”
One night last week, after a solid 14 days by himself, Rimland gave himself a present — a visit in person with his sister and her family, who had also been home for 14 days.
“I felt so normal,” he said. “We had conversations like we’d normally have.”
But after that taste of the old life, and after his sister sent him home with Cheerios, Oreos and hummus, the isolation of the following days was all the more stark.
“Now that I’ve seen them, I think I’m going to miss them that much more,” Rimland said. “But I’m good at compartmentalization. I’m going to stay focused on work, and bonding with my dog. It’s not the pinnacle of living. But I can be happy. I’m day-to-day happy for now.”
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As isolating as the directives to stay home can be for some, the situation has brought others together in new ways. Paul Moscatt’s life as a painter usually depends on the models who pose for him — the nudes and the musicians, who would play for him as he painted them.
Now, the models are gone, replaced by a new, more intimate, opportunity — his wife of 56 years, Carlene. In his student days, she was an early muse and occasional model. A quick painting he did of her in a colleague’s illustration class remains among his best works.
“But I haven’t really focused on her as much as I should have,” said Moscatt, 88, a figure painter and portrait artist. He still leaves home most days to drive eight minutes to his creative home, a third-floor studio in Baltimore’s retro-chic Cork Factory building. But now his subject is the woman he would ordinarily come home to each evening.
“This is a lovely time to get into a real official portrait of Carlene,” Moscatt said.
Art has always been Moscatt’s escape, his “therapy session.” Now, it is his wife’s too. Carlene, 85, has also lost her community, her classes at the Renaissance Institute, a group of over-50s committed to learning for its own sake, and the Tai Chi sessions the couple did together.
But the change has been OK. Paul has kept the virus out of his art, refusing to let it dominate their conversations. “I’m not painting the COVID-19 into this painting,” he said. Then he paused to consider his wife’s expression. Maybe the virus had made its way into the image: “She looks a little like she is angry about it.”
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Gordon Wood was about to start a software venture in March, and then he had to go home and stay home. He’s a real estate broker, and most everyone is staying home, not buying homes. His daughter Allison, a student at Virginia Tech, was on her dream semester abroad in Switzerland — she had saved up for three years to make it happen — and then she, too, had to come home.
Allie was supposed to spend her 21st birthday with friends on the Greek island of Santorini, and her father was going to make a surprise appearance.
So when the birthday rolled around last week, “Allison was feeling sorry for herself,” her father said, and he and his wife decided that would not do. He found a recipe for a Greek cocktail, the Brown Volcano, made with brandy, orange juice and Vinsanto, a dessert wine from Santorini. He drove by a carryout in Alexandria, Virginia, and got the ingredients. He set up a bar in the garage — “Gordon’s Pub” — invited Allie to order her ritual first legal drink, and then carded her.
He wasn’t about to cut her a break because she’s his kid. He sent her to her room to fetch a second form of ID. She went.
“We had three or four hours where we weren’t focused on the news,” Gordon said.
They posted the whole thing on social media and it went mini-viral, extending the entertainment into the next few days.
It’s been a strange few weeks. Stranger than after the 9/11 attacks, when the girls were little and the fear, though rattling, dissipated pretty quickly. Now, by day at the Wood house, everyone finds a place to work or study. Then they come together after 5 p.m., taking a walk, working out, playing Scrabble, watching movies. With three of his four daughters at home, Wood has grown accustomed to watching chick flicks. “I got to the point where ‘This Is Us’ really struck a nerve,” he said.
Things can get a little tense with everyone in the house all the time.
“Girls can say things that are really hurtful,” Wood said. “But we’re getting along pretty well. You don’t always know what’s going through their minds, and I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I try to listen and see what’s really worrying them.
“Every night, before going to sleep, my last prayer has always been: ‘Thanks for all my kids being safe,’ ” he said. “And now, it’s also: ‘Man, are we really?’ “
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Manheimer, the advertising writer in Vermont, has lived and worked in his farmhouse for three decades, “going days without talking to too many people,” he said, “doing chores and feeding the draft horses.”
The virus, though, has sharply altered his days. His wife Renee, a middle-school teacher, conducts class from the family’s home gym, between the elliptical and the Concept II rower. She works now under a microscope, her online instruction watched by school administrators, and by parents, who have their own opinions of each teacher’s work.
His daughter Mia, a high school senior, studies online in the kitchen, then jumps in her car to meet friends and walk — six feet apart. But Manheimer found himself pushing back when she made a quick run to the store to buy chocolate.
“I went ballistic,” he said. “An unnecessary extra trip — for what?” And when her boyfriend brought over a tray of food he made to celebrate their two-month anniversary, “I went into lecture mode, droning about how long the virus can last on surfaces,” Manheimer said. “Is it paranoia if you are on high alert about whose air your child might breathe?”
But his fear of letting in a deadly germ wanes as he walks miles of dirt roads near his house.
“Each step feels precious,” he said. “Each wave to each passing car seems important. Each small discussion with neighbors about compost and maple syrup seems to add ballast, so the world won’t sink under its misery.”
In San Antonio, Noel Reschman had the radio on and Alan Jackson’s “Remember When” reminded Esther of better days. “Remember when I was young and so were you,” the song begins. “Remember when we vowed the vows.”
Esther found different lyrics drifting into her imagination. Remember when we could go outside the house? Remember when we could see our sons and friends?
This was not a good day. Esther needed to get out.
She and Noel got in her Jeep and went to see their city. They passed the shuttered businesses, the empty lot at Don Pedro’s Mexican restaurant. “It was real peaceful and real quiet,” she said. “But it was shocking and sad. How many things are going to change.”
She remembered how her sons told her not to worry, that they’d all be together again by Thanksgiving.
Esther turned to her husband: “We keep saying we will all see each other again soon. But we don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
“You know,” Noel replied, “I’ve already thought of that.”
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Hernandez reported from Texas, Rozsa from West Palm Beach, Fla., and Klemko from Redmond, Wash. Frances Stead Sellers in Baltimore contributed to this report.