Food & Drink

Stories from Seattle: Living Alone in a Former Sanatorium

"Alone in this pandemic, I feel anxious and fragile—two things I can’t stand."

By Nicole Hardy April 7, 2020

fauntleroy-beach-pic

This is part of a series of personal essays we’re calling Stories from Seattle, contributed by our community and designed to show how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the lives of Seattleites. Want to share your story, coping mechanisms, wildest ideas? We’d love to hear. Please email: chelsea.lin@tigeroak.com.

The day after the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, I discovered I’ve been living in a former sanatorium. I’d heard rumors since I first moved into my condo in 2005—a roomy one-bedroom right on the beach just south of the Fauntleroy ferry that I could never afford in today’s market. People said it was once a mental institution, or a place for alcoholics to dry out. One neighbor swears that in the ‘40s two dead bodies floated past one morning when he was skipping stones at the beach with a friend. They came from up there, he said, meaning my place. I never knew what to believe until I got an email from Jim—head of our emergency preparedness committee:

For those of you “self-quarantining” there is good news. We are naturally isolated, and this “splendid isolation” includes views which are always interesting and often spectacular. As many of you already know, this was once a kind of quarantine zone. The Laurel Beach Sanatorium for tuberculosis victims. There was a reason they chose this location.

“It reads like an ad for the world’s creepiest tourist destination,” I joked online. That was three weeks ago, when quarantine was still mostly an abstraction.

Quarantinis had just become a thing.

Tone-deaf as it was, I found Jim’s email comforting. In the early 1900s—when TB was the leading cause of death in Seattle—isolation, fresh air, good food, and rest was the only treatment. There was nothing to do but to ride it outI can see how Jim drew the parallel between then and now. And at the time, figured I knew how to do this; I’ve worked from home for years, I’ve been single pretty much forever, and normally I love living alone. There was no way to know how quickly a pandemic could turn welcome solitude into crushing isolation.

At the beginning, social distancing didn’t seem so bad. I could still go on dates, according to two of three experts interviewed for The Atlantic. All we had to do was wash our hands, not be symptomatic, and sit apart from other people. “Totally worth risking death,” my date said at the bar at Underbelly, leaning in to kiss me. Now, that move seems both reckless and stupid. 

That was when I could still walk with a friend (six feet apart), worrying aloud about my job, my mortgage, my mom who just turned 72, has asthma and a history of pneumonia, lives 11 miles from Life Care Center of Kirkland—Washington’s original epicenter—and only watches Fox News. The people she trusts were still calling the pandemic a hoax when more than 80,000 people had fallen ill in China, more than 3,000 had died, and infections were dotting the globe. 

That was before #stayhomestaysafe, which erased my income and all human contact; when a friend could still drop by, edit proofs of a book on its way to publication while 10 feet away I prepped for lockdown: quinoa, lentils, white bean soup, turkey chili, pumpkin muffins—anything that’d fill my freezer, which held exactly two ice trays, one box of baking soda, and a bag of compost. We’d both already begun to feel the unfamiliar, pressing need to have another heartbeat in the room.

It’s now been 26 days since I’ve touched, or been touched by any living thing, and we’re just getting started. Alone in this pandemic, I feel anxious and fragile—two things I can’t stand. Loneliness lives in my body now. It’s a constant ache down my spine, across my shoulders and chest, up the tendons in my neck. Sometimes I sleep horizontally, my back pressed against the headboard—trying to fool my body into the feeling of being held.

My mom called today. She keeps inviting me to watch movies; I keep telling her about Iceland—how they tested basically everyone and discovered that a huge percentage of infected people are asymptomatic.

“I’d hate to be the one to murder you,” I said, and we both laughed until she started coughing.

“But I miss you,” she said.

I don’t let myself think about the scenario in which I’ve already seen her for the last time. Or the one in which that kiss at that bar was the last kiss of my life. Instead, I binge on TV so fictional I can’t relate. First it was Breaking Bad, now it’s Better Call Saul. My plan worked perfectly until yesterday, when in some poignant scene Kim touched Jimmy’s face. Neither said anything. She sensed his sadness and brushed her fingers against his cheek. That gesture gutted me. I broke down sobbing only partly because what if I’ve already been touched for the last time, by someone who loves me.

Shame kicked in almost immediately, because who am I to be sad when so many people are in literal, mortal danger? When so many people have it so much worse. Sure, loneliness can also kill people—but that’s not where I am, and that’s not today. To put my problems in perspective, I keep pulling up a Reductress story with the headline: ‘It’s Sort of Like Being in Prison,’ Says Woman Eating Yogurt in Bed Who Also Has Voting Rights.

Perspective is everything. 

Shame can work like a pep talk.

Most days, between TV binges and apocalyptic hailstorms, I walk the rocky beach in front of my condo, thinking that maybe what’s connecting all of us right now is that everyone’s feeling some version of powerless, overwhelmed, alone, and terrified. It’s a strange way to be bound.

Out on the water’s edge, I think about the patients quarantined in 1921. I imagine they woke up like I do: to a view like a postcard and the relentless ache of wish you were here. I picture them drinking coffee, buttering toast, also planning their days around walks at low tide. They stroll under the ferry dock not yet built, through Lincoln Park which doesn’t exist. We’re all here, a century apart, breathing the same salt air. Putting our faith in the same simple, painful prescription. Wondering how long it’ll take for good food, rest, and social distance to open a door to a room in a house filled with all the people who feel like home. 

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