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There was a group of liberal yoga ladies—compassionate women from the same yoga community, each one connecting me to the next via a chain—who offered help at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. I had posted on Facebook about how my living situation was tricky given my weak immune system, and one of them shared my post within her yoga circle.
As often happens, acts of liberal altruism came with costs and drama. Before I knew it, I was isolated in the hills of Orange County, California, in a fearful situation and unsure of which yoga lady to trust.
My living situation in March 2020 seemed impossible to manage during the first weeks of the pandemic. I had been staying in a tiny accessory unit that was illegally carved out of the Newport Beach house of a woman prone to screaming that she smelled burning toast. She wasn’t having a stroke; she was smelling the construction next door but blamed me instead. The unit looked and felt itchy. It had no stove, oven, or laundry machine, and I was without transportation. My car was parked across the country at my father’s house.
Still, before Covid, this dreadful little place was an oasis to me. It served a temporary purpose, as it was two blocks from the ocean. Walking on the beach every day was helping me recover from health problems during the year before—a separate chronic illness story for another time. I began genuinely gaining strength while clearing out my system. There were healthy restaurants and juice bars on the beach where I could eat. Relatively speaking, by chronic illness standards, it was the best of times.
By mid-March, the Covid virus was on a nearby cruise ship and, soon enough, California had shut down. Other human beings were to be feared, especially for high-risk people like me. Local restaurants and businesses closed, and even most delivery services paused in the area for a time. We didn’t know if food from outside would be safe to eat or touch anyway. I also didn’t have any close friends or family nearby.
I usually know better than to post outcry messages on Facebook about my health. People might not care, or they might offer useless diet advice and get upset if you don’t fall on your knees thanking them for it. At best, you might get pity, which, for complex reasons, can feel worse than no pity. There are also career risks in exposing poor health. Nobody wants to hire sick people!
Things were different in 2020, though. There was a small window during which caring about sick people was part of the hashtag “resistance.” The virus made everyone feel vulnerable. I took advantage of the moment and shared my situation.
The first yoga lady who reached out kindly connected me to a wealthy woman in her yoga circle who had an empty house in Laguna Hills. The woman was out of the country and offered me her place. I could cook, do laundry, and be safe. I could stay indefinitely, she promised.
Wow. This sounded great!
It sounded too great. Was it a trap? Depending on others is never ideal, even people you pay or marry. It can be especially fraught when you depend on the generosity of a rich stranger. Rich people have a way.
Still, I had some level of hope. This yoga lady sounded extremely sincere.
In our first conversations, the rich yoga lady was in the manic phase of charitable giving, excitedly telling me how great the property would be for my health, how safe I would feel. She had a tenant in a separate studio on the property who was recovering from cancer, but as long as I kept my distance from that woman, it was fine. “No problem!” she kept promising. “Stay as long as you want!”
I couldn’t leave right away, because I had already arranged to ship my car from the east coast to Newport Beach. I would drive to her house once it came. “No problem!” she said. “Whenever!”
Then, suddenly, four or so days after first talking, there was a problem. “When are you going to go to my house?” she asked, more than once, urgently. I explained the car situation again, but it kept slipping her mind.
Then she explained her sudden pivot: her daughter wanted to stay at her house, which had one bedroom.
“How long do you need it?” she asked, nervously. “I want to make sure you get what you need, of course.” Her tone had shifted abruptly from “whenever, for as long as you need, no problem,” to anxiety and demands, and she didn’t apologize for the shift.
Technically, I needed it indefinitely, as she had promised, but I didn’t say that.
Up until that moment in our conversations, my main job had been to take care of myself, something the rich lady seemed to support. Now, suddenly, I had a new responsibility: I had to tend to her emotional needs. She needed to feel good about reneging on her offer for me to stay indefinitely. She needed me to stay briefly, sound grateful, and leave in time for her daughter to move in. And she needed me to make her feel like this was all my idea.
So I told her I only wanted to stay for a week. I would head down to her house that day and get my laundry done there. I would use her kitchen to prepare some food I could eat back at my place.
“Great! So great! So glad I can help you. So glad you will be able to do laundry and make some food and enjoy the space for a whole week! I just want to help you! So when are you arriving and leaving again?”
In order to get in and out of her place quickly, so that her daughter could arrive, I needed to reroute my car delivery to Laguna Hills. This was the first expense, and it wasn’t cheap. Her house was twenty miles south and way, way up in the winding hills. I also needed to take an Uber to her house, the second expense, also not cheap and a risk to boot. We were all avoiding human contact at that time.
At least, I thought, I will have a nice break for a week in a better setting and take care of myself. I did assume that much would happen. I overestimated how little some people who want to help are willing to deliver.
I still remember the view from the rich lady’s giant deck. I can still practically taste the clean air. Walking on the beach was one thing, but looking down on the ocean from miles above was another. I sat in her outdoor recliner, while hummingbirds fluttered around the bird feeders above me, as I reveled in the privileged intersection of wealth and health.
The house itself, though lovely, wasn’t large, and it smelled like the dog that had just lived there. I’m allergic to dogs, so I mostly sat outside.
Soon I was greeted by the rich lady’s tenant, the one recovering from cancer. We sat far apart outside while bonding over our health concerns. She ran a virtual meditation and yoga class and offered a free space for me. She also connected me with the fourth, and last, yoga lady to help me. Her friend was going out to get groceries and offered to shop for me too. I would pay extra for the service. I had been starving, surviving on rice paper wrappers, the only food in the house.
I gave the fourth yoga lady a shopping list, based on the short list of foods and drinks that I can normally consume. I mentioned that I had a limited diet. She had my phone number. Any reasonable person would check with me for major substitutions, right?
She did not. Instead, she decided that my list wasn’t really my list. She bought several things I couldn’t eat at all, like “healthy” bars and bread filled with tree nuts and seeds, and a probiotic drink with Stevia, a quick migraine trigger. She didn’t pick up any of the drinks or vegetables I requested, but she did get me a three-pound bag of peeled frozen garlic for some reason. The bag wouldn’t have fit in the mini-fridge back at the beachside unit.
She spent over a hundred dollars on food I mostly couldn’t eat. I thanked her for the kind act of shopping for me during that scary time and didn’t complain out loud. I would eat garlic and rice that week, and at least it would be homemade.
The list of advantages to this trip was shrinking, but there were still advantages, and I kept my focus on them. I spent my first day relaxing to the sunset, ocean winds, and hummingbirds then turned into bed.
Before I could enjoy another day in paradise, I was woken up at six in the morning by a frantic call from the rich lady who owned the house. She was screaming that I had to leave right away. The high-risk tenant had heard me cough.
I did cough, briefly, during the night before. I even recall trying to muzzle it because I didn’t want to worry her. It wasn’t a Covid cough. My lungs weren’t impaired, and I didn’t have infection symptoms. I was coughing because the house was filled with animal dander, and I had recently recovered from a pre-pandemic cold.
The rich lady didn’t want to hear about it. “It’s not going to work out. Just go.” She insisted that it was only to protect her tenant.
“But I haven’t done my laundry or—”
“That isn’t my problem! I didn’t promise you anything.” Hadn’t she though?
She was angry and panicked, and she scared me, not a little. I was vulnerable and isolated during a deadly pandemic, beholden to a rich white woman that acted irrational and unaccountable. She seemed like the kind of woman that wouldn’t hesitate to call police on perceived trespassers. It was still March 2020. I needed to avoid human bodies, especially law enforcement.
At the same time, I wasn’t going to pay to reroute my car again. That felt like too much to ask of me. In a state of both fight-flight-freeze and defiance, I avoided the rich lady’s texts and calls. I told her I would leave as soon as my car arrived, which was the next day, and involved the original yoga lady, who had connected me to the rich lady, as a buffer and witness.
Later that morning, the tenant ran her yoga-meditation class. I didn’t join; there was no peace in sight for me. Even the hummingbirds seemed uneasy.
After her class, the tenant said she heard I was leaving. “I wish you could stay longer!” she said. She told me that she hadn’t been involved in why I was asked to leave.
Come again? The rich lady got the idea that I was coughing from someone. The tenant’s words didn’t make me feel safer. One of these total strangers had to be lying to me.
The reaction by the yoga ladies to a few mild coughs made some sense in the context of the first weeks of the pandemic, but it’s also something that happens to chronically ill people often. People are eager to help you until they are faced with the reality of your body in distress. The rich lady knew I was immune compromised. In theory, she liked that about me. But the tiniest sign of my illness—a spontaneous reflex from my throat’s exposure to an allergen—made me a threat and a bother.
I spent the rest of that second day doing laundry. I had schlepped four loads of laundry to Laguna Hills, and I didn’t know when I would get to wash clothes and bedding safely again. I lay some stuff outside to dry, but there was an unusual-for-California rain that night. I ran the dryer early the next morning so that I could get out of there as soon as possible, something the yoga ladies wanted.
I had miscalculated. The rich lady called me again, from another continent, to yell at me. By doing laundry in the morning, she said, I was disturbing her tenant and needed to stop.
The tenant herself didn’t seem that bothered. “Hey! If you could do it later, that would be cool, but no worries,” she said. “I don’t really mind.” She also told me that it was too bad I had to leave that day.
Was it though? I wondered. As far as I could tell, she kept calling the angry rich lady on me. These two had quite the routine; it was like a passive-aggressive yoga buddy cop duo.
My car finally arrived that day, and I loaded it with some still-wet clothes and a few bins of chopped garlic and cooked rice, the spoils of my two-night vacation in the hills. I didn’t say goodbye to or thank anyone. I was out about $350 dollars. The experience with the yoga ladies was an early lesson in how the pandemic would continue making the world increasingly unsafe in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.
I returned to my depressing illegal sublet inside of the beach house, where the owner wouldn’t let me use her laundry and yelled at me when she smelled any food. At least I had signed a contract to stay there. That, alone, made it feel comparatively like a sanctuary.
Within two weeks of my outcry post, nothing had improved in my life. Instead, I needed to recover from all of the traumatic charity.