It felt strange at first. Novel.
To be alive in the time of a crisis, a pandemic, a real-life Day of the Dead, only different. This one a silent stalker, marked by a dry cough and fever, a terrible sickness that could swoop down and kill you, or your loved ones, in a matter of days.
Before the stay-at-home order came down, I had friends over for dinner and everything felt exciting. We ate dinner by candlelight. Spaghetti, I think, meat sauce; our children, four boys between us, being wild and making fart noises. We thought at the time it would only last two weeks. We came up with plans, goals, lofty designs we would accomplish. We would write! We would paint! Our children would draw comics and invent card games and build the best fort in the woods anyone had ever seen!
We had a fire pit and lit off bottle rockets, the boys shooting firecrackers into the lake behind the house, long ginger streams, sparks, against the sky. The air smelled like sulphur and smoke. Our children’s faces flashed in the light. Shell teeth and hair like goose feathers.
“Toilet paper and guns. That’s the big news story around here,” I told my friends. This was before the death tolls started skyrocketing.
We listened to Roxy Music and I drank a whole bottle of skinny margaritas. I was having so much fun. The temperature dipped and I propped my favorite pair of sneakers up against the fire grate to warm my feet.
“Your feet are smoking,” my husband said. “You’re ruining your shoes.”
“Leave me alone,” I said. “I feel great!”
In the morning, the soles split off my sneakers like a peeled banana skin. I still wear them when I work in the yard out of some small lost pride, the black soles flapping.
Then I was furloughed. I filed for unemployment. I worried I did it wrong. I bought a pack of cigarettes at Walgreens, something I try to never, ever do, while wearing a mask and gloves. Then I bought another one. I smoke, furtively, behind the house, where the children can’t see me.
The night of the fire, 50 people had died in the U.S. Now, four weeks later, 32,000 have died from the virus. By August, 68,000 are expected to perish.
“Are you going to die?” my son Henry asks me, all the time.
“I won’t die,” I tell him. “Not for a long, long time. Not until you’re ready.”
I bring groceries to my mother, who lives alone, in a lonely apartment building outside of town. She sees me and starts shaking.
I ask her what she’s afraid of and she says: “Dying.”
She’s afraid of me, that I will bring death to her door. But she has to get groceries somehow. I stay for a half hour or more, hands in my pockets. When it’s time to leave, I wipe down everything I might have touched with Clorox wipes I keep in a Baggie in my pocket.
At home, I tell myself I’ll stop drinking. I’ll stop smoking. I’ll be better. A week of furlough stretches out before me. I make breakfast for the boys. Pancakes. Syrup, orange juice. The smell of sugar and frying batter. The boys take me on long bike rides around the neighborhood. We speed down a hill, the boys whooping, the wind in my hair, and I think, This is it! This is it! We swing in the new hammock and fit pieces into a Pokémon puzzle. There are leaves to rake, gutters to clean, flowers to plant. Work I’ve been wanting to do for weeks and never had the time, but now do.
Cocktail hour comes, the golden light. It’s so nice to sit outside on the patio after a long day of playing and yard work. I’ll just have one drink, I tell myself. And then another. A cigarette behind the house, where the kids can’t see.
“We’re so lucky,” my husband says. “I can’t believe how lucky we are.”