On Tuesday we had twenty-four hours of quiet panic. Everything is quiet here, in the Massachusetts town where we are hunkered down. There are no children’s voices floating up from the bike path behind our building, few cars pass on the once-busy street under our windows. It is quiet here. But the quiet that day was different. Ominous.
It started with me. I am 73, which places me firmly in a high-risk group for Covid19. Still, I have no underlying conditions. I tend not to worry about getting sick; I’m lucky in my health. Lucky, too— somehow beyond privileged, although that is true as well—to have had a place to which we could escape when the virus swept into New York City.
I live with my partner Claire. She is younger, a mere 61, but her lungs are far from perfect. Our household includes one dog and one cat. Our cat is, of course, sequestered here with us. She seems perfectly content with this life: everyone is snug and home together. Her name happens to be Lucky. Prompted by this, we have slipped into a slightly superstitious shorthand. Acknowledging our good fortune in the midst of terrifying hardship and loss, one or the other of us will say, “We really are living the lucky life.”
Then on Tuesday I woke up feeling crummy: scratchy throat, coldish, and extremely tired before I even got up. Lingering in bed, I told myself it was nothing. Meanwhile Claire put the coffee on to brew and took the dog for her morning walk. Two cups of delicious coffee and the newspaper were a distraction. But then I developed a fierce headache, unusual for me. We had a dumb argument: I insisted that I should be the one to do the grocery shopping, Claire disagreed. I forced myself to join my online qi gong class. That helped, until I felt lousy again. The headache was worse. I was exhausted. When I complained Claire just gave me a look: “I have a splitting headache too,” she said.
That took me down the rabbit hole. Okay, I thought, if I’m getting sick I should be isolating myself—but if one of us gets it, we’ll both get it. And who’s going to walk the dog? Or disinfect the bathroom? Our small apartment is fine, more than fine in this time of sheltering. But there is only one bathroom, no second bedroom.
My mind was whirring but I didn’t say anything. All along, my biggest worry has been that I will give Claire the virus. We have a long history in which I get a cold and she gets pneumonia. That evening I went to the computer, alone, and took the CDC self-checker test. It said I should self-isolate. That meant sleep apart, but I couldn’t.
The next morning Claire was down, way down. She lay on the couch with a blanket over her. She never does that—she’s usually at her desk by 8:30. “I don’t feel like myself,” was all she said, looking glum and pale.
Fuck, I thought, here we go. I was already pretty deep down in my burrow. Suddenly it was time to prepare: order groceries for a siege, figure out what we might need from CVS. I went to the fridge. “Is this the coffee you’ve been using?” I called across room, grabbing a bag from the freezer. I’d liked it, maybe we could get more.
“Yes,” Claire said from her station on the couch, “that’s the one I’ve been using the last couple of days.”
I stared at the bag in my hand. The label had a picture of a man in a red shirt standing next to a glossy green coffee tree. Black letters spelled out “Peruvian.” One line below that the black print read: DECAF.
It took five minutes to brew a pot of regular coffee. Caffeinated. Before we had finished the first cup we both felt better. Literally – one cup.
We really were living the lucky life. That was the end of the twenty-four hour panic.
But how will this frightening time end? I don’t mean for me, or for us in our little family. Nor do I mean when will the pandemic end. That is unknowable, though it sometimes feels like the only question. Maybe I mean will it end—will we ever forget, as people somehow forget other sorts of grief and suffering? Or will we be forever changed by this time of living with fear.
BIO: Nancy Barnes is a cultural anthropologist and writes personal essays which have been published in Hippocampus, Public Seminar, Evening Street Review and other journals. She is a lifetime New Yorker, presently sheltering in her other home in Massachusetts. This piece describes one endless day at home in the time of Coronavirus.
Photo from Wikipedia.
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