Stuck on each other

26 Mar 2020 | 09:46

I was late to fall in line with social distancing. It went against every stubborn grain in my body: my penny-pinching genes dead set on squeezing every cent out of those dance classes, which my kid and one other kept attending ‘til they shut the door. My confidence in the immune system of the healthy individual. My faith in a more or less benevolent universe. Fact is, at the beginning of this thing, my thirst for human contact was stronger than my fear. This storm was coming in fast, and my instinct told me what we needed to stock up on was time with friends – oh and library books.

I'm an introvert, so this compulsion to be sociable came as news to me when I discovered its existence after college. I'd signed on to crew a sailboat from Mexico to Hawaii, just me and the captain (who, I should have guessed, chose this line of work ‘cause he was not great with other humans). Becalmed thousands of miles from land, I took to pulling out my eyebrows, examining their white roots and smelling them before letting them float off my fingertips into the blue infinity. Alone on my watch, I pondered jumping, to see if I could catch the ship; it was going so slow I probably could, and what a rush that would be! Because failure meant drowning and/or being eaten by a shark! That's about when it occurred to me that there was no “finding myself” out here on this endless horizon. Without other people to tether myself to, I felt weirdly adrift.

The weekend the world shuddered to a halt, I kept raring for one last hurrah. These were wholesome hurrahs, mind you: a kids’ birthday party at the community center; an outdoor maple festival; a visit to my dad and step-mom for dinner and Negronis. Husband Joe stayed home, muttering it was “not responsible.” Whatever we get, you’ll get, I teased.

At the maple fest there was no chance of my keeping my 18-month-old from pilfering waffle scraps off abandoned plates. Oh well. And now for a confession: at the birthday party, which already felt transgressive, I slathered a bagel with guacamole – and dropped it on the cement floor of the community center. Guac side down. This was a week and a half ago, and also, a lifetime ago. If it were cream cheese, I’d have let it go. But avocados come all the way from somewhere warm, and I was still trying to eat vegan, limping to the close of my artery-cleaning trimester. I looked around, picked it up and took a bite.

I felt sheepish about that particular move, but victorious in general. Schools and restaurants had gone dark overnight, but we'd managed to sneak in a last fix of the people we love. After all: “What’s the point,” asked my dad when I’d called to see if we were still on for dinner, “if I can’t squeeze my grandkids?” (We've all come a long way since then. A writer-philosopher, my dad has been pondering the risk-reward of the grandkid-squeeze since we saw him a month and a half ago: "Tell me that hugging my grandkids means likely death and I’ll stay away, much as I love them," he wrote on May 4 in a piece about the big, capital letter Opening Up. "Tell me that the chances of their infecting me are one in a million and what the hell, you only live once.")

Days later, we got a call mid-morning hustle: a relative we see regularly had been exposed. With that, we shut ourselves in, closing the gates like the guards in Frozen after Elsa’s powers got out of hand. And I started a mental tally of all the people I’d seen. My entire office, including a colleague whose wife has stage four lung cancer. My step-mom, who’d had pneumonia over the winter; my dad, a cancer survivor with a stent in an artery. If I had been the vehicle that had delivered killer cooties into their noses, to begin their slow and steady downward march to the lungs... it was unthinkable. One thing was clear: No one must ever know about the guacamole.

Our relative’s test came back: positive. That gave us the green light to get tested – an outing! But what a grim one. The National Guard waved us into Anthony Wayne Recreational Area, our old carpool-to-disc-golf meetup. A nurse swathed in blue, who might as well have been wearing a superhero cape in my opinion, inserted long q-tips up all our noses except the baby’s. (They weren't testing kids under 2, and besides, he doesn’t go anywhere on his own.) They were calm, efficient and wonderful, everyone we dealt with: men in camo playing peekaboo with the baby. But Jesus.

We didn’t linger over what-ifs, but those days were dark for our family. I didn’t realize how coiled up we’d been until five days later when the call finally came. Joe was negative. In an instant he was a new man, chatting away, rummaging for a tie-dyed bandana to wear over his face for a much needed grocery run. As I sat typing this at the kitchen table, the phone rang again: kids were negative.

A month later, I've given up expecting my result. I guess it got sucked into the spam box in the sky, but it's a historical footnote at this point. I've slapped a leash on my id and from here on out I’m walking the line, even if I suspect some of the rules are B.S. (remember elbow-bumping?). I’m not risking it. Not again.

Putting together this issue as the walls close in around me, it occurs to me that I'm addicted: to your off-limits faces. But I've given them up. Nope, don't tempt me; I’ve been chastened, into the kind of person who soaps between her fingers. I'm staying put, contenting myself to produce food and words, words and food, for my people.