A March Ago

Want to hear something crazy? I say, sliding into the corner booth. I’m pregnant!

I haven’t seen my friend Shannan in months, so we meet on a sunny afternoon for Pan-Asian in a sleepy lake town. I wear overalls. We split banh bao. She sips my chamomile tea. We chat for hours – book progress, travel plans, the kids. When the check comes, she asks what I think about this whole COVID thing.

It’s not a big deal, right? I say. Nothing to worry about?

By the time I’m home, the schools have announced early dismissal and the great shutdown begins. It would be the last lunch we’d share for the year, and longer.

So it begins in the peripheral sense – large swaths of people auditing their home for toilet paper and Purell, finding themselves lacking, buying out Walmarts and Costcos across America in hopes that a surplus might mean safety, insulation from harm. Comforted in a long week of otherwise. It all stands to reason; if everything is being taken away – lattes from the corner bistro, plane tickets for spring break, those saintly teachers at our children’s school – well, at least we’ll still have our 3-ply.

But one long week unravels into many long weeks, then many long months, throughout which the audit never ends: Who’s wearing a mask? What’s safe? Who’s being responsible? How can we pull off Easter brunch? Our daughter’s birthday? Fall fest, and everything after?

Remote employees maneuver IKEA desks into bedroom corners because the light is better, it’s further away from the children, the Wifi signal is strong. Mothers plan Zoom dinner parties and drive-by baby showers. Families live-stream funerals; small attempts to celebrate lives we can no longer understand.

Homes jitter with questions. In the absence of normalcy, of convenience, of life-as-we-knew-it, we all begin a sort of staring contest with our own lives. Should we tackle the wallpapering project? Splurge on the deck? Do we like this dining room table? And what we mean is: Do we like those around it? 

We call for Domino’s, swap Carole Baskin theories, buy the blouse. Join TikTok for dance challenges, leave long before the middle part feuds.  Adopt a terrier or two.

Our small world becomes smaller, a collective rejiggering. We learn to cut our own hair.

Then comes an election, polarizing because it is, and also because we need it to be. We have spent eight months swimming in ambiguity: fighting furloughs, starting sourdough. For many, it feels easier to answer which candidate is on the right side of history than to question if we ourselves are.

We thrum with anger. Over cancel culture or accountability, depending upon which front page we subscribe. We draw lines over protests or riots, victims or survivors, gaslighting or falsehoods. The Internet falls in step, or perhaps leads the charge? Diamond hands on Reddit, monoliths in Utah. Daily, scandals dot our news feeds. We’re not getting better, the headlines say.

In a world in which we can no longer speak to each other around a shared meal, we opt to speak about each other instead.

But today, it is sunny and cool. The tire swing sways from an oak I’ve been told is nearly 150 years old. The neighbor kids are here, cheeks ruddy from the wind, feet bare with dirt. I’m rocking a 5-month old baby girl as she sleeps on my chest, her fingers curled and holding tight to something I cannot know.

How’s the baby? they chime. Is she asleep? Can we hold her?

I’ve wondered before what I’ll tell her about the year she was born, about the time everyone pulled away, into their homes and their choices and their selves. About how, a March ago, on a morning like today, the world shut its door, held its breath, and we watched it all happen through windows opened wide.

I wonder how long it might be before we find the words to speak about it with voices unmasked.

Not yet, I think. When she wakes, is what I say.

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