A lot has changed in the zillion years since I last wrote. Like right now, I’m sitting in my makeshift home office wearing a “What’s a Bra?” t-shirt that I wore to bed last night and also wore to several Skype work meetings today (video off, thank you very much). I’ve just finished playing another round of Who Snagged My Mother-Loving Laptop with the fam. And next, I’ll Google the prognosis I should expect from the plum-black bruise that appeared on the bottom of my foot overnight. It’s probably you-know-what.
Facing my small wicker desk is a vintage photo of Senator Barry Goldwater playing baseball in boyish sneakers. With his mitted hand reaching behind him, he’s about to tag the rump of a blonde co-ed jogging to base in short-shorts. His team shirt says BARRY’S NUMBERS, based on a comment someone made when his poll numbers were looking grim. His long pants–khaki and hemmed–are an odd choice for a ballgame in the dry, hot dirt of our beloved Arizona. But as the world has come to know this summer, there are lots of odd choices made by people in this state.
I love this photo more than ever now, because it shows people doing Old World things such as playing team sports and standing sardine-close with their mouths and noses exposed. My traumatized brain is jarred by such spectacles. It wants me to scream PUT ON YOUR FACEMASK! But I bought the photo during the #metoo era as a sort of joke for my slightly right-of-center partner. The photo was a nod to a few years in our 30s when I stopped talking to him over a politically incorrect joke he sent to me. I was married to someone else at the time, so it didn’t seem a huge deal to call “uncle” on one too many political differences with a childhood friend over Facebook. “Even your beloved Goldwater grew up and would have disapproved of that,” I think I replied.
Funny how we’re now engaged to be married. Yet we’re unable to hold our September wedding thanks to far more troubling things than an offensive joke. I mean, we’ve all seen the numbers.
“Have you COVID’ed your COVID today?” my partner sometimes asks now. This is usually when we get another work email or school email or family email about the dread virus. It’s about the word, the mention of the word, how it’s wearing us out from repetition. This is sort of like when you notice, like, the number of times someone, like, says the word like while you’re trying to, like, pay attention to what they’re saying but, like, all you hear is like.
We tend to read these COVID messages over our strained network connection, which we’re sharing with my two kids who are going in and out of Google Classrooms all day. I’m OK with this “struggle,” although I sometimes picture our bandwidth as Donald Trump in size zero lycra pants that are one manspread shy of bursting open at the seams. Online school has been good to us otherwise: No more discovering at 2 p.m. that neither kid had bothered to eat until they bothered to eat an entire sleeve of graham crackers, for example. The familiar routines of homework and schoolwork are a welcome relief after a summer of fluidity and uncertainty, including two times when my kids were here longer than their usual 50-50 split time due to a COVID scare at their dad’s house.
“You know, we’ve had disproportionately high numbers from dual households,” the pediatrician told me last month when I thought my son was infected. Sporting a hazmat suit and heavy sighs, she walked him outside to a little chair where she could swab his nose, far from the conditioned air of the office. I watched from inside, looking through a glass door with a nurse. Damn, that swab went deep. His eyes filled with tears, but he didn’t cry. “He’s our bravest patient today,” said the nurse, but I wondered if a piece of his brain might come out with the sample. And I was fixating on the doctor’s stern comment about our numbers. “Sorry,” I wanted to say. For what, though? Doing our best under challenging circumstances?
That night, we were up until midnight again–freewheeling pandemic schedules and all that. My son wanted to know if he’d stay with me or go to his dad’s if the sample came back positive. Worried he’d get me or my partner sick, he was wearing a mask, and I was wearing a mask, and I was trying not to inhale any of his exhale while also refusing to socially distance because–oh my god–I just couldn’t. To prevent me from being downwind of any nanoparticles that might escape through his mask and into the air, my son shut off the clip-on fan that normally blows over us. Then we half-sort-of-kind-of cuddled instead of draping our legs over each other’s and spelling words on each other’s backs with our fingers like we normally do.
A few days later, I took him outdoors to cut his hair with clippers, another of my newfound pandemic skills. We were still keeping him pretty separate from the ol’ family unit otherwise. “It’s such a relief to be touched by another human,” he said. He sighed like he’d just returned from a three-month walkabout in the wilderness. Not just for that reason, I was relieved we got the call that night that his results were negative. He went back to dad’s house the next day, and today he’s back to mine.
Things are normal again, but by that, I mean the normal we’ve created together over the past five months. I mean the normal we’ve molded with this strange new pandemic clay made of time and perspective and isolation and the proof in our souls that we really need to be touched by other human beings.
“We’ve got to shut up,” I’ll tell my son around midnight tonight as he begs to tell me one more bad joke. “We need our sleep.” But then I’ll sit through another and another of his made-up euphemisms for balls as we giggle away. After, as I’m about to head downstairs, a door will creak open: “Wanna see something hilarious?” my 16-year-old will ask. It’ll be the 25th funny thing she’s shown me on Instagram since noon. I’ll say yes, though I’m pooped, knowing this unexpected mom-kid love fest during her teen years is sort of stuffed in size zero lycra pants. The bust will come soon enough, with a vaccine or herd immunity, and then she’ll resume her perfectly normal job of finding me ridiculous. But tonight, we’ll talk and laugh for an hour in the dark. We’ll discuss everything and anything. We’ll disregard the grim numbers of our own house: 87 dirty dishes in the sink, nine glasses left around the house, two unfinished loads of clothes occupying the washer and dryer, three meetings to prepare for in the morning, and so on. Because this is really how we’re COVID’ing our COVID, and you know what? I’ll take it.