A man with the right scruffed-up beard and breadth of chest swaggered into the S and M dungeon that was my place of business, and twenty minutes and one grand later had my chin — still soft with the downy fluff of teen-girl skin — held steady in one paw while the other one flew at my face so hard and fast that I ceased to exist as the same collection of matter I had been the previous instant.
When Sarah’s mother, Penny, got sick four years into our marriage, we decided to move back to Mississippi, considering it penance for the sins of our youth. We signed a lease on a house, a white one-story on the historical register with a wraparound porch and angels, stars, and the moon painted on the transom above the front door.
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It is day nine or ten, or maybe forty, of the shutdown, and I am standing in line at a Lowe’s Home Improvement store, waiting to buy some caulk. I thought I might cruise easily through the self-checkout aisle and be out in five minutes, but that lane is closed, and now I am stuck behind someone who seems to be purchasing three hundred tiny screws, each of which needs to be individually scanned. My wife and kids are waiting in the car outside, and I know that if I have to wait too much longer, my three-year-old daughter will either (a) need to come in to use the bathroom or (b) just go to the bathroom in the backseat. Before this all started, she was totally potty trained, but in the past nine or ten, or forty, days there have been all kinds of regressions — and not just on her part. My son collapses in fear now anytime he sees a bug; we’re not sure why. At night my wife and I lie awake and talk about what, if anything, the children will remember about this time.
What will we remember? Will I remember standing in this line at Lowe’s, watching the man ahead of me argue with the clerk about his receipt?
She’s voiding the entire purchase and starting over. Oh my God.
I’m keeping a diary, logging my weight and temperature each evening and noting what I’ve read that day. But, in these extraordinary times, my thoughts on the day-to-day seem so . . . ordinary: “Pretty quiet today. Kids are driving me crazy. Was nice to talk to friends on Zoom last night. Wish the weather was nicer.” None of it captures the deeper currents of the experience, even the entry about how a former colleague of mine passed away from the virus. It is like all this is happening very far away, in a world I can no longer touch.
The days shrink down. Nothing happens. There are no chance encounters. Our minor daily adventures are all canceled. The other day I noticed the family calendar in the kitchen is still covered with the complex web of book-club nights and after-school activities and school holidays. Dizzy, I looked at the thrice-circled day for when the kids’ grandparents will reopen their pool for the summer. Now none of us knows when we’ll see each other again. At night I sit on the couch after the kids are finally asleep and try to feel grateful that I still have a job and my family is healthy. I try not to look at the news. The days are long, but the weeks seem to speed by, already forgotten.
And yet a once-forgettable chore like this simple trip to the hardware store now requires complicated planning: Will my wife be able to schedule an hour’s break from her job to sit with our kids in the car so that I can go inside alone? Do I have my provisions ready — face mask, gloves, hand sanitizer? It’s a military-style operation just to get a tube of caulk. What a month ago might have been a careless exercise in routine home maintenance now means confronting my own mortality.
To estimate six feet of distance between me and a man hovering nearby, I imagine my tallest friend: Could he lie down between us? I wonder how he’s handling all of this. He called the other day, miserable that his office was closing for a scheduled two-day holiday. He works all the time. Suddenly the prospect of a four-day weekend, all those unstructured hours, was existentially terrifying to him.
“So, you think this is the end of the world, or what?” a stranger behind me (but perhaps not far enough behind) asks. It turns out to be someone I know: the mother of one of my son’s school friends. I realize I’ve not been looking people in the eye lately, as if that evasion were somehow prophylactic. It’s been days since I’ve seen anyone other than my family who wasn’t framed inside a Zoom window.
We chat briefly about whether schools will reopen before the end of the year. Her husband was still taking the train into the city just last week; he’s a day trader, and they weren’t set up to do whatever it is he does from home. But now he’s sorted that out and works from their bedroom all day. Their kids are driving them crazy. They had to cancel a trip to somewhere great. So did we. It’s an utterly banal conversation — the kind I once had on the school pickup line many times a week; the kind I would forget even as it was happening. But now it means something. I’ll think about it all day. It’s all I’ve got.
The guy ahead of us finally gets his order straightened out, and I move up to pay for the caulk. I think that if I was overcharged by 2,000 percent, I’d pay it gladly rather than stand here for three more minutes. I’m aware of every single breath. My entire body has been tense since I came into the store.
As I go to insert my card into the reader, I spot a stack of wet wipes on the counter. My wife’s been looking everywhere for them since this started; there is a limit of two packs per customer, but I snatch my ration eagerly. As I clutch them to my chest, it seems insane that any of this is happening: That I’m buying caulk at a time like this, to patch a hole I made in the kitchen tile during an ill-fated home-improvement project. That this cashier is ringing up idiots like me as if everything were normal. She offers me the receipt, but I shake my head and hurry off with my purchases. I wave quickly to the school friend’s mother as I go. Who knows when we’ll see one another again?
As I approach our car in the parking lot, my children cheer my arrival through the open sunroof. Whenever I’ve been gone for more than ten minutes lately, my daughter hugs me and says, “I missed you so much.” She has not peed in the backseat. The other day she recognized the number 45 on a mailbox we passed. When did she learn about double digits? In the span of four days my son has learned to tie his shoes and ride a bike. If life were back to normal, these things might have happened while I was off doing something else. Now they are like mountains climbed.
I hand my wife the bag, and she finds the two packs of wet wipes. It is the happiest I’ve made her in weeks. She pulls my mask down and kisses me, right in front of the children, who screech and find this to be wanton behavior on our part — and I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, it is. A tiny memory for my children, a little romance for us. With all the bigger plotlines of our lives on hold — the workplace dramas, the family trips, the swimming lessons, the conferences — these moments are no longer just set dressing. They’re everything.