In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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— For E. and S.
With thanks to Todd Hido and Maggie Steber
The cows showed up just as the world began to end. They were there when I returned to Minnesota from Manhattan, where I’d gone to pick up my older son after his spring 2020 college semester had been canceled. As a single parent with full custody of two kids, I had little time to spare. The day I left, I slid a pork shoulder into the oven for the younger teenager, then loaded up on crackers and coffee so I could drive solo to retrieve the older boy. Because I was passing through Philadelphia, I also picked up his ex-girlfriend, my bonus child, who a few days later began exhibiting symptoms of the virus.
There are forty or so cows, seven calves, and no bulls. They’re dairy cows, the type of black-and-white beauties you might see lounging on the green hillsides of Wisconsin or on winding back roads in Upstate New York, back when people traveled winding back roads. They wear white plastic ear tags stamped with four-digit numbers. Their barn, which is located in the corner of a university campus, has beds of hay in the back and a concrete trough at the front, but it looks less like a barn than a carport filled with cows, likely brought here by agriculture professors just in time for the campus to empty. Their pens are open, so the cows can get up and follow me and my dog, Toby, along the fence, as they sometimes do if there is not food in their trough and the day is long. Toby understands to be gentle with them when they amble over. The cows first seemed to view me as secondary — just the thing holding on to the dog — but they have since learned that I can pet them and the dog cannot. The cows and Toby do lick each other’s tongues. I call this kissing, though to the animals it is probably something different. The cows’ tongues are spiraling and salt-seeking, a secret muscle that moves like a dancer.
The prisons are locked down, and I can’t go inside to work with my writing students, most of whom I’ve known for a decade. Not only do they no longer have classes; they cannot have visitors either: no moms, no daughters, no brothers, no beloveds. Through word of mouth I hear how my students are faring. Thankfully they are all still well, but the virus has brought a disruption to their routine, and for some it’s brought terror. One man I’ve worked with, whom I consider a friend, wants his story to be part of the public record. He wants to tell the world what the pandemic is like for him, a caged man who lived through the Cambodian genocide. When the Khmer Rouge came, he says, “I was thirteen and at school. My family fled their home but couldn’t find me. I was lost. But even in this moment, my dad risked his life to return home to unlatch the gate that kept our hogs penned in. He knew the pigs would die if they were locked in the cage and he wasn’t there to feed them, to care for them. I wonder: With COVID coming into the prisons like the Khmer Rouge, will we be forgotten in our pens? Who will remember the prisoners in a time like this?”
I can send him a note about a class, but I am not allowed to send him a personal note. If I could, I would say, We will memorialize you if you die. We will tell your loved ones how much we loved you, and we will tell them why. We are thinking of you daily.
My son’s ex-girlfriend is now quarantined in my basement with what we think is a mild case of COVID. In these early days, tests are for sports teams and the dying, so we cannot confirm. The uncertainty leaves room for doubt. Most of the time I am numb, and when I slide out of denial, I tell myself that we nearly bathed in hand sanitizer while smooshed together on the car ride. I tell myself that she’s too young to develop serious symptoms. She is often upright and, to my relief, sassy enough to ask me to stop checking on her so often. I allow myself to believe that if this is how the virus hits the young, she and my sons will be all right. As for me, I make contingency plans in my head: How far could my boys stretch my pittance of life insurance? Would the one who knows how to cook feed the one who refuses to learn? But we are not at that point and likely won’t get there.
A week ago, as I drove to Manhattan, my son’s ex pinged my phone hourly to make sure I hadn’t changed my mind about giving her a ride. It was eerie in her suddenly empty dorm, she said. Now I overhear her tell an instructor on a screen that she is too sick to sing — and, by the way, also quarantined with her ex and his mom.
The calves suck my coat sleeve and attempt to eat the cardigan tied around my waist. A few cows sniff my hand when I extend it, and I feel the warm breath from their nostrils. Several will lick as much of my arm as I’ll allow. I allow it all. One, whether due to her personality or the texture of her tongue, leaves red, raw splotches on my skin that, depending on her vigor, can last an entire day.
Number 3214 is the one I look for. She’s not the softest or the sleekest. She doesn’t have the biggest eyes. On the bridge of her forehead, where most of the cows have black fur, she has a thick swirl of dirty white. She is bony, and her coat has lost its shine. But isn’t it always the case that we can’t help but love those who seem to love us? I make this bold claim because 3214 — “Fourteen,” for short — recognizes me, or so it seems. She moves to the front of the herd deliberately and looks right at me, as if trying to hold eye contact.
I should disclose that my divorce from my husband of twenty-four years became final during the third week of the stay-at-home order — the same week I quarantined a feverish bonus daughter in my basement, just seven days after I’d driven from Saint Paul to Philadelphia and then on to Manhattan to scoop up two college kids who were being sent home to shelter in place. My attorney’s e-mail simply said: “You are officially divorced. Please see the attached filed documents for your records.” I mention all of this because it’s possible that if your divorce were finalized during a pandemic, even a necessary and humane divorce, and if you realized that for the first time in your adult life you were truly partnerless — this as couples you knew did puzzles together and took walks together and cooked lamb together and had sex and watched movie marathons and fought together — then under these circumstances it’s possible you might misread a cow’s expression.
But I don’t think I have.
Fourteen’s dark eyes focus on mine, and she sticks her big head through the gate, shoving the other cows’ heads out of the way. When she’s arching her neck to maintain eye contact, the stretch causes her eyeballs to bulge and roll back so that three-quarters of the whites are exposed and only a sliver of cornea. This makes her appear scary and out of her mind, but she is neither. I let her sniff my hand. Then I pet her nose and forehead. The other cows give up, which allows her more room. Eventually she pushes her head all the way through the bars so that I can pat the side of her face. She leans heavily into my hand.
I say to her: “Hello, Fourteen. Hello, sweetie. Thanks for saying hi. You like my hand on your face? Yes, you do. Hello, hello.”
Since the dying began and the loneliness washed in, people in Iceland have started hugging trees. The forestry service there is clearing a path so those who can’t hug a human can embrace a tree. According to an Icelandic forest ranger, “When you hug [a tree], you feel it first in your toes and then up your legs and into your chest and then up into your head.”
In the photos that accompany the article, one man hugging the tree looks very into it — a whole-body embrace of a large trunk. Another gentleman has his arms around the tree, but only his fingertips touch the bark. A woman weaves her body in and out of branches with joy. In a separate photo she kisses the tips of the buds like she means it.
Are many of us now experiencing some small semblance of what it feels like to live in a cage: The physical separation from loved ones and the world? The lack of touch? It’s an unfair comparison. Still, the solitude causes (or reveals) a gaping feeling in my chest. Is this the way the body holds isolation? How impossible it is for a person to carry the totality of all that is not present.
My son and his ex are friendly now, two teenagers quarantined together. One of my students is newly in love and, I hear, in good spirits despite the lockdown. My neighbor across the street allows one visitor to her home. He wears a bandanna over his long hair, and when he leaves her house, he waves to me and shouts, “Hey, have a good one!”
The last two times I’ve visited the cows, Fourteen hasn’t bothered to get up from the back of the pen. At first I thought she was gone, though I couldn’t imagine where she’d go or why, and I felt a small twinge of panic. Then I saw her there, just chilling. She’s over me, I guess. I find myself looking to develop a new attachment with another cow.
Comedian Ali Sultan says, “A fun activity for couples quarantined together is to go to the park and run in opposite directions.”
“Ha ha,” I say when I read this. “Hahahahahaha.”
Photos by photographers who are sheltering in place keep showing up on my screens. “In this unnatural state of isolation,” a New York Times article says, “photographers show us the things that bind.” One image is of a woman standing behind a sheer curtain in a bedroom, looking out the window in the soft morning light. There’s a bed behind her, and I can see wrinkled sheets, an embroidered pillowcase. I assume she is the photographer’s partner, and I envy the connection between these two people, one of whom saw the other in that light by that window and captured her image. But when I read the text, I discover it is a self-portrait. The photographer, a war correspondent, is sheltering alone. She doesn’t mind being alone, she says. She was raised by a single mother, a parasitologist who taught her to be grateful for small things.
Fourteen is hot and cold. One day she’s into me; the next she can’t be bothered, happily licking a board inside her trough. She attends to the board so vigorously, it rattles the metal. The other cows see and want some of that action, but she will not share.
One of my friends, who hears a lot about the cows, sends me piles of temporary tattoos so I can decorate myself with wildflowers. It’s a lovely gift, but it’s also possible that she wants to change the subject.
A calf, number Thirty-seven, stands back from the gate. She watches but does not move forward. Thirty-seven is special, though it’s taken me some time to realize it. When I visit at night, and all the other cows are asleep, and the Icelanders have stopped hugging their trees, and even the new moon and Venus are social distancing, she is the sole cow standing. She has the world to herself, whether she wants it that way or not. She stares straight at me, and I stare back.
I ’ve found another photographer online whose images look the way the inside of my chest feels: Empty streets in fog. A house with just one light on. Wide-open skies under which nothing moves. Footprints in the snow heading toward a house. (“I’ll meet you at the window,” the photographer’s caption says.) A single streetlight shining on a parked car. “Another lonely night in quarantine” is the caption on that one. I read the comments below it:
Damn. That light.
All of a sudden, I miss everyone.
What will happen next? It feels like this planet is a car that has screeched to a halt, and we’ve been thrown forward by the sudden braking. By instinct we fling our arms out to stop other people from flying through the windshield, even while their arms are flinging out to stop us. And after the car has stopped, we all look around to see who is still here, who is injured and bleeding. My children are safe. The light outside has changed. Is someone missing from the car? Is someone missing from the car?
Some days I cry over everything. I cry over the parade of elementary-school teachers in their cars, wearing masks and honking to their students, who are standing on the street corners and also wearing masks. I cry for a friend who has lost family. I cry over the way my now-home, healthy son dances while he eats cereal. Over the other son’s sketch of a boy staring at a computer while the pandemic rages in his periphery. Over a gray painting of Saint Paul trains going nowhere in the snow. And for my students, people in cages who’ve lived disconnected, isolated lives for decades.
Someday the world will spin again. What will we do when the shock wears off and the debris is cleared? A friend who also teaches in prison says that when she returns to class, she will sneak in flower seeds: a tiny act of rebellion. How many wild columbine seeds could she slip under her pinkie nail? How many lupine seeds would fit inside the cap of her pen? It would do nothing to free her students from their cages or loneliness, but it would whisper: I have not forgotten you.
For my part, I plan to pull the car over at every opportunity and say, “Want in?” I will throw the doors open to my people — both those I’ve long known are mine and those who still could be. I am realizing I will need a bigger car, maybe a whole damn camper, yet somehow I believe this can happen. And maybe, once everyone is inside, we will hug each other and some trees, because this is my dream, and, besides, we’re not here long, and the cows would approve. I will say to the people inside my camper: Hello, sweetie. Thanks for saying hi. You like my hand on your face? Yes, you do. Hello, hello.
A few nights ago, in bed, I craved the weight of exactly one human hand on my lower back. It refused to materialize, so I got up and took Toby for a walk. It was late, and I walked and walked down the empty streets toward the cows. Thirty-seven was also awake, standing alone in the barn while the other cows slept. The sight of that insomniac calf brought me inexplicable comfort. I took her photo and sent it to a few friends, all of whom had seen pictures of this same cow before, standing oddly awake in the orange light. From the houses where they were sheltering, a few kind friends, still up and phone-addicted, responded immediately, as if they’d been waiting all week for another image of the strange, sleepless cow. On the walk home Toby rubbed his head against my thigh, and I snapped a photo of the moon.
Jennifer Bowen Hicks