Nineteen days into voluntary isolation, I reach to the back of the freezer for some ginger and discover two bags of sweet pepper, one green, and one red. It’s Christmas! Like many trapped in this stagnant lull, I have put on some weight. The more I focus on making do, the faster I eat down my stash.
I picture five strangers in a floating prison with four gallons of water and three weeks of rations, stonily regarding the infinite, blue seascape. Conversation long ago exhausted, their eyes shift from the tarp covering their meager supply to the deepening lines in each other’s faces, and back to the sea of undrinkable water.
My browser feeds me news of asymptomatic ballplayers and senators testing positive for Covid-19 while the untested hoi polloi hover in limbo, staring at their kitchen cupboards. A family in Freehold, New Jersey, my childhood stomping grounds, is paying the ultimate price for honoring their Sunday dinner tradition. The matriarch and three of her eleven children have died, while others wait out their infection.
In the absence of community testing, we assume that we and everyone around us are carrying the virus. All are guilty until proven innocent. And, should we test negative, that status evaporates when we touch the next community-accessible hard surface, or pass downwind from someone with a dry cough.
The only rational response is to distance ourselves. Bob and I bang around our little dingy, embracing each time we cross paths. We’ve shrunk our world to house and yard, meandering from our news feeds to the garden, to the refrigerator. We subscribe to a spring CSA and start planting potatoes.
This morning I wake from a dream where I am hugging an older woman in a red dress, a familiar stranger with whom I’ve formed an instant bond. What I wouldn’t do for a hug from an outsider.
The United States took action too late. Our curve will look like most other countries, a hockey stick of terrible decisions, drastic action, overwhelmed health care, and triage. I click on a satellite image of two limed trenches in an Iranian graveyard, while our hospitals draft guidelines for who to turn away. The governor extends North Carolina school closures to mid-May. Many of our friends are now sidelined from work, while friends and family in healthcare, food service, and delivery scramble to keep up.
As the sun bears down, the water lures you from your rubber seat. The cooling relief quickly turns to panic when you feel the first bump of a fish against your dangling legs. You claw your way back into your life raft and watch the salt crust bloom across your arms. The fins appear, and you try not to lick your lips.
On the weekends, we break our quarantine for a walk at the dam. We’ve altered our route as more people take advantage of the park. We test the breeze, doing our best to stay upwind of other strollers. Like us, many take calculated risks: the occasional trip to town for supplies, dinner with the folks, or a walk beyond the confines of home.
I’ve given up my Tuesday walk with Shelley and Amy. Instead, we text and talk on the phone. I compensate by walking out our back gate and disappearing down the trail into Tami’s woods. At my destination, I stand on the big rocks and regard Stinking Creek, hoping to see a deer come down to drink, or perhaps another human being. On the way home, I stop and sit on Carl’s bench, beneath that stately beech. Sometimes I lie back, staring up at the beyond, thinking about what I’ll do with those peppers when I get home.