A pair of mourning doves were fucking outside my kitchen window the other day. At the very least, they were giving it the old college try. The male fluttered his well-groomed wings from time to time to maintain an awkward balance on top of the female. She locked her small black eyes on mine for a moment, but they were so expressionless, her attitude regarding the experience seemed very much open to interpretation. I broke away from her gaze. It was awkward and anyway I was cleaning a chef’s knife which required my full attention— a trip to the emergency room is a horrifying thought at the best of times. During a pandemic, it’s unthinkable.
Resignation. That was the look. Not ecstasy, not annoyance, just an avian impression of stoic practicality.
“Lucky bitch,” I thought as I carefully placed the knife on the rack to dry.
This morning on my way home from the market, an Irish Setter placed its cold, wet nose on my forearm as I knelt down to tie my shoes. Its owner apologized and I said “No problem” as clearly as possible through the hot mask that was pulling at my ears. What I really wanted to say was “Thank you. That’s the first time I’ve been touched by another living thing in nearly two months.” I sighed into my face covering, picked up my bags of groceries that now felt 30 pounds heavier, made it back home, stripped down, and took a hot soapy shower where I sat in the tub with the water spraying over me and sudsed and scrubbed until I felt immaculate enough to safely hold my head in clean hands.
Sheltering in place alone isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but I don’t expect it’s meant to be. I often think it would be lovely to share the burden of waiting out the plague with another human. Someone I could cook for and while away the days curled up in bed with to watch British Whodunits. Someone who would tell me to stop touching my face and cajole me into putting on pants. Or to take them off, depending on my mood. Someone I could then shut away in a cupboard until I felt lonely again. I have the feeling my therapist would tell me that’s not how healthy relationships work and I would tell him I agreed, but really I’d think it would be marvelous.
How lovely, I often wonder, would it be to have a cat? It might be nice to have a sweet, furry creature purring in my ear or kneading my chest in the morning with its paws in order to get me out of bed and give it food. I could almost forgive a clawed up couch and the ammonia whiffiness of the cat box if it meant having a warm-blooded animal respond to my touch.
But at the moment all I’ve got are two houseplants and if there’s one thing I’ve learned during this whole nightmare is that a Pepperomia Frost doesn’t hug you back. I do the best I can with my adopted flora. I’ve even named them. The problem is that I can barely remember what I’ve called them from one week to the next. Currently, they are called “Hannah” and “Her Sister”. I think they’re good names. Hannah is the Pepperomia. She’s dependable and gives me very little trouble. Her Sister is probably Holly, the Dianne Wiest character, because she’s kind of a mess and is all over the place. I have no idea what species she is– she’s just viney and prone to drama, as much as vegetation can be. She’s currently got one of her tendrils on my Joan Didion. My therapist says it’s fine that I can’t remember their names for very long and suggests that a non-strong attachment to one’s houseplants is probably a good thing and that gives me comfort.
Cooking in isolation does pass the time, but I find little joy in it. Over the weeks, I’ve made runny lemon curd, indifferent buttermilk fried chicken, and so many meatballs that I quickly tire of them and attack them as they simmer away in the pot until I have a lumpy, beefy sauce. But I do cook every day. I find it helps. I very much doubt I’ll jump on the sourdough yeast starter bandwagon. I’ve never been much of a bandwagon jumper on-er. The only bandwagon I’ve ever enjoyed is a film starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Or, as I prefer calling people by their real names, Frederick Austerlitz and Tula Ellice Finklea, which reminds me of two things I have discovered about my self during this social exile:
1. I fall into Wikipedia rabbit holes a lot
2. Isolation exacerbates my tendency to ramble and take off on tangents.
Reading is a challenge. As is watching full length movies. I set out to tackle François Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine last week because I was filled with self-horror for never having seen it. After twenty minutes, my eyes glazed over and nobody was home, so to speak. My friend Shannon gave me a book she thought I’d love, which I do. But I read maybe ten pages at a time. I’ll pick it up again today and go for twenty. The shortening of my attention span is aggravating. I find it difficult to hold a sustained thought for very long, which is one of the reasons I haven’t posted on this here blog earlier this month.
Music is a mixed blessing. I naturally lean towards sad songs in the best of times, so I thought I’d try to counter that by only playing happy songs and then I realized I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head and wondered what my therapist would have to say about that. I pulled up Nina Simone on Spotify last week and let her rip as I was doing housework because her voice always has a positive effect on me no matter what particular mood she happens to be in. I was scrubbing my kitchen floor to her version of Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” and noted how satisfying it was to be performing the same domestic drudgery as the heroine of the song. Other tunes followed as I tidied my way through until she started in with Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude”, which stopped me dead in my tracks:
“I sit in my chair
I’m filled with despair
There’s no one could be so sad
With gloom everywhere
I sit and I stare
I know that I’ll soon go mad”
It was an unfortunate choice of music and I found myself marooned in the middle of my kitchen floor still wet with watered-down bleach, wondering how soon until I, like Miss Simone herself, went mad. My feet were damp and if I ran into the living room to turn off the music, I’d ruin the rug. I just stood there until the song was over, motionless and feeling like an idiot. “Well, if I’m going to go off the deep end,” I thought, “I’m going to do it in a spotless kitchen.”
I somehow doubt I will go mad. I’m quite used to my solitude because I’ve had years and years of practice being alone. I enjoy my own company and, as a third child who grew up with much older siblings, I know very well how to entertain myself.
I generally like being alone. But when the choice to go out into the world and press the flesh, so to speak, is no longer a viable, responsible possibility, that aloneness can feel grim.
But I know I’m not alone. Physically alone, yes, but not socially. I know I’m lucky to have family to call every week who are healthy, and friends to Zoom and FaceTime with to shoot the breeze and share a cocktail or two.
I’m also lucky to have a roof over my head, food on my table, and enough resources to get through this year that seems to stretch on forever. Next year is another story entirely, but I’ve decided to cherry-pick from my mother’s trusty 12 Step Program and take this thing one day at a time.
And though I probably don’t say it enough, I count myself very luck to have you, too, dear readers.
Thank you for letting me wander all over the place with this post. I hope it finds you healthy and as well as can be under the circumstances. I wish I could give a sustained, uncomfortable-because-it-lasts-for-more-than-three-seconds hug to each and every one of you. And if I happen to see you in person after this nightmare is over, I want to apologize in advance for being uncharacteristically touchy-feely, but like I mentioned earlier, if you’ve ever resorted to hugging your houseplants, you’ll understand. And forgive.