Across the street, the girls have begun yelling at each other. They are each dramatic in their own right. The oldest one is twelve and a regional theater star with a Los Angeles agent. Her little sister has a perpetual pout and has sung the Star-Spangled Banner at the opening of our local baseball games. But now, they are yelling. They hate each other. They hate their parents. They have been home from school for ten days in a row without friends over for distraction. They have a set of grandparents in Los Angeles they cannot visit because they might infect them, and another set who live in Mexico they cannot visit because, in one of many recent unexpected twists, Mexico has closed its borders on us.
The girls’ parents pull the furniture back against their living room walls, and they Zoom into their classes, their dance practices, their singing lessons. But despite all these attempts at normal, ten days into what we don’t yet know will be a year, the girls are done with it all. They are filling the air inside their house and outside their windows with words loud enough to defeat the ugliest strand of an invisible virus.
In truth, we are all yelling. We scream at our neighbors from distances our voices barely bridge. “Pretty day!” we shout. “How’s everyone over there?”
We are all okay. For now, we are okay. But the boy down the block may have it. He’s in an AirBnB. His parents sent him to one when he came home from his junior year in France and sat next to a man on the flight who coughed for twelve hours into cocktail napkins until the pile got so high they tumbled off the man’s tray and onto the son’s lap. They have quarantined their son for fourteen days.
“Only sixty dollars a night,” his father tells me when I pass him on the sidewalk with my dog, backing farther and farther away as he talks. “Worth every penny.”
We live on a corner, and the neighbors across the other street are flight attendants. The husband is retired and stuck in Hawaii. In California, we say things like this now: stuck in Hawaii. The wife worked her last shift and is furloughed, back from a flight to Australia and home now for what she believes will be a month. Maybe two. Their grown children are scattered: Japan, New York, LA. The one in LA may have Covid, or it may just be the flu. We used to live an hour from Los Angeles, but now without traffic, we live only a half-hour away. My neighbor drives up and leaves groceries outside of her son’s door. There are fewer cases in Japan, she tells me. “That was the son I was most worried about, but he says they know how to fight it in Japan.”
Here, we don’t know how to fight it. We close our windows tight against it. We open them wide and let in fresh air. We tie on our homemade masks and go for walks. We don’t leave our houses. We leave our shoes outside. We eat only takeout. We eat no takeout. We shop only at farmer’s markets. We eat only fresh vegetables soaked overnight in pink Himalayan salt. We eat only canned food. We eat only individually wrapped granola bars peeled open with our neoprene-gloved hands.
Our trips are canceled one by one. National Parks and a flight across the country to visit relatives. Sometimes we cancel them; sometimes the airlines do. We were supposed to get married on April 14. Instead, this will become the day we did not get married.
Our children come home from college and cities where they have jobs that have closed their doors, and we don’t hug them. One got Covid early on, before the lockdown. Fevered, she thrashed and coughed and ached and then slept straight through for three days in her apartment, her roommates not yet sick themselves whispering “Are you okay?” outside her door. Now she’s here, working on her laptop from her childhood room. So far, the others are okay. We thrust vitamins at them, hand sanitizers, Clorox wipes.
I have asthma, which keeps popping up on lists of problematic underlying conditions. I have been to emergency rooms unable to catch my breath, shot with adrenaline and written a prescription for steroids and have no interest in returning now, especially since steroids don’t work on this virus. We smile at our children tentatively as if they’re distant relatives we forgot we’d invited to visit if they happened to be in town. We think about scrubbing them down with acid or bleach or renting them rooms in someone else’s house like AirBnB son down the block.
The mother of that son says hello to me when we pass each other at six or nine feet distance. Her husband told me about the AirBnB, and I’m not sure she knows I know.
“How’s everyone?” I ask.
“Oh, good,” she says. “Good for now.”
On day fifteen, the girls across the street have taken a turn for the better, or they’re having a better day. They are outside with their parents, and they are cheering up the neighborhood with their colored chalk rainbows and STAY STRONG messages and hearts and flowers.
On day seventeen, in my house, I have taken a turn for the worse. I develop a sore throat and rapidly lose my voice. Far scarier, I can no longer taste the chewable vitamins I used to love. Still, I chew the rubber they are now every morning. I download power-of-attorney forms and type up a sheet of facts to accompany my body to the hospital since my fiancé will not be allowed to come in with me. I stop cooking and stay in my room drinking chamomile tea and water and sucking on zinc tablets and sliding droppers of phlegmy umcka down the back of my throat every four hours. I pretend not to be alarmed while I wait for the worst of it. But it never comes. Instead, my voice slowly comes back and a week later I am okay, which feels like a miracle. Which is, in this new world, a miracle.
Tests are still hard to get. Maybe I had it. Maybe I didn’t.
In this house, we are all lucky for now. Lucky not to be sick. Lucky to have jobs. We work online. We have young adults who want out even as they regress, their bodies curled up in the fetal position on beds. We have a dog and a cat and enough rice to feed a small town. Social distance might now be nine feet. It used to be six. Maybe it’s six. Maybe it was three. In the house, it might be three. We can convene in groups of eight and then it’s six or maybe two or maybe we cut ourselves in half and convene with no one. It’s hard to keep track. Every day it changes.
In this house, we sometimes get too close. We step on each other’s shadows when we walk up the stairs at night, the hall light flickering in that way that used to be annoying but now feels ominous. Like all of it. “Used to Be” and “Now.” These are the only two periods of time we know. Remember, we say, how it used to be?
In the morning, the girls across the street are at it again. YOU’VE GOT THIS! they write in fat pastel letters, their fingers and knees covered in chalk dust.
Several years after receiving her MFA from the University of Maryland, Suzanne Greenberg began teaching creative writing at California State, Long Beach, where she is currently a professor of English. Her short story collection, Speed-Walk and Other Stories, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and her novel, Lesson Plans, was a Library Journal Editor's pick. Her creative work has appeared in a variety of publications, most recently, the Santa Monica Review and Aquifer: The Florida Review Online.