Often During the Pandemic by Jacqueline Doyle
Often her dreams during the pandemic were so ordinary that she kept dreaming them for twenty, thirty minutes after she woke up, imagining that she was preparing for the day ahead instead of shaking off the residue of the night.
On Tuesday she was in the middle of buying a jeep. The transaction was complicated and she was handling communication with the internet manager at the dealership, as she had in their previous car purchase. The jeep was large, a SUV perhaps, and she wondered why they were buying an SUV, as they’d never liked SUVs, but mostly she was thinking about the transaction, going over the details, ready to talk to her husband about it.
Was she hoping to escape? They’d been in virtual lockdown for several months. There was nowhere to go. In the beginning she’d imagined a road trip to a state less densely populated than theirs. She’d looked at color-coded maps of the U.S. where some states only had a handful of cases and wondered what it would be like to live somewhere else. They’d had an airbnb booked on a beautiful lake in the foothills outside Seattle when the shelter-in-place went into effect in California. Seattle was a hotspot at the time, so that wouldn’t have worked anyway. The desert somewhere? But they would have been stranded without sufficient groceries. (They found that obtaining groceries, which they had delivered, was a lengthy process that required more frequent purchases than they’d expected. In the past her husband had stopped off at the supermarket by his health club before coming home every day. In the past they’d also eaten out frequently. Now they cooked at home every night. Their son was home, a big eater. They went through bags and bags of groceries every week.)
* * *
Often her reality during the pandemic felt so outlandish that she thought she was dreaming. One night she almost passed out and her husband called 9-1-1. She made him hang up mid-call. She’d had these fainting spells before, knew to lie down and elevate her feet higher than her head until they passed. But the 9-1-1 operator called back and insisted on sending someone out to check.
The cul de sac where they lived was dark and quiet. Her husband put on the porch light and a mask and waited. Two burly policemen in dark blue uniforms wearing white masks showed up and knocked on the door. She and her husband lived in a 1930s house with a massive oak door that had a small window with a grate and small door. Her husband opened the door to the small window. “We’re okay, officers. My wife’s okay.” She stood at the window nearby, clutching her terry cloth robe at her throat and waved. “I’m okay.” They shuffled a bit, and asked if she was really okay and if there was anything they could do. Then they disappeared, like surreal apparitions in a dystopian novel.
* * *
She often wondered whether she would die during the pandemic. The statistics were so alarming and really there was no good reason to imagine that she was exempt. She was in the age population most vulnerable to fatal cases. (How had it come to pass that she was over 60? Was there no way to reverse time?) She had underlying health conditions that would make her vulnerable. (And yet, she didn’t feel unhealthy.) Her husband, younger than her, was vulnerable too, but somehow she didn’t believe he would be the one to die.
They stayed locked in their house most of the time, taking walks around the leafy neighborhood, occasionally a short drive in the car to keep the tires from getting soft, the engine from freezing up (or whatever it is that unused engines do). They waited for deliveries of everything they needed. Disinfected the groceries. Let packages sit for 24 hours to reduce the probability of becoming infected from them.
She read a poem by W.H. Auden where Death is a personified figure sitting in a lawn chair reading a book and she wrote a microflash fiction where he sat in their lawn chair in their back yard by the lemon tree. She could picture it so easily. And then she imagined him in a black Trans Am pulling up in the driveway, a cross between Arnold Friend in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and Emily Dickinson’s polite coachman in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” She became obsessed with allegorical figures of Death. The chess playing figure in the Ingmar Bergman movie. The performance art figure of black-robed Death carrying a scythe on the overcrowded Florida beaches. (So many Americans were ignoring the pandemic as if not acknowledging it would make it go away as if it had never been.) And the e.e. cummings’ Buffalo Bill poem. “How do you like your blue eyed boy now, Mr. Death?”
She wrote micros using the allegorical figures. She wrote flash about Death at the door, Death in her kitchen. She sent them out but no one wanted to publish them. Which was not surprising. She wondered whether they would become more interesting as posthumous publications, a bio that began, “Before she succumbed to covid 19, she lived in the San Francisco Bay Area . . .”
Before the pandemic, she generally thought of herself in the first person, sometimes in the second person, rarely in the third person (except for the aforementioned snapshot bios in her literary publications). She imagined herself as a character in a story that wouldn’t end, at least not in the foreseeable future. Writing endings in her stories and essays was often difficult. Now she’s come to realize that stories in real life just stop.
Tone Determines What You Say by Claire Polders
Thailand does not border China, right? People exaggerate; fear makes money. We count our pills, our inoculations. It is February and we fly.
The water is turquoise, the curry spicy. We worry, just the tiniest bit, about mosquitoes and dengue fever. But there is no illness in paradise. And even if there is, our island, small as it is, has a hospital.
I’m hot. Are you hot? They’re taking people’s temperatures, the new arrivals coming off the boat. The numbers are low in Thailand. Do people lie? We’re sweating like pigs in Chiang Mai. The air quality is so toxic it hurts our throats. In Bangkok, everybody coughs, especially on the crowded riverboats.
Our visa says: Your time is up. Does Cambodia border China? Officially, it’s not yet called a pandemic. With a surgical mask we fly.
We count our luck: reduced rates, pay one drink get one free. Our private tour of Angkor Wat lives up to its name. Have the curries lost their spice or is it me? At a school for an author talk, we wash our hands again and again. But nobody wears a mask.
The numbers, meanwhile, are going crazy. An infected cruise ship docks in Phnom Penh. How many hospitals does Laos have? Vietnam does not border Italy. It is March and we fly.
Wear a mask upon your arrival, reads the warning from our host. Coffeeshops are closed; streets, near-empty. We pay for our bed by the night, unsure whether we should stay in a country that feels so tense. Some waiters and shopkeepers send us away; a mask can cover a face, yet not a fear. The virus, we are told, is white – European.
We leave Ha Noi with its massive population and arrive at the coast. Government speakers on the streets keep the fishermen and rice farmers informed of the new regulations. The water is cloudy instead of turquoise. Kites at sunset wave over the shore like dark omens.
Our embassies ring the alarms in the early morning. We’re at risk, they say, from unpredictable, authoritarian measures. Enforced quarantines. Fly while you still can, fly home, fly toward where the pandemic is at its worst!
Wait – what?
We buy two kilos of cashews, move to a windier place. The government summons us to get a test, mandatory yet for free. We wear our masks in the stores. On the streets. On the beach. Until the beach becomes forbidden. We say “Thank you” in Vietnamese, and although we say it badly, nobody laughs.
Military helicopters circle overhead. Flights are canceled. Borders close. We read that draught threatens the food supply and stare at the coconut palms, ripe with fruit. Did we make the right call?
Peanut season comes and goes, rice season starts. The slashing of stalks, the burning of fields. Smoke and more smoke – who dares to cough now? We count the goods on the loaded shelves, the dozens of eggs we consume. We bask in our privilege. We pay for our bed by the week.
Once again, our visa says: Your time is up. Or not. Call it a travel agency. A certain system. A tailor. Handiwork. Don’t say out loud that corruption can work in your favor when your visa expires in the middle of a pandemic. We pay for our bed by the month. It is April and we do not fly.
The numbers, meanwhile, are going crazy. Up everywhere except here. The numbers must lie; people lie, remember? We take a tour on our bicycles. The town hospital is so quiet that you can hear the birds sing. In the stores, nobody coughs.
The Vietnamese language has five or six tones depending on where you live. Many words have multiple meanings: Tone determines what you say. Nobody has trouble laughing anymore when we open our mouths. It is May, June, July, August, September, and we do not fly. Kites at sunset wave over the shore like victory flags.
Foods My Daughter Made by Susan Hatters Friedman
My daughter was sure she knew how to cook a packet of mac-n-cheese. She forgot to add water and she set the microwave timer quite high. The kitchen air was thick and the pasta was black. She was 6 and we were in America.
- My daughter, at 8, took a kids cooking class and brought home cupcakes with Dr Pepper as an ingredient and bacon on top. She does not like soda and I’m a vegetarian.
- My daughter learned that my version of how to cook involved reheating premade foods. My mother had taught me the most important cooking tool is a pair of scissors – to open the bag.
- My daughter took cooking classes evenings and weekends through her high school’s community outreach programme in New Zealand. She was definitely the only Springs student who took them that way, but her elective class schedule was full of philosophy and Hard Tech and Soft Tech, even after dropping the horrid French class. She made brilliant Greek food, pita bread on the stove. I had no idea how many items one used making tzatziki or humus.
- On a trip to Berlin, we stayed in a 200-year-old building in the central city. One night, I realized my quarter-Jewish daughter would have been forced out of that same building in Nazi Germany. The next morning, while my German-speaking daughter took charge at the grocery store, I thought I recognized a word. But tzatziki would be the same in German as English, she informed me, laughing.
- My daughter’s kiwi boyfriend loved it when she made ‘kweesh.’ I was forbidden to tell him it was quiche.
- My daughter learned how to make Bolognese food from water, flour, and eggs. Pasta, not mac-n-cheese. She took cooking lessons from Stefania at Pasta e Cuore in Mt Eden village. Soon, the backs of all the chairs in our tiny New Zealand home were conscripted for drying out tagliatelle.
- My daughter made pappardelle and gnocchi for dinner parties. Pasta took hours drying in humid Auckland winters. Everyone told her what an amazing chef she was.
- My daughter began to dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu. We tried to tell her that cooking orders as a chef day in and day out was different than cooking for your friends. We pointed out how a year of chef school cost more than university. She thought we did not believe in her.
- My daughter got a job at the Pt Chev Beach Café.
- My daughter called me in New Zealand to make sure that I was eating during the months after she left for Italy – to study philosophy, political sciences, and economics. She sent me photos of her dinner parties in her 400-year-old Venice flat.
- My daughter found herself beloved by families of her Italian friends. She learned secret family recipes from nonnas.
- My daughter brought Italian truffle oil to New Zealand as a Christmas gift. She was reminded of point 3.
- My daughter made vegetarian meals when she moved to London for art school. Her entire childhood with a vegetarian mother did not lead to this. The Irish boyfriend was vegan.
- My daughter learned to make focaccia at a class in Wembley. I recognized Wembley from bootleg Cure tapes in high school. She messaged me because she was running late and missed the bus. And she promised to make me focaccia whenever I wanted if I wouldn’t mind paying for an uber.
- My daughter made focaccia when we were waiting for a week in DC, in her dad’s parents’ house, for her second student visa for the UK to come through. Someone else kept turning down the oven because she said she knew the temperature to bake focaccia. She did not. I did not get to eat focaccia.
- My daughter popped our leftover take-away Indian food in the tiny microwave of the third floor walk-up in Cambridge when we were both sick on my visit. It got dark at 4pm in January. Food was nothing compared to cuddling with my girl on a rainy British night.
- My daughter makes vegetarian curries with the new South African boyfriend. Because she is vegetarian. By the end of lockdown, I think he will be too.
- My daughter sends me imessage photos of foods she makes in her tiny flat in lockdown London. Polenta, peach galette, spinach curry with fresh roti, chana masala, omelettes, panna cotta, from ingredients she just happened to have in her cupboard. In her back garden, she zooms to her philosophy classes and Facetimes her French tutor.
- My daughter says she can’t wait to show us her new kitchen experiments when she can visit after lockdown. But I’m thinking more about point 17.
The Sunlight on the garden by Aileen Hunt
The garden is small, 25×25 feet. A perfect square, if old gardens are ever perfect, or old walls ever square. Ten years ago, when we bought this house, the garden was almost twice as long, filled with joyful hydrangeas and the deep blue of ceanothus. But city houses in Ireland are small and our family big. We extended the house at the expense of the garden, a decision that’s repaid itself a thousand times since this lockdown started.
And so, our small garden arrays itself before me, the wooden fence at the end silvered and unsteady. Behind it, a row of evergreens police the boundary between our postcard lawn and the neighboring soccer fields, silent now, except for the chirping of a sparrow, the occasional song of a thrush. When organized sports resume, my days will be punctuated by the shouts of lunchtime athletes, the blast of the referee’s whistle, the thud of the soccer ball bouncing off the hoarding.
To my right, an outdoor eating area, because every Irish householder is at heart an optimist. Our faux -iron table and chairs are from Sam’s Club, a relic of our years living in the States, a post-marriage jaunt of two years that somehow turned into twelve. We came home with four children and a container full of furniture, only to discover most of it didn’t fit. But the patio set’s a winner. Friends love to rock on the chairs, and I enjoy the crisscross shadows the table casts on rare sunny days when we fire up the barbeque and throw caution – and our sweaters – to the wind.
The hanging baskets are my husband’s handiwork: five along the wall we share with the neighbor on the right, five along the side of the shed that sits at an angle to the house. The shed is oversized for the garden, full of old tables and chairs we thought the kids might need when they started to move out. But now that the first has fledged, we realise we’ve made the same mistake. The old stuff doesn’t always work in a new place.
This year’s flowers are pink and purple, petunias mostly, bought at the supermarket while the garden centers were closed. Glazed pots of impatiens, begonia and geranium are grouped along the base of the wall; a cordyline and camellia add height. Container gardening is a bit of work, but my husband knows I like colour in the summer, so every year he plants and waters, and every year I enjoy the slow then sudden blooming.
The sun umbrella is still open, even though the cornflower sky of this morning has clouded over. Most days, I make a point of spending time outdoors. I tell myself the garden’s a good spot for thinking, but usually I just watch the birds. The river is a five-minute walk away; the sea, ten. High in the sky, gulls screech and wheel; ducks fly low; but the swans are my favourite, flapping their great wings in labored loveliness, their occasional forays over our garden a thrill I’ll never tire of.
Other birds come just to torture the dog. The collared dove who sits on the top of the shed, looking down his plump pink chest at Mabel, who runs in circles and jumps on her hind legs. The magpies who parade across the roof of our kitchen – I swear they’re dancing – and the blackbirds who casually dig for worms while the poor dog watches from inside, condemned to witness their lift to safety as soon as I touch the handle of the door.
And so, to the left of the garden, where the infinite possibilities of nature have defeated us. Some ivy along the top of the wall – a lovely spillover from our lovely neighbors – and the remnants of green netting stretched wide to support climbers we planted and then dug up. The shady side of the garden, a good place for the ferns I hate, the hostas the snails love, or the sweet peas the dog eats. Could we grow vegetables that don’t need sun? Espalier an apple tree? How about a statement shrub? A water feature? The choices seem endless, and despite my husband’s green thumbs, beyond us. Last Autumn, we’d culled our ragbag plantings, convinced we’d have a better collection in the ground and established by now. Instead, an empty flower bed hugs the wall, a lone nasturtium poking through in the corner.
The answer will be expensive. Ingrid, our new garden designer, arrived last night, the first visitor to our home since the lockdown began. We greeted her in masks, asked her to sanitize herm hands, and ushered her through the house making sure she didn’t touch anything. A sad and bizarre way to meet, but she was unfazed, delighted to be seeing clients in person again, and excited about the prospect of transforming our garden.
But first, some marriage therapy. How aligned were we on what we wanted from the garden? Not very, as it happens. I’m all clean lines and restraint; my husband all curves and abundance. But since my only intention is to sit in the garden when it’s sunny and admire it through the window when it’s not, I’m happy to take the high road. Whatever my husband wants, he gets, I told the tattooed Ingrid, wondering how long it’s been since I said that and really meant it.
Our thirtieth wedding anniversary is approaching, although that hardly seems possible. Google tells me it’s called a pearl anniversary, but that sounds like something a great aunt would celebrate. I’m going to call it our garden anniversary instead.
The rest of the kids will be gone soon, the old shed cleared out and torn down. The extra space will make a difference to the garden, open up new design possibilities.
Ingrid better deliver the goods.
ABC in the COVID Alphabet by William Householder
A is for Absent
I’ve not been to my job for roughly six weeks, due to the furlough. I’ve spent most of this time lying in bed until I get sore. The discomfort drives me to get up to look for food. I flip through the TV, I select something to try to focus, but ennui renders me powerless; it becomes just noise. I’m not concerned. Hours gone; I turn off the TV. I shower. I get online. I view videos on YouTube. I see the time, but I don’t see the time, there is no time, there is only time. I return to bed. My sleep meds dissolve under my tongue. I plug in my phone to zone out to cooking videos until I drift off.
B is for Bed
I lie here and look at the ceiling, it needs dusting. I don’t look at the clock until I can’t stand it anymore then I check it. It doesn’t matter since I don’t know what time it was to start with. I consider getting up. The sheets are warm, however if I shift my leg, they’re cool again. I move my leg from side to side. This passes the time for a while. I sit up, turn on the TV, look through the channels. There’s a marathon of a recent cop show. There’s a cooking show. There’s a movie with too many commercials. I flip to the marathon and stare.
C is for Close
I go for a walk. I stroll down the waterfront park. There’re few people around, most are jogging or riding bikes. Some walk their dogs. We warily pass one another not speaking as if the virus has robbed us of the ability. Some are masked, some not. A light breeze blows from the water. It’s soothing. I’m reminded that it’s still Spring. None of the shops along the park are open. The eateries that are won’t allow you inside. I buy take-out from a masked vendor and stroll home. I sit on my front stoop and eat my hot dogs. As the breeze blows again, I smile.
Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has recent nonfiction flash in matchbook, F(r)iction, The Collagist, and Little Fiction/Big Truths, and a pandemic micro-memoir sequence on death in Atticus Review. Her creative nonfiction has earned six Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays and has been featured in the “Creative Nonfiction Sunday Short Reads” series. Find her online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on twitter @doylejacq
Susan Hatters Friedman, MD, is a forensic and reproductive psychiatrist. She is a professor at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, USA) and honorary associate professor at the University of Auckland. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Crime Fiction at the University of Cambridge, and has studied with The Second City. And she misses her (adult) kids overseas very much!
William Householder is a native East Tennessean, former professional storyteller, current librarian, and avid book buyer. He has been previously published in 101words.org, American Book Review, Appalachian Bare and most recently in Flash Boulevard. Wear a mask. We’re all in this together.
Aileen Hunt is an Irish writer of lyric essays and creative nonfiction. Her work appears in a variety of online and print journals, including Craft Literary, Cleaver Magazine, Sweet:A Literary Confection, Hippocampus, and Entropy. You can find her at aileen-hunt.com and @HuntAileen.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of five novels. Her latest, A Whale in Paris (Atheneum, Simon&Schuster, 2018), is a historical novel for younger readers set in Paris during the Second World War. Her short fiction and nonfiction was published in a variety of literary magazines, such as TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Tin House, Electric Literature, Denver Quarterly and Fiction International. She was roaming the world when the pandemic hit and stayed in Vietnam for most of the year.