“Are you going out at all?” friends called to ask, each of us struggling to interpret self-distancing during the latter part of March.
“Old-people shopping hour is my new happy hour,” I quipped, adding, “I’m glad I never had my eyes done. Even with my mask, they know to let me in.”
Those of us in the city that never sleeps were now awake because of anxiety. We were creeped out by the eerie stillness of the city. There was no longer a rush hour unless you counted rushing to our windows at 7 PM to join neighbors cheering. None of us had experienced anything like this and had no idea how we would hold up. Other than the required six degrees of separation and washing our hands, we had to figure it out for ourselves. I was amused that the birthday gift from my husband, Martin, was a bottle of bleach.
But it got real in April, when I started longing for the privileges I’d had when we were free-range. My changes were trivial compared to what others were suffering, but I was overwhelmed by the uncertainty. We didn’t know what was ahead. Gray was the new black and white. With hair salons shuttered, gray was also the new ash blonde and brunette. And bleach was scarce, so white sheets were turning gray.
“I’m going to do things I never made time to do,” I announced to Martin, determined to channel my own resources. My first adventure was eating carbs, which I did with abandon, pretending that staying home – like going into space — offered weightlessness. Before breakfast we would plan dinner. “I got a Quarantine Recipe chain letter,” I told him. “If I send a recipe to the person at the top of the list, I’ll get fourteen back.”
“You’ve saved hundreds from The New York Times,” he said, “and the only one we ever made was the plum tart.” I notified the sender, as I’d been instructed to do, that I was opting out, which I did each time another friend forwarded it. Like Covid-19, this chain letter knew no bounds.
“I scored a regular delivery slot from Fresh Direct,” I called out to Martin, excited by my first sheltering-at-home victory. Seeing their bag airing outside our door, a neighbor expressed envy. “Give me a list and I’ll add it to my order,” I offered, the closest I could come to being a first responder. Friends were calling more than they had in years, some who’d offended me decades ago. Pandemic apologies are a thing, I learned, but I had a statute of limitation on forgiveness and used Caller ID as a gatekeeper.
Facebook replaced dinners with friends. “What are your favorite shows?” was the question frequently posted. “Unorthodox,” “Fleabag,” “Unbelievable,” “Dead to Me” and “Fauda” were always named.
On YouTube I learned to do a gel manicure, make hand sanitizer and turn socks into masks. There was no end of mind-altering videos featuring people at home — Bolero Julliard, the Paris Ballet Improv on “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Quarantine Monologue” and Randy Rainbow’s “Social Distance,” “The Coronavirus Lament” and “A Spoonful of Clorox.”
Out of habit, I asked Alexa, “What’s the weather?”
“What difference does it make?” I expected her to answer. “You’re not going anywhere.” I gave myself permission to venture out, regretting making so many masks as I had no socks.
By May, the talk turned to the prospect of reopening the cities. Nothing was clear, so I continued to record Shabbat services from New York’s Central Synagogue that I could watch if we were still confined during the High Holidays.
After two months of this weirdness, I’d developed techniques to cope with anxiety. Most involved food. Frightened by Dr. Fauci’s warning that opening the country prematurely could be perilous, I quickly made an emergency banana bread in anticipation of my nightly case of post-Rachel Maddow distress syndrome. If food failed me, I watched the Israeli comic, Yonatan Gruber, trying to teach his mother to use Zoom, the video that served as my emotional urgent care center.
However difficult this has been, I’m willing to do whatever’s necessary to “stay safe,” the send-off that has replaced, “have a nice day.”
Whenever we’re released, I’ll have to remember to put sunscreen on my entire face and resume using foundation on the area that’s been hidden behind my mask.
All of us experiencing this crisis will remember it as the most unusual time of our lives. I can’t imagine what it was like for those who toughed out the 1918 Spanish Flu without Netflix, Hulu or Facebook. After eight weeks of confinement, wandering in the desert doesn’t sound so bad. Isn’t this a big enough event to warrant a new holiday and Haggadah? The seder plate would surely include banana bread. For whom would we set out cups of wine? Dr. Fauci? The essential workers? The delivery guys? If they replicate our hand washing, the seder will go on forever.