We saw a friend this week.
It was very brief (just a few minutes), very safe (we stood in our doorway and he stood on the sidewalk), and very much a surprise (there was a knock at the door, I ran down to open it assuming it was a delivery, and instead there was Richard). It also totally threw me for a loop. I hadn’t realized how much I’ve missed seeing a friendly face in person until I saw a friendly face in person and almost burst into tears. I see friends on Zoom, I see them on Instagram and Twitter, but seeing a friend on our doorstep emotionally overwhelmed me.
We’re really not meant to live like this, are we? It seems a ridiculous thing to say because OF COURSE we’re not. Everyone knows that, even me, the ultimate introvert. And yet…it hasn’t generally felt like a terrible way to live for Jeremy and me. We tend to be somewhat insular even under normal circumstances, meaning we’re happy to hang out quietly together rather than spending a lot of time with other people. We’re good at being “apart together,” meaning we can inhabit the same small space without necessarily being in each other’s faces. And despite (or maybe because of) all the traveling we usually do, we’re homebodies at heart, meaning it can be an effort for us to leave our flat. Why go somewhere else when there’s tea and a comfy sofa right here?
So the things I’ve been missing over these months—or the things I’ve been conscious of missing—are not primarily social engagements or being surrounded by lots of other people. I’ve missed the ability to have social engagements and be surrounded by other people. I’ve missed being able to choose to go out or stay at home. I’ve missed not having to make a million calculations about my health and the health of others before stepping through my front door. But in all honesty, I haven’t felt particularly lacking in human contact.
And then Richard was standing on our doorstep, and the long days and weeks and months of isolation and calculation and anxiety and flat-out weirdness crashed down on me all at once, and I just wanted to cry. I did cry later on, in private, sobbing for no specific reason other than EVERYTHING. It was so warm and sunny, and I wanted to sit outside a pub with a cold beer, and maybe have some friends join us, and then we might grab a pizza at Fatto a Mano (because even though there’s almost always a wait, you generally get a table pretty quickly, and their pizza and Negronis are great), and Brighton would be irritatingly busy, as it always is in the warm weather, and I’d roll my eyes at all the shirtless dudes and boisterous yoof, and eventually I’d be happy to get home to that sofa and cup of tea.
Instead, Jeremy and I went back inside, where the repairman who was trying to fix our stove told us he couldn’t fix our stove, and when the repairman left and Jeremy took a work call, I stood in the kitchen boiling eggs on our hotplate (thank god for the hotplate) to make deviled eggs as a snack because we hadn’t had a proper lunch since the repairman was there, and I felt deeply, deeply sad.
Later that evening, halfway through ballet class, we stood on our front steps as the sun went down and clapped for our carers, possibly for the last time. I felt the warmth of the sidewalk through my ballet slippers, and as I looked up and down the street at neighbors I would never otherwise see (fewer clapping now than at the start, but still enough to make an impression), I thought of what a deeply strange time this has been. I remembered the first time we stood outside and clapped, how I was wearing a coat over my ballet gear because it was March 26th and it was cold and dark, and there were fireworks in the distance, and I had to fight back tears brought on not so much by the anxiety but by the show of solidarity. Everything was scary, but there was also a strong sense that we were all in this together and we were all going to look out for each other.
It is very much still a strange time, but something is coming to an end and we’re moving into a new phase of strangeness. And I’m not convinced this new phase will be any better than the old phase. Summer has arrived, our street is busy, the beaches and parks are already crowded, the lockdown is going to be officially eased tomorrow, and you can bet there will have been plenty of non-socially-distanced garden parties even before then—and meanwhile thousands of people are still getting sick here every day and infectious disease experts say it’s still too early for everyone to start acting like things are normal again. But try telling that to everyone.
When Jeremy and I essentially locked ourselves down a week ahead of most everyone else, a large part of me wondered if we were overreacting, if this whole thing was just going to blow over and we’d be the dupes huddled alone at home while the rest of the country went about its business and the sky didn’t fall after all. Eleven weeks and almost 40,000 deaths later, it’s clear that we made the right choice. And as awful and frightening as everything was after the official lockdown, there was some certainty in the uncertainty. The certainty was that if you went around acting like nothing was wrong, you ran a high risk of getting sick—potentially very sick, and potentially making other people sick, and potentially dying and taking other people with you. The intensity of it all was exhausting, but there was also a searing clarity to the situation. We knew what we had to do: stay home, save lives.
So what do we do now? We should still stay home, but we don’t have to, but we shouldn’t meet with other people, but we can meet with some people, but we should keep our distance from them, but we can have them over for a get-together in the garden as long as we don’t all swig from the same beer bottle. We should “stay alert” (as if the virus were a suspicious package left on a park bench), but we don’t need to be so alert that it massively impacts our social lives. The general tenor seems to be “wash your hands and you’ll be fine.”
The clarity is gone, and gone with it is much of the sense that we’re looking out for each other. I’m sure lots of folks still are, but as I watch people stroll up the street in their shorts with their picnic blankets, everyone moseying around without masks, I think: Is that it? The panic’s over? We’re all good now? And I find myself wondering again: Are Jeremy and I the dupes for staying home alone and getting groceries delivered to our door when other folks are gearing up to play soccer and host barbecues? For not being especially eager to re-enter the social world when people are increasingly blasé about staying at a safe distance? For looking at the numbers and looking at the latest guidance (or lack thereof) and thinking that things just don’t quite add up?
I really hope we are.