Same As It Never Was
We uprooted our lives to move across the country. Then the quarantine hit.
I’ve spent the past five-and-a-half months getting excited about spring. Not just looking forward to it, but craving it. Needing it.
In October, I moved with my wife and two young sons from our home in North Carolina back to the Twin Cities, where I was born. I thought this would be where our life would really kick into gear. I had family and friends here, and as far as cross-country moves with two small boys and a dog go, this seemed the ideal place for as seamless a transition as possible to a new city and a new start.
Six days after we got to town, I was laid off. It was just in time for one of Minnesota’s infamous winters which send the entire state scurrying indoors. The combination of these events meant that my life had essentially been put into stasis for an entire season. There were things to do (people here are pretty good at finding ways to flip winter the bird) but none of them were the sort of things that make a new city feel like it’s actually yours. I’d grown up here, but it’s one thing to spend your childhood in a place. It’s quite another to make it feel like an actual grown-up home—the kind you have a tactile understanding of, sidewalk slab upon sidewalk slab—after 15 years away.
So I was more eager for winter to end than I ever have been before. This spring represented something more than a new season. It represented the first real chance for me to get my shit together after months of personal, professional, and some days literal hibernation. I’d be able to get out and start exploring my relatively new, newly thawed out neighborhood. Maybe I’d actually meet my neighbors, with whom I’d only interacted to complain about shoveling from beneath layers of face-obscuring winter gear. Maybe my kids would meet the other kids on the block, and run off to cause an appropriate amount of neighborhood trouble— the kind that would inevitably end with a public scolding followed by a private congratulations. Things would be good again. I was ready.
I should have known that my uncharacteristic optimism would fail me. To put it mildly, this hasn’t been the spring I imagined. Instead of embracing my neighborhood, I can barely leave my house. Instead of making friends and getting a little too drunk at barbecues and exploring my new world, I am an anxious hermit, scavenging toilet paper and trying to fill my days with anything that would give them structure and meaning. Hanging out with my friends consists of the occasional video chat (I hate it) and recommendations for restaurant curbside pick-ups we can each take back to our respective homes to enjoy away from each other. Conversations quickly veer toward commiseration, and promises to hang out “when this is all over,” despite not knowing when that will be, or what that will look like.
Still, daily needs continue to be needed, daily. I have become a kind of wasteland scavenger, strapping on my ad hoc protective gear to venture out into a world that looks the same but feels profoundly different. Leaving the house for something as simple as picking up hot dogs and paper towels from the grocery store has become an intricate choreography of finding a clean face mask, agonizing over which store is mostly likely to have what I need in stock, and taking an hour-long inventory of every item in the house just to see what else I should get while I’m out, so god forbid I don’t have to make a second trip beyond the protective barrier of my front steps. Being out in public means risking accidentally standing a few inches too close to a stranger, only to be called a “fucking asshole.” (Yes, this happened to me.) Or worse still, actually risk being the sort of fucking asshole who gets their underwear in a knot when someone barely encroaches on your imaginary bubble.
I am, relatively speaking, very fortunate — healthy and in my own home and not like my friends whose lives have been thrown into chaos because someone in their family has gotten sick. I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at responding to them. I hope I never have to put them in the position to do the same for me. I pray it never goes beyond that.
Even for someone with my privileges, the pandemic tragedy is unavoidable. It’s the kind of constant thrum that starts out feeling noisy and invasive and becomes so frequent that it winds up as just another part of the world — a reminder that there are issues of life and death and justice and evil at stake.
On a day-to-day level, though, I am feeling this in more personal ways. Despite having lived in our new home for almost seven months now, neither of my children has played with a single other kid on the block. Our household violently oscillates between moments of manic activity aimed at briefly filling this yawning stretch of time with productivity, and long periods of enthusiastic lethargy; if there ever was a middle ground, this pandemic has destroyed it completely.
Words like “germs” and “covid” and “wash” have become as common as “Elmo” and “cookie” for my toddler, while my kindergartner can’t understand why he isn’t allowed to go to the zoo like his grandparents had promised “when it gets warmer.”
When we come anywhere near our family at all these days, I’m thankful that it’s warming up, so we can all stand on my folks’ front lawn and talk to them through their living room window—a confusing and terrifying experience for a toddler who just wants to get a piggyback ride from the grandparents he’s finally close enough to see more than twice a year. Preschool Zoom “classes” consisting of story time and sing-alongs are quickly tuned out as my oldest grows impatient with staring at a screen full of teachers when he could be watching “Duck Tales” instead.
I’ve gotten good at holding my toddler back as he tries to barrel headfirst toward another kid his age to say hi. I’ve gotten pretty good at calming him down when he starts crying when other parents do the same. We’ve all become just a hazy cloud of electrons, popping in and out of probabilistic existence as we circle the nucleus of this pandemic that both binds us to one another, and keeps us forcefully apart. We are all alone, together.
If things do improve, and I’m choosing to believe they will, it’ll come at the expense of a lost year, if not longer. A time when life should have moved forward, and instead stood still—waiting, wondering, and hoping for better days ahead.
I took this picture. No one was lined up in the parking lot.