I’ve been thinking — about the funk I’m in. It’s 2021. We have a new president. The virus cases are receding, hospitalizations and deaths, too. What is keeping me from yodeling in the streets? Could it be Post-Traumatic Virus Reprogramming Syndrome?
It used to feel fun to be alive, to bounce out of bed in the morning with a refreshed outlook, a joie de vivre with a come-what-may attitude. I’d look forward to the adventure of bumping into a stranger and finding out we had something in common like a person or place, a favorite author or musician. But it appears from the media those days may be permanently over. And I fear it’s true. It’s been so long since I uttered the words “What a small world!” that I’ve forgotten the context in which they were used.
Out on the street or darting in and out of Costco Liquors, masked and with raw, red hands from oversanitized, skin-stripping chemical hand cleaner, I see other muzzled people sprint away from me as far as the space permits, heads turned so I can’t even read their eyes. I wave to random people just to get a genuine, human response. They wave in return, mostly. I pretend to see the crow’s feet around their eyes crinkle from wide grins hidden under muzzles, but frankly I can’t see well with foggy lenses from my redirected breath leaking out of the top of my mask.
I long for the time when I can approach casual acquaintances and neighbors again with more than a brief wave and nod. I want to discuss the humdrum subject of weather, where to find the best cuts of meat, and who knows of a good seamstress for the clothes I’ve outgrown, but it’s still too risky. We’re all carriers of a contagion until we’re told we’re not.
It’s a lonely time for extroverts like me. Maybe that’s why I’m having a harder time with social distancing than others who don’t seem to mind it, well adjusted to the “new normal” and flourishing.
Take for instance an old friend of mine. “Why don’t you Zoom with your writing group,” she asked recently. “Stop whining all the time.”
“Why don’t you try flossing your teeth with packing twine?” I replied. “I’m done with living virtually, staring into a screen of postage-sized faces dressed in pajamas who can’t figure out the mute button, licking barbecue sauce off their fingers.”
My sister called the other day to tell me she’d received her first-dose vaccination. “I’m so relieved,” she exclaimed in her best Greta Garbo. “I feel as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulder.”
“Terrific,” I replied. “The sooner we’re all vaccinated, the sooner these damn masks can come off.”
“Oh no,” she said. “I’m never going without a mask again. Who knows how many variants are coming down the pike? Don’t you watch CNN? Besides, I don’t like looking at people anyway. Who cares if we have to wear masks? I like it. With a mask, I don’t have to engage with anyone.”
This confession from her, of all people, stunned me. She’d subjected me all too often to embarrassing anecdotes of her life story, with the cashier bagging groceries or sipping a latte on a park bench, coyly coaxing a window shopper to sit next to her to discuss the difference between an authentic Goyard bag and a fake one. Her filters are few. But never would I imagine her outgoing nature and motor mouth could be successfully reprogrammed. God knows, I never could.
From my second-story window, I can see into the yard of my neighbor who moved from Manhattan with her husband and two children to live here permanently. They were summer people. They’d like to return to live in the city, but it’s too uncertain now, even with the vaccine. The children swing with masks on in their fenced backyard, alone with their nanny. What can they be afraid of out there with no one around?
“Did you get the vaccine yet?” my other neighbor yells from the top of her driveway, walking toward me, a mask dangling from one ear. She knows my age and is concerned for my well-being, as well she should be since we’re fond of each other, or at least we were until we went underground from Covid.
“No, not yet,” I yell back cheerfully, desperate for any exchange of conversation beyond the first hello. “I think by next month I should be, though. It’s not easy, even if you’re old, to get an appointment.” She stops in her tracks, pulls up her mask, waves goodbye, and retreats back into her house.
Things sure have gone in the wrong direction since the summer, when the neighborhood felt freer, with less tension and fear. Way back then I could get a group to sit outside, six feet between lawn chairs, with loaded cocktail tables to share nibbles and margaritas. Today I can’t even get a conversation going. It’s not as if I participated in the Insurrection or anything. I’m just an unvaccinated, walking spreader, I suppose.
My 94-year-old father will receive his first jab in a couple of days. He’s been living under house arrest for 10 months in a long-term health facility. He can’t wait. An anomaly for his age, he has all his marbles and no co-morbidities. He doesn’t even take baby aspirin.
Speaking to him the other day by phone, his voice was frail and rusty from lack of use. “Dad, are you the least bit anxious about the vaccine?”
“No, not at all,” he said. “Happy days are here again,” he added.
“Yes,” I said, thrilled he sounded so upbeat. “I bet you can’t wait to play cards again and sing around the piano with your friends.”
“Oh, I don’t think I’ll be going back to that. If I do, I’ll wear a double mask. I heard we can’t really trust the vaccine. And I’ve learned I don’t really need to be with people anymore, darling. Zoom works just fine for me, especially with you folks.”
Was he suggesting I never visit him again in person? Even the ancient can learn new tricks.
The world is still the same, filled with platitudes of hope and laden with problems. 2020 was a terrible year, arguably the worst in world history. 2021 might be a turning point. But one thing is certain. It will be a long time, if ever, that we find the courage to rejoin the human race and live as we were created to be.
Carol Dray, a previous “Guestwords” contributor, lives in Bridgehampton.