Timeline, Flattening: Everyday Life in a Pandemic
By Jill KolongowskiJune 28, 2020
By now the streets of Wuhan, China, are empty. Mandatory quarantine. Robots on street corners shout at no one to go home. Everyone has already listened. In my mind, I see a crumpled sheet of paper blowing down an empty street like a petal, where it would normally be crushed under traffic. The paper gets caught on a pole and struggles there, trapped. I cannot tell whether I’ve actually seen this footage somewhere, or if it’s just my mind telling a story.
The text thread with N, R, R, and S asks: “What’s wrong today? Which child has a fever? Do you have a fever? Is Costco sold out of masks?” Someone texts a picture of the empty shelves at Costco. We forget to ask anything else.
My husband and I go grocery shopping and halfheartedly buy cans of soup. In our smaller grocery store, the only empty shelf is where the toilet paper should be. Everyone is most worried about their own assholes, it seems. We make eye contact with the other shoppers, seemingly asking each other, How scared are you? How scared am I? My husband doubles back for a Lysol wipe for the cart handle. We buy six cans of soup.
In Wuhan, the grocery resupplies are running low. People make new recipes with whatever they have at home. Something out of nothing, a million times. In Washington state, the only place in the United States where people have died from the virus, my friend J eats marshmallow peeps for dinner. Everyone loves the photo he posts to Instagram.
And still, I’m not worried. I carry my baby around as if the mere fact of her being — something out of nothing, cells dividing — is a shield. Like all new parents, I’m an idiot but cannot be any other way. Only in the past few weeks has the baby passed the threshold for viability, where she could probably survive if she was born right now. We’ve spent this whole time worrying about what we’ve done wrong, or could do wrong, or certainly will do wrong — will worry about those things forever, our minds a crystal ball busy with omens — and maybe it’s just that I cannot worry about this one last thing, this virus.
And then a student comes into the Writing Center where I teach, sniffling, tears a paper towel off the roll sitting on the counter, and presses it to her eyes, so dark in her pale face. She looks terribly sick. She holds a crumpled sheet of paper in her hand — her essay — and flattens it out in front of me. I want to recoil, but I make myself look her in the eye. “How can I help you today?” My reflexes take over: I pick up the paper, slide it closer.
Afterward, I cover my hands in sanitizer. I wonder how many other things I touched, wonder how you can possibly stop this, wonder now if the pandemic is imminent. The sanitizer burns into a hangnail on my middle finger and I like it.
The text thread asks: “What do I do if daycare is closed? If my office is closed? What if my family back home loses their jobs, loses their income? What is the right thing to do?”
My husband texts me: Oh shit. Someone in his work building tested positive for the virus, and everyone at his job is being sent home. They don’t even know for sure if this person was in the building. At most they might have shared an elevator. They would not have touched the same buttons, just shared a box of space for a little while. For now, the government has said, Wash your hands, and you’ll be safe. But even then, I start to wonder — should I go to the grocery store, like I’d planned? Now I’m not worried for me, and not even yet for my unborn daughter, but for other people — what if I’m carrying something else inside, copying, copying, copying, and I touch an apple to look for bruises and set it down again?
The text thread says: “And there it is.” “There” means here, the pandemic. The text thread says, “You should probably not leave the house.” I am not ready to listen yet. The text thread asks: “Do you need anything from Costco?” “No,” I say. “We’re good.”
We stare at our phones for the next hour like plants trying to find the light. Later we go to the grocery store anyway, but in the aisle I stand paralyzed. I’m supposed to bring a dish to a faculty potluck tomorrow. I wonder if my hands can be trusted. I do not want to be toxic.
In the end, I decide to bake lemon bars, burn the potential viruses up in the oven. When I set the plate of lemon bars on the table at the potluck, the plastic wrap blows off. I wonder if I’ve touched it too much. I think I’ve done exactly the wrong thing.
In the mornings, the lines of traffic have disappeared. Billboards post signs: TEXT FOR CORONAVIRUS INFO. Two of our friends are hospitalized, but they test negative. The doctor’s office posts signs in the parking garage to STOP — STAY IN YOUR CAR and call in if you think you might have been exposed. At work we try to talk about anything else and fail. Soon our school tells us to go home, stay home, move all our classes online. In the car, I shush my husband and turn up the radio for virus news. I want to hear it all.
A week later and now the virus is officially a pandemic. Like a train wailing in the distance, everything was very slow and then too quick, the train roaring through town without stopping, metal and noise, crowding the senses. Cases have been reported in all 50 states. Italy is on a complete lockdown, and here in California we are under a mandatory order to shelter in place, only leaving home for essential services: groceries, bank, pharmacy, hospital. All restaurants have closed or gone to takeout only. My phone buzzes constantly with messages and updates; long lines wrap three times around Costco, shelves empty all over now, like mouths missing teeth. The virus explodes on social media too, the same graph shared a thousand times: flatten the curve, flatten the curve, flattenthecurve.
At school the virus closed in quickly: first washing hands and keeping safe distance, then no committees or club meetings, then a restricted campus with custodians following after you with disinfectant, then a closed campus. My friend comes to visit the night before she will no longer be allowed to do so. When she comes in the door, we do not hug. When she sneezes, she rushes to the sink to wash her hands. I back away from her reflexively.
The text thread stops asking questions and starts giving reports. For a while, I have the urge to counter, to say, Our grocery store was busy but plenty stocked, do not worry, but soon that stops being true.
Some part of me wants this to be worse — the streets more empty, the grocery stores even busier, nothing but panic on the radio. It’s not really this horror that I want, of course — it’s clarity. Everything seems both fine and very serious at the same time. I want someone to clearly say, It’s bad. Here is what to do.
My doctor is monitoring my blood pressure. She says if it gets much higher, we’ll have to deliver early, into a hospital overcrowded and overwhelmed. Daughter, how could I? Each night I wrap a blood pressure cuff around my arm and, as it closes in, watch my heart beat too fast on the screen. I think in time with it, be safe, be safe, be safe. There is almost zero data on the virus and pregnant women. But what if I do something to her myself? My daughter kicks strong enough to hurt and I wonder if she can feel what’s going on. I say I’m not panicked, and I mean it. But my body says otherwise. Or perhaps this is just a story I’m telling myself, and the baby is fine, and my body is doing what bodies are supposed to do — protect. I won’t know until something happens — or doesn’t.
On Twitter, people tell stories of watching Contagion and wondering why on earth they’d want to do that. But violent entertainment actually becomes more popular when real violence and war are in the news. We love disaster movies because we can hit pause, because even dead characters resurrect as actors doing other things. Even if the story turns out badly, there’s always an ending. And we are the ones in control. The disaster is over, and we stand up from our couches and hit the off button.
The text thread tells me that my husband and I should go far away from here, from a state where people have now died from the virus too. Go somewhere safe to have your baby. Run away. This strikes me as a silly thought, but also a beautiful one — it assumes that there is some place safer. We stay put.
I wanted worse and now I have it — the streets are now empty. When I walk outside, people step off the sidewalk, looking sheepishly at each other, staying six feet apart. Every person who sees another, far in the distance, crosses the street to avoid them. On one walk, I encounter neighbors I’ve never met before; we talk across the green expanse of their lawn. One of them comes out with a tape measure to make sure we’re at least six feet apart. We all laugh, but we all eye his measurement, just in case.
I cross over the freeway on the pedestrian bridge. Even at rush hour, when cars are usually lined up for miles, cars now float by just one or two at a time. Everything is much quieter. My husband plants tomato seeds as a kind of affirmation of staying put (or maybe just for something to do, some concrete end), and they all sprout into tiny shoots on our kitchen table. The Japanese maple outside our window, barren for months during the winter, begins to unfurl new, bright, red leaves.
I take my blood pressure. The cuff squeezes and every day it says high, high, high, be careful. My daughter kicks me just the same.
My grandfather, who’s been sick for months (nothing to do with the virus), dies. My grandmother, mother, aunt, and cousin were all with him when he went. While national guidelines limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer, and some states (like mine) prescribe no gatherings at all, my family in Michigan plans a funeral. Italy has gotten so bad that some older, worse-off patients are left to die because there is not enough equipment to go around. My mother wonders if she can donate my grandfather’s CPAP machine, which stopped helping him in the end. In Italy, they’ve banned weddings. They’ve banned funerals.
My doctor says, Do not fly. My family tells me it’s okay, that they are not upset with me, but I’m not sure I believe them. On the phone the morning of the funeral, my mother tells me what she is wearing — a sweater and cropped pants. These small details feel very important, another thing we can do right, however small. In the background, she asks my sister, “Are these shoes okay?” I can only listen. My mother tells me about the flower arrangements three times, how my grandmother personalized them with my fisherman grandfather’s favorite phrase, “Watch your bobber.” Watch your bobber — I think of sitting in a metal boat with my grandfather, sweating in the Florida sun, quiet all around except for the plip of the water, the buzz of water bugs on the surface, a life jacket squeezing my neck even though I know how to swim. I hold the fishing pole and stare out at the white and red bobber floating on the surface, marking where my line went in. If a fish bit the line, the bobber would twitch as a signal. Watch your bobber: in fisherman this means be wary, be ready, be patient.
My family livestreams the funeral, complete with artistic pans of my grandfather’s body. I’m surprised at the quality of the video. Michigan is only two days away from their own shelter in place order, from hospitals so overloaded they run out of equipment, but my mother has promised me they will be careful. On camera, though, I can see people in rows shoulder to shoulder, way too close to one another, my aunt’s head too near my grandmother’s. After the service is over, I watch my cousin hug my sister, my cousin hug my aunt, my sister hug my father, the same hug replicating, replicating, hands wiping eyes and noses and arms wrapping around each other, tighter and tighter. I’m crying with them. My heart thumps, too high.
After Hurricane Katrina, rumors circulated that victims stood on their roofs and shot at rescue helicopters. None of these rumors were ever proven true, but the stories scared many necessary aid workers away. On social media, people love to tell their versions of the gun story. I feel the pull too: everyone is eager to post their picture of empty shelves, or of the long grocery store lines, the empty downtowns. The text thread asks where to find eggs, says, The store was a shitshow, says, Everything is a nightmare. The social media whiplashes between death updates — not just the elderly or sick, but now young adults, now a child — and jokes or cheeriness. On my feed a golden lab jumps into a pile of leaves 100 times, crash, crash, crash.
When I went shopping at our little grocery store, a stocker asked how I was doing, and assured me they’d be open regular hours. “We’ll be here for you,” he says once, then again, “We’ll be here for you.” I think of the stories we tell. Not just about the shitshow, and not just about the kind stocker, but about both. The faraway train whistle and the loud scream too. A friend, in order to get a carton of eggs, has one friend buy them, then another picks them up and delivers them to the first friend's doorstep, along with a gifted pack of Oreos, a little bit of sweetness along with sustenance. They wave at each other from the sidewalk and I think, Yes, exactly this.
My husband replants the tomato shoots and puts them outside. I go for a walk and a neighbor is kicking a ball with his son. The little boy kicks hard and the ball goes sailing into the street. I don’t know these neighbors, but I want to connect with them so badly in this moment, to have another story to tell that isn’t food shortage or another dead or the president lied or hospitals at capacity. I stop the ball with my foot. My soccer skills are embarrassing, so instead of kicking it back, I pick up the ball and toss it back with my bare hands, without thinking.
A few days later, I find the tomato plants back inside, their boxes hanging from a lamp in our kitchen. They do not look very good, wilted and shriveled. My husband says, Maybe it was too cold for them. Maybe I moved them too soon.
Some days I am unafraid, but some days the fear finds me. Looking at the sad little plants, I’m terrified that I touched the kid’s ball. I am losing track of what is safe.
The baby gets the hiccups in the morning and the internet says they don’t hurt her, but still, my brain seeks a different story: that this is my fault, this is my anxiety shared through my body.
From my office window I hear a cry. A woman stands in front of a house across the street on her phone, staring at the upstairs windows. After a minute, she walks back to her car, where I can see her sobbing, the kind of sobbing that requires your whole body. Her hands claw at the air, claw at her own face, she jerks like hiccups. I want to rush downstairs, hand her a Kleenex through the window. But I think of the ball, even though I’ve washed my hands many times since touching it. Instead, I sit and watch her, each of us in our own box of space, unable to cross.
The text thread is quieter now. The text thread makes jokes about the store being out of Diet Coke. The text thread goes back to asking, How are you? My blood pressure slides back down, but I’m not sure yet if I feel better. The tomato plants hanging from the lamp revive, so my husband takes them back outside. Nothing is different now — the intervals of sun and rain are the same as last week. But the tomato plants don’t wilt again. The only difference is that, now, they are a little stronger.
The baby kicks, the same as before all this. Watch your bobber, I think — be wary, be ready, be patient.
Jill Kolongowski is a nonfiction writer and professor living in Northern California. Recipient of an MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California, she is the author of a collection of essays titled Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me (Ulysses Press, 2017). She is at work on a new essay collection about disaster.
Featured image: "Sign outlining toilet-paper sales policy during COVID-19 pandemic at Cornucopia Deli, Red Hook, NY" by Daniel Case is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Banner image: "Social distancing in a Trader Joe's line in Cambridgeport, Cambridge, Massachusetts March 21, 2020" by Strmsrg is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
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