Thank you for asking how I am. Well—
In the beginning, I was smug. The world (at long last) had learned that all along, I had been right: only three things mattered in life. These were my own lifelong preoccupations: human connection, meaning (I’m an English professor), and staying alive, which was a feat my anxious mind felt everyone took for granted.Finally, I said out loud, people get it. To assume that because you went to sleep, you will also wake up, is foolish and naive. I, for one, had never grown complacent about my ability to breathe.
Then, I was lonely.
After that, I grew so desperate for company I started to let the loneliness show. A week into isolation, I began to drive to campus and park my car—the red Mazda with long, driver-side scratches, a Greek-flag bumper sticker, and the evil eye swinging from the rearview mirror—in the lot where I once circled for a spot. I would enter our empty office building and get some work done (or not), and then run towards the river to blow off steam and, you know, just happen to pass by the houses of my friends.
Since returning to coastal Virginia, I have liked running toward the James’s eastern bank. Even before, I would run from my campus to a spot two miles away, where the waterfront mansions end and the park begins. Though its trails had closed, the park’s waterfront patch of mowed grass had remained open. I would reach the wide river’s mouth to stretch, and look out at the distant bridge, the clouds, the setting sun. A heron stood lean and tall on the bluestone riprap. Often two herons, each on a his own bluish-grey stone—distant now, like us. Great hawks (if they were hawks) sat on the bare wet branches of tall cypresses rooted deep into the sand and mud. Afternoon light cast a different shadow daily; rays of sunshine seemed a different orange each day, and I lined up photographs of the riverside in digital albums as if to prove my days weren't really all the same.
On my way to the river, or from the river, my loneliness (I pretended it was chance) would propel me toward my friends. Once, for example, near Jessica’s house, I spotted her walking a block ahead, and I quickened my pace until I could call out hi! and ask about her day, her parents on their farm, the masks she was sewing between grading math exams. I ran by Anna’s street, too, and joked that since she’d claimed her family “lived in the front yard,” I was only passing by in order to catch them in a lie. I wanted, of course, to talk to Anna. Her children called out for her attention – look at me, mamma! – as we attempted to talk, and I remembered how silly I had found the grownups (when I was a child myself) because they were free to do anything they wanted but did nothing at all, ever, but talk. I had sworn I wouldn’t be lame like them, but here I am, an adult satisfied entirely by conversation.
Still, when Anna’s seven-year-old challenged me to a race, I agreed (he ran down one side of the street and I ran down the other), and though I beat him to the originally designated goal, he switched it up and said (with glee) no! run back! and my forty-one-year-old body couldn’t do it; hard as I tried, the boy won. His toddler brother took to crying I want to race Miss Jo-ANNA! and with his mother as a guard against a possible car, I adjusted my pace to a toddle and marveled at how easily the little one took to the game, said on marks get set go, giggled, and then celebrated when he came in “second place” between his speedy brother and me, the toddling giant relearning, at forty, how to play.
As the quarantine wore on, the boys and I kept on racing, and when I rode over on my bicycle in flip-flops and couldn’t run, the older boy ran to get his own bicycle and helmet, and guided me on a spin around the block. We stopped at his school, where he wrote I MISS YOU, 1ST GRADE CLASS! in blue chalk. He taught me stunts, and I produced a modest imitation of his excellent wheelie, but only fumbled, then looked on in wonder when the boy set both feet onto the crossbar and just coasted along.
The pandemic, for me, ended up having two slim silver linings. I lost fewer hair-ties. I lost, too, my fear of looking the fool. Do not conceal your yearning, the pandemic taught: you will die, and in death the only tragedy will be this: to have not dared, open-hearted, to really live.