Waiting

Earlier this week, I read an article Teju Cole published in the New York Times featuring excerpts from his pandemic journal. J and I have been sheltering at home for seventy days now, and I’ve written in my journal every single day, but I’d be hard pressed to glean much in the way of profundity there.

When you are in the middle of a surging wave, all you feel is wet. You have no understanding of how far or high the water looms; all you know is your own specific swirl. I can’t speak to a global pandemic, so my journal pages describe the mundane details of my own experience: the particular deck chairs I am busy arranging as the Titanic sinks.

Last week, I skimmed a BBC article featuring the “last normal photo” people had on their phones: reminders of the Before-Time. The last time I went shopping–the last time I touched a grocery cart, walked down aisles thronged with other shoppers, and stood in line before interacting with a cashier–was Friday, March 13, when I took a photo of empty grocery shelves where paper towels and toilet paper had once been. It isn’t exactly a “normal” photo, but it is one that takes me back to that strange and surreal time.

The day before that Final Shopping Trip–Thursday, March 12–J and I walked to our favorite pub for lunch. I don’t remember what we ordered, but it was unusual for us to walk to lunch on a Thursday, since I usually teach then. But I’d cancelled my Thursday classes because I thought I’d be flying to Ohio to visit my Mom the next day, and I ended up canceling my flight after the governor declared a State of Emergency in Massachusetts.

That leisurely Thursday lunch–the last time J and I went to our favorite pub or any other restaurant–seemed like an odd but not yet apocalyptic time. The TV at the bar was tuned to the news, which was a litany of cancellations: first the NBA, then other professional sports leagues and major events in succession. On our way home, I snapped a picture of a dog tied outside a bakery, waiting for his owner inside, and J and I admired a sporty black Subaru parked along the curb, just as we’d do any other day.

That last time J and I walked to lunch at our favorite pub, we didn’t know it would be the last time. It was clear things were starting to get serious and weird: the weekend before, grocery shoppers were starting to stockpile supplies as if against an upcoming storm. We knew then a storm was coming, but we didn’t fully realize how long and devastating that storm would be.

Looking back on the last seventy days, I’m ashamed to admit how much ink I’ve spent in my journal pages fretting over groceries. People are losing their lives and livelihoods, and I’ve spent page upon page obsessed with delivery windows and weird rolling shortages: one week I can’t find paper towels or dishwasher detergent, and the next week there are no corn tortillas, dry pasta, or fresh produce. Groceries are something I once managed: I enjoyed making a list, going to the store, and stocking our refrigerator and pantry. Now, I realize the seemingly simple task of buying groceries is–like everything else–largely outside my control.

Seventy days after suddenly sheltering-in-place, I’m realizing it was never about the toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, or hand sanitizer. All the items that disappeared from store shelves were merely metaphors for the Before-Time, when we fancied ourselves in control of our lives.