social distancing

At Winco my roommate and I watched Contagion on her phone while we waited in a checkout line that wrapped all the way around the store. The person in front of us had three carts heaped with cans and ramen and boxes of mac and cheese, huge jugs of water sloshing underneath. Someone else was panic-buying crates of orange gatorade. There wasn’t a single roll of toilet paper. We bought baby wipes.

Who knew widespread panic could be so tedious.

We rolled our eyes and pointed out ridiculous carts to each other like playing punch-buggy on a road trip. But it’s one thing to believe people are overreacting, another to stand in an ordinary setting while strangers empty entire shelves and crowd the aisles until they become impassable. I felt my shoulders climb toward my ears, I had to remember to breathe. I found myself saying like broken record, “What a time to be alive,” each time with a little less sarcasm.

Then businesses and schools began to cut hours or close altogether, and the immediate, personal crisis revealed itself.

For me, the big emotional shift happened on Monday. The morning news began with the Oregon governor’s decision to keep restaurants open. Five hours later, they were closed. Another one of my roommates, a cook, came upstairs with the wide stare becoming so familiar on each other’s faces.

Before, the news felt like it was siding with us, the sane ones who owned a reasonable portion of toilet paper and discussed the primaries more than a virus. But the more assurances that came out only to be contradicted later, the more it felt like we were being managed, manipulated. Before, if I’d read the headline that Trump said national lockdown is unlikely, I’d trust it. Now just hearing the word “unlikely” makes me feel like I’m five hours from losing the little work I have. I feel the compulsive impulse to read every article and pick obsessively at studies and statistics, like I have to stay three steps ahead to be informed and safe.

My roommates and I stand in the kitchen and count our days off. It’s a ritual now. Five, six, seven. Maybe a shift in between, then more empty days. We talk about rent, utilities, the internet bill. Then we plan bike rides, cook food, pour drinks, talk about moving the cars to play games on the concrete driveway.

I’m opening boxes I haven’t had time to touch in months. I pull out watercolors, sketchbooks, charcoal, embroidery hoops, yarn, clay. I started cross stitching. It’s slow work, counting across each tidy row, portioning two tiny stitches for each ‘x,’ measuring out #3839 lavender blue, #964 sea green. My anxieties sorted into neat, clean lines. Interrupted often by a roommate settling in on the couch across from me, lapsing easily into conversation.

We don’t have “free” time. Every hour is expensive, accrues rent and utilities, consumes food and soap — and even toilet paper. You can hear the receipt printing out in the back of your mind, scrupulously itemizing each minute until black ink bleeds red.

But we do, at least, have each other.

Image: Carlos Ebert

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