The Nastiest Thing

Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon.

On a Sunday, I sent an 800-word excerpt to my virtual writing group. The piece was about my partner, Erica – a love letter to her, really, about the ways in which she helps me inhabit myself more fully, with more truth. The members of the group, who are firstly my dear friends, talked about the work and then they talked about Erica, whom they all know and adore.

On a Monday, one day after rejoicing with my writing group about how lucky I was to have met Erica, how profoundly grateful I was to have found the love of my life, I was driving her to an urgent-care clinic. She was curled over herself in the passenger seat, her body loose and lethargic, while I spoke prayers into the ether. By then she’d been sick for ten full days, which is a long time to be sick, even when there’s not a pandemic covering the globe like floodwater.

On Sunday, we were still able to think thank god it’s only the flu. But even despite that, the severity and unexpected longevity of her illness was beginning to wear on both of us. Sunday morning I’d lain on the rug in our living room and sobbed. At first I cried because I was so frustrated by how she handled being ill – her refusal to communicate honestly with me, her endless attempts to diminish how badly she was feeling, the way she’d say “I’m fine” then collapse on the couch in bone-deep exhaustion minutes later. It’s a goddamn global pandemic, I said, can’t you understand how afraid I feel? But she continued to insist on working full eight-hour days, even though she could hardly keep her head up. She drank Alka Seltzer then Theraflu and white-knuckled her way through the day. After work hours, or during, she’d answer phone calls from her mom, who owns a nail salon and doesn’t speak English and had no money because of required business closures and couldn’t pay her rent. Friday morning, Erica hung up the phone with her mom and immediately collapsed into tears, sick and tired and stressed beyond her capacity.

I begged Erica to rest. I begged her to think of what this might be like as a person who loved her, as a person who loved her and watched her stagger around sick in the middle of a global pandemic, as a person who loved her and saw news stories every day about the overcrowded hospitals, dwindling or already-exhausted resources, the rising death toll, the rising death toll among young people and people of color and people without preexisting conditions.

When I’d cried long enough to dry out my frustration, a deeper well emerged. My memory-body opened. From a coil in my stomach, images rose and made themselves vivid. Projected across my insides, clear as a drive-in movie: my mom, sick. My mom, stage-4 cancer. Me, caretaker. Me, beside her. The bed where she spent all her time. The treatment center. The second treatment center. The mountains. The light. The pine trees. The stellar jays. Her cough. The feeling in my nervous system every time she coughed. Bed. Bed bed bed bed. Netflix, when Netflix still meant DVDs in the mail. Sudoku. Sleep. Books. Fear. Fear fear fear. Death’s slow creep. The mind’s denial of death. The body’s understanding of death. My dad’s face. His exhaustion. His horror. My mother, still alive. My mother, dying. My mother, the last time I ever saw her.

Caretaking then and caretaking now. My sinew couldn’t distinguish between the two.

On the floor, Erica hugged me. I hugged her. We rocked back and forth. We let long cables of snot fall from our noses to the knees of our pants. I said I was sorry, and I was. I was sorry that I’d been so upset with her, sorry that my fear made me hard. I wanted to take care of her. I wanted her to let me.

I asked if she would call the doctor. She said she didn’t need to, that she would call if she really wasn’t okay. She said I needed to trust her. I relented – neither of us believed a telehealth consultation would do anything anyway. The doctors would never tell her to come in. They were too overwhelmed with more important things, like COVID-19.

But that was Sunday. This was Monday. Monday she stumbled out of the shower and told me she needed to call the doctor and my heart choked me when she said it. But yesterday! Yesterday she said she’d only call if she knew she really needed help, said she wasn’t sick enough to need it! My brain was like a helicopter, hovering over the helipad, threatening to take off without me on board. I asked why, what happened, what changed. I could feel my eyes wide and wild, even though I tried to keep it together for her.

She couldn’t stand up in the shower. She was too weak. She couldn’t breathe. The steam, maybe? But it wasn’t the steam, we both knew, because her breathing had been impeded since Friday evening. I’d asked her every question I could think of late Friday night, trying to get a picture of how she felt, trying to rule out shortness of breath and maintain our hold on the belief that it was just a common flu. She kept taking sharp inhales, running her fist down her sternum like she was trying to clear something away. She’d said she didn’t know how to explain it in English. I’d said, what is it in Korean then, and she said dapdaphae. She didn’t know the English word for it, so she put it in Google Translate: stuffy. Stuffy. An unwelcome word, because it could mean anything. Later, I looked up the word myself, and saw what she’d left out. Another word for dapdaphae is suffocating.

So she was in the shower and she was suffocating. I started to cry, I couldn’t help it, but I had to move from behind those tears. We got her in line for a call with a telehealth doctor. While she waited her turn, I pulled out my phone, frantically searching phrases like “symptoms of covid19” on Google. The last time I looked this up, the symptoms list was meager: dry cough, fever, shortness of breath. But this time, both her symptoms and the online lists had changed. Now, the two were almost identical. Pounding headache. Deep fatigue. Loss of taste and smell. Body aches. Wet or dry cough. Chest tightness. Difficulty breathing.

The doctor got on the line and Erica told him her symptoms. He listened to her, then he did what we never expected him to do: he told her to go to the clinic. So we went to the clinic, which required that Erica complete all paperwork and a pre-screen phone call from our car before entering the building. Erica spoke with the clinic doctor for twenty minutes, who did something else we didn’t expect: she told Erica to come inside and get tested for coronavirus.

I wasn’t allowed to go inside with her. I sat in the car and watched passing traffic and cracked my knuckles. When Erica came back, she collapsed into the passenger seat and reported what she’d been told. Her lungs were inflamed. Her symptoms were consistent with Covid. She was instructed to behave as if she was positive, even before her results came back.

The results did come back. She was positive.

In the evening, I cooked dinner while Erica slept. I heated oil and sliced vegetables and thought the same thing I’d thought all day every day – please don’t let her die. Please let her be okay.

Days passed. Each time Erica woke up, often not until twelve or one, I asked how she felt. Each time, she said she felt the same. She didn’t feel better, she didn’t feel worse. A week. Without relief, without reason to exhale or unclench.

At last, after many days of more sleep than consciousness, Erica roused, looked around, and said she felt a little better. Tension rushed out of my body like a waterfall; I half-expected to look at the place I was sitting and see a pool of murky water. Four words from her mouth and the very air in our apartment shifted, like a fairy-tale witch had lifted a spell cast upon our house. I still spent my days watching her relentlessly, annoying her with my knitted brow and my false-calm tone of voice. I still took her temperature and checked her oxygen levels and demanded that she swallow all the natural remedies my dad had sent in the mail. But we were lifting, we could both feel it. We were rising up out of the pit of this thing.

*

The pit of this thing. Like so many, we’ve been hurt by it. It’s weeks later now and Erica has fully recovered, to our immense relief. But the virus came to our home, it gripped us with its fist and squeezed. I told you about the fear, about the proximity of mortality. I hardly mentioned what it’s done to Erica’s mother, a small-business owner, an immigrant, with only a handful of English phrases to her tongue. Financially, she was reduced to nothing in a matter of days. She spends all her time now in one room, the bedroom she rents in someone else’s house, on the phone with Erica who is applying for loans and unemployment on her behalf, drafting letters to her landlord about rent deferment and calling companies to plead them to pause their monthly debits. Most days, Erica spends more time doing that than she spends doing her actual job.

Those are the bad parts. The things we never wanted to have to face. But I haven’t yet told you the nastiest thing of all. I haven’t told you because I don’t want to, don’t know how to. The thing that’s been vibrating underneath all of this, the thing I don’t know how to say aloud? I like quarantine.

I like the pace. I like the still moments in the early evening, when the cats are drowsy and the work-from-home day is over. I like experiencing the quality of light in our bedroom at 1pm. I like cooking a meal with my own hands three times a day; I like the cast-iron skillet frittatas Erica and I have gotten in the habit of making; I like baking breads and starting a garden. I like – no, I love – spending so much time with Erica. Now that she’s recovered, I like seeing her at work, hearing her on conference calls, listening to the ease and confidence in her interactions, watching the care with which she gives herself to her projects. I like exercising with her each evening before the sun sets, on my mat behind her in our little living room, tracking the sweat as it tumbles down her neck, letting her fierce movement motivate my own.

I like that we haven’t driven our cars in weeks. I like that I’m buying less. More specifically, I like that I’m consuming less. Living upon the earth more lightly. I like this new reach toward balance.

I don’t miss anything. At least not yet, and here in San Francisco we’ve been on lockdown for longer than almost anywhere else in the States. I don’t miss restaurants, don’t miss stores or exercise studios or coworkers. I don’t even really miss my friends – many of the people I love the most live far away anyway, so I learned how to maintain intimacy at a distance a long time ago.

Mid-quarantine, I caught up on some podcasts. The host told us that she heard a recording of a crowded subway station and sobbed because she missed it so badly. I listened to her talk and my throat seized up with dread. The idea of going back to normal, back to before, made my heart race. She missed it? I feared it. I’m fortunate to have a job, especially now. I’m grateful every day. But I’m also glimpsing the life I’ve always craved. The work I love to do, that I’ve studied and been trained to do, is make art. Trouble is, in this culture, making art is hardly considered work and it’s certainly not considered a job. How many times have I been told, both implicitly and explicitly, that if I love it enough, if I’m truly passionate, I’d do it for free? That it’s not about the money?

And so writing, making, creating – these have all been relegated to spare moments, scraps of time around the hours I spend in service of someone else’s dream, someone else’s business, someone else’s capital gains. But this lockdown has given me something: the opportunity to step outside the structure I keep trying to fit myself into, even though this structure and I aren’t a match. Before shelter-in-place, every morning when I drove to the office, I felt the ways in which I contorted, the ways I became less like myself and more like a puzzle piece. Each day when I came home from the office, I felt the time it took to settle back into the shape of who I am. This is not a commentary on working in an office. It’s a commentary on me. And it’s a commentary on what happens when a society insists that there’s only one way to work and contribute and have a “real job”, and that way begins and ends with consumer capitalism.

So even though I’m still working someone else’s job during shelter-in-place, I’m doing it at home, and at home I can belong to myself a little more fully than I can in the office. During lockdown, I’ve been writing. I’ve been reading. I pulled out my charcoal sticks and paper pads from storage and started drawing again. I’ve baked goat-cheese biscuits, rosemary & sea-salt sweet-potato rolls, banana chocolate-chip donuts, garlic & parmesan skillet bread. In other words, I’ve created. When my time is my own, I create. This is what I do. This is who I am.

Meanwhile, the headlines on my newsfeed say things like, “The pandemic could double how many people go hungry this year to 265 million worldwide.” How dare I enjoy it, I wonder? How can I even bring myself to like it, in the face of such suffering?

But it also seems to me that yearning for a society in which artists are valued and yearning for a society that provides for people who would otherwise go hungry aren’t actually mutually-exclusive longings. In fact, they’re two ends of the same length of string. Since the world as we know it has gone into hibernation, many of us are thinking deeply about the world we’d like to occupy in its absence. I already know what I want – I’ve been thinking about it my entire life. I want to live a small life, maligned though that concept is. I want to live disconnected from the sales in the box stores and strip malls and connected to the shard of truth at the center of myself, the one that contains the universal human impulse of creativity.

Some have experienced the shelter-in-place mandate as an impingement on their freedoms. I’ve experienced it, simply, as freedom. How do I continue living this way when everything changes again? I don’t know. As long as I need a paycheck, my creative life always will be secondary in terms of the time spent, even though it’s primary in terms of nourishment. The question, then, hasn’t been How am I coping with shelter-in-place? but How do I cope when it’s lifted?

About Hannah Harris

Hannah Anderson Harris has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sierra Nevada University, where she served as the managing editor for the Sierra Nevada Review. Her work has been published in The Rumpus and Entropy, and is forthcoming from The Normal School. She lives in San Francisco with her wife-to-be.

Hannah Anderson Harris has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sierra Nevada University, where she served as the managing editor for the Sierra Nevada Review. Her work has been published in The Rumpus and Entropy, and is forthcoming from The Normal School. She lives in San Francisco with her wife-to-be.

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