It’s a typical spring morning – a slight chill, cloud cover, and the threat of rain. I can hear through my open window the calm before the storm. The birds are quiet this morning. Drivers making their way down the narrow street where I live, forego their car horns. At the playground across the street, there are no children squealing. Even the men who gather at corners yelling the day’s news to their friends down the block no longer exist. It has been like this for a few days, now that the neighborhood has gotten the message to stay inside. Inside. A strange place these days. Even within ourselves. To be inside, to look inside, is to have to pay attention. Some of us aren’t ready to do that.
I take note of this welcomed silence and prepare to head out for a long walk before the rains come. For as long as I can remember, long walks have been my daily ritual, my way to manage anxiety, process daily happenings, and keep my limbs nimble. A brisk walk in the early morning just before dawn or an after-dinner stroll along the water would be enough to quell the tiny tremors of worry I’d experience. It’s been several weeks since I’ve been outside for one of these walks. These past few days, I’ve sensed the tremors coming–a consequence of the times we are living in.
I dress in my regular walking outfit—a Nike running tee with matching pants, a jacket, earmuffs, and gloves. I’ve had them for years; and, today, their familiarity is a source of protection. I am reassured, even if fleetingly. I reach for the newest addition to my uniform—a surgical mask—and place it over my nose and mouth. I grab my alcohol spray and sanitizer and place them into my pocket, then leave.
The leaving part has become an exercise in maintaining mindfulness. What will I meet on the street? Who will I meet on the street? My scientifically trained mind gives way to the irrational one. Is the air different inside than it is outside? How long can a virus really linger in the air? Should I sniff alcohol before I go outside? Still, I move forward, willing myself to stand outside in the light of day, even if the sun’s also seeking protection from us behind its cloud cover. I will do what I have become accustomed to doing: spray the doorknob, use my gloved hand to exit the building, spray said gloved hand with an unused gloved hand, keep all hands out of my pockets. Keep moving forward.
Outside, the air is crisp and surprisingly light. Certainly not as stale or heavy as I had imagined it. I cautiously take a deep breath and begin my journey.
Three weeks in and the street corners have undressed themselves of people. One hundred yards and a right-hand turn reveals a new sight, less than a handful of people, all appropriately socially distanced and covered, silently moving forward. From a distance, their movements seem purposeful. One pushes a cart full of groceries. One grips his leather briefcase, its weight swinging in step with his. Another one jogs, masked and determined. They all seem to be moving somewhere. I am jealous. At this point, I have not decided where I am going. My mind is swimming with unanswered “what-ifs.” What if there are more people down that street, or what if someone sneezed just minutes before I passed them? What if…and I interrupt myself. The appeal of answering impossible questions has been fading, a realization that what-ifs are exhausting; another consequence of the times we are living in.
I walk by a pair of discarded disposable gloves. Then another. And then another. Pink, ivory, blue, black. At first, I wonder if someone is missing a pair of gloves, then how are they coping without it? I wonder about the waste. Could someone have used that pair and thereby saved a life, even theirs? I wonder why I am even considering the life of a pair of gloves. A thought occurs to me just then: what the sidewalks of large US cities must have looked like at the height of the crack epidemic. Before the war on drugs began. I’d heard the stories. Seen the pictures. Somehow, though, the pictures of syringes strewn across sidewalks and streets don’t hit me the way these gloves have slapped a new reality into my consciousness.
I decide to head toward the park, to a small precipice where there are beautiful views of the Hudson River. My proclivity for early morning rises means that, on most days, the park and its trails are empty when I arrive, peacefully devoid of the breath of others. Only the sounds of trees, and wind, and the river’s movements accompany me. The occasional sighting of a squirrel or the sulfuric smell of a skunk may greet me. Today, however, is different. I sense immediately, despite the dark cloud cover and the chill in the air, the breath of other humans. I turn the bend and see children accompanied by not-so-subtly mindful parents. I catch the slight nudge of a child out of my path. A quick turn of the head to ensure that any remaining children are accounted for and out of harm’s way—the harm being me, or the threat I may carry in my lungs and nasal passages. This now universal prejudicial act of being aware of others (even those much like ourselves) that we are practicing feels unique, novel. And yet, to my own experience, this act is as old as time itself. I imagine that their presence in the park, regardless of how precarious, still carries with it the remnants of a privileged life, the ability to walk freely without being considered the threat.
The squirrels are social distancing, too. I have only seen two so far this morning. The second one, black and chunky, is a little more than six feet in front of me. It scurries up the stairs that I plan to climb, then pauses to look back, as if to make sure that I am adhering to the new world order. Satisfied, it resumes its climb. At the top, it pauses once more then disappears behind the staircase’s stone border. I amuse myself with the thought that the squirrel, adapting to the decreasing number of human feeders present in the park, is hiding so as to nip at my calf for a meal. A morbid thought, but we are all foraging for food these days. Most of us, at least.
At the top of the staircase, I take in the view. Instead of turning back, per my usual, I choose to continue forward. Whether to satisfy my own competitiveness, between me and this novel virus, or to defy it, I’ll never know. Perhaps, it is to regain a sense of normalcy, that sense of freedom to make a choice. Just beyond the heathers, shrubs, and trees, an open field comes into view. Groups of people of all ages, traipsing along, throwing Frisbees, and generally letting off steam. I marvel at the gathering. It feels out-of-the-ordinary, strange, off-putting. My muscles tighten and my breath quickens. A sense of shame washes over me. The simplest of human acts—connection—is now a sign of civil (or uncivil) disobedience, that maybe we are less considerate of others than we choose to believe. I wonder at my own hubris for venturing outdoors and mixing my breath with their breath. I remember then, that my roommate, an elderly person, went out for a drink at the local park with a friend the previous night. It was her first time out in fifteen days. She needed a break, she said. We all need a break.
When my roommate returned home the night before, she marveled aloud how there had been “no one on the streets.” No one, she emphasized. I have always loved words, obsessed as I am with the etymology of the English language, the reasons why certain languages don’t have a subjunctive tense or don’t have words for gendered pronouns. For me, this new world has altered the meaning of even our most absolute and unchangeable words. What had my roommate meant by “no one?” Is “no one” less than what it used to be? Is “no one” two people, four people, or ten people safely distanced? Any number greater than “no one” could pose a threat, no? Had she said it to assuage herself of any guilt or worry she might have acquired on her trip home from the park?
A few yards ahead on the opposite side of a gazebo, I see a child with her mother and her father. The child exclaims, “Look how far everyone is from us!” The world must look different to people under the age of six. I see another child comfortably seated in a stroller. The mother huffing and puffing behind her mask pauses as she sees me approaching. She bows her head. I move to the left about ten feet hoping that my exaggerated movement doesn’t offend. I chuckle. I’m missing the days when New York City was full of pedestrians bumping and shoving shoulders, often for no reason at all. I once figured these quintessential New York mannerisms a quirk of my new home; now, I am reminded I have not hugged a single person in weeks.
I catch a whirl in my periphery that snaps me back to the present. I look toward my left and see a young man dressed in a fitted blue crewneck shirt and black stretch pants. The muscles in his arms and legs stretched long and lean. There before a line of trees, like a wall of mirrors in a dance studio, he pirouettes, twirls and leaps as if no one is watching. There he was, bending and wielding the air with his body; finding his freedom in the new confines of the outdoors. I feel his boldness. I desire that freedom. Just then, a woman carrying an Amazon blue bag walks past the dancer, her yellow surgical mask hanging mockingly from her chin. This may be her act of freedom.
I finally reach the precipice and the Hudson comes into view. Small, white-topped waves move quickly downstream. The weather, like us, is agitated, unable to be still even when that is what is most desired. In the distance, trucks cross the George Washington Bridge. It’s just me up there, with the sounds of non-human activity and my thoughts. For a fleeting moment, a weightlessness overtakes me. I’m unencumbered. I’m free. A kicked rock scuttles behind me, its sound reminding me that my freedom has limits. I look over my shoulder to see a confluence of park-goers converging toward one point, where I stood. I quickly move, already exhausted at the thought of maneuvering through the potential threats approaching.
Out of harm’s way, I let out a sigh and turn back toward home when two bicyclists decked in neon yellow and black zoom pass me. I hear one of them say to the other, “…but they’re all dying.” I think to myself, “Yeah, we’re all dying… from something.” I start down the concrete steps where the black squirrel and I had had our encounter. My cell phone drops out of my hand and onto the concrete. I ask myself if it is worth picking it up; should I use my gloves; should I use my hands. Which one? I didn’t have to consider these questions before. And I’m tired. I inwardly rebel at these inconveniences—the phone falling, the hand cleaning, the worry, the future. Gloved, I pick up the phone, wondering which of my pockets is empty and can house the contaminant. I place the phone in my left pocket. My right hand and right pocket remain untainted. I imagine my phone keeping its distance from parts of my pocket. My imagination acts as a threat to my own sanity in the face of uncertainty. An old woman layered in black, gloved, and masked with a red scarf around her neck, pushes her cart past me. This is not how any of us imagined our lives would ever be.
I reach my apartment complex and climb up its stone & brick stairs. The threat of rain never materialized, though the air remains thick with worry. Once inside, I begin the arduous process of sanitizing myself. I spray my gloves, then my hands, and the doorknobs. I wipe clean my phone and begin to take off my shoes and jacket before washing my hands. As I do this, I remember the dancer on the trail and pretend each cleansing act is part of a dance, one that we are all learning to do in the confines of this new world.
Are you a writer? We’re looking for short stories and personal essays to feature on our digital and print platforms. Click HERE to find out how.