Outside the Neiman Marcus department store, guys in hoodies and jeans were loading metal racks and leather lounge chairs into black pickup trucks. Hand-written signs taped to the door said, “Auction Winners Only.”
“All the stores have closed, except for TJMaxx and Sak’s,” my friend said about Mazza Gallerie, the 4-story mall where my family and I used to go to the movies on Saturday nights. “The whole mall was sold,” she said. “I heard they got a really good price because it was in foreclosure.”
We walked through the darkened hallways past all the gutted stores, because I wanted to go inside and look at the corpse, and when we opened the back door, there was the Lord & Taylor building across the way with a huge yellow banner spanning the entire top floor saying, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. EVERYTHING MUST GO.”
My friend and I used to be writing partners, meeting for lunch, exchanging chapters, working on novels together at the library. She tells me that they’re thinking of moving. Her husband has been working long hours for his law firm in their basement since March. “Why stay here,” she said, “when you can work from anywhere?”
We pause at the corner to say ‘see you later’ through our masks. Across the street, four 123JUNK trucks are being filled to the top with desks, wooden tables, and cabinets from an office building on Wisconsin. I think of all the offices downtown that no one is going to, and the places that are dying without them: suit shops, sandwich joints, gyms, even the Metro.
We part ways without touching each other at all, and I have the feeling of being in a place where the sand is shifting underneath me.
This fall, the kids — now in 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 12th grade — are schooling in an enclosed world, a circuit of screen, headphone and wire, where I am largely not needed except to adjust the connection, to drag them into the sun, to instigate something that resembles recess.
It’s been half a year since schools closed on March 13, a week after D.C.’s first covid case was confirmed. Everyone thought the kids would go back in 2 weeks, but the re-open date kept getting pushed back as the virus ripped into cities and hospitals around the world like a real-life horror show.
What seemed to be an unsurmountable challenge then — managing my grief and terror while trying to project an aura of calm for the kids, mapping the foreign landscape of remote learning at 3 different schools, navigating capsized social norms and nebulous lockdown rules — now feels like a hurricane that has dissipated into light rain.
I acutely feel the presence of my children’s teachers in my life, even though I’ve never been so far away from them. Doctors and nurses, grocery store workers, mail carriers and garbagemen are as essential and appreciated as ever, but for me, teachers are the new foot soldiers — protecting us, carrying my children, holding this world together.
I have heard the patience in their voices, and felt the difficulty. I know about the sadness, but I feel the love. I see how they band together in the pixelated quilts of Teams meetings, supporting classes that are not their own, gathering every child in this strange new container, persevering. They have become my teachers too.
When the pandemic hit, magnolias were exploding into obscene shows of magenta and rose, daffodils were blanketing the ground with newborn yellow, and cherry trees were unfurling sinful layers of crinoline and lace. Nature was creating an extravagant backdrop for an opera about loss.
When the air softened and the days became lighter, the kids and I found new purpose in the garden that had once seemed dull compared to cross-country or novel-writing or high school musicals. We dug up the weeds by the street and planted sunflowers, bee balm, and crayon-colored zinnias. One morning we woke to find 2 tomato plants on our stoop, and just as we were saying we needed basil for our herb garden, the lady across the street walked over with handfuls of sprouts, and we watered them until they grew big enough to make pesto to ladle over slippery hot linguine.
After the stay-at-home order was lifted at the end of May, restaurants were allowed to serve people outdoors, and over the summer the familiar sounds of people laughing and communing returned. Tables spilled onto sidewalks, squares, parking lanes, alleys, and even streets, creating pockets of joviality in this now subdued city.
But while anxiety about the outbreak has declined from a raging blaze to a crackling fire, other problems have flamed up. The run-up to the presidential election has heightened the feeling of living in two Americas, as if we’ve clung to opposite ends of a schooner, certain that if the other side wins, we’re all going down. Wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington state have burned through millions of acres of forests and neighborhoods, turning skies in San Francisco and Portland from blue to orange, and creating smoke clouds so massive they have traveled all the way to us on the East Coast. And recent violent acts against Black people have cut deep gashes, exposing a race-based hierarchy so intransigent that it will take a complete teardown of American society to build it back right.
The sunflowers that once brought smiles to people passing by the sidewalk are now headless stalks and the basil is bitter, and I feel the imminent loss of the handful of social interactions that have been made possible by the open air, one of the few things that prevent us from infecting each other. Fall has always brought with it a dose of melancholy, but this year in particular, I see my world getting smaller, like the tightening aperture in a mirrorless camera.
During a particularly difficult week of distance learning last spring, a friend brought over a puppy and a playmate for Diana. Another day I found a bouquet of red tulips and a Russian novel on my porch. Six months later I am still reading that novel.
“All the old ways of doing things were abandoned,” the main character tells his daughter about how it was to live through the communist revolution. “But the new ways of doing things had yet to be established.” I wanted to tell him through the pages, through time, through imagination and space, I have been there too. In the pliant dark between one place and another.