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.
September 19, 2020. How many times I wrote those numbers this weekend, signing my name on snowy sheets of paper and crystalline e-documents. Buying a new car for the first time made me feel both like a grown-up and a child.
I remember how our car looked with the tree on its back, leaves everywhere, glass on the blacktop. It had been waiting there to take us home. All the other cars got driven away that afternoon, and then even we — after taking our tissue boxes and maps and DVDs — left it there to get picked over for parts. I wish I had said good-bye.
“Let’s see — you had a Honda Pilot…” the guy at the rental agency said a few days later as he looked at his computer. “The only thing we have left with 8 seats is a minivan. I’m sorry — with Labor Day coming up, we’re all booked. But I’ll try to upgrade you on Tuesday.”
When Virginia, 16, climbed into the rental minivan in a sequined see-through dress and string bikini, she said, “Why don’t we just get this one?”
“Yeah, there’s so much space!” Mark, 12, said climbing in and playing with the sliding doors.
“Whoa, these seats are so comfortable,” said Luke, 10, from the back, sitting with his arms spread over the seatbacks as if it were a sofa. “The seats in our old car were so hard!” he said, and I thought of all the road trips we’d taken in that hard-seated but cool car.
“Sometimes it’s better to look good than to feel good,” I used to say when someone asked why I was wearing 4-inch heels to go to dancing all night, both defending and acknowledging the ridiculousness of my choices. That was 25 years ago — have I come very far?
In the days that we waited for the insurance company, I decided black was my minivan gateway color. Black, the color of absence, the shade of night.
Lately I have had the urge to disappear. The same urge I had in high school and college that drew me to the chemical compounds in alcohol. I don’t let myself drink anymore, because I saw how I wanted to dissolve, one molecule at a time, detaching from myself until I had tunneled so far into the darkness that no one knew me, not even me.
I found a black 2016 Toyota Sienna on Cars.com at an auto mall in Chantilly. It had 85,000 miles on it, but the price was right and there was a DVD player for the kids.
The first time I saw a TV playing in a car, it was nighttime and a neighboring car on the highway slowly floated past us, even though we were all going 60 miles per hour. Inside there was a lighted slab full of moving pictures. It looked like candy being spun at a fair.
The next time we needed a car, we got one with a TV that opened from the ceiling. It made me feel like a child at Christmas to be with my family cradled in a car at night listening to Burl Ives telling the story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer as we flew over the hills, knowing good things were to come.
On Thursday, I left four kids at home with their online writing workshops and U.S. Government classes to check out the used car. As I test-drove it up and down Pleasant Valley Road, I became aware of an odor that made my stomach queasy, and I thought about the CarFax report, the high mileage, and the Jersey City owner, picturing an Uber driver in Manhattan carting around toddlers wielding cups of milk, and bachelorette parties like the ones I was once a part of where someone always threw up in the back seat.
This is partly how we ended up inside the new car showroom of a Honda dealership. Red, white, and blue balloons hung in bunches from the ceiling over a handful of cars whose coats looked like freshly painted nail polish. Songs from the ‘80s — You Give Love a Bad Name, Glory of Love, and Every Rose Has its Thorn — played over the sound system hour after hour without a truce as we sat at faux wood desks, waiting for salesmen and credit checks and staring out at a cloudless sky over Lee Highway.
“This is my dream car,” Luke said, when we took the 2020 Odyssey for a spin around Cherrydale, and he discovered the headphones stowed in a fancy compartment and how the back row could recline like a first-class seat on a 747. Back at the dealership we let the kids have choco-milk from the coffee machine while we talked with salesmen about incentives and warranties and interest rates for this car from 2020, a year that has been so destructive, so full of chaos and pain.
It will be a souvenir from the year of broken ties and broken promises, faces disappearing and re-constituting pixel by pixel. A year of disillusion and glimmering hope, the kind that shines through the cracks, the kind you don’t see when the day is bright and everyone is full.
A second cup of choco-milk spilled during a scuffle over the Boogie board, so I sent the kids outside. The longer we sat in that glass office, the more the numbers mounted, and when I stopped and looked up, I felt like I’d climbed too high on a rock face. In one of the pauses when my husband and I wondered if we should just walk away even though we had already spent almost 5 hours there, little Diana said in her prairie dog voice, “Let’s get the car.”
I thought buying a new car would be exciting, I thought I would feel happy. That would come days later when the car was touched up and ready to drive home. When Mark would play my favorite songs ‘kind-of softly’ as we drove out of Arlington, when Luke would tell me that the rear screen says ‘how long ’til we get there,’ when the sun was setting and the world was beautiful and I pulled into the driveway without even scratching our brand-new car.
But I couldn’t shrug off the lingering feeling of myself as a child. Recognizing that I am both helpless against some events and liable for others to great responsibility. A deep setting in of both weighty duty and profound ignorance.
How can I tell the way things will turn out, how long this will last, if we’ve done the right thing? It’s impossible, and yet sometimes you find yourself picking up a pen, signing your name, and beginning again.
We only had 6 hours on the island of Lipari. It was August 7, 2019 and my family and I had arrived by traghetto from mainland Sicily around midday. For the daily dip in the sea essential to many Italians on vacation like Enrico’s father who was with us, we went straight to a black pebble beach called Canneto. Those who dared swam with the jellyfish, and in our wet bathing suits, we all ate Sicilian bread called pane cunzato piled high with salty capers, marinated eggplant, and sundried tomatoes.
In a drive around the island, we stopped at a cliff where prickly pear cactus with yellow fruits and magenta bougainvillea tumbled down a dirt path towards the sea. In the distance Stromboli exhaled white smoke from its crater and the wind blew it along like a song.
At a single stand, a single man was selling little bottles of Malvasia wine and figurines carved out of volcanic rock. I was drawn to a bag of hand-made cookies, as if they needed to tell me something, so I counted six euros from my wallet and took them home.
In a very brief piece published today in a literary journal called River Teeth, I try to understand why — of all the things I needed to bring home from Sicily — it was these Italian pastries.
“They’re saying that this crisis is going to be the end of America being the richest, most powerful country in the world,” my daughter Virginia tells me.
“It’s like ‘nothing gold can stay,'” she says. “Do you know that poem?”
She shows it to me on her MacBook Pro.
Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.
Robert Frost, 1874-1963
And we talk about empires rising and falling, good and evil, and if what we always thought was ever true.