“Always fucking chasing rainbows” by Paul Rizzo, Four Eleven Gallery, in the East End of Provincetown, MA.
Part 1: Friday, February 29-May 18, Year Zero
The pod started out seeming like such a good solution. One couple would ask another couple or maybe two if they would want to all swap and share deadly germs.
Such language among adult friends used to sound white-person- cocktail-party trashy. No longer. The ménage à trois “three couple bubble” among remote professionals with children became de rigueur overnight.
This kind of everyone knowing the same thing at the same time wasn’t quite new. Quick seismic changes in the zeitgeist had already become a thing back in the turn of the century of March. It had taken the weekend for everyone to accept the new reality that zombie germs were everywhere — not just in the normal places like preschools and, obviously, the world would be over by Monday. The squirmy little flesh-ravaging marvels were rimming Campbells soup cans, surrounding coffee sleeves at Pete’s, nibbling the spine glue in bookstores in the Mission, lining orange signage of IKEA, and shape-shifting their way into the refrigerator water filtration system canisters of Home Depot with their vacuum-sealed plastic case no mortal could open. No one knew how we knew but we knew. Jesus himself might have lived and died but nothing would beat this Year Zero.
By Tuesday afternoon, everyone had hunkered down inside with a liter of prohibition era whisky or, in our case, 50.
By Wednesday, the evening film festival had been voted upon by the entire family. In ours, it was talking dog movies with dogs on journeys or dog journey movies with silent dogs sometimes dubbed by humans sometimes subtitled by dogs. Or sometimes just chihuahua movies, I-VI, which seemed to get better and better with whiskey.
The days passed by in blurs of Max, 10th grade, and Violet, 5th grade, trying to find teachers on their screens. However, Hazel’s paranormally cheerful preschool teacher was on all of our devices 24/7 like the spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind was imminently about to beam us up and had given us all a winter sunburn even though we were indoors all the time.
There were blessings. The marvel happened when Joe actually knew how to operate an electric drill and put up the hand towel dispenser.
It was only a matter of a week before he and his new BFF, Electric Drill, had put up everything not tied down onto the walls of the house. It was beautiful and felt like home!
What a lark, our children actually intuited the rules of Monopoly and played happily. Max let Hazel win. Violet knew all along that you needed to trade your houses to get a hotel. Hazel knew not to eat the wheelbarrow. Why they kept this hidden before was one of life’s great mysteries.
And miracle upon miracle, the children all seemed to know how to read actual books at grade level, by flashlight in bed before sleeping, which they previously only had done during prolonged power outages.
We celebrated my son Max’s 16th birthday on April 14, with a surprise party orchestrated by me since I was the only person left in this teen’s life due to some kind of fuckery from above. I was pretending I wasn’t exhausted the way soldiers in trench warfare are exhausted. This was the tenth surprise Zoom party I had hosted.
Throughout the endlessly returning Ides of March, I was a “Zoom Surprise Birthday Host” fanatic. The first one, way back in early end times, for a science teacher colleague, featured a surprise guest of a shark scientist from the Atlantic Conservancy. He brought a shark. FUN!
The second one was for my nephew, Ezra — March 10. He was a senior in high school, who had committed a month prior to Johnson and Wales in Culinary Studies. IN ACTUAL PROVIDENCE. Now, PROVIDENCE was a metaphor and meant the Dante Alighieri’s third ring of hell. Every third Monday we were allowed to travel there. On every first Tuesday, we were blocked at the state lines and told to get into full scale PPE. Hockey would never be played again. Max was once in pre-end times, a hockey player who I took dutifully to Providence twice very week. I used to hate it. Now all I wanted to do was go to PROVIDENCE.
For Ezra’s mid-March birthday, I recreated emails from the Student Services department where he might/might not be physically starting as a freshman in the Fall. I had taken the graphics and font from the very cheerful email sent to my sister from Johnson and Wales Student Services. Then created a burner account for a fictitious Dean, Dr. Spencer Durkheim. I invited my nephew to a Zoom meeting with subject line “RSVP Immediately to A Special Event We Organized for Freshmen.”
The first line broadcast the tantalizing details. The Freshmen would be meeting other Freshmen whose last names start with the same letter. This first orientation session might be the last ever, but they were planning for it to be in person under a tent. Just please, no licking. The word ‘planning” seemed to emphasize the gravitas of the event.
My nephew responded to Dr. Durkheim’s email that he was readying himself for Passover dinner that very night in his quarantine house and would not be available for meetings to discuss even such excitedly worded New Beginnings.
I received his decline on my Spencer account minutes before surprise zoom birthday go-time.
So, of course, I did as any good aunt impersonating a fictitious dean at a college in order to celebrate the 18th birthday of my nephew would do. I quickly texted Talia, my niece, his sister, who was in her attic bedroom one floor up from said birthday boy in their house in Cambridge. I could see she was getting bored waiting for her absent brother (tech tip: tiled layout is a Google plug-in which you can purchase). She was already looking at her phone anyway and texting her friends madly that my surprise party was lame.
All the other remote teen guests on the “Johnson and Wale’s Orientation Google Meet,” in fact, were bored and already had turned to their video games with strangers in other countries. The surround sounds, partly in Russian and Arabic, emanating stereophonically from their audios into Violet, Max’s and my own bedroom in my own house were making me sea-sick.
I texted Talia, “walk downstairs in person to your brother’s room and tell him to just please click on dear Dr. Durkheim’s Google Meet Invite.” She labored to read so many words but then dutifully got up and went downstairs to tell her brother that Spencer apparently really, really wanted to meet him that very minute.
Once Ezra realized that his aunt was trying to do something nice for his birthday by violating copyright of the Student Service Department at his new college, The Meet party passed well. Ezra’s friends smiled occasionally into their built-in cameras in between operating their joy sticks, I ceremoniously blew out his eighteen candles on a cake we made from the last ingredients in the pantry, which were halvah and ritz crackers. It was a little bizarre — but all in keeping with the times. Ezra’s best friend, Oscar, had his back turned to the camera, and was jamming out with headphones in a caffeine-fueled techno rave by himself in his attic bedroom. I didn’t get fired by misusing my employer’s proprietary ownership of Google Meet on my computer! Fun!!!
By the time I got to my own son’s birthday on April 14, I was worn out in just about every single way but especially by the only two ways to live your life. These, of course, were the exact same way, both exhaustingly familiar to you, Dear Reader. There were other platforms in April, but I was so tired I couldn’t remember. In fact, I was having trouble remembering the difference. Which one was work? Which one was play? Was it on Zoom or Google Meet that your boss or your shrink was certainly recording the session and emailing the .avi file automatically to their in-house lawyer? GM and Z were both doable the way chained prison work is doable.
But I am a good mother, so I quickly created a text tree from Max’s best friend Sam’s phone, inviting not only my son’s actual friends but also a few of the popular sports-or-die kids from his school that were just nice enough to say yes. As it turned out, Will and Dan were not only surprisingly alive during this endless, bitter and truly traumatic times called, among many things, NO VARSITY SPORTS, they were completely up for the SURPRISE ZOOM PARTY. As it turned out, they hadn’t shown up to a single one of their elaborately scheduled High School Google Meet class sessions arranged daily by their teachers, so they were zoom fresh and ready.
“A Zoom party?” Dan and Will Jr. who, in normal times, never had uttered the word “Hello” in passing to anyone except to each other and each other girlfriends, texted back within seconds.
That’s AWESOME. Defunutely. B-their or B ☐ !
My phone sighed wearily.
Hazel our four-year-old had already eaten the cake made from beeswax, jellybeans, and kale anyway.
Part 2: May 12 — August 16, Year Zero
Where there is Death, there is also new Life. The proverbial robin of Spring whistled and alighted in the yard. We had by then figured out how to work the online ordering systems for our past life, which first cracked the door to sunlight. We hadn’t realized we were so hungry. We ordered pastrami on rye sandwiches, southern peaches, Ramen noodle soup from under the Brooklyn bridge, Parisian croissants, Japanese steaks, Hawaiian poke, 50 cannisters of boba tea over the course of the afternoon. Then we read somewhere that we not only could create a quarantine bubble with other families, but we should for the sake of our mental health.
When we first feasted our rabid eyes upon other adults eating roast chicken — the asparagus stalks sweating ravishing pearls of olive oil — — on the side deck, the mirror of ourselves in their tired faces was nothing short of orgasmic for both of us. It was a chilly evening but we both had to take off layers as the heat rose up our necks and we sipped from the bubbly drink called the “Quarantine Bubble.”
A football emerged, and not a single one of us jumped up to find the Clorox to bleach it down before the sweet, sweet stitched parabola was lobbed from one of our children’s palms to one of their children’s palms. Sweet and knowable life had returned. I might have been beguiled audience of Plato’s shadowy untruths in the Cave before February 29th; but I was happy then and I wanted back. Here it was. I felt my thirst getting quenched by water with the tiniest bit of lemon grass.
It wasn’t long before the shadows grew shaky, the mirage of oasis started to warble across the desert sands.
“Before we open the next bottle, we need to discuss something,” said Mark, husband number 2, putting down his fork officiously.
He looked awkwardly to his wife, an architect, for an assist.
“We need a contract,” said wife #2.
“A contract?” I asked meekly remembering vaguely my March nightmare — something about a global sickness and endless solo joy creation for all of God’s heavenly creatures I had so mistakenly wanted to multiply in pre-end times.
“Yes,” nodded Glenn, husband #3. “The number twos are right. A contract of rules of what we can.” He turns to me with large, liquid eyes. “And can’t do.”
Was it just me or did he glare at me desirously when he said the last bit? Why did I want to skinny dip right into his face just then?
I tried to remember what kind of law №3 practiced in 2 BC, and not let my mind wander to a 1 AD times’ imagery, steamy elevator sex with his wife. My husband gave me a side-eye. He liked Glenn but didn’t fully trust him. Plus, I was almost certain he had the same straying thoughts as me about wife #3, formerly known as my college roommate Vivian, a dance choreographer who now, of course, faces lifetime unemployment.
Joe and I avert our eyes, and both try to absorb what Glenn is telling us. And suddenly, in my lucid Xray vision, Glenn’s polo shirt seemed to disappear off his body; off came his pants and omg, I just had the urge to ride him with a strap on like a steed on a journey home.
Interrupting my quarantine hallucination, between the velvety, bubbly entrees and dreaded pod goodbyes, reality came flooding back. My blood froze mid-stream in my body and turned into vodka with specks of fennel. Everyone went back to clothed really fast.
Global mutation of zombie deadly germs all over the streets and IKEA and Campbell’s soup cans, all over the soles of our ten shoes that we kept forgetting to take off. The Zombie germs all over our talking dog festival movie couch because Max’s shoes and actual slobbery dog! What was the dog’s name anyway and when was his birthday? I had forgotten and I was a horrible, horrible mother.
Yes, I agreed with Glen, nodding my head, the good girl in me reared its ugly head. RULES! We need RULES. I came back to presently-ending times — — lifetime sentence of fluorescent light box, solitary imprisonment of our three children. It’s the thing we deserve because not only do we drive a Highlander and its gas efficiency is just a slogan, but everyone else does.
Shame-faced, I got a pen and paper from inside. We looked at each other uneasily. Should I be passing it around? We all considered the familiar neon green virus roiling voluptuously on the pen’s sleek black shaft. Also, it was the first time any of us had used a pen in months. Would we even remember how to use one?
That day seems a long time ago. After the passing of the covid pen, there was love — — trips to mountains, beaches, drive-ins. Giggly moments at home giving our homies the signal on our shared group text (three to six fist bump emojis). We all would shut the ten to twenty computer screens we were on, rip the plugs from the walls. With hearts racing, grasping the children’s hands in ours, we ran out into our collective victory gardens to throw ourselves onto the topsoil and free weed graze. It was the Commons come alive into France with actual long déjeuners at the long farmhouse table. We even screamed DEJEUNER! and didn’t feel pretentious because we all were long past pretending, we were getting any work done or the kids were going to school. We slept with our own spouses in our own houses, as was appropriate, but we always managed to find each other demasked in some hastily chosen rural slice of heaven. It wasn’t exactly like what my husband and I were imagining when we lay awake next to each other in the early endtimes — nightly visits to the claustrophobic and covidy elevator with wife #9 and husband #6 — but it was close.
I’m over the break-up. I don’t have time to mull. The tsunami wave known as Fall Back to School! Is actually visibly building outside.
Even Staples seems to fear a boycott. The signs read: “Back” or “Not Back: if you are feeling a binder, pick your color!” And, “Buy your mom a binder, she deserves it.”
At the register, all the buttons read “Not Easy” and I hastily push five through the plexiglass register.
The pod broke up — nostalgically — at a dinner party playing Moby and David Byrne. We threw plates when we found out Demon Wife #2 went to Ohio on a plane. Lawyer Husband #3 saw his college friend at a bar. All the secret living everyone was doing on the side came out, one fatal transgression after the other. As the kids’ pasta (we were tired of getting them to eat real food), crashed over Glen’s head, he shouted, ‘it was an outdoor bar at the beach!’
Vivian who had had her own fill of his deflections, turned on him, speaking very slowly, “The. Contract. Made No Distinction. Between. Outdoor And.” She thrust her pointer finger followed by her middle finger into the air before turning her fist to give him a solid FU as she snarled “INDOOR BAR!” in G−7.
“Salt or fresh is meaningless in the arbitration!” I threw in there in a moment of feminist sisterhood rage with Vivian my college apartment sister from days of yore not really know what that meant but having watched some Law and Order in 20 BC.
At that moment, our Other pod — who had we become? — drove up with their college-age kids. Jeff, Northeastern, Sara, SUNY Stony Brooke, and Amy, BU, were triplets, breaking quarantine with their parents in our yard since they had been housebound for a few weeks after their parents found out about all the summer sophomore year parties they were going to. We had forgotten the plan. We had double-booked our contracted friendship pod and our adulterous pod with college-age triplets.
My husband and my brain listed together to the starboard. We silently and together calculated the time it would take to gather the children and jump in the getaway SUV. We scream SKITTLES! as with one brain we quickly average the difference among Hazie’s, Violet’s, and Max’s go-to blackmailing and subtracting all the other bribes that we have used since March– miracle of miracles they actually jump in the Highlander. Hallelujah screams my husband sounding exactly like on our first date and we peel away, the clam shells shattering underneath the wheels. I kiss him passionately as we careen down the road. At least, the children have loyalty in the get-away scene even though as Max, Violet and Hazel realize that our family quarantine just left our own house behind us with more than a crowd having taken it over.
“We knew you didn’t have Skittles, mom” says Hazel placidly from the third row. “I like our family. Plus, I wanted to hang with the triplets. Will they live with us now? Their dorms are really not that safe. They could walk the dog.” Did we even have a dog, I couldn’t remember? It seemed as though we did but the memory was blurry.
“Maybe honey.” The only problem was that we had to wait a few hours till everyone realized they would need to vacate our house. We contemplated right then the purchase of an RV trailer. My phone tells me that there is a dealer twenty miles away. Maybe the National Parks had been the right idea from the beginning. We would quickly need to go back and get the dog, obviously, or if us having a dog was fiction, then rescue one on the way to Utah.
In the triangulating love pod hangover known as Sunday, August 23, Year Zero, we come to a realization. We need a pod that is a learning cohort. Never has a truth seemed truer. The real break-up happens with our lifelong friends sends us some angry emails. Each of us in our homes make popcorn and each couple drinks the last of its rations of prohibition hooch, on the sofa with the kids watching “My Life as A Dog,” the movie the grown-ups all had in common ten million years ago.
Part III: Today, Year Zero
Finding this new learning cohort is complex. Especially as it’s Thursday, August 27, about a nano-second from the time school opens in a mythological zone that has divorced itself from any concrete reality. We know school will start — just no one knows where.
Clearly, the learning cohort will have to provide transportation. You easily get to grips with the requirements that your learning cohort meshes with Violet’s sixth grade at her new charter school, Max’s AP Micro Biology class, a bright-eyed, life-affirming homeschool coach for Hazel and, why not throw in — a pandemic lover for the certain midlife crisis you are having — — and you decide efficiently that, for the sake of safety, tutor and lover must be the same person to mitigate points of contact. You send up a silent prayer that he or she plays jazz piano for everyone’s sake.
The first pod was made up of lifelong friends. They are quickly disposed of as you and your husband search intensely for this new and beautiful and perfect learning cohort. At midnight, in bed (no one is pretending to sleep these days), he turns over and says Tinder!
Eureka! Finally, someone has a good idea.
You decide that on the morrow’ you will have Hazel sit down with you and teach you the basics. It seems pretty easy to just swipe through a few questions about needs and desires. Hazel swipes through a series of yeses and no’s effortlessly with Joe and I giving thumbs up and thumbs down at each question. The machine seems to know the answers anyway — who are we kidding. Yes, to jazz. No to techno. Yes, to rap, only old-school. Yes, to swimming and long walks and open air boxing gyms with a limit of five boxers with masks. Yes to double dutch which would probably skin all of our knees. Yes to golf which we had never tried but seemed very safe. Of course, Hazel knows how to work Tinder. Why else was she hiding in the bathroom after she stole your phone and you pretended not to notice — — because, hello, it’s a fucking global pandemic and there just are no contracts for anything.