A Trailblazing Woman Showed Me How to Reenter Society After a Pandemic
But I’m still grappling with the fact that it might not ever feel completely normal again
The last time I went to the movies was on a cold March evening in 2020, mere days before lockdown. I met a friend and the theater was packed. I ended up in the ER four days later with shortness of breath, muscle aches, chills, and a cough. Recovery seemed to take forever so it may not come as a surprise that I’ve been cautious since then, trying my best not to get sick like that again.
For someone who used to fly to a different city once a month (to visit my son in college or have a mother-daughter getaway or go to book tour events), staying home seemed like such a daunting prospect. Yet here I am — I’m surviving and actually thriving in this new hermetic life with my husband and three kids. But last week I did something I haven’t done in a long time: I went back to the movies.
My twelve-year-old son is a big fan of horror flicks and we’ve enjoyed watching Halloween movies on TV. But just before the latest Halloween movie came out, a friend and her son asked if we’d like to go with them on opening night. I hadn’t pictured myself going to the movies when Illinois was still seeing 2,000–3,000 new cases a day. Was it even safe? Wouldn’t it be packed on opening night? These questions raced through my mind as I was about to text back an apology, saying we just couldn’t risk it.
But then I figured, why not? My kids and I are all fully vaccinated and my physician husband has had his third Pfizer. So I asked my twelve-year-old if he wanted to go see Halloween Kills. He thought about it for a moment and then replied, assuredly, yes.
Illinois has an indoor mask mandate. There are always those who still can’t get it to stay above their noses or chins, but for the most part, I thought Illinoisans were good about it. We entered the theater before previews started and I noticed while most people had their masks on (correctly) in the concession stands, they popped them off as soon as they got to their seats. As more and more people filled the rows, fewer and fewer were masked.
My friend gave me a level-three surgical mask to slip to my son so he would have more protection than his level-two mask. I doubled up. We wiped down our seats with sanitizer and paper towels and apologized to each other for being so cautious when no one else around us seemed to think we were still in a pandemic.
We were able to sit back and enjoy the movie, as much as one can while everyone on screen is slashed and bashed by Michael Myers. But as Michael continued to survive fire, pitchforks, and knives, I started to wonder if it was really worth it. I was so happy to be hanging out with this dear friend and want to continue to do so, but I considered whether I’d be doing this again.
One of the reasons I’ve handled the pandemic so well after that initial illness is that I’ve immersed myself into books (I’m up to 130 books on Goodreads just this year). I also wrote a new book, one I had researched all of 2019, which included trips to Shanghai, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I made great use of digital archives at Yale, Indiana University, and Southern Methodist University. Librarians became my best friends.
I thought this book would take at least five years to write, but without having to drive my kids anywhere thanks to eighteen months of remote learning and moving my own bi-weekly volunteer teaching to Zoom, I was so productive that earlier this year I completed my biography of Bernardine Szold Fritz, a Jewish woman from Illinois, like me. But unlike me, she was part of the Chicago Renaissance, the Algonquin Roundtable in New York, the Lost Generation in Paris, bustling 1930s Shanghai, and Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Bernardine was a people person if there ever was one. She didn’t leave behind manuscripts or paintings or musical scores, but she connected people in ways that brought about great works of photography, ballet, theater, and literature. And as much as Bernardine loved connecting artists, writers, musicians, and actors (she once said “so few people have the gift for people” like she does) and as much as I’ve immersed myself in Bernardine’s exciting life journeys, including her four marriages by the age of thirty-three, my most recent movie outing has shown me how much we really differ.
However, we do have another thing in common: she also lived through a pandemic, the 1918 Flu (the years 1918 to 1920 are strangely missing from her letters and vignettes). But she didn’t let that stop her from becoming the friend Hadley Hemingway ran to when Ernest asked for a divorce in the early 1920s, and the person Anna May Wong grew to rely on during her famous trip to China in 1936. Bernardine was in the room when Harold Ross and Jane Grant came up with their idea for The New Yorker, also in the 1920s, and was the person Aldous Huxley and Henry Miller clung to in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s.
Yet here I am, reluctant to go see a movie with friends and family, wondering if and when that will ever feel like a normal activity. I should take a page out of Bernardine’s book, so to speak. But for now, I might just have to continue watching movies from the comfort of my living room.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of the memoir, Good Chinese Wife (Sourebooks, 2014), and co-editor of the anthology, Hong Kong Noir (Akashic Books, 2018). Her book reviews appear regularly in the Asian Review of Books. She’s also contributed to PopMatters, Lit Pub, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Blumberg-Kason spent much of her twenties in Hong Kong, but was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, where she now lives with her husband and three kids.