A Friday afternoon, Early Pandemic Times, and my ex and I are face-to-face, something I avoid, traditionally, these ten years since the divorce. I shift, tense, on my toe tips, half in, half out of my garage. He idles in the driver’s seat of his old mini-van. We are mid-kid pick-up for the weekend. He’s rolled his window down, and he’s maskless. We are on opposite sides of the proverbial fence. I know this, but does he? It’s like another sort of fencing, then, there, in my drive—motives for swords. There is so much I want to ask. I know how you voted, but how much do you believe? What about in science? Kids are only carriers? How cautious are you? How safe?
I am still raw from the March 13th sting when we, terrified by a novel virus, canceled classes at the high school where I teach — where my youngest attends — and floored it home without a backward glance, locked ourselves up tightly, and refused to open for friend and stranger both. I forced smiles for all the kids in my care, “What an adventure!” it said. We got this. I got this.
I told my boys, “Stay here, I’m going for groceries,” and I masked up, held an antibacterial wipe in each hand, and headed out. Everything I bought, I wiped. I grew up poor, so there were many staples stacked next to the bulk t.p. in my garage for lean times. On my list, a camping stove, tents, and cash. Who knew where this was heading?
The divorce had scabbed over, though I once believed it never would. As if the Universe is pushing us together for a fresh spar, the ex and I are ripping at the skin again. He’s padding himself in conspiracy theories and the rantings of rogue doctors with questionable credentials. I must find equal footing. Prod gently for weak spots. Above all, don’t corner. He’ll shut down. Tune out. Fake listen. A decade of eggshell walking around him, I can do it again.
Our sons are still in the house. I make my move. “How much do you believe in it?” I ask.
He surprises me, “Oh, it’s bad.”
“And what about the people you live with?”
He rents a room in a two-bedroom apartment nearby. My sons are practically adults, but they sleep stacked in triplette bunk beds. Mark, the roommate is older, divorced, works from home. He has a grown son with special-needs who never leaves the house, and for the first time ever, I bless this claustrophobic, penny-pinching living arrangement which, in February, enraged me and shamed my sons. COVID-19 spins perspective 180.
“Mark even has their groceries delivered.”
“No,” he says, but reassures me that Aldi has a strict queued up procedure to tick-count shoppers. We’re in sync, and I am emboldened, made giddy with relief. There will be no fight between us. No, we will fight together to save our children.
“Have you noticed how many dumbfucks mask under their noses?” I ask, then kick myself for cussing. He hates that. I take a calming breath, release it in a snort. My ex has always claimed the winning side, so he scoffs along with me. He shakes his head in time with mine.
Nope, he can’t believe it.
He twists the key in the ignition, shutting off the engine, settling in for a chat.
I sigh, “They don’t read, do they? They don’t…lean on the experts.” Then I’m a flurry of information. I’m throwing medical phrases, and facts of asymptomatic importance left and right, then droplets and triple-ply masks, the quandary of air conditioning, and of course, multi-system organ dysfunction.
All that I say is a given. Much of what I say is couched as a question. He can be the answer-bearer. “You always make me wrong,” he used to say. When I lie about remembering Fauci during the bout contra Ebola, I act as if Ex knew him too, “But what the hell did we care about Ebola then, right?” I ask. “It didn’t touch us.”
“Right.” Scoff. Rueful headshake. His elbow is relaxed along the open window frame.
Now we’re talkin’.
I refer to teaching from a distance as “DL.” I drop at-home-learning terms like I’ve been living in this rhythm forever. I pull the kids’ education in front of me like a shield. When he looks at me sideways, I jump. “–I hate it though!” (I don’t really.) My mouth won’t stop. “This does truly suck. We all want them back on campus. His smile is back. Victory, under the same banner, is so sweet.
Our sons are walking their Playstations over. For them, Pandemic is another word for Early Summer. I smile hard, so hard at them that my crow’s feet leave no doubt: Dad and I and everything is A-okay. I raise my voice to include them in the conversation. See boys? Hear? We’re each other’s right and left-wing. Mom can’t be the enemy if Dad agrees that global pandemics are terrifying.
The guys are impatient to leave. Dad revs the engine, ready to back out of the driveway, to head down the block into…into what? My voice strains impossibly high. “Did we cover everything?” It embarrasses me. They find me smothering, fearful, and weak. They are unafraid. They are brave. They are gladiators.
I take one grand step even further back from the imaginary 6-foot line I hovered over, feeling foolish.
I pull off my mask with panache and wave it at them. I hope my body screams carefreeness.
But have we? Covered everything?
Sunday night, they tell me Dad picked up a classmate for a crosstown jaunt to the skatepark and In-N-Out. “How fun,” I begin, but then, “Four of you in the same car?” Statistics and fears rush from my mouth, and I’m raging.
“Were the windows open?”
“The kid wore a mask, at least?”
But we had that driveway talk.
Fight on. I try other angles. “You’ll have to choose then. You’ll have to choose to stay at your father’s.” I text the ex because I can’t trust my temper. They’ll have to stay with you.
To my sons, I say that I will miss them. Yes, it’s unfair. I don’t scream that I hate their father for reinvading my peace.
I feel my tact slipping away, though. Driven out by fatigue. You’re high risk, I text. What were you thinking? I am appealing to his self-preservation.
How am I high-risk?
He ignores me for days, weeks. I imagine the three of them sidestepping mandates or huddled, resentful, bored, and lonely in their shared room, “Because your mother is a scaredy-cat.“
The teacher in me fights back with brainstorming sessions on Safety and Adapted Socializing. Conversations resemble AP prep essays with titles like Party Bus Consequences, The Pros and Cons of Sleepovers, and How Insulated Is Your Friend Group? Every morning, I beat them downstairs to fire up the TV news and pray to the God of Osmosis. My amen sounds like, please, let this tidbit travel through the sons to the father. “These are not my facts,” I say. I offer the résumés of their father’s favorite news anchors and compare them with my guys’. I feel cruel.
To each of their objections, I riposte with a Fact of Latest International Medical Discovery. I quote death rates, guilt them with Asymptomatic Transmission, trace the etymology of “novel” for them, though they don’t ask me to. I insist on source citations for each counter-argument they offer to my million rebuttals because I know I am not crazy, though the country may drive me there. They say, “Safe Friend Group,” and I draw intersecting circles on dinner napkins and lose sleep cursing at the same spot on the ceiling above my bed.
I barter their compliance and patience with promises of post-Spanish flu-like roaring ’20s.
Alone, I post delicately coded questions on social media about the laws to do with handing children over in times of pandemia. I need solutions but get commiseration. “Wine and whine with a girlfriend!” My Google search ends almost as quickly as it begins because the law doesn’t matter. My boys want their dad, and he wants them, and aren’t we all lonely enough?
A desperate move: A mother’s tears. “Please,” I say, “I’m afraid. Protect me.”
A stroke of luck comes when my septuagenarian mother falls and breaks her hip. Now I can use her in a driveway chat. I angle my tears for maximum viewing. “My mother is desperate to see us, but with her age, her hip, her lungs, and the damn COVID, she’s scared. And lonely.”
He’s touched! He’s always liked, my mother. Nod. Sad eyes. County case numbers climb, and his mother, aged 93, grows too COVID-scared to see the boys. His sister, age 67, gets the fear next and refuses to see any of them.
Decontract, release. I can leave our health and safety to the men. I have a novel deflection for my sons’ demands now, “Ask your father,” I say. “Does he think a buddies ski week is a good idea?”
Then I leave—my most desperate maneuver. I box up our lives to move away from the desert and out to the seaside. I believe I am sealing in our safety, aiding it with isolation. We’re off to a giant sandbox, a playground with kayaks and surfboards, and one breath short of the 50-mile distance I am allowed by divorce decree.
There, ocean breezes sweep the virus inland. It’s farther from my boys’ friends but further from their maskless laissez-fairness. Have I made the right move? I try to infuse my youngest with exciting possibilities but his friends, daring and defiant with their masks shoved to the bottoms of their pants pockets while they roam the malls they get to by public transport, say, “Since COVID is over now, we’ll wait till we get the vaccine. Then we’ll visit you.”
Good God. Does no one watch the news?
“Don’t they know vaccination will take months?”
I call my ex. “What do we do now?”
My mention of “Fauci” and “vaccine” put him on guard.
He comes at me fast. Was I not aware of Fauci’s shady patent? Had I not heard of Fauci’s financial interest? His medicine suppression? How did I fail to do my vaccine research? He proffers phrases that he stumbles over, like the Senate Committee and the World Health Organization. “You need to read Kennedy’s Children’s Defense website,” he says.
“I will do the research. I do do the research.” I can’t remain civil in real-time. “I must hang up now.”
The breath I am fighting to catch gets knocked back out when his first and strongest text lands; I DO NOT want the boys vaccinated.
And so begins the rematch.