My husband lost his job at the airport, in this Colorado mountain town of 6,500, because the last flight he worked for United had a single passenger. All the stores and restaurants are closed, all nonessential businesses, so he applied for a job at the hospital as a sanitizer; They’re desperate, he said. Today, he was fitted for an N95 respirator mask, had three blood-draws, was pricked for TB; though, if the Senate bill passes, he’d likely make more on unemployment, But that’s not the point, he says. I want to look back on this time and know I helped people, that I was useful.
I can see him from our living-room window, across the street at the food pantry where he volunteers on Wednesdays, bringing out prepackaged boxes for patrons, no one allowed inside the building now except for volunteers—Javier, Dusto, my husband, and a high schooler named Maria. Wednesdays are dedicated to the area’s Spanish speakers, and he’s been diligent about his Duolingo lessons. Every night I hear him in his office, Sí, me gusta la ensalada de frutas, followed by the trill that confirms a correct response.
At home, the tattoos on my hands are ashy and cracked because I wash them when I need to and when I don’t. He brought me a mask, too, from the hospital, the disposable kind with the ear-loops. You can wear it to the grocery store, he says, sweetly, because he knows I’m already wearing vinyl gloves while I shop. Six years ago, I was diagnosed with hypochondria, and I’m still medicated for it, and other things, now. He always invites me to go with him to the pantry, and I’d planned to before the virus drove us all indoors. But he still goes, despite the risks, because he knows the odds are in our favor as late-20- and early-30-somethings. I know the statistics, too—we watch the news together—but they don’t comfort me the way they do him, which I also know is part of my illness, the intimate understanding that I’m just as likely to be one of the unlucky few as the next 20-something. Maybe it’s narcissistic, thinking I could always be the worst-case scenario, the exception rather than the rule.
I grew up delivering for Meals on Wheels with my mother, sitting in the back seat with stacks of Styrofoam clamshells that smelled like wet turkey stuffing and boiled brussels sprouts. When we were stationed in Altus, Oklahoma, we had a regular route and, on it, Mom’s favorite delivery to a chatty old man named Clarence who lived in a trailer next to a tree on a dirt patch out in the country. I stayed in the car with the meals and watched from the window as she approached the doors of homes.
I was a nervous child, always, undiagnosed for what is clear to both of us now—OCD, general anxiety, the seeds of depression like she’s struggled with, too, since childhood. I don’t know what I expected to happen when people opened their doors to her, reaching for the slippery, lukewarm containers, but I always expected it. Occasionally, they’d ask her to come inside and carry the meals to the kitchen, and when my mother disappeared through the doorway, I held my breath until I could see her again. She’d walk back to the car, lock the doors with us inside, and head for the next stop, but I wished we could stay in the in-between, just the two of us, together, alone.
I understand my husband’s impulse to help rather than to take, to use the privilege of our age and uncompromised immune systems for the good of others. I understand it because I grew up with it, and part of my mother’s heart lives in me, beating right alongside my own; my husband learned it from his mother, too. But most of me wants to beg him, every day, not to leave, to lock our door to the world until it’s safe again to stand within six feet of another human; to keep washing my hands and watch the seasons change from the windows while the government pays our rent. Most of me wants to exist as an island with the person I love, healthy in our little bubble, listening only to the one heart and not the imploring second, just the two of us, together, alone.
Brenna Womer is a poet, prose writer, professor, and editor. She is the author of honeypot (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019) and Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance (C&R Press, 2018), and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Indiana Review, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere.