The New Normal

And lonely as it is that loneliness will be more lonely ere it will be less. A blanker white of benighted snow with no expression, nothing to express. -Robert Frost, “Desert Places”

I was told to arrive between 7:00 – 7:30, and that for the past half week I was grateful even to have a spot available for curbside pickup. Recently spots have been so full that there hasn’t been an updated list for newly available times. Perhaps they are thinking that the epidemic will wipe out their staff, and curbside pickup will be difficult or impossible.

The disinfectant wipes and simple green spray was ready on our kitchen counter. I brought reusable bags in the car with me, but I didn’t expect I would need them. I pulled the car out of the garage for the first time in a week. Around, the mostly cloudy sky dispersed what little light was there, and the calm belied an obvious and dangerous set of details. That every house, every house had someone there, and cars were lining the streets, parking in spaces where they could find room. The quiet from the close highway was eerie. Turning on the main street towards Central Market, it looked like a Saturday morning at six o’clock instead of a Sunday evening.

The parking lot was sparsely populated. Couples with face masks put paper bags of groceries into the back of their car while wiping down the cart before returning it to the discard pile.

A security officer danced insanely back and forth, shaking her hips and snapping her fingers and smiling. Why this was I never found out.

I pulled in and texted J545 to the Central Market number and got an automated reply. Lana del Rey’s latest album might as well be permanently lodged in my CD player, that is until the next album by her comes out, with the anthems she belts out of “Whatever’s around tonight/I just want to party with you” sounding grossly inappropriate in such a dismal time. I popped my trunk and waited.

A young woman with her dark hair tied up began to put the bags of groceries in my car. I pulled down the passenger window. I cursed myself realizing the bags were plastic instead of paper, meaning that COVID-19 could last on the plastic for 48-72 hours rather than the much smaller 24 hours of paper bags. This is the new normal.

She came around and mentioned the substitutions they had to make because they were sold out of certain products. My soyrizo was cancelled, as no replacement could be found. Instead of our plain cheese pizzas, we were getting a dairy-free garden vegetable pizza and a spinach and feta cheese pizza. I told the young lady that I was okay with it, as my wife and I had discussed it earlier.

We should have ordered more, I thought.

We should have had the groceries delivered, I thought.

“How are you?” she asked. It stunned me.

“I’m okay,” I replied. “You okay?”

“Yea, I’m good,” she said. “Just drinking plenty of water.”

Jesus.

“Thank you so much,” I said.

Seeing another car pull in, she took her phone out and said, “Sure no problem!”

So many thoughts flew through my head at that moment. I was expecting pandemonium, terror, ambulances and red and blue lights reflecting off of residential fencing. Broken glass and shouting mothers.

Instead I got what Robert Frost describes in his poem “Desert Places” when he writes “The loneliness includes me unawares.”

That phone she had must be horribly contaminated, I also thought.

The curbside delivery was so efficient that it made me realize that, when all this is over and a sense of normalcy is restored, I may never set foot in a Central Market again. I have told my friends repeatedly about my distaste for the architectural design and layout of the IKEA-like experience of Central Market, and now I have a substantial choice to opt out of navigating it. I will pay the $4.95 to avoid it.

But on the other hand, this young woman was the first person outside of our home I had seen in two and a half weeks.

That’s got to count for something, right?

I wanted to tell her that, but like a friend told me earlier: all the best topics for conversation happen the second you hang up the phone.

It reminded me of once, when I was a catering employee in Memphis, Tennessee: there was a live band at this wedding, and the band’s lead singer ended the night with the phrase, “We’ll see you next time.”

Which implies the marriage was doomed from the start.

I got home and we cleaned and disinfected each container. We took out the frozen food from its cardboard packaging and thrust it in the freezer. We placed the produce in a soapy solution in the sink. We wiped down the containers of almond milk. Before this, we had watched YouTube videos from medical professionals on the routine for getting rid of viruses on objects and surfaces. We took pains to follow those rules.

“We’ll know if we did it right in about five to fifteen days,” I told her, which was morbid in its own way.

In any case, we’ve always been living on borrowed time, and here in 2020 our psyches are at the mercy of a hemorrhaging health care system and a rubber-banding set of mandates from the federal government. “Let’s get back to work by April.”

“Don’t move until June.”

Welcome to the new normal.

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