Whale Fall – Part 2 (Spring)

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The last time Mia had gone inside a grocery store was last month. She sat in the chair, wiping her mouth with a napkin that she pinched underneath her green summer glass, empty of passion iced tea.

“It was madness,” she said, her mouth turned as she talked about the empty toilet paper aisles, the rapidly diminishing meat. She supposed that by then there had been community spread: a priest had gone to a symposium in Kentucky and had come back to their area, to which all of us nodded.

Jacqueline had said her routine trips to Costco had gotten progressively longer, as lines had formed just to get in. The diets of her children had ironically not gotten better with her around more, but worse. For a time it had been pop tarts in the morning, and then cereal for a second meal after the first bout of Zoom school sessions were over.

Mia had recommended wearing a mask when she went in to Costco. Jacqueline scoffed.

“The World Health Organization,” she said “seems to think otherwise.”

Jacqueline had referenced that the masks could actually harm those who had it, as the virus was kept inside the mouth.

Spencer explained as best as he could, while clearing the dishes around the massive table, that he believed that because many other respiratory viruses had seen masks as a healthy and safe response, that masks would now be in order. “If the World Health Organization said that, they will reverse it.”

The apex of the sun gave hardly more heat, but the sunlight was now reflecting off the pool as the wind picked up, and prismadic fragments jumped up alongside our faces, our bodies and our hair. The neighbors could be heard loading up for what sounded like a weekend trip. To where, I did not know: perhaps they had a country house somewhere far away from this.

I told them I remembered a trip to the northeast, where I was taken on a lighthouse tour around Acadia National Park in a large boat. Along the coast were these magnificent houses in every mode of architecture you could describe. Lobster cages and their flotation devices dotted the water, and the light brown soil of the coast contrasted the deep and rich navy blue of the water.

Even Martha Stewart had a house there, and the figures that the tour guide mentioned on the amount these houses cost made those on the tour sigh with envy. The houses, so early in June, were still boarded up. I myself had on a windbreaker over my sweater, and sat on the inside of the boat to avoid the gusts coupled with the moving catamaran. No one could be seen in these houses, and the guide also lamented that the summer homes were only used two or three months out of the year, when the weather was the most pleasant. After that, the homes returned to their hibernative state.

It was so odd, I thought, that one should avoid the pleasure of experiencing every facet of a place, including the harsh winters. One imagined the luxuriating of the summer cottage could give way to the coziness of a winter one, as long as one had a fireplace or central heating to weather the harsh transatlantic winds.

Here was another such case. One in which a virus demanded of us to become epidemiologists without us clinging to the task. Each one of us, I wagered, had done at least some research into the virus, listened to a podcast with an expert, or continued to stay in touch with the latest research about infection, case fatality rate, the r0, and all other forms of language related to the thing. We were filling our house for summer. But later, when the exhaustion of the virus set into the twenty four hour news cycle, would the virus be abandoned for more interesting fanfare?

There was a pause. Mia, who was still hungry, helped herself to another pair of vegan hot dogs, layering chips on her plate again before Spencer could take it. She opened the wheat buns with some difficulty, the split not quite equal. “I think so,” she said, licking her thumb to rid it of a mustard residue. “This is the epoch of our time.”

Spencer hoped not. It was painful for him to see so many of life’s beautiful pursuits on hold for the virus. He and Marcus had tickets for Hamilton which they would obviously not be able to see. “And who knows when that’ll happen.”

Jacqueline doubted it. To her, the news did not run on prolonged crisis, and would have to eventually give up in favor of more rapacious news. “It won’t be the virus itself,” she said, “but it’ll be people responding to the virus.” She recalled the stupidity of people, on local news especially, as a rare treat she loved to watch later on YouTube videos if she missed it. To imagine the same people daily responding to a pandemic did not seem as funny to her in that context, she realized, but rather a far more pitiable state.

I agreed. I always thought that a camera at the wrong time could embarrass any of us. There was a problem of context, which social media took to pouncing on regularly. I told them of the time I was in graduate school and we had read selections of a book I thought was quite good. Before class, I stated to the other students that I adored the environmental philosophy at play here, critiquing object-oriented ontology with nuance, yet still retaining an environmental stance. But I could not find the author anywhere on the pdf file. It was only later that I learned that my professor was the one who had written the essays. It was made clearly on the syllabus and I had missed it. The information that I had given in that moment to my fellow students was something they relished, I was sure. The realization that stupidity reached all heights of education.

“But surely that should not have mattered,” Mia said, sympathizing. “Some schools of thought do not regard the author at all, yes?” And we both chuckled.

“Do you have a bathroom?” Jacqueline said, getting up with so much force that the chair she brought almost flew out from under her. She was guided inside by Marcus.

Spencer had asked Mia if she had gone on anymore dates recently. As the youngest of us, Spencer had taken to romantically guiding Mia, who was naive and ill-taught compared to the rest of us in the worldly ways of love in the 21st century. Mia’s father was the inheritor and chief executive officer for an oil company in Texas, and so had so much money that she had gained an incredible mind as she was home schooled by teachers brought to the estate, but one that was sterilized from the routine stupidity that made life fun for the rest of us. As such she could acknowledge any crush in literature, but found reasons to reject a relationship with another real person after every first encounter.

Mia said “no,” citing the recent pandemic as an obvious excuse to avoid seeing complete strangers. She said that the very last date she had gone on was one with an older man, older than Spencer would have probably liked, who was a bit flabby, but had an enormous wealth of knowledge about a few topics. Mia supposed he was handsome, though it would have been a decade ago, and he had that look that all men do when they peak either in or just after high school: balding, rounded, all the sharp edges gone soft.

Spencer gave a short laugh.

“It’s not like that,” Mia said, throwing a chip at Spencer. Observing this, I had thought that had Spencer not been gay, him and Mia would have been an ideal couple, as platonic as Mia had been in most of her life, and as such would have found comfortable.

“Your virginity,” Spencer said, “is turning into a liability.”

Now Mia, driven to the point of taking recommendations of employees from his father’s workplace, felt that she had reached bottom. “I have heard that cats carry the pandemic, but don’t spread it.”

Spencer and I cooed and said that she would find someone eventually. At this, Mia gave a sort of start, and we could see that she was hiding her eyes from us. Jacqueline had just come back from the bathroom, and in an attempt to bring levity said with sternness, “What the hell have you been doing out here!” This worked for Mia, who lifted her face and laughed, the sunlight brightening her skin and revealing glimmering droplets next to her eyes. Jacqueline, so invested in parenting, would occasionally mother as best she could to Mia, and the age was just to the point where the two of them could have reenacted Gilmore Girls. This gave a certain pleasure to Jacqueline to see her laugh, and no doubt she tucked that moment away for when she would use it, again, when her younger daughter was grown.

Mia wished that the timing had been different, she said, stating that a pandemic is even harder to suffer alone.

“But you have your mother,” I said, in an attempt to placate. Mia’s laugh from Jacqueline turned into the fiercest scowl. “Oh God, my mother,” she said, sniffling. “Don’t get me started.” She got up and began to remove her overalls. What would have been a titillating performance for a man was simple utility here. She removed her shoes and then her overalls, revealing gym shorts underneath. As she did so, she said that her and her mother bickered constantly in the huge house, and they had recently taken to both going in clockwise orbits along the outside of the house, only stopping into the kitchen, which was centrally located, in order to grab a drink or something to eat. From there, it was back out to the edges of the house, performing yoga or meditation, or taking the dogs outside, or grabbing a book from the library. Her story, told in this detail, I realized, had the opposite effect. It was clear based on Jacqueline’s heavy blinking that she would have dodged dinner plates thrown by this apparently overbearing mother in order to have the daily routines of the kind Mia described. I myself agreed, imagining wood-paneled built-in libraries stacked with books of all topics, despite the fact that I had never seen Mia’s house.

“Now she wants me to get a job,” Mia said finally. “At this moment in history.”

Mia said that her mother would either send her emails of job openings of every kind, or she would track her down in the house with her macbook in hand, showing her openings for service positions that would involve interactions with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people a day. Mia would nod at each job, and say “maybe” without stating the obvious. She eventually realized that it said little of Mia’s state, but rather her mother’s, who was so used to socializing with other wives of the oil business that now her sense of purpose was depleted, and rather than create workarounds like they were doing with this table, her mother had renewed her mothering energy, which seemed to be this ember that had cooled but never quite gone out.

“The children are all I think about,” Jacqueline said, abruptly. “I’m thinking about them right now, as a matter of fact. I doubt my husband’s ability to multi-task, and so I am worried that the children, after eating, are doing irrational things. These fantasies are obviously not real, but I think about them climbing onto the kitchen island and jumping off onto the tiled floor, breaking their brittle bones. I imagine them throwing beanie babies at each other back and forth from downstairs to upstairs, marking up the cream colored walls and breaking framed photographs. These fantasies are so clear to me,” and she made gestures with her hands near her eyes, “That I sometimes stop everything I am doing and go to check on them. And, of course, that is not happening at all. Yet the real and imagined get conflated, to the point where I wonder if I have any measurement to see them as they are. There is no clarity here: only anxiety and insecurity.”

We grew quiet. I conjectured that perhaps this said more about her state than the quality of her children. “From what I’ve heard,” I said. “your son at the very least is responsible.”

The rare cloud in the sky had burned away. What was left was the deep rich blue of a Texas sky, so vast and impenetrable as to be devoid of reason and certainty.

“Faith, you only know what I tell you,” she said. I nodded. It was true that at all times we were curating experiences for our friends to bring about the best versions of ourselves. But I wanted her to know that she was not alone in that respect. “Perhaps that is the pain of the virus. The realization that all these projections go dark in quarantine.” It was true that public life gave us the opportunity to self-actualize, but in so doing we were also continuously lying to ourselves. In our homes, when all the music was finished playing and the only sound left was the laundry turning, there was no way to color our experience beyond the immediate. For some, like Mia’s mother, the return has been rather ugly. And for some, like Jacqueline, it had seemed hectic and anxious, because now she was performing a rainbow of public life as much as she could for her children. It was remarkable just how much we had come to rely on civilization, not just for the obvious amenities of food and healthcare, but in the more disparate notions like well-being. There was no more paint for any of us, only the canvas remained.

Spencer remarked that it was not so stark as that, as both he and Marcus have had so many opportunities to get reacquainted. “It was like the madness outside had thrown a blanket over our faces,” Spencer said. “I felt like I hadn’t really seen Marcus in years.”

And Mia, fully recovered from her tears, had begun to cry again.

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