It had been maybe a little over a week of consciously staying home, though it felt like a gradual removal of normalcy before this idea of a pandemic really settled in. Boise State had officially shut campus, which felt premature at first, and I was adjusting to this new intimacy of teaching my class on Zoom. My students were comfortable in their homes, logging in to class from their beds, clad in pajamas and tucked next to their dogs or pillows. I ventured out to the grocery store and Home Depot, which has become my favorite form of socialization these past two months.
I didn’t know what the stores would be like, or what the people would be like, or if anything would really be open or normal. Would the cashiers be wearing hazmat suits? Would I find locked cases instead of shelves? Would there be crowds of people tearing apart packages of toilet paper? I dodged other shoppers in a purposeful way to show them I care, and they dodged me – looking down or past me or giving me a half smile as if to say, “Welcome to this strange world.” I pushed the cart with my forearms, gave the fruit a good hard look from a distance before grabbing one, and theatrically wiped my hands with a cleansing cloth before taking a head-first dip into a pool of hand sanitizer. I did this before settling into the car or grabbing my keys out of my purse – to show anyone watching that I am aware. I care. I am clean.
That being said, I’ve taken comfort in avoiding people or not looking directly at strangers because finally, this is acceptable and encouraged behavior. I don’t have to pretend that I am friends with the store clerk, and act engaged when they ask if I’ve had that brand of mac and cheese before. The carts and hand baskets at Fred Meyer are cleaned to an unrecognizable sheen, there are handy sanitizing wipes as I exit, and the absence of salad bars is a great relief.
In 2013 I was living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi when a tornado tore through the campus where I was teaching and studying, and plowed down dozens of structures, miraculously leaving only some injured, but no deaths. I was driving north on Highway 59 after a weekend in Baton Rouge and remember the sky looked like two separate planes. Dark clouds laid like a wool blanket and a light blue sky looked trapped beneath it. Cars were pulled to the side like a giant hand had pulled them violently off the road. All these crazy drivers, I thought. When I arrived home, my roommate was pacing nervously and had summoned some survival gear. I quickly learned about the tornado. Turns out, I was the crazy one, for being on the road in the first place.
I had never experienced this type of weather before, having grown up in Ohio, so there was a part of me that wanted to see it, touch it, experience the winds. But there was also panic. What we did have in Ohio though, frequently, were tornado drills. We’d crouch under our wooden desks at school and wait until the blaring alarm stopped and Sister Mary announced it was “safe” again. I thought about this, wondered what desk I should hide under, then suddenly realized that there was likely a protocol I needed to enact but was forgetting. It felt like a party of people would soon be descending on my home in less than an hour, and I hadn’t prepared any snack trays or bought any wine. In this frantic state, I froze. I went to my room and read or watched TV or maybe called my mother back after learning it was national news, but I’m not quite sure. I don’t remember too many details after that. I felt lost, I felt like I couldn’t move my legs.
There are two things that I remember about the aftermath. One is the stillness – this feeling that in this moment, nothing else mattered. If I had a class to go to or to teach, I wasn’t going to go. If there were papers I needed to grade, well I had a pretty good excuse not to. It was an unexpected shift to the normalcy that I had already been eager to repudiate. I was ready to take any opportunity that would allow me to dismiss “obligations;” the word alone makes me queasy.
The second thing I remember is the overwhelming need for a cheeseburger. If comfort food is ever a thing, it is now, I thought. I don’t always feel moved to be comforted by a friend or loved ones in situations like this, but I did want to be near people. And often times, strangers can abate stress because I can connect with someone in a surface way that validates who I am – makes me believe that I am normal, that my feelings are normal. I went to the local pub, The Keg & Barrel, which was where any and every happy hour was held on Fridays. I sat at the bar, unapologetically ordered a cheeseburger, sweet potato fries and some kind of dark beer. I held them close to my chest, feeling like a small child sitting at a too-tall table, continuously feeling like I had to reaffirm to the people around me that I belonged there.
I looked around for a familiar face, didn’t see one, and everyone else sat in their own pale bubble. Driving home, I felt touched, changed, content. Campus closed for a few days, and driving around seeing the rubble was a sad but glorious image. The matchbox houses were nothing, and I guess I realized the obvious – that things, even important things, are just things – and they can be gone in a moment. And if you are lucky enough, you can rebuild into something new.
The repairs and construction lasted for months after, but the stillness and feeling of living through this strange holiday lasted just a few days. Certainly I was safe and my house was intact, but it’s distressing nonetheless. The community it affected was small and I could only describe my feelings to those who didn’t live there, but not really connect on a deeper level. In fact, I hadn’t internalized the tornado until writing this now, and I learned that we yearn for any occasion to create community – even if it’s negative. It’s the same reason that a small part of us feels more alive when we share bad news.
But this isn’t just a citywide panic. This panic has touched every corner of the planet and taken over two months of our lives. For many of us, privileged to experience the lightheartedness of staying home, we can understand what it means to be housebound with loved ones or pets, to forget what you wore before sweatpants, to be delighted that puzzles are back in style, and that every home project you’ve been meaning to do is complete (or will be complete as soon as you finish Tiger King.) Your biggest problems may be that you had to cut your own bangs, your husband talks too loud on his morning conference calls, you can’t order a drink at a bar, your wedding shower got canceled, or that you have nowhere to go even though gas is about as cheap as it was when you were still practicing how to parallel park.
I’m not ill. My family members are healthy. I have many trails to hike on. I can still afford to feed myself. Yet I am experiencing this same breakdown of humanity. I lost my job prior to COVID, and now I wonder how long it will be before I can find one, or how long it will take the economy to pull itself up by its bootstraps. The hardest part is having these feelings of uncertainty or despair, yet not acknowledging that I can give myself permission to feel that way. So I keep it all in because I have no way of verbalizing it, wake up in the middle of the night imagining the most dreadful scenarios , and try to predict what my life will look like next week, or six months from now.
When a tornado sweeps through, it’s fast. The damage is done before having time to prepare, so instead you mentally skip over the tragedy entirely and begin assessing the aftermath. But here we are now, in the center of a tornado, afraid to peer out of our windows to see what’s out there. There’s nothing to see. We are ready to clean up debris, but there isn’t any. We are exhausted yet restless, compliant yet recalcitrant, content yet completely dissatisfied, and facing a world we’ve grown used to but are desperate to leave behind. We are ready for the aftermath, whatever that may be.
Pair with this essay? Elena reads “Hum” by Ann Lauterbach
Reading recommendation? Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson
“I’m currently reading, and recommend, Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman after seeing the movie Shirley, which depicts the time period of her writing the book. The main character’s inner dialogue drives the book, and there’s a really interesting shift from first to third person which really makes you feel enveloped in the people, the place, the time.”
Elena Tomorowitz received an MFA from Cleveland State University’s NEOMFA, and PhD in English from The University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. She has poetry appearing in Cathexis Northwest, Funicular Magazine, Guernica, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Collagist, and others. She just wrapped up teaching Fundraising and Finance for the Arts in BSU’s Arts Entrepreneurship program, and is otherwise on the search for full-time opportunities.