I walked out my front door on Sunday to the mailbox to get our first delivery of the New York Times newspaper (as opposed to digital). Laura had been excited that morning to work on the crossword, and I needed to fulfill the promise of that excitement. There hadn’t been much excitement since things started closing down on Thursday, but the little things still shined through if you blew on the embers.
I caught my neighbor’s eye from across the street as he returned, clad in spandex and a helmet, from a bike ride. We nodded to one another and he went into his house. Another neighbor drove past our house and up his driveway, waving at me as he passed.
As the street cleared I felt a sadness. It was a beautiful day, and it dawned on me that I was disappointed our interactions hadn’t been more meaningful. I realized that I yearned to talk to my neighbors, to connect, although we had never been more than neighbors. Amidst all the uncertainty and chaos, the sun was shining and I longed for contact with these people I knew only generally.
I went back inside.
I walked out my front door on Sunday to greet the middle aged couple approaching our house with their labradoodle. I didn’t make a habit of watching people out the window, much less meeting visitors before they made it to the door, but today was a special day. The third day since the world changed.
They stopped about 20 feet from me, and the woman brandishing a pink envelope said, “we won’t come any closer” either because of something in her or in response to something she saw in me. She explained that the letter had showed up in their mailbox as someone had miswritten a digit, and they were simply dropping it by and figured they’d introduce themselves. I was glad to talk to these people, but was relieved all the same when they said they would put the letter in our mailbox and walked away. I went back inside.
I didn’t retrieve the letter until much later, after they were long gone.
I walked out my front door dressed in workout gear over long underwear I’d last worn to go snowboarding a few weeks prior, and before that not since my crossfit days years ago. I put my Airpods in and selected a podcast about the mind’s powerful but mysterious ability to heal the body. I began jogging down the street, easing into a motion I had avoided for years. Basketball 3-5 times weekly had kept me in shape, but after the NBA shut down our local YMCA followed suit and so it appeared that sports-as-fitness wouldn’t happen for a while.
So I jogged. My side hurt almost immediately, but I pushed through and the pain soon subsided. The guy on the podcast explained that pain was simply a miscalibration of chemicals in our brain. The guest, a neuroscientist, said that the evidence showed that people lived with all the pain we’d ever experienced throughout our lives, but that the brain kept us from feeling much of it with a cocktail of chemicals purpose designed to neutralize old pains. To bring us back to normal, tare out the scale. An old ache in my hip and in my knee flared, and I wondered when my brain would neutralize it. I wondered if the world’s brain worked the same way for global pain.
I passed people walking, people in their front yards and in their cars as I ran. I made eye contact with many of them, and returned wistful smiles even as one or the other of us crossed to the other side of the street.
After about an hour run the podcast ended and I rounded the corner into our cul de sac. I saw another neighbor outside with his sons, tinkering with a car. I stopped about 10 feet away, took out my Airpods and said hi to him, as his son glided around on a hoverboard. He explained that they’d be heading to a cabin in North Carolina in the next few days, because he figured if everything was going to be locked down he’d prefer to be in a warm climate. “Trying to make memories out of all this, ya know?” he said. I said I thought we’d all remember this no matter what we did. He agreed, and clarified: “well, good memories. As much as I can, at least.” He went back into his house and his sons followed.
As they walked away I felt that yearning again, a sense that there was something more to say. But I didn’t know what.
I stood alone on a street normally filled with kids playing with rockets and bikes. Cars were in every driveway, lights flickered from every house, but even though we were all here, each of us was alone. Everyone hunkering down in their home with their families and their interpretations.
I thought of Laura and my boys. I thought of what might happen to them, what I needed to do to keep them healthy. I thought of trying to get a 3-year old to stop touching his face, never mind explaining “social distancing.” I thought of mortality statistics, of 14% for old people and 0.02% for young people, and how nobody seemed to really know. I thought about the world and about all the people who relied on gatherings over 50 people. I thought about my basketball team, many of whom thought the media was blowing things out of proportion and were simply angry they couldn’t play. I thought of the day I spent in bed the week before, which at the time seemed like only a “gastro thing.” I thought about my mom, over 60, but relatively healthy. No respiratory issues. I thought about how easy it was to get swallowed up by all the grey area in the world.
And then I saw Laura through the window, in the living room assembling a puzzle with my son. I saw a smile on his face. I smiled.
I went back inside.