Six Feet Apart
by Tamar Gribetz
I pull up to Trader Joe’s and see a line of people waiting around the corner all the way up the hill to the end of the next block. They’re all standing six feet apart, masks covering faces, eyes looking down at phones. I take my place at the end of the line and do the same.
On my screen is the text I wrote to Paul three weeks ago, but never sent: I think we need to seriously discuss a divorce. I never have the guts to say this in person. But we’ve chickened out before and we’re just not happy. So here it is. Let’s talk tonight.
I never sent it because while I was typing, Caren called to tell me they were shutting down her university. We immediately went into crisis mode. She moved home from her dorm the following day. My son, Adam, came home shortly after.
A woman walks down the line and offers us Luna Bars and bottled water.
I just take the bar, afraid I’ll have to pee from the water. My glasses fog up from wearing my mask, and it’s hard to breathe with it on. I pull it down and re-read the text. Paul and I have been arguing over everything the last couple of years since the twins left for college. I’m embarrassed to be so cliché: another story about a couple with nothing in common in an empty nest. We haven’t had sex in at least a year. My vibrator is so much simpler to deal with. So much less exhausting. And when I come, I don’t feel guilty fantasizing about someone else. I close the text and read the New York Times app instead. Why do I do it? Hundreds of people dying every day. I’m nauseous. We’re being told to expect up to 240,000 deaths.
I know. I should stop reading the dismal reports, but I somehow can’t. It’s irresistible—these stories. Could this really be happening in my lifetime? Now? Here? What the fuck is going on? We’re so much more sophisticated than this. Yet the death toll rises each day. It could be me next. Or Paul? Wouldn’t that solve a lot? I laugh quietly under the mask.
The couple in front of me have moved up to the corner. I hadn’t noticed; neither did anyone behind me, all our heads submerged in distraction. All of us standing six feet apart on pieces of black and yellow striped tape. I know what six feet is by now. I don't need the tape. It’s a comfortable distance, probably the closest I could get to Paul without smelling his after-shave lotion or his breath, cinnamon-flavored from toothpaste he insists on using.
When Adam and Caren were born, I thought I’d burst from joy. The four of us so connected, so linked. We came home from the hospital a family. A daughter and a son. What more could we want? Paul was enamored with the babies, so protective of them. We went through all the stages: the fevers, colds, birthday parties, summer vacations, middle school, piano lessons, high school. All a rushed blur. There was no time to stop to think. Paul and I shared it all.
But the memories weren’t enough when the kids left. The family unit fell apart. The kids felt like an engrossing project we completed, and there was nothing left to work on. Paul started working longer hours, and I had to figure out my new place. I should have seen it coming. I woke up and realized I’d been distracted for 18 years. It’s like I had a mild headache all that time and was too busy to notice and then when the tumult stopped, I thought maybe it’s time to go see a doctor, get that checked out. Maybe it’s a problem.
People ask the Luna Bar lady questions.
“Are you fully stocked?”
“Do you have bags? I forgot mine.”
“Yes,” she tells them.
“How are you managing?” I ask her. The only other human I have spoken to in weeks, except for the neighbors I pass when walking our dogs on opposite sides of the street to maintain our distance.
“I’m okay. Thanks for asking. Chocolate-Coconut or Strawberry Cream?”
I look at her warm almond-shaped amber eyes. Can’t she stay a little longer? She’s probably a great listener. Can’t we talk about the merits of each flavor? The depth of the chocolate versus the breezy lightness of the strawberry?
“Thank you. Really. So nice of you—” I say. When she hands me the Luna Bar, I try to hold her eyes with mine and smile.
The couple in front of me are not maintaining a six-foot-distance. They are lovers or partners or something. The man rubs the woman’s neck and shoulders, and her body falls into his chest. I shiver. I crave the warmth of contact, and I can’t remember the last time Paul took me into his arms or made an affectionate gesture.
A few days before the phone call from Caren, I was listening to a frightening news report on CNN about the terrifying respiratory symptoms of the Coronavirus. It feels like you’re slowly drowning in your own mucus, one person reported. I went downstairs to find Paul; to find some comfort.
“The news is scaring the shit out of me. This virus —"
“I know. Can we talk later? I’m trying to work.” He kept his eyes on the computer screen.
Later in bed, he said,“I know you’re afraid. But you have to stop obsessing, try to stay busy. Don’t watch so much news. You’re going to a bad place.”
“We are all in a bad place. Hundreds of people are dying in New York every day. I’m just trying to talk to you—”
“Well, I do better not talking about things I have no control over. I’d rather throw myself in my work.” And he took out his phone.
His words stung. I had no work.
When I had been home with the twins, I knew Paul sometimes felt left out. The Bank, he’d call himself. He resented how much the kids needed me. He was jealous of me for being so close to them. Now, he enjoyed making me feel less. I didn’t regret my choice to stay home with the kids. It didn’t even feel like a real choice: twins with no nearby family to help. But now I felt like a charged motor all primed with nowhere to go, just banging into walls like Adam’s old wind-up toys. I didn't know what to do with all the energy I had channeled into raising the twins with no help. There had always been at least one who needed a diaper change, a bottle, a boob, a hug, a band-aid, a snack, a meal, a drink, help with homework, a form signed, a ride, guidance, a plan. And then, nothing.
My face itches again and I remember I’m wearing my gloves and need to take them off before I scratch. And then I need to Purell my hands. There’s so many damn things to do for a simple scratch. For a second, I think: Just go ahead and wipe your eyes, scratch your nose. Fuck it.
The virus is miniscule and doesn’t feel real or worthy of my fear.
I look at the man behind me and hope to make eye-contact. I want someone to talk with, to commiserate about this crazy new world we have been thrown into. He is fixated on his phone, so I busy myself with mine and review my shopping list: potatoes, canned beans, pasta, quinoa, eggs, hummus, bananas, spinach. I add chocolate muffins even though I can feel my waistband digging into my stomach. I've been eating nonstop over the last few weeks of quarantine—food my only comfort. I know I have to stop. A fifty-year-old potentially-soon-to-be single woman can not afford to be fat. But I need the comfort, I need a hug. A hug and chocolate muffins.
Paul has started biking outside and now wears tight biking shorts. He has become one of those annoying middle-aged men who suddenly stop eating carbs and start obsessing about fitness. He makes veggie/fruit juice in a blender for breakfast.
I sometimes catch him admiring himself in the mirror. It sickens me. At first, I thought he was cheating on me, but I honestly don’t think he has the energy, the guts, or the charm. He is in love with himself, not someone else. Paul doesn’t have the patience to handle my needs or concerns, where would he find the time for another woman’s?
Lately I’ve caught him throwing glances when I sneak a cookie or a bowl of ice cream. I try to hide it from him, and then I’m mad at myself for trying. Who the fuck is he to judge me? He used to be thirty pounds overweight. It amazes me what men could get away with. All they have to do to be desirable is keep their hair and lose weight.
On the news they say this is the “new normal,” that we won’t ever go back to the way things were. They say that we’ll wear masks on planes and crowded places like they do in China. They say the new normal will be temperature checks at ball games and malls. That summer camps will be cancelled and schools online again in the Fall.
What will my new normal be? If Paul and I divorce, will I be able to support myself? I know he’ll pay child support: he still likes to be The Bank. But will I get alimony? For how long? I think he might be putting money away.
My new normal scares me. A part of me is relieved that Adam and Caren are home, that I can’t break away just yet. Because the future is scary. And the present, though imperfect, is something I can handle. It may not be comfortable, but it’s clear.
I look around: all of us standing six-feet apart, our masks and gloves, the empty street usually packed with beeping cars, the empty shopping mall’s parking lot across the street, the Luna Bar girl. Our distracted, busy lives always on automatic pilot now stopped.
Who knows? We were blissfully clueless. Now we look up, and it’s all so different.
Like the years we raised the twins, the exhausting days, the dreamless sleeps, the days that turned into weeks and months and years. All a blurry, mostly joyful haze of busy, frenetic wonder and purpose, stress and love and laughter. And then, that too, is over. It is simply no longer here. Everything is different.
A woman walks to the end of the line, passing us, and she coughs without covering her mouth. I want to inhale it.
“Shit! She’s not wearing a mask!” the guy behind me says.
I turn around.
“That’s so wrong,” I say. He is tall with thick, curly hair. He’s wearing an army-green parka and rounded orange glasses.
He shakes his head. “This is scary shit. It’s…terrifying.”
His hair reminds me of my high-school boyfriend, Michael, my first love.
For a moment, I’m fifteen again, sitting in the movie theater watching Pretty in Pink, smelling the musty scent of the theater, the popcorn and Coca Cola, hearing the sound of my rubber soles hit the sticky floor, feeling the rough fraying fabric of the chair against my bare legs.
Someone nearby is chewing bubble gum, and I hear the distant pop of the bubble. And then Michael puts his hands on mine and strokes my fingers. When he kisses me softly on the lips, it feels like velvet. After the movie, he doesn’t try to go any further. Instead, we speak for hours about our fears and pressures, our vulnerabilities. I never felt so free talking to anyone like that before that night or after. He tells me that he isn’t as smart as people think, he just works hard. He thinks that his parents favor his younger brother, and he sometimes gets scared for no reason at all. He wants to work with animals because they are kinder than people. I tell him about my parents fighting, how I’m afraid they’ll get a divorce. I talk about feeling anxious at school. I say I hate my freckles.
I smile at the stranger under my mask. No one has made me smile in weeks. I hope he can tell. “I know. This is terrifying. I can’t believe this is my life. Our lives. This,” I gesture to the line around us.
“I know. I wake up sometimes and hope it’s all a dream,” he says. “This really sucks. We’re—you look about my age—we’re 70’s kids, raised with no supervision. Right? This isn’t something we can grasp, to wear masks and stay away from germs. And we grew up with vaccines against everything. Hell, my kids even had a vaccine for chicken pox. Who would have thought a virus could derail us like this?”
“I know. I just want to scream at the top of my lungs in rage.”
“So do it.” His eyes crinkle.
“Good point. They’ll call the police.” He lets out a hearty belly laugh. “But do it afterwards. Go to the woods and let it all out because this really sucks. We’re not meant for this, us humans. Certainly not our generation.”
“I know. Part of me feels I need to do whatever it takes to get through this. Create a bubble of happy activities, shun the news. Just pretend it’s pre-Covid. Forget about all this. And then it hits me. I’m lying to myself. Being stupid and ignorant.”
“You’re hard on yourself.” He sticks his hands deep into his pockets. My heart actually hurts. I am aching for something other than what I have. For Michael. For this stranger who makes me feel something. For Paul before the kids left. For something else.
“I know. I —”
“Shit. Now’s not the time for that. Just remove the negativity from your life however you can. Take care of you. It’s Darwinian. If we want to get to the other side of this, we have to be selfish.”
He must be a wonderful father. I look into his dark brown eyes, and they are attentive and kind and tired. I could live a better life with a man like this: someone who lifts me up, lightens the darkness.
“Is it all going to be okay, you think?” I ask him.
“Yes, it will. I really think it will be. Maybe not right away, but yes.”
I want to hug him, rest my head on his shoulder, my cheek against the cool cotton of his parka. I want to breathe in his scent.
The woman managing the door motions for me to come in.
“Hey, it’s my turn. Thank you for the talk. It was really helpful. Good to let it all out.” I force a laugh. “Good luck with all this.”
He smiles under the N95, and I can tell. “Good luck to you too.”
I walk into the store armed with my gloves and mask, and I feel invincible for a moment. I can touch everything freely. It’s liberating to touch without fear: the shopping cart handle, garlic powder, smoked paprika, cauliflower gnocchi, veggie burgers, frozen brussels sprouts, frozen broccoli, frozen everything so I won’t have to come back here for a while.
I feel an itch on my nose, and I remind myself not to scratch my face. It feels nice to shop, to be out with a mission, to get my stuff and brave the storm.
I squeeze the avocados and melons for ripeness and, through my latex gloves, I’m still able to feel the ridges on their skin. I even dare to push my mask down to smell the melons for sweetness, closing my eyes to take in their scent. For a second, I’m not here.
When I leave, pushing my full shopping cart past the long line of people waiting to get in, they look at me with envy. Embarrassed, I avoid eye contact and walk quickly to get to my car, rip off the mask, and let the breeze kiss my face.
I remove my gloves and am about to throw them in a nearby garbage, but I stop myself. They are potent and mighty. They could be my salvation.
When I get home, Paul is napping on the couch. I don’t say anything. Instead, I sigh and stomp and drop the bags on the kitchen table. I may break the eggs, but I don’t care. I make all the trips to the car. He doesn’t wake up.
I could end this for good. Middle aged men seem to be the most vulnerable to Covid. Nobody would ever suspect. I could run to the car, grab my used gloves, and lightly stroke his face with them: his eyes, nose, and mouth. I could be sure not to miss a spot.
Or I could tell him it’s over, move on with my fleeting life. I could get a job, move somewhere new, maybe even meet someone else—find a new Michael. The kids are grown, making their own lives. They’ll be fine.
I get the gloves from the car and throw them in the kitchen garbage.
I brew some coffee, pour two cups, and carry them into the office.
“Paul, wake up,” I call into the other room. “We need to talk.”