In those days, my best friend R from college would stay with me for one weekend a month. Often we just drank wine and ate fancy cheeses, the height of adult sophistication as we imagined it in our twenties. When I saw him in the last few weeks of my former life, I had an itinerary. It was 2020, the year I would embrace the word venture: I intended to say yes to every chance to go out, connect with people, learn new things.
I wanted to take R to my friend K’s birthday party at a pub, to which we’d been asked to bring our favorite poems to read aloud. “Hard pass,” said R. But I talked him into it, and printed out a stack of extra poems at work. It was, as poetry parties go, pretty lit. I managed to catch up with K, who seemed to be doing well, and chatted with another alum of our graduate program who surprised us by getting married and moving out of the apartment he’d lived in since 2004. R and I read the poems I had chosen, and the rest of the time we tucked ourselves in a corner with my friend E and her boyfriend, sharing pub fries.
The next morning: a flash fiction workshop at my local bookstore. After a quick brunch, R and I squeezed ourselves around a table almost too wide for the little shop. We tried to rein in our inside jokes and jotted down some story starters in our respective notebooks. I haven’t touched mine since. When R headed back to Jersey City, I stayed for the rest of the day’s flash fiction festival at the back of the shop. Sitting anonymously among strangers in a row of hard chairs felt a little like church, and I felt virtuous for being there. This is the year I fully join the literary community, I thought to myself. This is the year I say yes to readings and workshops and the allegedly mortifying ordeal of being known.
One night in February I startled awake, leapt out of bed, and turned on a light. My two elderly cats remained lumped together in the center of the bed where they always sleep when I sleep alone. Anise blinked sleepily in the lamp’s sudden glare. All quiet. My heart was still pounding, so I waited.
Then a thin black line wriggled under Anise’s paw. She lifted it, feigning surprise, and the mouse fled so fast I barely saw it.
For the next hour, I chased her and the mouse and eventually her sister, who slept through most of the commotion but shook herself awake when she realized there was an opportunity to hunt as a pack. The mouse survived long enough to race to the back of my closet, where I caught it in a bathroom trash can and carried it outside. Then I stripped the bed and resigned myself to life without sleep.
I still wake up like this sometimes: startle awake, fly out of bed, flip the light on. There’s never anything there.
The mouse incident was mortifying, but that didn’t stop me from telling everyone I saw that weekend.
On Saturday, I packed up a change of clothes and a bottle of water along with my laptop and rode the subway to my ballet studio. In Saturday’s beginner class, I usually led the bar; on a cold February morning, I might have led both ends, racing back and forth between songs to demonstrate the exercise on both the right and the left leg. I remember feeling flushed with warmth and optimism when I left: I unbuttoned my coat to let the wintry air rush in and bustled to a nearby coffee shop.
It was packed inside, but I managed to secure two tall chairs for myself and my friend J, who insisted that the high seat was fine although they had recently given birth. We talked about the baby: an excellent baby, one I had liked on sight despite having no innate interest in babies. We talked about what we’d been reading and our goals for therapy and, of course, the mouse.
I had some time to kill after they left, so I settled in another crowded coffee shop–this one with superior coffee and canele, but no wifi. I set up my laptop at the narrow end of a table made to look like reclaimed wood, and managed to latch onto a weak connection to a nearby municipal building. I listened to a few lectures for my atmospheric science course as other patrons came and went around me, their conversations softened to a pleasant blur by my earbuds.
I was waiting to meet up with friends for a short train ride to the New Jersey suburbs for dinner. The Mexican restaurant we chose was unexpectedly festooned with an effusion of valentine-themed decor: red and pink foil, streamers, balloons, a red tinsel Christmas tree adorned with hearts. We giggled and took pictures but swooned when the food was served, piles of it, so delicious but too much to finish. We stored our takeout parcels in the boot of one friend’s car, and then all of us piled into the front and back seats. It was in this crowded car, nestled against friends I haven’t been able to touch since, that I told the mouse story again.
We were heading to a low-stakes women’s hockey game at a rink that mostly served childrens’ teams: there were birthday decorations in the common areas, and local moms selling hot chocolate for $2 at the concession stand. We each got some cocoa to warm our hands and kept our coats so we could stand right next to the ice. The game was hard for me to follow, but exciting: on more than one occasion the players piled up and tussled right on the other side of the plexiglass divider from where we stood, and several pucks sailed across the rink and got stuck high up between the plexiglass and its support beams.
We kept one. When the game was over I struck the plexiglass hard enough to startle our neighbors, and the puck slid down into my friend’s outstretched hands.
The following day, it was March. I emptied out my backpack and reloaded it with champagne and strawberries, and took the subway deep into West Philadelphia. Another venture: brunch with three of my former coworkers with whom I once weathered the indignities of a toxic workplace. It ought to have been idyllic: we fed strawberry tops to our host’s bunny, feasted on roast duck and crispy potatoes, and poured sparkling wine into every type of fruit juice we could find. We used to enjoy drinking and doing menial work together, all hands on deck to pull off public events. But they had changed or I had, and at some point all the air seemed to go out of the room and I found myself drinking mimosas a little too fast and calmly arguing with one of my old colleagues.
“Who goes to brunch and gets in a fight?” I asked my friend C later that afternoon. C and I met every Sunday in those days, sharing a table and catching up on our atmospheric science lectures and quizzes. Like every other coffee shop in this story, our neighborhood spot was packed; we were lucky to have nabbed the smallest table next to the bathroom, our laptops back to back.
C was noncommittal; it didn’t sound too egregious, maybe. I keep a pin in this day, though. Too easy to romanticize social interactions now that we don’t have so many of them.
The next weekend, my mother and cousin flew to the East Coast, and the three of us went to Jersey City to see R and his husband and daughter, who would be 5 soon. I consider R’s family my family, and my mother and cousin do also; it felt good to be together. We brought presents and ice cream cake, took the almost-5-year-old to the children’s museum, made a fuss.
By then, we knew the pandemic was coming. We just didn’t know how it traveled. People were still saying “just bad a flu.” We carried hand wipes everywhere: Lyft drivers handed them out in their cars, and we all drenched our hands in sanitizer after touching every interactive museum exhibit. On a night of drenching rain, we adults went to a gin distillery to drink fancy cocktails and joke about alcohol killing the germs.
We visited Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. My mother was so moved; she sat on the wooden benches in the immigration terminal and thought about her grandfather, an unknowable man who passed through here as a young bridegroom, alone. We looked up in the colossal interior of the Statue of Liberty, and I remembered standing with my mom underneath the Eiffel Tower on the first day either of us had been abroad. On the Staten Island ferry, a worker stood by the exit pumping hand sanitizer into all of our outstretched hands.
When we got to our hotel room afterward and put on the TV, a news anchor was announcing that New York had declared a state of emergency. We went out to one final celebratory dinner that night in Jersey City and took our planes and trains home the next morning, feeling that we had narrowly escaped the worst of it. And we did, mostly. R and his family got very sick, and fully recovered. I caught a cold; I always do. My mother and cousin were fine.
I got home on Monday. My gentleman friend had also been traveling and returned the same day.
How did we spend that evening together? We had been dating off and on for eight years; we had our routines, and the nights run together. On another occasion, we might have gone out for margaritas and nachos–as if getting reacquainted, as if on a date. But I think we must have ordered takeout: my nose was running, we were tired of other people. Probably he made us drinks. Probably we made each other laugh. Certainly we curled up on the couch to watch something on TV: he sent a photo he took of me that night, blanketed by a crocheted afghan and both cats. Then, to bed. Coffee and a kiss good-bye in the morning.
I didn’t know that would be the last time I saw him, one of the last times we spoke. I wonder now if the seed of the eventual breakup was already present that evening somewhere. In his shoulderblade, where I rested my cheek. In my knees tucked behind his knees at night, or in our hands clasped on the way to work. Maybe it was already on the way and I just didn’t know.
I think it’s natural to want to tell stories about the last events in our lives before they changed permanently. For me, it is mostly in memorium. They aren’t ideal stories; I didn’t know a turning point was coming, I wasn’t prepared for character development or narrative logic or anything like that. It was a very ordinary life, but it was mine, and I miss it.
In the last week before lockdown, my runny nose bloomed into a sneezy head cold. I kept going to work, because that’s what one did at that time. On my calendar, I had lunch dates to get sushi with one former coworker and pho with another; I went to those too.
By March 12, the news out of New York was dire. A few cases popped up on campus where I work–students coming back from spring break. I went home from work early so that my coworker would not have to share an office with me while I ran through boxes of tissue, but mainly because I was fed up with a difficult project and wanted some space to cool my head.
On March 13, the vice dean said we could work from home if we wished to. I had plans to get drinks with C after work to celebrate the end of our term, but I decided to stay home. Later, I said. Later.