An Era of Magical Thinking

I get up at 6:30, when Mark leaves the bathroom, and I run in to shower. I wash and style my hair—already too long, already getting that billowy, blowsy look my hair gets when left untended by professional hands for too long. I put on make-up and a freshly ironed shirt and good jeans, and I go downstairs.

Jim is up, playing video games in the basement. He has been up, he says, since 5:00. Just couldn’t sleep. “Maybe,” he says, “I drank too much caffeinated iced tea yesterday.”

Maybe, I think, we are all on edge, all waiting.

In our county, we wait for the plague to descend. I go out to the get the morning paper and the headlines tell me the descent has begun. In this small rural corner of the world, we now have our first documented case of the COVID-19 virus. A 49-year old man who’d been visiting out of state…His contacts have been identified and notified…

And so it begins, I think, feeling the edges seep closer. I want to stand on tiptoe; I want to climb onto a high cabinet. I want to keep my feet dry.

I want to keep my family safe.

But I am going shopping, going to Kroger during the Old Folks and Feeble Peoples Hour. I am going to try to stock up for two weeks so that we don’t have to do any more retail running for at least that long.

I have my list. If I do this right, I think; if I get in there and get out, get everything we need…

The parking lot is fairly full. I park as far away as I can; I cozy up next to the furthest cart return station. It rained most of the night, but now the sky is blazing orchid over the river. The air is fresh, and I walk briskly on the glistening pavement into the supermarket.

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I select fresh spinach and green leaf lettuce and four big russet potatoes. I do not find a spiral ham; but spareribs are on sale; they’re buy one get one free. I cross off ‘ham,’ and write in ‘ribs.’

There are no more boneless chicken breasts in stock.  But there are plump little roasting hens. I put one of those in the cart, and cross off ‘chicken.’

I round the corner and my potatoes tumble out of their gauzy bag. I stop, shove the list in a pocket, and root around the cart, cornering errant spuds. I pack them up again, tuck them into a firm corner, and think that I ought, first, to check for eggs and toilet paper.

I get the last twelve-pack of TP; this, I think, must be a very good omen.

I get two cartons of free-range eggs, 18 per carton.

Eggs and TP: my two big worries. Lightened, I reach in my pocket for my carefully written list.

It is gone.

A blind wave of panic hits me, and I retrace my steps, ignoring nasty looks from people who obviously think I am willfully going the wrong way. I stop and search my pockets thoroughly. I explore every corner of my purse and every pocket of my wallet. I check every inch of the store that I’ve already been to.

I do not find the shopping list. This feels like the kind of foolish failure that can lead to disaster.

Slowly, avoiding any kind of human contact, I cruise the store, trying hard to remember all the things we needed. Then I check out and wheel my way to the back of the parking lot, load up the trunk, carefully put the cart in the handy rack.

I am halfway home when I remember I didn’t buy mozzarella.

If only, I think.

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Mark stayed home to help me unload and put groceries away. We find places for weeks’ worth of snacks, and he exclaims over organic chocolate milk: treats in times of terror, I think.

Then he heads off to work, maybe his last day for a while; Monday will see government employees working from home.

I sit at the desk and open my college email, download papers, respond to students.

I work diligently, but at 10:00, I rouse James, who has fallen asleep on the loveseat in the family room.

Time to walk, I say, and he sighs but lurches up and gets ready, laces up his shoes, and gathers his phone. He plays music,— Beatles, Talking Heads,— in the car. When we get to the college, he pushes his ear buds in, and we head off in opposite directions.

The college pathways are much less populated than the fitness trail’s, and the expanse is more generous. We loop around the perimeter of the campus, meeting just about halfway, and then we complete our circuits and meet up again at the car.

The fresh air, I think, coursing through our lungs…it’s got to be good.

At home, I work on grading papers for the course that finishes up this weekend, write my weekend, “What’s coming this week,” epistles for the courses that keep on going. I send some students their final grades, contact the LMS instructor to ask about an error message that keeps popping up, develop assignments for these last weeks of enforced on-line learning.

It is supposed to rain early in the afternoon, so I interrupt the course work to go for two more walks. By 1:00, I have my steps in for the day.

I am doing everything I am supposed to do.

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I take out chicken broth for tonight’s soup dinner. I throw a load of towels in the washer. I wash up the dishes in the sink, and I dutifully eat last night’s leftovers for lunch.

I take yesterday’s scraps out to the compost bin.

I grade more papers, and I change laundry over.

I work some more on the courses, and I fold towels and put them away.

Just before Mark is due home, I look up recipes for Italian Wedding Soup. We have a method—chicken broth, tiny meatballs, ditalini, chopped spinach,—but maybe, I think, there’s a little twist, a better way. I find Giada’s recipe; it is pretty much like my method, but just before the soup is done, she whisks two eggs with two tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese, and then she fork-stirs that into the soup.

The eggs, she writes, solidify in tasty, cheesy strands.

Mark comes home, carrying his office essentials in a box; he drops those in his home office, and we stand together by the simmering soup, watching what happens when we stir in cheesy eggs. The broth thickens and lightens; tiny strands of eggy goodness form, and we ladle out big scoops of the steaming stuff into thick white soup bowls. Jim takes another nap on the love seat while we devour our first bowls and then split the remaining soup.

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I’ve walked; I’ve done my coursework. I’ve shopped and cooked and done laundry. I am vigilantly reading the books in my TBR stack. I go outside when the walls march too close, when life feels frustrating for a moment. I breathe deep gulps of fresh air and I force my neck to relax.

I think of childhood worries, of magical deals I made with myself—don’t step on cracks, don’t sass back, don’t be a brat—and then it will all work out: everything will be good, no one will be hurt, everyone will be happy.

Magical thinking: that anything I might do could have an impact on huge and potentially disastrous things.

And yet…

…if I do this right; if I don’t complain; if I work really hard…

Won’t that keep us safe? I wheedle.

I’m being ridiculous, I know. This is not a wave to be deterred by retaining walls built with good intentions. Neither logic nor magic are operational here.

Still, I heave myself up onto that fictional cabinet and watch the flood creep in. And I fold the hot, clean wash cloths and stack them just so, and think, “See? I’m being so careful. I’m doing it RIGHT.”

Helplessly, I invoke the protection of deeds done just so, performed perfectly well. And I cling to an expert’s prediction that the peak may have already passed.

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Be safe, my friends. Be safe.