[Editor's note: The following is part of a special series on the coronavirus pandemic, featuring original poems and essays by contributors to The Bare Life Review. New entries will be added every Tuesday and Friday. Previous entries in the series can be found here.]
N, my one-and-a-half-year-old son, toddles across the rug and into the floor-level baby chair he’s long outgrown. He wriggles his bottom into the bucket seat, lifts his arms triumphantly, then picks up the tray and fastens it into place. Look what I did! his grin says. I trapped myself—all by myself!
It’s past dinner time and we haven’t eaten. I’ve been texting R, N’s nanny, and C, the mother of the child R watches along with N at her house, to tell them I will be keeping N at home with me for the foreseeable future. He’d spent Sunday with his father, M, who had that morning, after dropping N off at R’s, developed a fever. He’ll be getting tested in the next few days, I tell R and C. So far N’s fine and I’m fine. I’ll keep you posted.
N squirms in his bumbo. His happy squeals are turning anxious. It’s not the first time he’s methodically imprisoned himself only to realize he wants to get out.
We huddle, N and I, in the one-bedroom apartment I moved into three months ago when I left my marriage. Silver lining of separation, I text a friend. So much easier to self-isolate.
I email my writing class to ask if we can push our 6PM start time to 7:15, by when N should be in his crib and asleep.
M emails me a shopping list and suggests I ask someone else to go to the grocery store, since N or I might already be contagious. M’s list is long, my own larder needs restocking, and the prospect of a trip to Wegmans to break up the day, in place of the things that used to be available to us: play dates, library, jungle gym, is too tempting to pass up. Soon I’m pushing N in a shopping cart past empty shelves and grim faces. An argument breaks out in the pasta aisle: a woman has loaded what looks to be twenty boxes of spaghetti into her cart, and a shop employee is repeating his reminder that she’s limited to no more than two.
No Purell, I text M. No disinfecting wipes. No chicken soup, no shelf-stable milk. Obviously, we should have planned better.
From his perch in the shopping cart, N points and says, “Dat?”
“That? Gluten-free, dairy-free chocolate chip cookies.”
Two months ago, he said thish when pointing to things. Now he says dat. I wonder if the world has retreated from him, if what used to seem near and accessible, a tight circle of “this,” has turned into a wilderness of “that.”
I drop off the bags on the front porch of the triple decker where M and I still co-own the condo he now lives in by himself. I notice for the first time that on the mailbox my name beside his has been scratched out.
Cough deep in my lungs, M texts me. Fever 100 with Advil. No test result yet.
An artist rendition of the virus makes me think of those silicone balls made for toddlers' hands. Bright colors, soft, grippable spikes. Invisible capsules of DNA rolling around the globe, tripping up bodies, cities, nations.
A mild day. N and I head to Jamaica Pond. Walkers and joggers flow along the path as the benches alongside sit empty, their armrests glossy from last summer’s coat of paint. I remember the day M and I returned from the hospital with N a wrinkled newborn in the backseat. It was late summer, and I wept at the sight of families picnicking by the water. A phrase repeated itself in my mind: There’s so much beauty in the world. My tears startled me: I’d never before been moved to cry by beauty.
In a patch of grass I let N out of the stroller. He gathers acorns and skips through dried leaves. You’re going to be an only child, like me, I’ve told him many times, pretending he can understand. That means two things: you have to learn to be happy alone, and you have to learn to make friends. Watching him amuse himself, watching him wave to people passing, feeling the fresh air on my face and in my lungs, I am reassured suddenly that he will emerge from this period unscathed.
No test result till Monday, most likely.
All week I’ve been getting up at dawn to write. Whatever work I manage to get done in the early hours, before N wakes up, just leaves me hungering for more writing time in the afternoon. But his post-lunch naps have been unreliable. Books, blocks, and stuffed animals can only tire him out so much.
We go out to the street and around the corner. Magnolias and daffodils are blooming in profusion. A man who looks to be in his seventies pauses across the street to watch N examine a holly bush. “When our kids were little,” he calls to me, “we didn’t have strollers. So a trip to the playground could take half an hour. They’d have to stop at every rock, every fire hydrant. But we had time back then.”
“As we do now,” I say.
The sidewalk is steep. N makes it on his own to the top of the hill and back down. He eats a big lunch and nods off in my arms as I carry him to his crib.
M’s test comes back negative. He’s still coughing and tired. I send him a video of N peeling a clementine.
Holy shit, he’s growing up before my eyes.
My parents in India want me to visit. I haven’t been to Bangalore in almost eight years. August, I tell them. Assuming it’s safe to travel. I will need to get my passport by then, I remind myself. My first American passport. I will need to get N’s, too.
Shubha Sunder grew up in Bangalore, India, and presently lives in Boston, MA. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in SLICE, Narrative Magazine, Crazyhorse, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Two of her stories were named as notable in the 2016 Best American Short Stories anthology. She is a recipient of the City of Boston Artist Fellowship Award, the Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship, Narrative 30 Below, and the 2015 Crazyhorse Fiction Prize. She has also received awards from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences and from The Corporation of Yaddo. Her short story, "Final Exam," appeared in TBLR Volume 2