A thunderstorm passed over the island last night. Out of habit, we counted the seconds between the flash of lightning and the thunder, as if that would have any effect on us. How fast the storm was moving mattered none. We were going nowhere. We closed all the windows though we could have only closed those on the northeast side of the house. The wind was stiff and strong. We didn’t lose power.
The next morning, Peter is in the spare room cleaning the cat’s litter box. “Would you like some coffee?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
We sit and have coffee together. We do this most mornings now, talking about what we have to do today. We have our lists. He writes his on small index cards; sometimes on slips of paper. He carries them in his pocket along with a pen. He writes notes to himself. Notes about what he sees or hears or reads. Things he’ll look up. Ideas for the stories he writes. The last time we were in the city I bought him a box of the pens. I think they cost about a dollar fifty each. A box lasts him a couple years.
The last trip to the city was before the COVID. We haven’t been back there since before March. He says we probably won’t get there again for maybe a year or two.
“A year or two?” I say.
“At least. Maybe three.”
We wear masks when we walk into town. When we pick up groceries. He doesn’t come into the store. He waits outside. I carry a hand sanitizer in my purse and use the wipes they have there and I give him one when I come out. He listens to the radio while he waits for me. Or he reads.
We know a woman who died of the virus. A bright, talkative woman, about his age, in her seventies. She dyed her hair magenta. When we heard she was on a ventilator, we thought she was not going to make it. Three weeks it took. I see her and hear her voice and her laugh and it makes me sad. Both of us. I tell him I might dye my har magenta. Then there was Terrence McNally, and John Prine. He plays his Prine’s sad ‘Sam Stone’ on repeat some evenings, by the open window in the living room with a book in his lap.
He reads four or five books at a time. He’s reading Les Misérables he tells me. Halfway through it, reading four or five pages before he falls asleep at night. He says he has six hundred forty-two pages left.
“I’m in no hurry. I don’t feel the pressure I used to feel to finish books anymore,” he says, “like before, I’d rush to finish one so I could add it to my Goodreads list.”
“We need mulch for the front garden,” I tell him. “And a light bulb for over the sink.”
“Ok,” he says and writes those down on his list, along with the bills we have to pay.
We do a lot of gardening, planting bulbs and perennials, mostly. We walk and sit on the beach in the late afternoons, when the sun is still strong, the people are few, and the light burnishes our arms and faces.
I am seeing my students remotely and he has spent the morning mowing the lawn and writing. In the afternoon he brings me coffee and a sandwich for lunch.
“I have come to realize,” he tells me, “that this is the way it’s going to be for a very long time. The house, the yard, ourselves, is all we have.”
“I’m concerned about the virus too,” I say. “Getting sick and dying in pain, alone.”
“That’s not it,” he tells me. “It is good. It’s freeing. A freedom I’ve never felt before.”
“What on earth do you mean? This is freedom? What kind of freedom is being confined to home? To this town? Marking the days like Xs on a cell wall? It will get old pretty soon, don’t you think? What’s the point of doing all of the reading, exercising, weeding? To what end?”
“That’s it,” he says. “It’s an end in itself. Doing what I love.
“You have children, grandchildren. Don’t you want to see them? The museums? Restaurants? Protests. The elections? You are giving up on that? Don’t Black lives matter anymore? Climate change?”
“Yes, they do. They all matter. It’s just that the past few months, here with you, have been good. Our time together. The quiet. In the end, it all comes down to how you spend the time you have.”
“I am not disagreeing,” I say to him. “It’s just, you always say to me that life is a journey, not a destination. And now you’re making a destination out of this place in this terrible time?
“Can’t it be? Just ‘til there is a vaccine?”
“And what if there is no vaccine? What if there’s another virus? Then what?” I tell him, my voice raised in a way I don’t like. “Yes, let’s enjoy our time together, but don’t imagine that reading, or looking through old pictures and snipping daisies counts as a journey. Not in the world we live in. Not in the world I want to live in. We can wear masks and assess our risks and make wise choices and we can do that together. But believing in the good and working toward it is the journey I want. Flourishing, growing, learning, helping, making things better, bringing creativity into the world? I know you believe in all of that too.”
“I do,” he says, “but is a plasticized, commodified, self-centered, constantly-comparative life, driven by the need for a new-and-improved mouthwash and an addiction to a politicized news cycle the journey you want?”
“Mina,” he says, “I feel like we are buffeted by an unrelenting brutal storm, like the other night. All of us, this country, not just by the virus, but by those we have reason to expect to work on our behalf, a government we have elected to serve, not to rule by whim and envy and personal animus. Every day we count the seconds between the tweeted lightning bursts and the thunder of events, not knowing when they will hit us.”
We don’t talk for the rest of the day.
In the morning, he comes in with the last of the rhubarb stalks in his hand. He leaves his shoes at the door.
“Steve Inskeep,” I tell him, “says that Arizona, has the highest per capita number of new cases in the world. Bahrain was fourth, and Nick Cordero died.”
I can see by his face I have said the wrong thing.
He lays the rhubarb on the counter and leaves me alone. I don’t like how I feel. I don’t want to see the sadness in his eyes. I follow him into the bedroom and sit next to him on our bed.
“Peter, I have no problem with the way we are living now,” I tell him. “We are doing what is necessary and prudent. I love the time we have together. I love the beach and the garden. The Zoom friends. The time to read and think. I love what we have learned we can live without, but also what I truly cherish and want to have restored. I like going to a baseball game, working out in the gym with my friends, going to the city and having dinner in Wo Hop after a movie at the Angelica. I want all of that again.”
He turns his eyes to me. “Wo Hop?” he says.