I’m sitting at the kitchen table adding COVID-19 informational banners to WordPress websites, when Anne comes upon the disfigured remains of what was, until recently, a very special spoon.
“What’s this?” she asks, reaching into the dishwasher, producing a wooden salad utensil split in half, twisted beyond recognition.
“Oh shit,” I say. “Sorry about that, babe. My bad.”
“I asked you not to put this in the dishwasher.”
“That sounds right.”
“But you did anyway.”
In disbelief, Anne fills the ladle with water and watches liquid dribble through the cracks.
“I’ll buy you a new one,” I say.
“I bought this at an antique store in Chattanooga. It’s one of a kind. You can’t just… ‘buy me a new one,’” she says, making air quotes.
Since the virus appeared and started killing everybody, I have been doing the dishes. Pre-rinse, loading, and putting away. I read an article in the New Yorker that said in times of pestilence, twice the household burden falls on women. I am trying to be the exception. One of the good ones. The problem is when I go out of my way to perform generous acts to rectify the shortcomings of my gender, my gendered lack of training kicks in and I break the important objects that form the invisible engine of a well-run household.
Anne makes a show of pretending to repair the spoon with a paper clip and two rubber bands, then sighs and loudly disposes of it in the simplehuman garbage bin.
“Totally my fault,” I say.
“I know,” says Anne. “No one is accusing me of ruining my spoon.”
There is a scene in The Shining where Danny is riding his Big Wheel tricycle through the empty halls of the abandoned hotel and turns a corner and comes upon twin girls in creepy blue dresses who, in unison, say, “Come and play with us. Come and play with us, Danny.” Then, for a split second, we see the girls lying on the carpet, butchered by an ax, blood on the walls.
Anne has a look she gives me when I am saying “the wrong words” during a fight that makes me feel the way I imagine Danny felt looking at that carnage.
I brace myself and think of the Good Men Project. Of Barack Obama praising Michelle during a speech on the intelligent, powerful women who form the backbone of America.
I start to say, “I’m so sorry I was careless, babe. Not only is your favorite spoon ruined, but you must feel disrespected and ignored,” but at the last second, I slip up and accidentally say, “It’s just a spoon. Jesus Christ. Nobody died.”
Anne storms away and locks herself in our bedroom.
The days are long in the pandemic, and vengeance is swift.
We spend the day avoiding each other. I lie on the couch watching Married at First Sight on my iPhone. It is a reality show with the premise: a team of psychologists pair off couples who meet on their wedding day, promise to love each other forever, then make each other miserable for eight weeks and divorce.
I think about how hard love is. Men raised to say inappropriate things at inopportune moments, and the women they love, trained to give glances like the carnage of dead twins.
And yet our genitals feel so good when they merge. Pure joy! Total insanity, like Jesus come back to the earth finally, saying, “ALL THAT SUFFERING? HA! NO MORE. PARADISE FROM NOW ON, FOREVER!!!”
I feel rumbling in my lower intestine. A general unpleasant liquidity. I love Anne so much I get diarrhea when we fight. Day long episodes that leave me empty and scared.
I go to the bathroom and have a violent episode, then take my temperature: 98.4 degrees. Slightly cold, no COVID.
I try the bedroom door, but it’s locked. I give it a light knock.
“I loved that spoon,” says Anne.
“I made a mistake,” I say.
“I told you not to put it in the dishwasher. I told you a thousand times. That was my favorite salad serving utensil.”
There are words, which, conjured in the right order, wouldn’t return Anne’s wooden spoon to its proper shape nor bring back to life the tree that somebody cut down to make it, but would cause Anne to feel connected to me despite my blunder. This is a rare occurrence known among women as “validation.” Among men as “I don’t know what I said, but it totally worked.”
Instead, I say, “Can we watch Ozark? I miss you. Also, I’m kind of horny.”
My phone buzzes in my back pocket. It is a text from Anne that says, “Next time I hope I get quarantined with someone cool.”
Let me tell you about Anne: she’s a hothead ex-beauty pageant contestant from Sarasota, Florida who yells at me when I load the washing machine wrong. She plots my death and slams doors and gets weepy watching the Netflix remake of Anne of Green Gables. She wakes me up in the middle of the night and says, “Kevin, I love you so much I’d die if you died.” From the look in her eyes, I know she means it.
The next morning, I make coffee but don’t bring any to Anne so as to lure her into the kitchen, where I can apologize and make things better and possibly have sex.
Around ten, she emerges from the bedroom, pours herself a cup, and stands at the stove in her robe. The way she cracks an egg and fries it and doesn’t ask me if I would also like an egg feels like a new, creative way of saying, “Fuck you.”
“I’m depressed,” says Anne, flipping her egg, scratching her ass through her underwear.
“I’m sorry, babe. I ruined a thing you bought and that you cared about. I’ll buy you a new one. Not because I think that will fix things or change the fact that I did something you asked me not to do, but because I hope it will show you that I feel genuine remorse about my failings.”
“I don’t want to talk about the spoon,” says Anne. “I’m so tired of talking about spoons. All we ever do is talk about spoons.”
“Okay,” I say.
“I want someone other than Donald Trump to be president,” says Anne.
“I know,” I say.
“I want to go outside without being scared I’ll get a blood clot from bat-borne illness.”
“Me too,” I say.
She sits on my lap and cries into the soft hollow formed between my neck and clavicle.
My phone buzzes.
“You should answer that,” says Anne. “It’s probably one of your coworkers.”
“What if,” I say, “instead of answering, I pretend my phone battery died and we go outside and drink champagne and get wasted in the yard?”
“That sounds nice,” says Anne.
The only champagne we have is an expensive bottle of Veuve Clicquot, a housewarming gift from our friends Mick and Pam we were saving for a special day, which is today, the day I said “fuck it” regarding my job because life is terrible.
Against the recommendation of the CDC, we text our friend Ron and tell him to come over for a “backyard social distance hangout,” a term which, two-months ago, sounded like words you say in middle school right before the class bully beats you up.
We eat marijuana-laced gummy candy and drink rye whiskey from glasses lathered in bleach in Adirondack chairs positioned 20 feet apart on opposite sides of a firepit.
Topics of conversation include: 1) the virus ravaging the earth, destroying our way of life and the economy, 2) since Anne and I postponed the wedding, what kind of hot tub should we buy? 3) when is the last time you saw My Cousin Vinny because holy shit, that totally holds up?
Our tenant, Kay, emerges from the tiny house in our back yard wearing an Alf t-shirt and a nightgown, holding a small pistol she carved out of a bar of Tom’s of Maine soap.
“Bang,” she says. “Bang bang bang.” Killing us.
Ron falls over dead. Then I fall over. Then Anne.
Kay blows the top of her pistol and sits on a collapsible camp chair.
“Just kidding,” she says. “But nobody within six feet or I shoot to kill.”
Kay wants to show us the intricate carvings on her soap gun, but we can’t get close enough due to the possibility that she is infected with the deadly virus, so she takes a photo of her gun and sends it to us, bouncing the image off a satellite first.
“Ooooooh,” we say in unison a few seconds later.
I take a sip of Woodford Reserve. Whiskey in the mouth tastes like fire and my grandfather’s garage where he cut cedar into cribbage boards. I don’t feel the weed at first, but 30 minutes in, my heart goes honk honk honk! like a joyous migratory goose flitting across the sky.
We drink whiskey and champagne and more whiskey and someone, hopefully Anne, puts another weed gummy in my mouth and I eat it, laughing.
At some point, I go blind. No wait, it’s just nighttime and nobody told me.
Against the recommendation of the CDC, Ron starts chopping firewood with an ax while high on weed gummies and whiskey.
More people appear: John and Kayleigh.
“I invited more people,” says Anne. “Do you love me?”
“So much,” I say.
“I hate you,” says Anne.
“That’s okay,” I say.
“You’re the worst,” she says.
“Six feet,” I say, remembering that those are important words.
The topic of conversation returns to hot tubs, because nobody can go anywhere so we want to make our apartments/houses better. There is some discussion of chlorine’s power to kill COVID, as well as the radius of a six-person hot tub: is it 6 feet, and if so, can a layout of hot-tubbers be achieved that the CDC would approve of?
Ron says, “The secret to a hot tub is the foundation. It needs to be concrete with rebar, otherwise the hot tub will sink into the soil.”
I imagine all the backyards in the world with the hot tubs our ancestors installed improperly buried deep in the earth.
John walks to the firepit and throws on a log. Kay pulls out her gun and points it at him.
“Six feet,” she says.
“I’m a twelve-foot man,” he says. “Buffer zone.”
Kay smiles and forms a heart shape with thumbs and index fingers.
Against the recommendation of the CDC, John and Ron have a wood chopping competition, high on drugs.
Ron pulls ahead at first, but John’s slow-and-steady approach proves victorious. Logs pile on fire, which throw a universe of orange stars into the sky.
At some point somebody coughs. We look at each other suspiciously. “Are we six feet apart?” I ask the mosquito on my arm.
Kayleigh has had essays published in the Guardian and Huffington Post about her job at Trader Joe’s where the customers cough on her for sport and fight over plastic tubs of Triple Ginger Snaps, not social distancing. Meanwhile, our backyard gathering in the most dangerous place in America.
Anne says she has to go to the bathroom and pulls her pants down and pees on the lettuce we are growing in a 4×4 foot raised bed in case the food supply dries up. “Victory Gardens” we call them jokingly, referring to the backyard gardens people planted in World War II to supplement rations and boost morale. Jokingly at first, lately not so much.
We tell war stories about going to the grocery store to buy vegetables.
“I was in the soymilk aisle yesterday,” says Kay. “This guy walked right next to me. No mask.”
“People are terrible,” we agree.
“This one time I killed a lady who wasn’t wearing a mask,” says John, chopping a non-competitive log. “Bashed her head in with a tomato can. Wham!”
We nod our approval.
Anne sits on my lap and opens another bottle of champagne.
“Remember earlier when I hated you,” she whispers in my ear. “I’m so mean to you.”
“You’re perfect,” I say.
“Why aren’t we six feet apart?” she whispers.
“Because we live together. We’re getting married, but not until next year.”
Anne gets the hiccups. Kay shoots her from the other side of the firepit and says, “You have COVID. Stay back.”
Somebody puts on Bruce Hornsby and the Range. We blast “The Way It Is.”
Now people are dancing.
All across the world, people are dancing six feet apart, not having fun.
Against the advice of my literary peers, I am writing a story about life in the time of COVID. The theory goes: we are still inside this pandemic. As writers, we are supposed to wait until a thing is over so we can “have perspective.”
My life is almost over and I don’t have perspective. If we all die, this short story will be the only artifact of COVID-19, left for aliens/future raccoons/cockroaches once their intelligence and opposable thumbs kick in.
Ron swings the ax to cut more firewood and accidentally cuts his finger off.
“It’s cool. It’s fine,” he says, putting his finger back on.
In the morning I wake up naked in the bathtub, no water. Anne is next to me throwing up in the toilet.
“I’m confused,” says Anne. “Is there still a pandemic? Did we get married last night?”
“Something about axes,” I say, throwing up onto my stomach. “Did we… did we get shot?”
“I feel like I sat on a vegetable patch,” says Anne.
I throw up on my stomach and wipe it off with my hand. “That definitely happened.”
I put on a dress shirt and tie and open my computer and log into a company-wide Zoom staff meeting.
Last week my cat walked back and forth behind me during the meeting. Afterwards, my inbox was flooded with emails from my coworkers with the subject line: “THAT CAT OF YOURS IS SO DARN CUTE.”
Now they know what I look like after an untoward night of weed gummies, champagne, and lax social distancing.
“We need to be more aggressive going after new business,” says Carol from Marketing.
“This pandemic is an opportunity-maker,” says Jim from Accounting. “I mean, look what’s happening in the meat packing industry. Those guys need PR like nobody’s business.”
I nod, hoping there isn’t vomit in my quarantine-beard.
The call ends and I crawl into bed with Anne. We have vomit-mouths, but we kiss each other and pull each other so close that our genitals touch slightly. Along with memories of last night, we have forgotten past and present fights and the majority of our lives.
There is only the next six hours to get through. Pounding heads. Water that we need to drink but can’t keep down.
“I feel like I’m going to throw up, but I also kind of want a blowjob,” I say.
“Raincheck,” says Anne.
We take turns sleeping.
We watch Ozark finally.
I send a coworker an email every two hours to give the appearance of working.
The sun sets. I don’t know what day it is. If you pointed a gun at my head and said, “What month is it?” I could definitely tell you it’s either March or April or May. I don’t think it’s June.
“I feel bad for the single people,” says Anne. “I mean, I have you even if you’re the worst.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Everything is so bad. Remember when it was good?”
We both try to think. We try to remember. I remember a day at the Breitenbush Hot Springs. It was early in our relationship. Anne and I soaked naked for hours, then ate vegetarian food, then took long showers in an open-air structure made of ancient Douglas fir timbers covered in bright green moss. We handed liquid soap back and forth over the stalls. I thought it smelled like jasmine, but Anne said it was lemon balm.
Afterwards we lay in bed and listened to Feist. At some point we had sex, then lay for the longest time with our red skin and semen/vagina smell, talking about our life plan: buy a house in St. Johns, move the tiny house into the backyard, see if one of our crazy artist friends would move in, get married, get a hot tub, write novels and poetry books, have sex, watch Ozark.
Anne reached over and held my penis and started crying because it all sounded so good.
“I remember,” I say.
The sun rises again. Anne gets up to get dressed for her nanny job. She puts on a mask that her friend made with a cartoon deer over the mouth.
I can’t tell if we are in something so deeply beautiful that it will rewrite the world and make everything better, or if we’re all going to die one by one like tributes in The Hunger Games.
“I love you,” I say. My intestines churn. It’s just liquid in there. “Like, so much it’s fucking stupid.”
“If you die, I’ll die,” says Anne behind her mask.
She kisses me through cotton, puts on gardening gloves, and drives away on a road without cars.