Today we left.
We pulled our favorite shirts and headscarves and underpants with a hole in the seam and emptied our cabinets room by room into bags. We lined our medications up in white plastic bins and we added throat spray and took it out because we thought–bad omen–and then we put it back. Nyquil, Clonapin, azithromycin bought from a Punta Cana gift shop, probiotics vitamin B. Blood pressure meds and we packed our gloves and hats, our Instant Pot—we held it up and said, should we? Nah. Should we? Sure, and threw it with our robot vacuum in a vinyl bag. We peeled the love of the house as best we could but the bones remained.
And still, when we walked out, garbage emptied, dishwasher humming, we left so much behind. The canvas pictures on the wall, the princess costumes in a heap, our closets holding the scent of our chests, the baskets and bins and ways we’ve chosen to contain. We wheeled and carried and lugged our belongings and bodies towards the car but the part of our throats that lives in our home wouldn’t follow. Our home– the place we’d been gathered for weeks and for weeks, masked people walking past our first-floor window. The puppy yapped, so bitchy she was, the masks made people seem less alive. We stuffed our trunk with paper goods and expired foods and half-eaten bricks of cheddar cheese, extra sharp. We hoped it all would keep in the car, it wouldn’t go bad, what was already bad, it wouldn’t get worse. We hoped it would taste the same when we landed far away.
We didn’t want to leave. Our doorknobs wiped each day, the rubber gloves we used to check the mail, the friends who stood outside our gate with their dark and light heads of hair who we couldn’t hug, who we took steps back from just in case. One more step, we told our children, back up just a little more. Wash your hands we told them, and it broke our heart each time. Hold your breath, we warned as the elevator dinged. One more wipe of the knob. One more spray of the cardboard box where the package arrived.
We left our park, the place our children would tumble and tumble and make piles of sticks and leaves and pick the dandelions for me to weave into crowns and then daffodils that weren’t theirs. All we didn’t know how to tell them not to touch–that nothing was safe, their slide and swings and statues they climbed had gone from joy to danger in no time at all. Don’t touch, we hated saying over and over, as they leaned their hands on bannisters beneath that boxed out spring, pointing to the Blue of a blue jay’s wings. A Blue Jay! They said, and before we could tell them wow! And feign amazement, an act which we had grown to love, don’t touch that rail, don’t touch, we yelled as their eyes fell down.
In just a week the news would say to stay. The long articles would appear in big-city papers. Leaving is selfish, they would all read, shelter in. Just stay home.
Yet everyone we knew whispered in our ears to go. Just go, they told us, Please, please, go. We told them no, they whispered more.
You aren’t safe, they didn’t say.
We knew the truth.
So today we left. Nothing we wanted to bring would fit—it all spilled out from bags and handles and bunched beneath our knees. Where are we going, our things all asked us, and why? One state down, we told them, one straight drive, no stops. Why are we leaving, they asked? A door and washing machine we won’t have to share. We played our songs on low and passed our cracker sandwiches triangularly between us, we wiped the wheel down over and over, the car so heavy, thump thump down the West Side highway, check the rearview for bikes on the racks to make sure they didn’t fall. Princess streamers, purple baskets. Like vacation, I told my little girls, to keep the sadness from their eyes, and they believed me, and the empty roads and the deep blue Hudson all seemed still, the bridge ahead so tall and grand saying: I may outlast you all.
Even as the roads stretched wide, the tall buildings falling back into the distance and turning to pastures and trees without leaves, we felt the virus clinging to bottoms of our bags and shoes and worried it followed us all down the parkway, hundreds of miles, into the wetlands, into the sand, into our futures, our children’s idea of what the world could be. We’d scrubbed each surface, cleaned it down, but the fear, the fear could not be disinfected, could not be wiped away.
I drove from my city to keep him safe, to keep my children as girls who had a father, and all the people I loved kept flashing into my eyes, waving out their balconies with gloves on their hands, throwing the pasta over into my yard. Bags of puzzles left by my door. We left our city that held us from a distance with love. We knew our license plate in our second home would make them yell, would bring us hate, but we didn’t know how much. Go home! They’d scream from their car windows as they drove by. Take your germs back to New York, and we’d sit on our narrow couch, our knees all square and awkward, the sirens of our hometown somehow ringing in our ears, trying not to weep.
I put my cheek to my husband’s chest, I listen to the wheezing beneath his shirt, get real quiet and still until I hear the squeak. I try to refocus on his heart and the hearts and lips of our children, but I only hear this. That squeak, that threat, these lungs that may not fight as hard, a tiny sound that fills the room.
For the girls to have their father—this is why I left.
And I knew the texts and calls would come, of those who fell ill, of those who died alone, their bodies burned, death certificates left to pick up with a bag of clothes. And as the mile markers passed, and the girls screamed, how long? Are we almost there? It hurt to get real still and quiet inside our minds and see that we cared most about leaving, that we weren’t brave, we only considered how to stay alive.
And when we arrived, we stacked our suitcases onto the deck and pushed the rusty key into the door and it was so cold, our fingers numb, it wouldn’t open until it did, the children hopped over the beige carpet stained with years of sand and they pulled their swim tubes from back closets and blew them up and laid in the middle of the rooms and laughed. It’s like summer they said. What does the sand feel like in cold? We’ll have to see, we’ll have to see what it all feels like, I told them, the beach is closed now, I told them, and they couldn’t picture how. A fence? A gate? A big red sign? Just closed, I told them, now wash your hands, please wash your hands, wash all you’ve known.
And then, I saw it, next to the light switch from summer’s past, a little dirty print on the wall, palm and thumb and fingers outstretched, the life we had.
And I missed my city, my lock and bolt, the ceilings and walls we all of us shared, life stacked all atop each other, but mostly I missed the hands, oh how I missed those dirty hands.