I idled in the driver’s seat when the masked man strode past my door and knocked on the trunk. I pushed the release button and watched him toss the plastic bag in, slam the trunk shut, and run off without a word. It was quick and dreamlike. Driving home from Target I asked aloud, “Is this real life?” I felt like a character in the first act of a horror movie; no fateful circumstance had befallen me, but in mere days an eeriness had settled over my interactions with the “outside” world. For months now, it has felt as though something sinister has been percolating beneath the surface of normal family life, while an unease and a sense of incompleteness has been permeating my frame of mind.
At first, I thought that the outside world felt surreal because I see so few faces now.
To be fair, I am not Will Smith, sole survivor of New York City in I Am Legend. There are people around. Or signs of them, anyway. Drab cardboard boxes of provisions appear on our porch, delivered by drivers we never see. An errant soccer ball lies on the back lawn, our 8-year-old neighbor now afraid to hop over and retrieve it. Strangers fetch our dinner from restaurants after unseen faces take our order, prepare our food, and box our meal.
Still mulling over my unease after my Target run, I entered the house to the sounds of screaming. In the family room, my two boys were arguing over who broke the green lightsaber. The voices and volume felt familiar, almost comforting. “Maybe,” I mused, “I hate how quiet it is out there.” Our home feels more chaotic since the pandemic, yes, but it is not at all quieter. Our house remains a loud space where my husband and I still find little time to speak privately while social distancing with two young boys.
Outside the home, though, I have lost simple daily conversation: chatting with the barista, the parents at drum class, the moms at school. I miss the little moments that recharge an extroverted stay-at-home-mom and bind me to my community.
What is worse, my few live encounters with others have ceased to be energizing, discolored now by risk and implication.
A partition separates me from the cashier at the local market. On walks, neighbors cross the street when we approach. The one time I ventured out to buy dinner, I waited outside the cafe until a lone customer completed his transaction inside. Just a few months ago, my boys and I had discussed how lucky we are to live in such a safe area. Now everyone is a conceivable threat, even me.
Online interactions are only slightly more satisfying. On Google classroom, my 6-year-old speaks to friends reduced to glitchy one-inch squares. I watch my frustrated 8-year-old manage brief conversations amid the din of 20 housebound third graders speaking at once. Zoom dinners are nice, but the “meeting” invitations we send each other underscore the app’s intended purpose. During a Zoom game night, a friend left to use the restroom, and I found myself staring sadly at her empty chair. It made me miss her in-person visits more.
While meetups allow me to see and hear loved ones, they do little to shake off the disquiet I have carried since March, the strange sense that I am not living my real life. Then one evening the true source of my anxiety became clear when I participated in another Zoom gathering. As we all adjourned for the night, a friend pressed a palm to his computer screen before logging off. Then it hit me. I and the people I am closest to are tactile. We hug hello. We hug goodbye. We hold each other’s hands when we are upset. We rub each other’s backs when we are scared. We pat each other’s shoulders when we are excited.
We know that touch is the first sense a baby develops in the womb. We know, too, that a caring touch can stimulate growth in children and alleviate a variety of physical and emotional difficulties in adults. While I know that needs and comfort zones differ person to person, I also know that more than faces, more than voices, I miss touching.
I want to hug my mom to validate the ache I know she feels for her absent children and grandchildren who, until March, had been the source of perpetual drop-in visits.
I want to shake the hands of our principal and teachers to thank them for their Herculean efforts these past weeks.
I want to hold my dad’s hand in communion as he serenely reminds me that nothing lasts forever.
I want to watch my boys grab their cousin Ashley’s hand and run with her to the lawn, to watch them curl up with my husband’s mother while she reads “Dragons Love Tacos.”
There has been much talk about “when this is over.” What will feel safe when this is over? How will we even know when this is over? I have given up trying to guess when our strange way of life will be over. I do know, though, that my own unease, my own feeling of incompleteness, will be over when I no longer rely on touch screens and touchpads and can instead offer and receive an unfettered, utterly human touch.
Originally published on Scary Mommy