This is the 15th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
I’m going to take a pause from Babs and tell you about Eric. And virtual reality.
Eric, by the way, is my husband.
Yes, I did get married, as many of you have either figured out, suspected, or been told by a trusted source. Eric and I celebrated our one-year anniversary one week ago.
The story of this occurrence is so lovely, true, and massive, I’ve struggled to write about how it happened, how it’s been, and how it is. I haven’t written about it explicitly until this very moment. I’ve begun many times and stalled, because there have been events in my 40 years life that are hard to write about, not for lack of wanting to write about them, but because writing is hard, but writing well is much, much harder, and when a sublime and massive event arrives, a writer who cares wants to write about that event not just well, but sublimely. She wants to write the story so that the text itself feels as lovely as the experience was, as true as it’s been, and as massive as it continues to be.
This is tall order for her brain and the poor English language, who will quickly wonder how it got into this mess. And, because the writer who cares knows it’s possible to make the English language tell the truth about sublime and massive things — the books on her shelf prove it — it makes it easy to stall. In fact, stalling is the easiest thing to do when a person wants to put into words a sublime, massive situation because the hardest thing to do is to get it right.
I should probably just tell you what happened, event by event. I could just aim for “simple” and forget “sublime”, just build small words, one by one, and let massive take care of itself. I’ll keep at it, I promise. I can’t help but try; there are two true joys in my life and they are writing and Eric. It would be lovely to marry them well.
I cannot believe I’ve shared this news in a post that features an image of a floppy disk of Frogger from 1984.
Okay, let’s talk about this quarantine business because it’s what’s on my mind. Is it on yours? Eric and I began our official, strict, shelter-in-place, safer-at-home experience on Friday, March 13th. That day, we took a Sharpie and wrote on the old, peeling wallpaper in the hallway: “Mary + Eric’s Covid Quarantine 2020” because it was amusing to us, like we were cartoons on a cartoon desert island, carving the days on a coconut tree. And that first week, we dutifully added a hashmark on the wallpaper each day. Perhaps we stopped because it did seem sort of silly, sort of fun, but there’s nothing silly about this.
Incidentally, I’ve always believed that aside from first-responders and ethical journalists, the people that deserve protection and respect in any society are the great standup comedians. That might seem strange to some of you, but the maestros — Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, and Michelle Wolf come to mind — witness and artfully tell the truth about human nature. When they do, we’re given access to a measure of relief, since laughing at ourselves is often the only way to get any. But not even the greats can help right now, so who are Eric and I to ironically mark days in the hall? It stopped being amusing so we stopped marking the days and now they all run together.
Anyway, about Frogger. A few months back, Eric purchased a VR headset for his PlayStation. “VR” stands for “Virtual Reality” and that thing looked ridiculous. I married Eric at City Hall four months after we met, and never once, not a single time — even through some real gnarly days in the past year — have I wondered if I made the right decision. I love the man more every day. But I do confess that when this 42-year-old person, this brilliant man, this funny Valentine of mine put that plastic contraption on his head and started swinging these two blinking wands into thin air, I stopped what I was doing and thought, “Well, you knew he was a nerd when you married him, Fons.”
When he handed the VR thing to me, I flatly refused it.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “I’m sure it’s very cool, but I am a serious person. I cannot put a plastic headset on my head and look around at things that do not exist. I support your fun, but I prefer to stay in regular reality, thank you very much.”
Headset or not, I am not a video game person, anyway. The last time I “gamed” was in 6th grade, probably, bored enough on a hot summer day in Iowa to pick up a controller on our old Nintendo. I was pretty sure I’d never “game” again. Pointless!
But because he was so into it and wanted to share the experience with me, he finally wore me down.
“Just for a second,” Eric said. “Just put it on for a second to see what it looks like. There’s a field of bunnies! You can walk around and look at everything! And there’s bunnies!”
I took the headset from him, holding it like a bag of old bananas. I put it on my head. Lo and behold, there was a navigable, digital field of shimmering bunnies that looked so real that I became dizzy and terrified and clawed it off of me.
Then came the pandemic. And around Week 2 of quarantine, after braving the long line at Trader Joe’s and seeing pictures semi trailers full of bodies parked behind New York hospitals, slipping into a different reality started to look attractive.
On top of that, Eric somehow managed to score an Oculus Quest. The Oculus Quest is one of the newest, most advanced VR contraptions on the market and it is a world away from the one he originally purchased (the one with the bunnies.) The Oculus Quest is sold out absolutely everywhere, but he just kept checking the website, I guess, and one day he got lucky. The old VR thing had a cord that had to connect to the TV and those derpy wands; the Oculus Quest is wireless and the derpy wands have been replaced with sleek controllers you hold in both hands. The headset is light and …
Y’all, I spend at least two hours a day on that thing. At least. I love it. I’m obsessed! When I finish this post, I’m going to go into the living room and put it on and play Beat Saber until I’m positively dripping with sweat.
Beat Saber is consistently ranked as the best game made so far in the VR genre. You put on the headset and suddenly you are basically in Tron. It’s not Tron, but it is this digital world — a very beautiful one, with moving set pieces and gradually changing colors and pretty, glowy things far up over your head. And suddenly you have a light saber in each hand — a light saber! — and then the music starts and it’s dancey music that (mostly) isn’t lame, and then these glowing blocks fly at you and you have to hit them before they hit you!
I’m telling you, it really, really feels like you have light sabers, because the VR thing works visually but it’s haptic, too, so when you cross your light sabers over your head, the real-life controllers in your hands actually buzz and give resistance, like you’re crossing the streams of two light sabers! I don’t know what that would actually feel like because light sabers are not real, but they feel so real in the game and it’s just amazing. It’s really amazing.
I am getting very, very good at Beat Saber. In the past month and a half, I have moved up the ranks. I went from playing games at the “Easy” level to the “Normal” level. Then I mastered all the “Hard” levels. Now I’m crushing the “Expert” levels. The final level is “Expert+” and I’ve got my work cut out for me. The higher the levels, the faster the glowing blocks fly at your head and in Expert+, they go fast enough to make me laugh. It looks impossible. But when my faith flags, I like to think of Serena Williams and how she practices every day and she perseveres and she’s one of the best tennis players to ever play the game. And I pick up my sabers and I hit glowing bricks. Hard.
Thank you for reading about how I got married and also about how I play video games, now. “I am the one who” never thought I’d do either of those things again, ever, but here we are.
And it’s sublime.
This is the 15th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
There are legions of people I admire — frontline healthcare workers come to mind — but I think we could all use a little more Babs right now, am I right? Much to my delight (though not at all to my surprise), the lady has been awfully popular around here.
However much her personality has chafed certain people over the years, I suspect Babs has been popular her whole life. I say this because of the pictures of her I’ve seen from her young adulthood looking achingly pretty in expensive dressed, and also something that happened at the building Christmas party.
First, you need to know that Babs has a great laugh, partly because she doesn’t laugh very often, not outright. Hers is a dry, acerbic sense of humor, so she’s generally the one making the joke, or the one pointing out the obvious. Babs is droll. She does not chortle; she would die before she’d ever guffaw. She’s more likely to simply acknowledge when something is objectively amusing. When she does laugh, however, out comes this surprising glissando laugh: “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” It’s musical. It goes up and down the scale. It’s the sound of pure mirth.
I discovered this laugh when I was over at her place one evening, obviously drinking wine. Babs was in an elegant pantsuit, freshly manicured, dishing about the condo board. She was trying to remember the name of the person who had most recently annoyed her.
“Oh, oh, wait,” I said, “is it the lady who always looks like this?” I squinted my eyes, furrowed my brow, and wrinkled my nose like I was smelling smelly garbage and said in a nasal voice, “Oh, hi Mary. How arrrre you?”
Babs opened her mouth and out came that laugh. She didn’t throw her head back, she didn’t lean forward. She just pushed play on that “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” music. She was delighted at my impression and I detected she was also impressed at my ability as a mimic. It felt a bit mean, poking fun at our neighbor, but I confess that I basked, just a tiny bit, in Babs’s approval.
Back to the Christmas party:
That night, I was feeling puffy. You know how you just feel puffy, sometimes? I put on a black dress that usually works, but I was just so puffy and my cheeks were blotchy and I had a blemish. I also have agonizing social anxiety, but it’s extra bad when I’m in large groups of people with whom I wish to make a good impression. But there was no getting around it: Making an appearance at this function — especially as the building’s newest resident – was essentially mandatory. I groaned and took my puffy self up to the seventh floor dragging Eric, who is even less enthused about these sorts of things than I am. He could stay 10 minutes and dip, I said; I’ll take one for the team and make the rounds.
In the host’s apartment on the seventh floor (a three-settee living room), people were milling about. There was a shrimp platter and finger sandwiches; there was focaccia; there were pinots blanc and noir and a basket of chocolate-dipped snacks. I took a deep breath and introduced myself to this and that person as I made my way from room to room, checking my teeth a zillion times for kiwi seeds and/or lipstick as I told people that I work in the quilt industry, yes, that’s right, yes, quilting, like quilts, for the bed, but there are other kinds also, and I’m the editor of the bestselling quilt magazine, yes, there is more than one quilt magazine, the quilt industry, yes there’s a quilt industry, is valued around 3.5 billion and you know, online dating is worth just 3 billion … I was getting more exhausted by the minute because being obsessed with the state of one’s teeth and explaining what I do takes effort when I’m meeting a new person, but it takes true endurance to meet so many new people I have to explain it six or seven times in two hours.
Finally, I spied Babs. She was perched on a settee (!) in the living room, holding court. When she saw me, she lit up and waved me over.
“Mary, I have to talk to you,” she said. I sat down, thrilled to be off-duty. It was this conversation that led me to concur that Babs has doubtless always been one of the popular girls and, though I cringe to say so, probably one of the mean girls from time to time. It was how she put a hand on my shoulder and turned us just slightly away from the crowd to basically whisper gossip in my ear. I was instantly uncomfortable with this, party because I have been present at parties where I was the one being whispered about and it’s such an awful experience, but — far more critically — I did not want to be cast as a scuttlebutt at this, my building debut.
Then Babs pulled me in. It was like Babs a tractor beam. She mentioned the neighbor I had done the impression of a few weeks back and again couldn’t remember her name. Before I knew it, I wrinkled my nose and said under my breath, “Oh hi, Mary” and out it came: “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” The laugh of the most popular — and potentially most resented — girl at the party rose above the sounds of the crowd and there I was, in cahoots with Babs.
I do adore her. I do admire her, but I don’t like to be in cahoots with anyone. I’m not a cahooter.
Oh, my dearlings! These blog entries keep getting longer and longer. I’ll finish up with Babs next time. I’m afraid that if I keep writing novels here in PaperGirl 2.0 I’ll lose folks, not because the content is bad (I’m enjoying writing to you more than ever, which I hope comes through) but because we are on the internet and when we’re in the strange, wide saddle of the internet, attention tends to slide off. It happens to us all, even Babs, who I know does a little online shopping from time to time.
The pandemic has brought its gifts, however ruinous and deadly it continues to be: Babs and I have become closer than ever in the past month. There’s no cahooting, either; just aid, affection … and phone conversations about Governor Cuomo:
“Oh, that Cuomo is just divine,” Babs said. “I wouldn’t mind snuggling up to him on a cold night.”
This is the 14th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Since schools are closed, and I belong to the extremely fortunate demographic who doesn’t have to go “to” or “from” work right now, if I don’t take things in a different direction with this particular prompt, I won’t have much to say and we’ll all just be sitting around looking at each other until one of us starts crying or we start another card game, or we both start crying because we’re starting yet another card game.
I can’t let that happen, so I’m going to tell you about my favorite neighbor, Babs.*
Since Babs is the grandest of all the dames; since Babs is a force of nature; since Babs is the walking embodiment of a Babs in all the ways a Babs could possibly be, I can’t just drop Babs on you. I can’t just launch into Babs. One must be ready for a person like this; one must be prepared. Thus, I shall provide a bit of context, first.
One year ago this month, I collected all my belongings and moved them 2.5 miles to the north. I left Chicago’s scrappy, youthful, grimy-in-a-good-way South Loop for her crusty, gorgeous, fusty-in-a-good-way Gold Coast. It took fortitude; there were sacrifices. I went from having 1500 square feet of space down to 900; in the South Loop, I paid a wince-inducing HOA monthly assessment, but the assessment for this place is almost nauseating, especially with the mortgage on top of that; and if you asked me how much paint was peeling off the walls in my previous apartment, I would have said “none”, but if you ask me how much paint is peeling off the walls in this one, I will say “so much.”
So what. The place is half the size and needs significant work. But when you’ve got crown molding, parquet wood floors, bookshelves built right into the walls, and the original 1920 elevator with Art Deco brass details, you almost feel like keeping those paint chips in a pretty box on the mantle. (There’s a mantle.) And hey, when I scribble my signature on my check to pay the bills each month, I get to see my name on that check with my new address on it, and that helps me stop weeping long enough to tear the check off the pad and get it into the envelope.
In July, Eric moved here from Seattle. One day we decided to go for a walk.
“Most of the people in this building seem like they’re … older,” Eric said.
We stepped aside for Gordon (day doorman extraordinaire) to let in Mr. and Mrs. Ackerman, which took awhile. Outside, a man in a sweater vest with his socks pulled up was poking at a flower bed with his cane. He waved.
We waved back and Eric, who is 42, said, “Are we the youngest people in this building?”
It’s true: Most of the people who live in our vintage building might also be described as “vintage.” I won’t put my foot in my mouth and suggest a median age, but I will say that when there’s a notice on the desk in the lobby about a board meeting or a maintenance issue, the font is very large. This, to me, is an ideal living situation. People of a certain age rarely feel like putting on heavy boots and running back and forth on the floor above me; neither do they tend to listen to music loudly. If they do decide to listen to music loudly, it’s only every five years or so, and in this building you’re going to get Duke Ellington or Connie Francis or Beethoven if the person is brooding. Could be worse, right?
Eric wasn’t quite right about us being the youngest people who live here, though; down the hall on our same floor there’s a thirty-something couple and they are the youngest people here. Caitlin is literally a professional brain surgeon, which I think we can all agree is the best kind of brain surgeon. Her slightly younger French husband, Jean Luc, is a professional brain scientist, so these two are a good match. They got married in October. We had a little wine and cheese party up on the room last summer and Caitlin and I had more wine than cheese and it was fun because they are very nice people.
There are four apartments on each floor, and Lorraine and Alan live in the one directly across from us. Alan has been a university professor for absolute ages, and Lorraine bakes when she’s stressed.
“Mary, I’ve been stress-baking.”
We were chatting on the phone the first week of the official shelter-in-place order here in Chicago, which was somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago.
“Tell me about it,” I said, scraping cookie batter off the sides of a mixing bowl.
Lorraine sighed and said the least she could do was leave some goodies at our front door. I told her she didn’t have to do that and she said oh it’s no problem, and I said stay safe and she said you too, Mary, and say hi to Eric. When I opened the door, I was super happy to find two fat banana-walnut muffins, which Lorraine stress-bakes in mini-bundt cake pans. They are so moist you have to eat them right away or they’ll go bad. The muffins were, as always, tucked inside a small gift bag with ribbon handles. It’s safe to say Lorraine has a big box of small gift bags with ribbon handles in the hall closet at all times, because you never know.
Well, I guess that’s it for my neighbors. An interesting group, right? I’m so grateful we landed on such a good floor with —
Sorry, what’s that? Oh, did I say there are four apartments on each floor of our building? Huh, that’s funny … who am I leaving out? Who could be — ohhh. That’s right. How could I forget … Babs.
The first thing to know about Babs is that I adore her. The second thing to know is that she is infamous around here on account of her rather mercurial personality. One doesn’t “meet” Babs as much as experience her, and lots of residents have had the Babs Experience because she has lived in this building for more than 30 years.
Babs is probably in her seventies, but it’s hard to say. For one thing, a lady never tells her age; for another thing, I have heard from several sources that she is heir to a kitty litter fortune and as such, has long been able to afford all manner of expensive creams, salves, and tinctures, so the woman could be a very well-preserved 90 for all I know. She wears French perfume and I’ve never seen her without lipstick.
The woman probably weighs 90 pounds soaking wet, but Babs would hate being soaking wet: It would ruin her hair! Her hair is a shimmery shade of light blonde appropriate for her age but let’s not ignore the fact that she is maintaining blonde and of course it’s always perfectly set, combed, and coiffed. Babs wears big, round dark sunglasses when she goes out and sometimes when she goes in: She waltzed into a condo board meeting once — fashionably late, of course — and kept her sunglasses on the whole time. She did remove her fur stole, however. I don’t know what animal sacrificed itself for Bab’s stole, but whatever it was, it was very soft and shiny. Babs didn’t say a thing the entire meeting and still managed to hold court; I could tell she was glowering at a couple people across the room who had somehow annoyed her. Believe me: It’s a rotating cast.
Babs has lived in Chicago all her life. When she was 16, she had a real-life coming out party. I’ve seen the pictures. She was a vision in silk gloves and the prettiest dress you’ve ever seen. Later, she ran her own boutique on Michigan Avenue. She’s buried two husbands and has lived alone for a lot of years at this point. I can’t recall just how long. A long time.
Babs is a voracious and extremely selective drinker of white wine. Sometimes she has to call our building’s maintenance man to help her get a cork out. This call occasionally comes around two or three in the afternoon.
Babs is a voracious and extremely selective reader, too. Her library is wall to wall books, all neatly lined up on the wide shelves. It perhaps needs not be said that Babs’s apartment — larger than our fixer upper by a factor of two at least — perhaps led to the very creation of the term “tastefully appointed”. At this point I’m betting you can guess with great accuracy what Babs’s place looks like, right? Right: damask drapes with silk tie-back cords; crystal candy dishes; lacquered wood furniture; still life paintings large and small; striped wallpaper; various platters. There is no dust anywhere, on anything because Babs has a maid that comes every week. There’s a sitting room and a dining room and — oh, you get the idea. The difference between the apartment Eric and I are quarantined in and the one just down the hall is the difference between The Little Match Girl and the Queen of England; extra matches, extra pearls.
Since this post is plenty long enough and there are card games we all have to get to, I’ll tell you more about Babs in the next post. But I cannot resist sharing one of many Babs gems before I go:
Five or six months ago, Babs invited me over for a glass of wine. It had become a kind of a regular thing at that point and I knew to drink slowly because every time I had ever said, “Oh, Babs, I think I’ve had enough for tonight,” she’d pooh-pooh me and take my glass into the kitchen for “just a little splash.”
That night, I was doing what I often do when I hang out with Babs, which is ask her a million questions about her life. Wouldn’t you? She’s as fascinating a person as I’ve ever met, and she also happens to be hilarious.
“Babs,” I said, knowing that at this point I can ask her anything, “Tell me about your husbands. Were you happily married?”
Babs gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh, they were lovely men. I loved them, sure. But sweetie, I was terrible at being married.”
“I was always screwing around!”
[Babs and I will be back soon. Stay safe, everyone.]
*All names in this post have been changed, but none are as perfectly suited to the person described as “Babs”.
This is the 13th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
It’s Saturday night. The weather is perfect and you’re getting ready to go out to dinner.
There have been and will be nights in your life when you’d give anything to stay home and eat leftovers, but tonight is not one of those nights. No way. You’ve been looking forward to tonight all week. Maybe you’re meeting friends you haven’t seen in ages. Maybe your favorite cousin is in town. Maybe you’ve got a hot date — but like, a really hot one. Whoever it is you’ll be with at the restaurant about an hour from now, picturing their face(s) make you smile.
You get to choose who you’re meeting; this is as much your time machine as it is mine.
You feel gorgeous. You just do. When you look in the mirror, you like what you see. “Not bad,” you say to yourself, and you make a mental note to continue to drink more water because man, your skin looks good. You lean over the sink and do your eye makeup. Or maybe eye makeup isn’t your jam and you’re just rubbing out crusties. (Remember, these details are totally up to you.)
In the middle of doing whatever it is you’re doing there at the mirror, you remember the funny video someone sent you today, or that really good — omg so bad!! — joke your friend told you, or maybe you’re just caught up in how good you feel, but you laugh enough that you have to stop poking around your eye area for a moment. You eventually recover. All right, all right, you say; enough. No time for dilly-dallying. As you finish your maquillage, you think how for a second there you were like a kid giggling in class and also the teacher who told that kid to get back to work. This observation amuses you, and because it does, subconsciously your heart feels tender toward yourself, and this is how we ought to feel toward ourselves all the time but rarely do.
Before you leave the bathroom, you pause to appreciate your sink. It is sparkling clean. In fact, the whole house is clean. You’re clean, too, because you took a nice long shower. God, you love your soaps right now. The body wash and the shampoo and the conditioner, finally. One last check in the mirror confirms it: You are having a great hair day. Maybe the best hair day. Your hair looks amazing.
It isn’t until after you slip into your clothes that you realize you have just slipped into your clothes. Who does that, you think, but you do not question what has just occurred.
You walk to the closet to get your shoes. They are right where they should be. Let me be clear: You do not have to dig for your shoes. You do not yet know that you will have the best filet mignon/lobster bisque/mushroom risotto/crispy duck/endive salad/chocolate soufflé/raspberry panna cotta/warm bowl of tiny cookies of your entire life tonight, so, between getting to lean back in your chair at the restaurant later to clasp your hand to your breast and groan with pleasure at what is happening in your mouth and not having to dig for your shoes, should nothing else go right tonight, the evening would stand as an unqualified success.
Your phone buzzes: Your Uber will be here in five minutes. Perfect.
Ladies, you have a new purse. It has all the right pockets in all the right places. This perfect purse is about to become your favorite purse. You will fully wear out this purse over the next year or two because it is perfect. When it finally dies, you will spend as long you had the purse lamenting that you cannot find a purse as good as the purse you had that one time. “That one time” is now, and you and your purse have only just begun life together. This purse is not scuffed or marred; there is no open tube of lipstick currently bouncing around in the bottom of it. There are no straw wrappers, either. You grab your jacket/wrap/topcoat/shawl and you go out the door. You get into your Uber and your driver is kindly fellow, so when he says that you look nice, it’s not creepy. It’s great.
The kindly driver drops you off at the restaurant and you go inside.
The place is packed. There’s a throng of people in the vestibule; everyone’s chatting and working their way up to the hostess station to check in or ask if there are tables available. No tables right now, the hostess says, and she apologizes that the wait is over an hour. This is no problem because you have a reservation and wasn’t that smart! You are smart. You notice that the people who don’t have a reservation seem strangely okay with this because they are having a great night, too. The mood is convivial; the mood is good. The lights are low and everyone looks great.
Everyone looks healthy.
Behind the bar, the bartenders are barely keeping up but they are keeping up; later, they’ll high five each other and whistle as they count their tips. They raked it in tonight, boy, so they all do a shot and they say it really is a great gig and everyone gets home safe after the manager finally locks up for the night. One waiter and one bartender finally admit they’re falling in love.
In a few minutes, your friends/cousin/hot date will arrive and the hostess will take you to your table. You’ll maneuver through the dining room as waiters whisk past with trays and busboys pour water from green glass bottles. You’ll see a sommelier presenting a wine list and a maitre’d putting a napkin in a lady’s lap. You and your dinner companion(s) are seated. The conversation, the food, the tone, the spark, the learning, the surprise, the pleasantness, the force, the humanity — you’ll all have it all within minutes.
But right now, you’re one in that throng of healthy people waiting for tables. There are dozens of different conversations and you hear bits of this one and that one. People are smiling and laughing. There are pats on the back; in a corner, a couple steals a kiss. Someone comes in from the bar, sees his friend and when they greet each other, they hug. There are light touches on shoulders as people lean in to hear each other better. No one notices this physical symphony; it’s no more and no less than life itself. It’s life on a Saturday night.
Months later, a plague comes and steals these kinds of nights. They are gone for a long time.
As you sit in your home now, there’s no need to find your shoes. There are no reservations. You are not so far from people, but everyone is separated. You can’t touch anyone and you can’t see anyone. You’d give anything to see them. If you could go anywhere in a time machine, you’d go back and get ready, just like you did, to go to that restaurant and be jostled among the dinner crowd, waiting for your table on a Saturday night.
This is the 12th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
The second time I went to the Las Vegas airport, I was escaping. (To read the first part of this story, click here.)
Rental car returned, I got a taxi back to my hotel at the Bellagio. The cabbie had the radio on and it brought bad news about the virus and the markets, and there was reporting about President Trump’s announcement the night before of an E.U. travel ban. My stomach was tight. The president wouldn’t just suddenly ground all domestic flights, I told myself; it would be disastrous to displace people under such circumstances. But what if the circumstance is a global pandemic and a stock market crash? What if, for reasons of contagion or economics, great chunks of domestic flights were about to be cancelled or significantly delayed? Forget Mexico: By the time we turned onto the Strip I was trying to calculate how to get the hell out of Las Vegas, and soon. Being in an unfamiliar city in the middle of the desert with two suitcases of dirty laundry and no husband? The back of my neck was clammy.
I called Eric. It went to voicemail.
Adding to the stress of all this was that my man had just spent some eight or nine days in the San Francisco/Oakland area. This was sub-optimal. The virus had been loose in the Bay Area for weeks, they said, and you may recall that when one of the first cruise ships full of infected people was finally allowed to come into port, it docked in San Francisco. Eric actually — albeit accidentally — saw the ship as it came in.
He picked up when I called back, but my relief was short-lived. It was time to cancel Mexico, I said. Too much had changed in the past 24 hours. To my astonishment, he vacillated. We’d be fine, he said, and if the situation was escalating, all the more reason complete our mission. You’re crazy, I said; did he really think leaving the country in an escalating situation was a good idea? We have time, he said. We do not, I said. Fine, he said. Fine, I said, but I didn’t appreciate his tone (always a great choice of words in an argument.) So … now what? He should come to Vegas so we could leave for Chicago, together, first thing in the morning. No, he should come to Vegas and we leave tonight. If there weren’t flights to Vegas tonight, maybe I ought to fly to San Francisco and we get a red-eye home. No, no, he should just fly to Chicago and I should fly … Wait, where the hell are we? Where are you? Where are you?
I want to pause here for a moment and make it clear — especially to those who think my fears were irrational to begin with — that I was not having a panic attack. I have had two actual panic attacks in my day and I was as far from one of those as I was from my front door. I wasn’t panicking. I was simply enduring the mounting tension that was beginning to give the atmosphere a personality and I did not trust that personality. I wasn’t shaking, I didn’t feel like crying; it just felt like every moment counted. It felt like every move I made had to be smart if I was going to stay one step ahead of all this.
We decided Eric would fly directly to Chicago, and so would I. We had to get home before things changed again. I opened the Southwest app on my phone. There was a flight out of Vegas to Chicago at 4:20 p.m.
It was ten to three.
This gave me just 30 minutes to pack, check-out, and get back to the airport.
When the cab pulled up to the Bellagio and the valet opened my door, it was all I could do not to run straight into the hotel, and sprint through the din of the cavernous casino to the bank of elevators. But I didn’t run. I walked.
This wasn’t an amble, mind you. I didn’t have time for amble. But I forced myself to sort of … glide. Yes, the clock was ticking, but a grown woman running through a public place — especially a busy hotel — would attract attention and surely, surely, I thought, everyone else had been listening to the news and were as tense as I was. It takes one person to yell “Fire!” in a theater to cause a stampede for the door, and this was precisely what I was trying to avoid. I put a placid look on my face and smiled when I greeted the elevator attendant. The doors closed. The car went up. When the doors opened again and I saw no one waiting for the elevator, I shot out like someone had fired a starting gun and whipped down the long hallways to my room.
Folks, I’ve never packed so fast in my life. Normally, I am organized to the point of being neurotic when I pack a suitcase. There’s a place for everything and everything goes into its place. A well-organized suitcase makes for a well-organized mind which makes for a well-organized trip, that’s what I say — it’s practically science! But that afternoonI did my best Tasmanian Devil, flinging things in as quickly as I could: Panties, boots, loose toiletries (pure agony), sneakers, books, notepads, nightgowns — this kind of packing job would’ve been physically painful if I had time to think about it.
The heavy door to my room shut behind me and I headed back down to the lobby. With two suitcases, it was even more important that I remain calm as I made my way back to the taxi line. I marveled at all the people at the slot machines, the craps tables, the bars, the restaurants, drinking their double vodkas as dealers dealt poker hands. I had visions of announcements over the loudspeaker, of shouts and crowds rushing to get out the door. Was this what foresight felt like? Was I leaving just in time to escape pandemonium and take one of the last on-time flights out of Vegas?
However in free-fall the airline industry might be, even after all that’s happened and all that’s still to come, domestic flights still haven’t been grounded. There was plenty of time for me to get home from Vegas and plenty of time for Eric to get out of California. But that’s not what it felt like the second time I went to the airport 20 days ago. That afternoon, I felt like a mouse being chased by a cat, and in the nick of time, I had slipped through a hole to safety.
The hole is quarantine. And we’ve been here ever since.