A Day in Isolation
The outside world is shut down, and while his morning commute is non-existent, my husband, Fedde, still sets the alarm. He’s always awake by 5 a.m. anyway, so I wonder why we use an alarm at all. It’s late spring, and I can hear the birds chirping and chimps at the zoo down the street screaming for breakfast. They’ve been at it since sunrise.
We wake up to Radio538. The morning show with Frank Dane. Listening to morning radio feels the same, but somehow different. It’s like waking up after a night out in uni, everyone speaking a little slower, trying to make sense of the night before. There is so much to talk about and somehow nothing at all.
While the traffic report is non-existent, the news of the morning comes in the form of shortages at the grocery store: pasta, rice, toilet paper. I imagine in a few years we’ll joke about ‘The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020’, not because it’s the most important thing to remember, but maybe because it’s the only thing we’ll have been able to process.
Time to get out of bed. For my husband, anyway. I only know what time it is because I hear Frank say: ‘It’s 6:45 and we’re picking a song to fit the news. Who’s got one on toilet paper?’ Just like every other morning, Fedde springs out of bed and prepares for the day. I linger in bed just a bit longer.
The light goes on in the bathroom, the automatic fan coming on a few seconds later. I hear some shuffling and the water goes on. I pray that he’s put down the toilet cover. Our bathroom is so small that the shower is fit snug into the corner. There’s no room for a door or a shower curtain so the tiny square meter of sea-glass coloured tiles remains open and the toilet, placed just a few inches away, gets soaking wet. I’m not in the mood to slip off the toilet seat. Again.
I turn over, sleepy, and cuddle with our tuxedo cat, Bonky. He loves a morning cuddle. He lies on his side and waits for me to put my arm across his chest and belly so he can wrap his legs around it. I scratch his little chin and he purrs with delight.
Just as I’m getting comfortable, the purring putting me back to sleep, Fedde is back in the bedroom, indulging in a particular morning routine that drives me mad. As he gets dressed, he likes to take a moment to look out onto the street. It’s always now, almost to the second, that the shining sun’s rays bounce off the windows of the building across the street and beam straight into my tired eyes.
‘Ugh, love, the sun,’ I groan.
He apologises and closes the curtain, but never quite far enough. There’s still a sliver of bare window right where the sun is shining through. Annoyed my attention has shifted, Bonky gets up with a jump. I groan again, and sit up.
I haven’t left the house in two weeks now, and I’m both annoyed and happy to have this sense of normalcy. I slip out from under my blanket and hang my legs over the side of the mattress. I bend down to grab my pyjama bottoms from the night before which are on the floor next to my feet. Left foot in, right foot in, hold the waistband, pull up as I hoist myself up off the bed. Like a zombie, I walk towards the kitchen.
Bonky’s attention is back on me as he snakes through my legs. ‘Yes, honey, I’m coming, I know you’re hungry,’ I exclaim in the sweet, high-pitched voice I always put on when talking to him. I grab the can of dry food, take off the lid, and pour it into his bowl.
The pot, pan, and dishes from last night’s dinner are piled on the counter next to the sink and I try to ignore them as I fill the water tank of our coffee machine. Fedde is rustling around in the living room as I scoop our Douwe Egberts signature Aroma Rood coffee grinds into the coffee filter. One scoop. Two. ‘Do you want three or four?’ I lose count as he yells for three, empty the grinds from the filter back into their green canister and start my count again.
The coffee machine has done its job for the morning and I’ve poured our morning java—strong and black, just how we drink it every day. Before meeting Fedde, I always put cream and sugar in my coffee. ‘XL triple-triple,’ I’d yell through to the Tim Hortons drive-thru employee. Now that I think of it, coffee in North America just isn’t really coffee, is it? I love a strong cup now, but do I enjoy it because of the taste, or is it just easier to take it black, especially since my bowels can’t handle milk or creamer as well as they used to?
Recently, Fedde has spent breakfast moaning about another day of not being in the office with his colleagues, dreading the monotony of never-ending Zoom calls where he can’t actually get anything done. When asked what my day looks like, my answer is the same as most days, ‘I didn’t sleep well so I’ll probably take a short nap, then I need to do a bit of work to get my hours in, maybe go for a walk.’ I’m scared to go outside. I haven’t been for months now. What if, as I go for my walk around the block, I walk by someone who has Covid and in the seconds before we cross paths, they cough into the air without covering their face, and I in turn walk into the cloud left behind their mouth—a Covid cloud, as I affectionately call it—and then I catch it and die. It’s not like I have much of an immune system since the treatment for my leukaemia. I don’t mention this to Fedde though, as he kisses me goodbye, grabs his coffee-filled travel mug and heads upstairs to our attic-turned-home-office for his workday.
I crawl back into bed and check my phone for the first time this morning. Almost a hundred messages from my Court of Rants and Moans group chat—in other words, my group of girlfriends who happen to also be writers. We live on different continents, so WhatsApp is always busy. While I slept, the girls were having their nightly writing session. It’s nice to have them to chat about writing in real time. My regular critique group only e-mails now. The girls are nighttime writers though. I only function in daylight hours.
I do my morning news check, too, to see if there is any more information about the terrifying virus taking over the world. In Italy, there’s a total lockdown! Videos have been popping up of neighbours sitting on balconies playing instruments—violins, guitars, pots, pans—anything to join in. You can see whole streets bustling with joy and music despite the strange, deadly times we’re living through.
As I scroll through the news, I also click through to an article talking about how deadly this new virus can be for people with pre-existing conditions. My heart sinks. Here I am, asthmatic, immune-compromised, with weak lungs, trying to survive in a world that’s being overtaken by an acute respiratory disease.
Before I fall into a panic, I toss my phone to Fedde’s side of the bed, coax Bonky to come in for a cuddle, and try to fall back to sleep.
I wake up from what feels like a fever dream. I knew it wasn’t real even while I was in it—my hair was long, flowing down to my lower back—and yet, as I wake up sweating and confused, I reach for my head, just in case. I always seem to see other me’s in my dreams. Moments from memories locked away, wishes for the future—never the normal me I see staring back in the mirror during waking hours.
A little disappointed, I climb out of bed and change into day clothes. Well, clean hoodie and sweatpants, at least. What’s the point in anything more when I’ve nowhere to be? Groggy and annoyed that I’ve woken as bald as I’ve been these last five years since treatment, I drag my feet towards the living room to fold the never-ending pile of laundry waiting for me in a basket beside the couch.
Gilmore Girls keeps my mind from running to its deepest corners, waiting for me to slip into them. This is the sixth time that I’ve started this series from the beginning. There’s something about Stars Hollow and the Gilmore girls that makes me feel safe.
From the laundry pile, I pick up a dress I bought three years ago on one of those shopping trips in the city we used to take to quell my sadness. It was a few buildings down from the American Book Center—my favourite bookstore and the home of the Amsterdam Quarterly events, where I met my critique group. Esprit, the store was called. As I looked at scarves and handbags, Fedde moseyed off and picked out this flowing, teal dress with purple and orange paisley for me to try on. I had lost so much weight from a year’s worth of treatment and not being able to keep my meals down. Even though I’ve gained weight from the steroids and multitude of medication, the dress has grown with me. There’s a flicker of gratitude as I pull it right side out. Short-lived as, in the movement, my wedding and engagement rings fall off.
‘Ugh, not again!’
I feel through the dress to see where the rings have gone until I hear them fall onto the ground. I think about how my weight has changed in recent years. First I was so thin you could feel my ribs, then so bloated my belly was streaked with purple striae that I felt ripping my skin. The steroid-related weight gain refused to budge, so we had to get my rings expanded, paying over €100 for the extra gold that had to be added. Once I came off the steroids, my weight went back to somewhere in between those two extremes. Now my rings have loosened… Again. I try not to think what might have happened if they fell off as I pulled my wallet out of my handbag to pay for a coffee at the café around the corner.
At noon on the dot, like every day since he’s been forced to work from home, Fedde comes down for lunch. I’ve warmed up some vegetarian schnitzels filled with satay sauce and have slipped it between a couple of slices of bread with lettuce, mayo, and sambal. Next to it, I’ve smeared some butter onto another slice of bread and loaded it with old cheese, Fedde’s favourite. It’s become one of the core routines of our new normal to sit on the couch for lunch, eat, and watch an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
I’m having a bit of a hard time watching a police sitcom these days. I’ve been putting my energy into listening to activists and learning about how Black, Indigenous, and other ethnic minorities in Western society are disproportionately disenfranchised not only through the crisis that this virus has unleashed upon us, but also in the everyday, pervasive ways that systematic racism exists in our society. This came, in part, from the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, but also through my recent need to get in touch with my own roots as a woman of colour myself. I’ve been thinking a lot about the micro-aggressions I’ve faced in everyday life. Things I shrugged off as ignorance. But isn’t that part of the problem? I try to keep my thoughts to myself, not wanting to start a conversation about race with Fedde right now. There’s just too much to talk about and while he’s happy to discuss issues of race with me normally, I don’t want to overwhelm him with such a big conversation when he’s already going stir crazy from his tiny home office amongst boxes of Christmas decorations and furniture that doesn’t quite fit in our living room.
As soon as the episode is finished, Fedde drags himself back to his ‘office’ and into a meeting. I grab my laptop and sit at the dining table to try and find the motivation to work. An e-mail has come through titled ‘Changes being made due to Covid.’ I try to speed read the Dutch text to get to the point. There. In bold. A sentence that translates to: “Your expected work time will be cut from two days down to one.”
I am fuming.
I was looking forward to having something to hold my attention through these long weeks of being at home and, to be frank, I need the money. We have car payments and are saving to buy a house. Sure, Fedde brings in the majority of our income, but the little I do bring in allows me to help with our bills, groceries, and health insurance. It seems out of left field since just yesterday we were planning a bunch of new small projects at work. Two weeks on, I’ll get a Skype call from my only direct colleague letting me know that she’s found a new job. Great! Not only am I stuck here, but I’m stuck here alone.
I decide I’m too angry to work, so I take my laptop back into the bedroom, cuddle up under the duvet, and turn Gilmore Girls back on.
After a couple of episodes, my Netflix has started glitching, so I’ve moved on to YouTube.
A pastime I enjoy equally as much as reading itself is watching videos of people talking about what they’ve been reading. What I’ve noticed in my own reading habits, and in those of these booktubers, is that we’re all reading nearly double what we were reading before we were stuck at home. I was so proud of my four books read last month. Then I started to watch these videos of people reading closer to twenty. My jaw dropped, and I felt a small pang of shame. Why am I not spending more time to read even more than the ‘more’ I’m already reading? What I don’t know now is that in a few months, once I’ve discovered the joy of audiobooks, I’ll finish eight books in a month!
I finally close my laptop and pick up my current book club read.
As I walk into the living room, Fedde comes storming in. He’s mad, and swearing under his breath. He’s just received news from the homeowner’s association about using our storage space as an office. Apparently, using the attic for any reason other than storage, as is written in the bylaws, can be subject to legal action. He closes the living room door to ensure that our voices don’t travel into the hallway as he rehashes the conversation he’s just had.
‘Do these people really think I want to be working in the attic? Do they think I’d be doing this if I had any other choice?’
Right then and there we decide to rearrange the living room so that he can put his home office into the corner beside our antique china cabinet. We were planning on moving anyway, but this really is the cherry on top. We decide it’s time to call a realtor. Tomorrow. First thing.
First Fedde was wound up, but now he’s tired too from bringing his office downstairs. I’ve made the executive decision to get a takeaway for dinner tonight. We’re trying to support our local restaurants, so we order a pizza from the Italian place down the street. While we wait for it to arrive, we put on the Dutch/Belgian crime drama that’s gotten a lot of attention lately. Undercover. It’s about a couple of detectives who go undercover in a trailer park trying to get an in with the local drug lord.
When the pizza arrives, we pop it in the oven for 10 minutes at 150° Celsius, the temperature and time suggested by a virologist in an article I read about the possible transfer of Covid through food. It turns out the risk is super low, but my anxiety tells me I have to do everything and anything to make that risk nearly impossible. I’m just not ready to die yet, especially not from this monstrous virus.
We put our dishes away and head to bed, more lethargic now than we’ve been all day since the pizza caused us both to have bellyaches. We remind each other that this won’t last forever, and that we just have to continue on as best as we can. Hou vol, as the government and various adverts keep reminding us.
As usual, Fedde falls asleep within seconds of saying goodnight. I lie awake for at least another hour, every thought I’ve ever had racing across my mind. The last thing I remember before I fall asleep is wondering which version of myself I’ll meet in my dreams tonight. AQ