On a Saturday night in early March my wife and I had dinner out in Evanston, Illinois. We dined with good friends – an artist and his wife, an emergency room M.D. We asked our doctor friend, should we stay in because of this coronavirus? She made a reservation at a local Japanese place. I had the sashimi deluxe. Her husband drank so much he texted to apologize the next morning. I flew home to New York that evening. My wife and I have commuted like this for 15 years. In the two months that would pass before I saw her next, 21,000 people would die in NYC. 100,000 across the entire land. It still has not sunk in.
Throughout the worst of it I hunkered down with my quarantined college sophomore son, plucked from his semester abroad in Berlin. We did not get sick. I did not have it one drop as bad as the parents of 1.1 million city school kids, trying to home school in apartments as large as bee colonies.
There is nothing I can write about those sixty days that has not been said. We lived by the passage of time, the 7 p.m. cascade of applause, and whisky, wine and cheese ravioli. One day in May I decided it was time to come out of my shell. Air travel was out of the question. I packed six masks and a week’s worth of clothes and aimed my car for the George Washington Bridge.
It was somewhere in Pennsylvania that I realized we New Yorkers were trapped in the nightmare of our own demise. I live in Brooklyn near Prospect Park. For at least two hours a day you could imagine nothing was wrong. We cycled and jogged and walked in masks, apart. For those precious few moments it felt like our lives. Then dusk settled in and the sirens wailed by like race cars on a speedway. The obsessive news watching only dragged you deeper into the vortex of disbelief. An evening smoke on my tenement rooftop, the lights of abandoned Manhattan in the distance, reminded you that the city was dead. You poured one last scotch. You watched Rachel opine and Anderson tally the numbers and you waited for sleep, and to start all over again.
By the time I reached Chicago after a nonstop interstate slog, it was clear that I had ventured to a land far away. People were still under a state-ordered lockdown and the coronavirus had not skipped the Midwest. Not by any stretch. But what I observed the next morning in the bright suburban light was a life seemingly uninterrupted. The grocery store parking lot was packed and people dutifully queued up in masks, carts jammed full of groceries and wine. There was no urgent silence here on the checkout line, no averted eyes as you bought your bodega dinner through a strip of plastic and slunk out into the toxic city night.
I’ve been here 10 days now and our commuter marriage is good. It took but moments to feel as if we had never been apart. Still, it was clear we’d been through something different. My wife, a professor, serves on a Chicago med school task force and is a fount of Covid knowledge. I spent two months walking by refrigerated trailers full of bodies every day on my way to the store. She was fact-based testimony to the impact of the virus on Chicago. I felt guilty that I’d left New York behind.
I’ll be driving east when you read this, my comfortable suburban existence in the rearview mirror, at least for another week or two. Our New York Cuomo-driven numbers may be down, but Instagram tells me we are still in the land of pain. I’m sad to leave my wife and apprehensive about what I am returning to. But I know I will be glad to be home.