Yesterday I did the most irresponsible thing possible in the middle of a pandemic. To wit: I packed myself, a bag of books, and a bunch of booze into a car, driven by my oldest best friend on her birthday, so I could ride with her up the eastern seaboard through declining Covid numbers to Brooklyn, where I would spend a leisurely five days with my other best friend, while first best friend drove on for a leisurely five days with her oldest friends at a house in Vermont. We’d all had fresh negative Covid tests (swabs and antibodies). We’d all be quarantining. We were all aware of New York State’s mandatory fourteen day quarantine for travelers from any state in the red zone (North Carolina, plus thirty-four of the fifty states + Puerto Rico). We were planning to be careful, but we were also planning not to really tell anyone. I mean, technically, we were all planning to kind of, sort of, definitely break the law .
“There’s a pandemic. There’s illness. There’s an actual hurricane. You worry about the ethics. You worry about being embarrassed at getting busted for a borderline unenforceable regulation no one is actually getting busted for. I mean, it’s not like there are check points. Of all the things to worry about,” said one of the few people I told about the plan, when I made the plan.
In fact, I was worried about the other things–literally all the other things—too but “What keeps me awake at night is the idea that I might be being a bad, selfish person and a worse citizen? Do you think I’m a bad, selfish person?”
The person I was talking to didn’t. “Sometimes, Alison, I worry you might be conscientious to a fault.” But that person was also mostly worried about the fact that I might encounter sharks on the trip. “There have been so many shark attacks in New York,” she said. “It’s extremely upsetting.”
Sharks in Brooklyn? I goggled. It sounded to me like some kind of guerilla marketing for some misbegotten, plague-ridden “West Side Story” revival, but what did I know. I was a bad, selfish person and a worse citizen.
I might have backed out of the trip early on, but I love my friends and I’m desperate for anything approaching “Reasons to Keep Going” in a time when going on in the world promises, at best, an increasingly dim, and possibly non-existent flicker of light at the end of a very long, very dim, very painful and tedious tunnel, which may last for months or years or forever. I had one trip planned with one of those friends. It was to the beach, and the promise of sitting under an umbrella, sun drunk and salt slick, hearing the waves and feeling warm sand beneath my toes, even if only for a precious few days, was enough to make this whole terrible, no-good, very bad season feel survivable.
When it fell through (resort closed, staff members having literally died of Covid), the irresponsible idea arose as kind of a last minute “Hey, what if we,” a couple of stiff Negronis into a Zoom cocktail hour. We discussed with family and significant others. We weighed risks. We put plans in place. I got heat exhaustion sitting in a high school parking lot trying to get a Covid Test with 500 of my neighbors. I worried. But it was something. A break in the monotony. A different view out different window. One night of the three of us reconvened with homemade cupcakes and gold balloons, watching old videos from college with small batch gin that tastes like Maine, and the physical closeness of two of the handful of non-blood related people that are closer to me than anyone in the world. Just that night. I could probably cross the desert with a broken leg and only salt water to drink for just one of those nights right now.
Of course we knew it might not happen. We prepared to be disappointed and heartbroken because if 2020 is anything, it is Disappointment and Heartbreak made manifest in gargantuan world-crushing, all-human-life obliterating size. My grandmother is dying. My job is complicated. I have a raft of chronic, if not particularly serious, medical issues. We all have families. We all have obligations. We all have natural disasters and financial woes. We all have an equally good chance of getting Covid. We all have an equally good chance of giving it to someone else. Any one of us could change our minds “If this doesn’t happen, we have to accept that and be cool.” Up until the moment, I physically got in the car and felt my friend pull out of my driveway, I could not 100% guarantee that we were going. “Anything could happen,” I said, fearfully, hopefully, ambivalently. “Anything,” I said, as we bought gas, and I started a 15-hour playlist, built around nostalgia, probably misplaced optimism, and dumb pop songs about facing the worst things in the world and just deciding to live it the fuck up.
North of Richmond, somewhere between Fredericksburg and Quantico, we pulled into a rest area so we could switch shifts at driving. I took over and turned up the jams and slid out onto the highway like I wasn’t even Part of the Problem. I think we made it two miles before my friend sighed from the passenger seat and announced that she’d gotten a news alert from one of her friends in Vermont. “They’re checkpointing bridges and tunnels into the five boroughs,” she said. “They’re randomly stopping cars.”
We pulled over two stops down. Friend got out to smoke a cigarette in a traffic island and I frantically tried to call my other friend in New York. Cell service was bad. Towers had been knocked down by the hurricane. We drove another few miles down the road and stopped at another rest area. I called and called and called some more.
“This was exactly what I was afraid would happen,” I said. Because, like, every single other thing I’ve been afraid of since the beginning of this pandemic. It happened. It came to pass. I was right. It sucks to be right.
After a little more than an hour my call went through and my friend in New York thought we’d be okay, but she could tell I was stressed, and she sounded resigned. And it broke my heart. Because she knew I was going to make the safe, the boring, the responsible choice, and by making the safe, boring, and responsible choice, I was going to disappoint her. I was going to fail her. And I loved her for knowing me well enough to know then, and hated myself for not being a different kind of person.
Yesterday, I did the most responsible thing possible in the middle of a pandemic, when I told my best friend, with finality, that I was not going to come spend the weekend with her in Brooklyn. She took it well. She told me it wasn’t my fault, but I’ve never felt like anything was more my fault in my life. “This is why I hate making decisions,” I said. “I always end up making the saddest one.”
I tried to convince my friend in the passenger seat to take me to a car rental joint so I could drive back and she could drive on to Vermont without me. She played though a bunch of different scenarios, but ultimately decided she didn’t want to drive alone, and so she sacrificed her own trip as we faced driving the whole way back.
“Think of it like this,” I said. “Someday we’ll tell our grandchildren we drove 500 miles round trip in one day, in the middle of historic plague and possibly the end of everything a day to eat an Impossible Whopper in a hot car in the parking lot of a Nordstrom Rack in Dale City, Virginia.”
She laughed about that for a while. Laughed hard. I did too. Even though it wasn’t that funny. Just gut-bustingly tragic and absurd. Just so goddamn 2020.
I needed some kind of closure so I googled Chesapeake Bay and drove us to a pretty little state park about four miles away. We paid too much to park the car and walked under the branches of shade trees at the water’s edge, watching children splash in the shadows and old fisherman cast out into the distance from the end of a rickety old fishing pier.
We didn’t talk much, because talking hurt and there was nothing good to say. I looked out over the water and said something dumb but true about how the vast majority of my ancestors came to America via the Chesapeake Bay and spent their early years as colonists alongside its wetlands and tributaries before heading the western end of Virginia, where they mostly still reside. I thought about what they expected when they came and whether they thought it was worth it and whether they gave a thought to what miserable crapsack scene the New World would turn out to be the day their depressed, bored, increasingly hopeless eighth-great granddaughter aborted mission halfway through an ill-advised, quarantine-flouting trip to New Amsterdam to see her best friend.
“If the shoe had been on the other foot, she would have done it for me,” I said, to my oldest best friend, on the way back to the car. “She has done it for me.”
“You made the right decision,” my friend said. “You can’t think about that right now.”
But I did think about it. I thought about it all the way home through the golden glow of a summer twilight back through southern Virginia and into the Piedmont. I thought about it through multiple texts from the few people I had told, telling me that I had made the right decision. I had made the moral decision. The ethical decision. The smart decision. All I could do was think about my friend, alone in her apartment, and all the new things we weren’t going to do or say we did, added to the list of missed opportunities and lost chances and crushed dreams that is the world we live in, now indefinitely, without seeming promise of improvement, no matter what we do.
I made the right decision.
I cried all the way home. I cried through a Zoom call with the friend in New York, seeing her apartment cleaned and decorated, strewn with gold balloons for the night we weren’t going to have. I cried most of this morning. I’ve cried mostly since March. I am so tired of crying.
I realize that half of you have written me off for even thinking about doing this. I realize that you probably (rightly) believe I got what I deserved. But you can feel confident that I recognized the error of my ways and thus saved you the trouble from notifying Cuomo that I am a possibly murderous scofflaw entering Clinton Hill from the Red Zone.
I want you to know that I know made the right decision, so you don’t have to tell me. But it doesn’t feel like the right decision. It feels like regret and grief and one more totally necessary, but unsolicited adjustment into a New Normal that no one wants to be forced to live in.
It feels like nothing left to look forward to.
It feels like 2020.
Picture today is of the Chesapeake Bay, taken 249 miles and a little more than 24 hours ago.