Last weekend, I drove to my childhood stomping grounds to sleep in a tent in the yard of one of my oldest friends. We used to make monthly visits to one another pre-pandemic, and she is one of the only people who has been in my house since it started, back at the beginning of everything, when she was working from home and the kids were learning from there, too. Since then, her life has changed a little and she has to go into an office a few times a week, so we’ve moved on to pitching tents and spending all night on the barely lit back porch, amazing ourselves with our own adulthood: talk of ailing bodies, money woes, job frustrations, family crises, marriages, children, keeping up with the house.
Her kids wore masks when I went in for food or the bathroom, one even flattening himself against a wall to let me pass. It is difficult to know how stringent one needs to be with short-term, masked contact, but the respect with which her children treated my own fear and health was remarkable, and I felt so guilty on two occasions when, hustling inside to the bathroom, I got a few feet through the door without realizing I wasn’t wearing a mask. I so rarely leave the house I am not accustomed to it, sometimes forgetting I even have a mask with me.
I’m not a real camper, so I have my tent and I have Nikki’s childhood Garfield sleeping bag, which comes up to my ribcage and is made mostly of Nylon. They do camp, so I borrowed gear from them, set myself up to sleep in the cold night with my hoodie pulled up and cinched over my face as far as it would go. I left the top tent flaps open so I could see the moon, which would be full the next night, but seemed as much to me in that moment.
I’m a crier. If you asked my wife about things she might change about me, this would probably be on the list. It doesn’t make my tears less valid that they are prolific, but I think for some it reads like the Girl Who Cried Wolf. And that night, lying on the stiff ground surrounded by warmth that had just been washed and smelled like hugging my best friend, who was asleep inside, I cried.
Staring at the blinding moon, like a Pixar lamp above me, I remembered our teen years, shoulder-to-shoulder on her bed listening to “Jagged Little Pill.” The time we hitchhiked — her little sister and the dogs in the back of the pickup that let us in — and got lectured by the driver. As girls, we draped ourselves across each other, shared clothes, held hands. We hugged for no reason, and frequently. When things are normal, we still do some of those things — minus the hitchhiking.
But that night on the porch with her, discussing adulthood in the disenchanted way that people do, there were many moments that one or the other of us wanted to sit on the arm of the other’s chair and wrap our arms around each other. Adulting really is hard. And in the middle of a pandemic where contact with your loved ones could be lethal, it becomes harder. In my tent after everyone else was asleep, I was thinking of that barrier to connection, the inability to reach out, to comfort in ways we’ve been conditioned to do so.
I was thinking of what we felt we had in store for us at 14, 15, and what we would have said if anyone told us what 2020 would look like: on the cusp of 40 now, in some ways more angsty than we had been as teenagers, exhausted by our own lives and by the arena we’re living them in. Our country characterized now by hate, bluster, buffoonery. Our devastating helplessness.
We have done everything we can in life to be in touch, even when I lived in Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York. My move south gave us proximity and that has brought us emotionally closer than since we graduated from high school. Then 2020 brought us COVID-19.
I slept fitfully, and she did too, which has also always been true of us. I got a text from her at 3 a.m. telling me the front door alarm code if I needed it. She was yards away from me, breathing different air, worrying same as I was. We were together, as always, but so very far apart. I can’t imagine any more appropriate response than to weep until the moon went blurry.