Now I miss the cacophony. It’s eerily quiet outside. The building across the street houses Facebook and J.Crew. From my perch I used to watch celebrities exit, cameras flashing, limos ready for the getaway. At lunch hour the employees spilled out onto the sidewalk, smoking, snacking, schmoozing.
Now the building is dark. Occasionally I see a delivery person on a bicycle or a lone walker. Whenever I visited friends in the country, I’d joke that I couldn’t fall asleep in the still night and birds woke me in the morning. When friends stayed with me in the city, they’d ask if I heard the fire engines and ambulances. Their blare had long since receded into the background. Covid-19 silence keeps me up.
There are still sirens, mostly during the day, ambulances I assume.
My husband’s office has closed and we are together 24/7. He shops for food and supplies while I transition into online learning at the university where I teach writing workshops. I have learned a new phrase: Zoom hangover. It has nothing to do with alcohol. I’m so tired I can’t concentrate on the six novels I ordered at the start of this hunker-in-place order, convinced I’d read several a week. Spraying down the delivery box with Lysol, wearing gloves to take it out to the garbage, I left the books in a spot on the floor alone, just in case. I haven’t touched them — not for fear of germs, but because of my low concentration level.
My husband won’t join me in a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, saying, “That would drive me crazy,” but I welcome the distraction. My new nightly routine: a lavender bubble bath to soothe me into sleep. Sometimes. I consider myself lucky when I don’t wake at 4 a.m. One of my writing students is handing out homemade sandwiches to people who sleep in tents under scaffolding. I am lucky to be sequestered in an apartment with heat and hot water.
Two weeks ago I never thought I’d ration my one bottle of Lysol spray, or hear friends worry about a toilet paper shortage. A friend sends me a cartoon depicting two 60-ish mothers. One says, “My son’s a doctor!” The other responds, “Meh. My son owns a toilet paper factory.” Two weeks ago I mailed a dozen plastic gloves to my daughter in Brooklyn in an unmarked manila envelope. They never arrived. Could someone have stolen them? These are desperate times. Two weeks ago I never thought I’d gladly trade my organic household cleaner for bleach countertop spray. Nor spend hours online trying to find Purell. Nor consider making my own. Nor be labeled in a high-risk group because of my age, and qualify for senior grocery shopping at 7 a.m. Two weeks ago I never imagined my 26-year-old daughter would text me every morning: Any symptoms? When I try to answer her, the facial recognition feature on my iPhone doesn’t recognize me in my mask.
I never thought I’d bake bread, as I can easily buy the freshest loaves in a dozen places nearby. My daughter coaches my husband and me on FaceTime through the yeast proofing stage. We share the entire experience together, except the actual breaking of bread. I start thinking how to celebrate the holidays remotely. A friend texts a meme that not even Elijah will be allowed to show up in person this Passover.
Two weeks ago I had ice cubes, a bottle of vodka and a pint of ice cream in my freezer. Now I can barely close the door. It’s stocked full of bagel slices, homemade soups and the frozen pizzas I used to snobbishly shun because I live in the city of pizzerias.
On a walk, zigzagging around the occasional other pedestrian to maintain my six feet of separation, I see signs in every store window. WE’LL BE BACK! they promise. But I dread that these wonderful small businesses will not survive, and worry for their workers’ loss of income.
The silence outside feels so loud to me. I can’t remember the last time I heard a horn honking or a car alarm going off. How annoying they were. How I miss them.
Fearful of venturing out too far, I now take two walks a day in my building’s back garden. I walk a mile or two around the 100-step perimeter, for stress relief, for fresh air, if there is such a thing. Around and around I go, recalling my young daughter’s pet hamster on his wheel in his cage.
My building faces Grace Church, a 200-year-old Gothic Revival masterpiece. I can’t see it from my windows, but I can hear church bells every quarter hour. Working at home at my desk, I’ve often unconsciously blocked out the bells. Now they’re strikingly noticeable. They remind me of a trip to Florence years ago. The hotel had a loggia on the roof where my husband, daughter and I loved to sit and listen to church bells peal around the city, an exquisite symphony.
Now the Grace Church bells make me grieve for Italy. We are Italy now. A few days after 9/11, I gingerly entered Grace Church and sat in a pew. Raised as a Reform Jew, I found churches foreign, something to admire like museums on trips to Europe. I was surprised to find comfort there while my city was reeling.
Now the churches are shuttered. Synagogues have services online. I am hyper-attuned to Grace Church’s bells, blasting the beats out to the entire city every 15 minutes. Now it signals that another 15 minutes have elapsed since Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order to “pause.” Fifteen fewer minutes before this pause in our lives ends, and life as we have never known it emerges.
My friend is less frightened than I am. She recalls her mother, a Holocaust survivor, sniffing sheets warm from the laundry and remarking, every time, “I thought I’d never sleep on clean sheets again.”
At 7 every night, people open their windows, clapping and cheering for our health-care workers. I join in, thankful. And grateful for the noise. I make sure to use a protective tissue to wipe my eyes. Not even silent tears are safe to touch anymore.