The essays included in The Way We Live Now are the end product of an advanced creative writing seminar taught at Appalachian State University in the Spring semester of 2020 by Susan Weinberg, an associate professor in the undergraduate creative writing program at ASU. After the coronavirus pandemic caused her senior students to be sent to their homes to finish the semester, she challenged them to write about the abrupt displacement from college life, capturing their experiences as the pandemic unfolded in their North Carolina communities. The project was named for the Susan Sontag short story of the same name about the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City. This is the third of a three essay series.
Listen to Olivia Martin’s excerpt from the ‘The Way We Live Now’ series.
March 24, 2020
Just when the pandemic struck the U.S., my boyfriend, Max, and I were hiking Rough Ridge. Every distant cough spiked my anxiety, and we’d hold our breath when someone passed us on the trail. It felt like overkill, but you never know.
The trail was mucky, covered in mud, and the steep parts were as slick as ice. It was nice out–sort of humid, even. Strange for early March. But then again, the past winter had been mild too. Milder than I’d ever seen it.
Now that we were on the cusp of spring, I had hoped the thoughts of strange climate events would cease. However, with what was essentially a shutdown of the physical community as we knew it, our only escape was the digital world, and the outdoors (with caution).
We hiked all the way up the side of the mountain and looked down from a rock. No guard rails, no safety nets. We sat and watched as cars, some tiny and quiet, some big and loud, sped past us down on the Blueridge Parkway. The mountains dwarf anything and everything humankind has created.
Feeling my lungs heave and my heart thump in my chest reminded me how lucky I was. Lucky that I could even make it up here, to see this view, and to feel the things I felt.
The air was lighter. For a moment, I thought if we could somehow get every person on Earth to breathe this air, maybe things would get better. That there’d be a weight lifted off our collective shoulders. But we’ve been carrying weights for a long time. If we shed them, I don’t know if we’d feel better, or more vulnerable.
March 31, 2020
Every day since the quarantine, since Max and I decided we should stay inside, we’ve been rearranging our furniture. At first it was just the lighting. The switch on our living room lamp broke, so we found some old string lights to put up around the television.
Then it was the coffee table. It was too close to the couch, and we kept stubbing our toes on the legs.
Pretty soon our entire living room was switched around. In our boredom, we moved the couch from one wall to another. The television was scooted forward, and then scooted back. Our rug was shifted, and our two extra chairs were shoved out of the way.
Then we went on an all-out cleaning spree. We dusted, sorted out our vitamins, even gathered all our dirty laundry up into one bag in preparation for laundry day.
For the first time in a while, our apartment looks nice. Even the plants that I keep in the window are flourishing. I don’t know why cleaning and rearranging makes me feel better. I guess it tricks me into thinking that I have some control over my situation. That, somehow, moving the couch from one wall to the other will make me feel less alone. I’ve always heard that physical space has a huge influence on mental health, but until now, I never had a physical space to call my own. It’s kind of funny, really. I finally got my own apartment, just to end up being stuck in it.
I turned 21 on March 21st. Only ten days ago, but it feels like forever. My middle sister told me it was my “golden birthday.” Your “golden birthday,” also known as your “lucky birthday,” or “champagne birthday,” happens when you turn the exact age of the day you were born. I turned 21 on the 21st. My golden birthday.
Amidst all the quarantine panic, Max and I were able to go home to visit my family for a celebration of sorts, before officially quarantining ourselves to our one bedroom apartment. I always underestimate just how much hotter it will be at the bottom of the mountain. But it was hot. It felt like summer.
Every other house we passed, there was some sunburnt guy in a tank top mowing his lawn. The smell of cut grass leaked in through our open car windows. We made it to my parents’ house. My sisters were in the driveway playing volleyball. They waved and danced around when we pulled up.
My family lives in a sort of secluded area so nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Even later in the day, when I went with my Mom to the state run liquor store for the first time, it didn’t feel like there was a pandemic happening. Inside, the only telltale sign was the tape that lined the floor up to the checkout counter, one strip every six feet of crushed carpet floor. But the woman working the cash register still wished me a happy birthday when she checked my I.D.
April 7, 2020
On April 6th, the International Space Station flew over us while we all slept. When I was young, my dad would let us stay up late and we’d stand in the road in front of our house and watch for it to pass. I’d dance over the cracks in the road and ignore the gravel digging into the soles of my bare feet. We’d crane our necks and wait, looking for anything that could be something.
Eventually we’d see it. Nothing more than a little red light in the sky. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was a plane.
But now, with no planes in the sky and a shelter-in-place order on the ground, the Space Station would have been hard to miss. I noticed the lack of planes a few days ago. On my porch back home, I sat and watched the sky. An attempt to get fresh air. Still, no planes.
Plenty of helicopters, though. I heard one twice last night in bed. I think it was the same one, coming in and going back out. That seems to be all there is to do now. Coming in and going out. Going out, but never for too long.
We went for a drive on the Parkway over the weekend. We sat, in our car, at an overlook. We didn’t get out. In fact, we had agreed specifically not to. And still, a man and his son, tourists, knocked on our windows and asked us to come and take their picture. We said no, of course. It was strange to see the confusion and disappointment on their faces. I felt like I should apologize.
“Sorry! We’re not rude, we just don’t want to die or risk killing the people we love!”
When we got home, we made another agreement not to go out on the Parkway again anytime soon. Our bubble gets smaller and smaller.
We wear masks in grocery stores now. The grocery store I used to work at back home keeps calling, begging me to come in for a few shifts. And I’m terrified, because at some point, I may have to.
April 21, 2020
Max is singing in the shower, and I’m staring out the window at a feral cat that has been hanging out in the brush behind our apartment building. I thought it was a bobcat at first – it seems huge. Gray, fur matted from rolling around in the dirt. He stares down at me from the incline that leads into our backyard, if you can call a culvert a backyard.
The grass has gotten tall lately. This morning somebody went at the overgrowth with a weed whacker, but it didn’t even make a dent. I don’t mind it. With the extra grass comes wildflowers. Overhanging branches bring green leaves. And it brought the cat.
I assume he sits up there watching for some form of breakfast, wriggling around in the brush. A mouse, or a lizard maybe. I daydream about putting food out for him, slowly coaxing him upstairs and convincing him to love me. We don’t have any pets, and we certainly couldn’t afford the monthly pet fee that our apartment requires. But still, I’ve been longing for a tiny creature to coddle. And as a consolation prize, fate has brought me this big, dirty cat.
I don’t know how long I watch him for. Long enough for Max to get out of the shower, and for me to beckon him to the window. “Look! A cat.” I move over so he can get a better view, and the cat turns towards us, sensing our presence. We all stare at one another for a moment, frozen. Then we watch him stand and begin slowly padding his way back into the forest.
Growing up, my family always took in the stray animals that showed up in our backyard, much to my father’s dismay. From baby birds to turtles, we’ve rescued them all.
One day we got home from school to find an entire box of kittens that had been dumped on the side of the road. We brought them home, and my father repeated his usual speech. “We already HAVE a cat. These kittens might be diseased, what if they got one of our pets sick? What if they got YOU sick?” But neither my sisters nor my mother or I cared. We took care of the kittens until they were old enough, and we found each of them homes.
My grandmother does the same thing. Her house sits on a rather large piece of land adjacent to a highway, and animals are abandoned on her property all the time. She’ll take one in, take it to the doctor, have it spayed and vaccinated. It’s expensive, and half the time, the animals run away as soon as she brings them back. But she still does it. If it’s a boy cat, she’ll call it Mister. And if it’s a girl, she’ll call it Missy.
The most recent time I spoke to her, she told me about her newest: “Well, I’ve been seeing a cat around here too. It’s a little orange-yellow-looking thing. I try to call it over, you know, but he just looks at me. And if I get any closer, he runs off. I just put a little plate of bologna out there for him, in case he gets hungry. And a little bowl of milk too.”
My grandmother has lived alone in a big house ever since my grandpa died about a year and a half ago. Since his death, we’ve visited her as frequently as we could, but now with the quarantine, we’re all stuck inside. And, just like grandma, my only source of entertainment comes from keeping tabs on the big, dirty cat that I see from the back window.
May 1, 2020
In a few days, I’ll have graduated from Appalachian State University. I’ve been in the education system for around seventeen years. I never imagined it would end like this. Without a physical graduation, my final semester feels deflated.
I don’t have any plans to celebrate my achievements. I don’t even know when I’ll be able to see my friends or my family. For now, all I have is my apartment, my boyfriend and access to streaming services.
And, surprisingly, we’ve been enjoying ourselves. Before quarantine, I was in class for most of the day, and Max worked 12 hour shifts at a tobacco shop. But now, we sit together on the couch and talk about what might happen in the future. We fantasize about moving away together, being able to see the world. I had planned on taking a big road trip right after graduation. We were going to visit my family in Utah and continue west until we hit the coast. It was going to be our first real vacation in years. The first time in a while that I wouldn’t have to worry about homework piling up or getting fired for taking too many vacation days. Someday, I hope we’ll be able to take that road trip.
But it will never be as worry-free as it would have been before coronavirus. If we wear masks in the local grocery stores, traveling to a different state would require an entire hazmat suit. I don’t know if that trip will ever happen. The only thing I know for certain is the end date of our lease. May 31.
For me, the near future is just as hazy as the far future. But for now, I’m content with sitting on the couch with my boyfriend, watching shitty television, and trying my best not to worry about what comes next.
Olivia Martin is a freelance writer and editor whose work focuses on living in the South. She graduated from Appalachian State University in May 2020 with honors and currently resides in Newton, North Carolina. Contact: [email protected]