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 second of a three essay series.
Listen to Makayla Kulick’s excerpt from the ‘The Way We Live Now’ series.
March 26, 2020
It was like a switch flipped.
Everyone knew about the coronavirus and that it had made its way into the United States, but the people around me weren’t too concerned about it. Everyone – myself included – had an, “It’s not happening near me, so it doesn’t concern me,” attitude.
Then the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic and everyone lost their minds.
People started to hoard unnecessary items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer before we were all encouraged to stay home. It was like everyone’s snow day brains kicked in and they thought they needed enough toilet paper and bread to last the winter. While people bought enough supplies to make their own toilet paper castles in their homes, I was astonished to see fully stocked aisles of shampoo, conditioner, body wash and laundry detergent. I guess no one is showering or washing clothes during their stay-at-home vacations.
The fact that people think toilet paper is the most important thing scares me more than my chances of contracting COVID-19.
April 7, 2020
Yesterday was my Nana’s birthday. She turned 60. For as long as I can remember, my Nana has lived next door.
Nana has been smoking for over half of her life and is very susceptible to illness, so she spent her 60th birthday without being able to touch anyone she loves.
Yesterday morning I got out of the shower to see I had a text from her. “Can I come over to use your PC?” she asked. I said yes without giving it much thought, but then my mind went into panic. My mother is a nurse and my parents are in and out of the house constantly for work nowadays, so they could possibly carry the virus with them.
I quickly pulled out the Clorox wipes and wiped down any surface she may touch: doorknobs, keyboard, computer mouse. As I was wiping down these surfaces, I told myself that I was overreacting, I didn’t have to do all this. But I continued anyway.
Nana came over and we stayed on opposite walls of each other while she borrowed my computer. She would half smile at me from across the room and I know she wanted to stay for longer, to hug me. This was the first time she had seen me since I came home from school weeks earlier, but she left just as quickly as she came.
I yelled another “Happy Birthday” to her as she walked along the tall grass between our houses and watched as she went inside.
My dad went to six different grocery stores after work yesterday trying to find something for his mother’s birthday. He bought Nana one of those cheesecakes where every slice is a different flavor. Nana has a sweet tooth that she barely indulges, so this was perfect for her birthday dessert-for-one.
April 14, 2020
My parents are stressed about their lives at work.
My mom especially, who works at our local hospital as a nurse. They’ve been cutting everyone’s hours down, which is surprising because amidst the coronavirus, I figured this is the time they would need more help.
My mom is angry because she has to take any shift they’ll give her, which is usually the graveyard shift in the ER. Sometimes, they call her two hours before her next shift to tell her it has been cancelled.
We are cooking at home more now than I can ever remember doing when I was a kid. My brother and I lived off dollar menus because my parents didn’t have time to cook. They were in their twenties with two kids under 10. Now, all we have is time.
I am their youngest child at 19. They spent their youth raising my brother and I, and now they seem to be taking it back. With their hours cut, they have more time to themselves. They are learning how to make mixed drinks and have fun.
I do not blame them. This is probably the last time in a while that they will have so little responsibility.
April 22, 2020
My dad’s sister came over to visit us and my Nana on Saturday. She brought her husband and my 6-year-old cousin Kylie. We all stayed in the joint, huge front yard of mine and my Nana’s house. We had recently given our dog Marley a bath, and my aunt felt like it was okay to let him out to play with Kylie.
We all played frisbee, with Marley picking it up when it was out of range. We yelled back and forth to each other, trying to pretend this was just like any other family gathering. As they were leaving, I saw my aunt pour hand sanitizer all over her and Kylie’s hands. I knew the first thing they would do when they got home was make sure Kylie took a bath.
My parents and I walked inside and all went to the three sinks in the house to wash our hands. I cleaned the frisbee with Clorox wipes and my mom gave the dog another bath. It all feels so trivial, even though I know it is not. The coronavirus is very real, but sometimes it feels like a fantasy, like the plot to a young adult novel. Our lives are not really our lives anymore; it does not get more dystopian than that.
Backyard family barbecues, riding your bike with friends and snowball fights with the neighborhood kids: These are the things that feel lost to the coronavirus. Things that people will be too scared to do, even when they tell us it is okay to go back to normal life.
The closeness of meeting a new friend or saying goodnight after a first date. There will always be that fear in the back of our heads saying, “Is this too close? Should I be doing this? Are we sure it is safe?”
Fears that will never go away. There will forever be these fears and hesitations in us that we will not be able to control.
We will become too comfortable in our virtual worlds, only poking our heads out when we absolutely have to. We will increasingly find comfort in our isolation, preferring the safety of our own homes. Because why not?
Some of us can carry out our lives completely from the comfort of our living rooms. Your job is online, your classes, your hobbies and your entertainment. You can even get your groceries delivered to your house. There are people who are not going to give that up, no matter how much they think they want out of their makeshift jail cell.
People will go back to normal and a month later joke in the breakroom about how they wish their staycation had lasted longer, how they wish they could work from home again.
We are the children of the digital age; everything is at the click of a button. Why do you have to risk your health and sanity to leave anymore? You don’t.
Makayla Kulick is a 19-year-old junior at Appalachian State University from Asheboro, North Carolina. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing and minoring in Classical Civilizations and hopes to have a career as a novelist.