Behind Closed Doors
There is a scene in The Handmaid’s Tale when June is hiding in what used to be a busy newsroom. Amongst her many finds strewn across desks, including pictures of journalists’ families and hastily abandoned mugs of dried coffee she finds a DVD of Friends. For a moment June allows herself to cross over, back to a reality that has now evaporated and seems at once childish, perversely carefree and the very embodiment of humanity.
My washing machine has broken down and I am standing in my bedroom trying to sort through a few items I can hand wash. One of the tops has a stain; soy sauce from when we went out to a restaurant to celebrate my husband’s birthday, just weeks before the world shut down and life as we knew it ground to a halt. Just weeks before we went from shunning a particular kind pasta because it didn’t go with a certain sauce to wondering if we could get any food at all. I am stood over this top as it lays mockingly on my bed and I don’t want to wash it. Like someone who has lost a loved one and doesn’t want to disrupt their bedroom, the last remnants, the memories, I want to hold on to this stain, smell its faint odour, take in its amber colouring and the shape of the splash resembling the continent we used to live in. These portals into yesterday come at me in droves: Books I was reading “before”, food I cooked and placed in the freezer suddenly looking like it will carry the codes of some ancient permafrost once I thaw it and bring it back into the now, the flavours hitting my senses like a thousand messages from a time that has passed and will never return.
And now is a very strange time. My house has never been cleaner as I allow my anxiety to furiously power through my mop and vacuum cleaner. And yet what would once have brought me immense comfort _ the sights and smells of a spotless nest _ feels alien to me. I long for messy beds, crumbs on the floor, cake batter licked off fingers that aren’t sore from having been washed a thousand times. I am stood over my soy sauce stained top in a kind of limbo, unsure of what lies ahead, the ground beneath my feet the shiniest it’s ever been, yet shiftier than quicksand.
Outside, as if completely oblivious to the change that has suddenly befallen us, the sun is in full wattage mode, the sky blue and cloudless nearly every single day. The mornings are crisp, clear and filled with birdsong, leaves, flowers, life pushing its way out into Spring with a sharpness and assertiveness I don’t recall seeing in years. I have wanted it silenced. I have wanted to tell it to stop blooming, to curl those leaves back in at once and for birds to mute their deafening chirps. How can they tweet, happily perched on their stupid branches when the only song we have inside our chests is a mournful cry?
But outside our doors life keeps surfacing in an unstoppable sensory rave with green fist pumps and wooden glow sticks. Outside our doors, death is co-existing on the edge of this seasonal rebirth. Outside our doors our loved ones are being reaped from us, pulled away from this Spring and the ones that will follow it with brutal force. Outside our doors mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents are being struck down, dying breathless and alone as their families stand in a vortex of sudden and unspeakable pain. Outside our doors brave medics are putting their lives on the line while the very fabric of our health systems is being ripped apart by the hour. Outside our doors many of the ones left standing are losing their jobs, their ability to feed their children, the strength to stand up to their abusers, locked in with nowhere to escape to. I want to scream but the gates of anxiety are now flung wide open and I am spinning too quickly to be able to make a sound. I pick up a mop and try to force clean my way back into peace.
It’s week five and my heart rate is beginning to settle into something that no longer resembles Detroit techno on steroids. But for a while it was grim. The first week behind closed doors I shut down and anxiety ran the show. My chest closed in on me, my guts went, my appetite disappeared (how the actual fuck did that happen?), my weight dropped. I stood paralyzed by fear. The only thing that ran free were my tears. I coughed and thought “is this it”, while simultaneously wondering if I would have time to write my son a goodbye letter and who would be his guardian, who could take good care of an autistic child, so unique in his needs and gifts. I talked to my husband about wills and we got the ball rolling on those. I cried some more. I thought back to my therapy sessions last year when I repeatedly told the therapist that I could not shake the fear that something horrible was coming. Her suggestions were to take those thoughts and allocate an hour to worry about them and then just let it go because we cannot control everything. I have fought the urge to give her a call to ask how her lockdown is going. Then came the realisation that I needed to get a grip because we are in this for the long haul. Friends who have lived through wars and challenging moments my sheltered existence could only ever have nightmared of, stepped in to help with words of comfort and warnings that this was not the time to fall at what was still a diminutive hurdle. It was too early in the game. Other friends got in touch, sent me masks in the post for when engineers had to cross my sterilised doorstep to fix my washing machine or simply checked in. It helped.
The second week my appetite returned. Given the chance I would have eaten the plate my food was on. I kept cleaning. I kept scrubbing. My hands grew a patine of hardened, sore skin. I cleaned some more. I worked, trying to adapt from my normal three screens to everything condensed in one as tech failed, the dog barked, and the kid interspersed meltdowns with climbing door frames. I ate while he cried and while he laughed his head off to the same 5 seconds of a music video, which he rewinded and replayed 657 times as I worked through news edits and pieces of toast. I cooked again and again. I ate indoors, I ate outdoors, blinded by the sun as he jumped on his trampoline shouting new words: THIS IS HUGE, THIS IS MASSIVE MUMMY, THIS IS AWESOME. It was but I wasn’t paying attention. His new words registered on a numb part of my brain. Then he found the recorder I had stashed away for obvious reasons and the dog found a squeaky toy. The numbness gave way to annoyance. I could have sold them both for a bag of flour.
Week three we danced after breakfast, before I started work, my hair still wet from a quick shower, to Michael Jackson blasting on the TV. I wore makeup for the first time in a long time. Superfluous, yes, but also superb at making me look the part of the person unknowingly clawing back a tiny part of herself. The most used sentences in the household were “can I have a snack now” and “stop it”. I nearly died from a YouTube exercise video. I continued to eat and clean. I became a pro at disinfecting groceries. At night my body felt the tiredness of a marathon runner. Exhaustion settled deep into my bones even though I hadn’t left the house in weeks. I fell asleep before my head even hit the pillow. My dreams, which have kept a lot of therapists in business_ I mean on any given day people come out of water taps and things go a bit David Lynch with a side of B-movie insanity_ were now mostly about food. I gained all the weight back and some extra for insulation.
Week four there were lively discussions over where the butter knife goes after we use it, precious apples gone bad and all the cleaning I was doing. The birds sang even more loudly and I added lipstick to my Still Alive make-up look. School and friends of friends emailed all the lists and all the free resources for homeschooling and shared their expertly crafted timetables. The mums on the WhatsApp school group managed lessons on deforestation complete with journal entries from the viewpoint of endangered tigers, face painting and ice lolly maths. I drank coffee and tried to work as my husband threw all he had at doing worksheets with our son, sans tiger journals, whilst he helped to keep the rest of the boat afloat. Some of the mums went for sunny runs during their allocated exercise hour. I replied to the group with thumbs up and smiley face emojis that didn’t tell them I hadn’t left the house in four weeks because the thought of risking orphaning my child was making me hyperventilate. The London air, meanwhile, had never felt clearer. No fumes, no noise, just the birds, all the birds in a dysfunctional symphony of bliss and uneasiness. My child had meltdown number 5 in a day and I cried because I couldn’t help him or myself and he cried because I was falling apart instead of holding it together for him and we both finished the rectangular biscuits in the tin as he proclaimed “shapes are everywhere, mummy.” I cleaned but not everyday and did nothing when I spotted a fluffy ball of dust next to the TV. At night I escaped into Netflix only to be slapped again by reality by the time Better Call Saul was finished and I wished I was actually in a New Mexico desert with drug dealers because at least you sort of know where you stand with Gustavo Fring.
Week five somehow rolled in with Easter eggs, obscenely bright flowers everywhere and more settled heartbeats as I paused to think how incredibly lucky some of us are to still have homes to huddle in, immersed in our dystopian universe that is nevertheless comfortably complete with running water, heating, food to eat and jobs to work in from our living rooms. Call that a jail at your own privileged peril. The meltdowns are still going strong but so are the new words and the questions, the ball kicking and the scooter riding, two major achievements that no lockdown will take away from him. But you have to be awake to notice. One day, when we had all been tested to our limits, the evening set in with a “wow what a beautiful sunset, mummy. Did you make it for me?” I said yes because sometimes you have to give yourself god-like powers to power through the rest. And you also have to love the shit out of that moment when your kid actually thinks you’re responsible for sunsets.
I suppose it’s time to wash that stained top now and accept the world we will return to will be a very different affair. You can take comfort in holding on to objects, in watching episodes of Friends, but the world has moved on spectacularly, both from Ross and Rachel and from its pre-virus status. Outside looking in, the past masquerading as the present or maybe the other way around _ places and faces will be looking familiar but will either be hollowed or forever changed inside. The time is gonna come when children will have to go back to school and we will go back to the world unsure of whether this will be our last week on the globe because after all this hiding this killer is still out to get us. It’s cold comfort to know we are always on the edge of death at any given time. Somehow this feels like an edgier edge.
People in top jobs will use this time to push their agendas and some to curtail our freedoms. A few will mean well and do right by us but a lot of them won’t and it’s up to us, as always, to look out for one another, for our friends and families in other households, in other countries, as far away now as they have been, but also for our neighbours and the people we have never met who may need help, a bottle of hand gel or a bag of flour, aka gold dust, because now is that time. Now is also the time to give yourself a break. It’s ok if by the end of this you haven’t learned to speak a new language, read all the books or remapped your existence. If you have kept your marbles you are doing a HUGE, MASSIVE, AWESOME job, to use my son’s new words. I have partly furloughed my mop and accepted the birds and the flowers. I just have to remember to not lose my shit when my child wants to listen to Marvin Gaye at volume 60 on the TV while I’m cutting a live presser because I still have a job, I’m still alive and it’s fucking Marvin Gaye after all.
And on that note, I’m going for a walk.