Back in the halcyon days of late February, when I still had high hopes for 2020, I made the decision to spend more time with my female friends. We were going to meet each week to play Scrabble, drink wine, eat charcuterie, and cultivate the kind of female friendships that seem absurdly idealistic, a.k.a., Steel Magnolias.
The four of us — me, Kristine, Shari, and Babs — managed to get together three times in 2020. But, by the last week in February, the virus had begun to cast its shadow over the world. On February 28, Shari texted me, advising me to stock up on three months’ worth of food.
“My brother is a director of risk management for an electric company and he says it’s going to be bad,” she warned. Shari is not the kind of person who panics easily, so I went to Sam’s Club that day. It was fully stocked with toilet paper and hand sanitizer (I bought neither). I did buy two 25 lb bags of rice and two 15 lb bags of black beans. I figured if end-times came, I’d at least have something to eat.
A few days later, the proverbial shit hit the fan. Schools were closed, people were ordered to stay home, and the dawning realization that we were all in a very bad situation began to sink in. The group chat that my friends and I had been using to plan our gatherings became a daily lifeline and my only source of social interaction (beyond my immediate family). Deprived of our weekly Scrabble games, the group chat has become an essential way for the four of us to connect and check in.
“Laila says all the moms are losing it,” Kristine texted the group one evening, shortly after New York closed schools across the state for fifteen days (Cuomo has since extended school closures through April 15). Laila is Kristine’s 17-year-old daughter.
“So, who’s freaking out right now?” Kristine asked.
This is typically how we check in when the chat is silent for a while. Who is freaking out? Is everyone okay? Have you guys heard from Babs or Shari or Kristine? Sometimes I leave my phone downstairs and my perplexed husband brings it up to my office, where I spend most of my weekdays.
“Your phone is going crazy,” he’ll say, handing it to me.
“It’s the group chat,” I’ll respond as my phone buzzes wildly. I’ll pick it up and open the chat, feeling a small trill of relief that everyone’s awake and okay.
Except, we’re not okay. On March 20, Shari had to close her small home goods store — her only source of income — due to Governor Cuomo’s New York On Pause executive order, which included the directive that all nonessential businesses close by 8 pm on 3/22. I understand and agree with Cuomo’s motivation for closing nonessential businesses, but I also love Shari. I know how hard it was for her to turn off the lights and walk away from the business she built and ran all by herself for eight years. I will be the first in line when she opens those doors again.
On March 24, Kristine’s husband got laid off from the local newspaper he’d been working at for thirteen years. Kristine’s own freelance job was in jeopardy as well and has since cut her hours to almost nothing. The very next day, Babs’ husband was furloughed from his job as an adjunct professor at a university. Babs — a freelance grant writer — lost all her work that same week.
I was spared for a few more days until three of my clients pulled most of my writing work on April Fools Day. I still have some work coming in for now, but as of today, I haven’t been paid by any clients for March and I’m still owed thousands of dollars for work I did in February. My husband is a drum teacher and he sells drum loops via a subscription-based website. He’s managed to migrate a few of his students to remote lessons. Even so, 60% of his teaching income went away overnight.
As far as I know, none of us have much money in the bank. Some of us have a tiny amount of savings we’re burning through. None of us have any investments (beyond our homes), and no 401k plans we can draw from. The emergency that the 74% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck weren’t prepared for has hit everyone at the same time and we are all, summarily, fucked.
Shari has been trying to get through to unemployment for days as has Kristine’s husband. They both managed to file a claim on the New York State website, but Shari is required to follow-up with a phone call because she is self-employed. The phone number is either busy, or a recording tells her they’re busy (when she does get through) and hangs up on her.
“It’s very frustrating,” Shari says and I imagine her screaming into a pillow while setting fire to a pile of dog shit shaped like Trump.
Of course money isn’t the only big concern here. We’re also worried about getting sick. We’re afraid our loved ones will get sick. We’re afraid of losing each other. The moms are freaking out because we are helpless. We are waiting in isolation while the tsunami approaches and hoping that it doesn’t wipe out everything we love and care about.
The group chat keeps us steady and sane. We log on each day and check each other’s mental temperature, peppering the chat with jokes and brainstorming brilliant new business ideas. “We have to hustle,” I write, though I don’t have much enthusiasm. I’ve been looking for one-off writing jobs and pitching various publications with story ideas on a weekly basis, but everyone’s getting laid off. Available writers are flooding the freelance market and we’re all scrambling for the same small pool of work.
Babs makes and sells natural soap and other bath and body products. I’m not sure how much of this stuff she’s selling, but I do know she’s generous beyond fault. She spent her birthday making hand sanitizer and delivering bottles of the stuff to her friends and neighbors for free.
Shari’s managed to sell some items from her store virtually. She was meeting people at the curb for curb pick up until March 22 when, as previously noted, all nonessential businesses shut down.
Kristine had an interview with a long-time client yesterday, trying to figure out what going forward will look like for her. She didn’t feel much better after the call was over.
Of course we can’t know what the future will look like for any of us right now. We’re riding this wave with the rest of the world, hoping for the best.
It’s Saturday and Shari is the first one to check in. She’s been on full lockdown since Thursday because her 19-year-old daughter was exposed to a coworker with the virus. Her daughter works at a homeless shelter which had to be closed.
Now Shari and both her daughters must remain at their home for 14 days to ensure they’re not sick. I swung by her house yesterday to bring her some gluten-free breadcrumbs (she swore to me that was the only thing she needed). We stood 12 feet apart with a wooden fence between us and made small talk as if storm clouds weren’t brewing above us.
Kristine is learning how to sew masks. Babs is still making soap and hand sanitizer. Shari is baking and taking care of her girls. I am writing and playing video games (or Scrabble) with my daughter and husband.
We’re adjusting. We’re waiting. We’re getting through this one day at a time.
I only recently rediscovered the joy of reconnecting with friends, of cultivating a small community of people who care about me (and who I care about deeply), of planning for a future of gatherings, laughter, good food, and companionship. I refuse to give give this up. The gatherings are on hold, but the friendships endure thanks to technology + determination.
I’m worried about my friends. I’m worried about our families. I’m doing my best to look beyond the current reality of face masks, quarantine, and isolation. But, I’m also oddly grateful. It’s the gratitude that makes the days bearable. I’m lucky to have a house where I can take shelter and to have people in my life who love and support me. It’s far easier to bear this burden because I know I’m not bearing it alone.