By Nadia Ghent
I’ve always done my work at the kitchen table, an oversized, blonde, oak pedestal table that was one of the first pieces of “grown-up” furniture my husband and I bought for our new house almost thirty years ago. The gouge marks are still there from our two cross-country moves, New York City to Irvine, California, and then back to Rochester, New York, when the movers didn’t wrap the table properly, and three thousand miles of jostling against a metal rod of something produced a six-inch long scar along the top. The moving company brought in a carpenter who filled in the damage, artfully concealing it with perfectly matched varnish. Now you can barely see it.
That scar in the wood reminds me of the way that things can get fixed, but sometimes the residue of damage still remains. There is a residue of unease in our house these days that the stability of living together again can’t quite dispel, a damaged sense of normality that comes from living in a pandemic. I can’t remember what happened the day before yesterday, much less understand why it’s so much easier to think back to thirty years ago. But the past seems unimportant, that time before all this, when all that mattered was a damaged table top and fixing it, smoothing it all over.
Now I sit at that table in Rochester, NY, looking out at the street, the early April forsythia starting to bloom and the dog walkers going by, neighbors of mine whose dogs I know so well. Some of my neighbors are wearing masks. I’d prefer not to think about this new reality that has made covering one’s nose and mouth a way to exhibit solidarity with disease control. Instead, I’d like to think about the way our house has become a refuge again and I’m no longer alone: the sound of my twenty-four-year-old daughter’s footsteps overhead and her return home after traveling the world this past year; my husband back from his two weeks of self-isolation in the house we keep in Buffalo close to his work after he fell ill with a presumptive case of COVID-19; the dog, oblivious to everything except food in his bowl.
But it’s not all ease and happiness. “I’m so bored, Mom,” my daughter says, confined with us, her aging parents, as if this were an endless repetition of high school. “I feel like time is moving at a very weird pace, and I just want to hang out with my friends, and also I’m very hungry.” Food can solve only one of her problems. We’ve both been sick during my husband’s absence—despite the theoretical lack of contagion—the same dry, wracking cough and body aches that are so alarming in this crisis. Upstairs, the third bedroom is unoccupied, dust accumulating in the corners while my twenty-seven-year-old son shelters in place across the country in Berkeley, California. I wonder what he sees out his window, if the jasmine and morning glory vines are blooming yet, if the hills in the distance are still green. Maybe all he sees are people in their N95 masks they wear during wildfire season, now handy once again in this time of invisible disaster.
We’ve fallen back into the familiar rhythms of our old family life, with dinner being the main gathering point of the day. We linger over thrown-together meals that I nevertheless give fancy names to—not just macaroni and vegetables, but pasta primavera with pesto and Parmesan, all those alliterative sounds rolling off my tongue because, as Governor Cuomo told us, words matter. It’s my nightly incantation against chaos, that eating together is the solace we need especially now, even though it’s a ritual that never fails to annoy me with the piles of dirty dishes in the sink being just more work I never manage to account for. Still, it’s a ritual that we perform night after night, sitting together long after the pasta primavera has gone cold, talking about what if and why and when, as if feeding ourselves and talking about catastrophe are the only things that we can control.
The numbers of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Monroe County continues to rise, 516 as of April 5th, though the suspicious respiratory viruses the three of us succumbed to have not made the count. Testing is still mysterious, unavailable for the only-slightly-ill. There is a cluster of cases at Highland Hospital, the sad and dilapidated facility near the ice cream shop we sometimes go to in the summertime. The local coverage in the Democrat and Chronicle tries to emulate the alarmist tone of its big-city downstate behemoth rival, The New York Times, with its portentously vague reporting of statistics: “Close to a dozen employees of the hospital have tested positive for COVID-19, and almost as many patients are undergoing testing.” I wonder if eleven infected employees sounds just too provincial, needs the imprimatur of “a dozen,” to give it the heft that might possibly compete with the thousands in New York. I never had a good sense for numbers, and these statistics just pile up, numbers I can’t quite grasp. Then I stumble upon the news of a fellow conservatory student, a Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violinist who’s just died from coronavirus complications, and it all suddenly becomes too real: Vincent Lionti was a year younger than I.
“At least we’re still keeping our animals alive,” my husband says of his deemed-essential cancer research lab at Roswell Park in Buffalo, and his transgenic experimental animals kept fed and watered by postdocs who can’t afford to lose experiment time. “That guy at Ohio State had to sacrifice all his mice.” People dying, animals being sacrificed: the world seems too upended, too damaged already to be fixed in any significant way.
Tonight I will push aside my homework and make lasagna. We will have a family Zoom check-in with our son, our relatives in New York City, my nephew in North Carolina. Tomorrow, it’s supposed to rain. Next week, we will be doing all the same things we’ve done before. Soon the lilacs will begin to bloom. We are beginning to crack, to fray. Somehow, this unease will get transformed into something else. There’s nothing else to talk about, and so we talk about nothing else.
And I will continue to sit at the kitchen table while I write, or more often, as I stare out the window at the early April trees, my neighbors in their masks. I’ll turn back to the shadows of the gouge marks that remind me of the surface of things, the little markers of imperfections that seem so easy to fix. It’s the deeper things that I worry about, all the things that will stay broken no matter how hard I try to smooth them over.
Nadia Ghent studied literature at Brown University and violin performance at Manhattan School of Music. Her work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Assay, and Slag Glass City.