Stacy stands before the wall mirror. She is almost ready to start her run, but in these strange times she needs to add one more item to her exercise attire. With a wince she affixes the mask over her nose and mouth. The band climbs over her ears and snaps at the back of her head. She looks like one of those nurses from M*A*S*H, and imagines Hawkeye asking her to come back to his tent after triage.
Some of the folks she sees outside have decorated their masks. There are the FOX News worshippers. Theirs are American Flags or “Don’t Tread On Me” symbols. There are the environmentalists with impressionist butterflies or meadows painted on their masks. The progressives have rainbows, or Che Guevara, or that ubiquitous equal sign that in the old days indicated someone’s interest in mathematics. Humans are expressive, even when confined mostly indoors and compelled by peer pressure to maintain social distancing from one another when venturing out from their caves.
Stacy really does not mind staying six feet away from the few people she may stumble upon outdoors. She has been always a bit of a loner, and the rule does make sense given how contagious the virus is. She never liked handshaking, so she will be totally okay with seeing that cultural holdover from medieval etiquette fade away. It is really not too much to ask for people to acquire more hygienic habits when finally this virus is in the rearview mirror.
Still, she is not a fan of the mask. Does she really need to wear it if she is on a solo run outdoors? Every answer to that question may be found on the Internet, and there is no consensus even among the experts. By the way, how can there be experts for a disease for which we still know so little?
She figures it is better to be safe than sorry. She heard of one older woman in her apartment building who needed to be rushed to the hospital because of a severe respiratory reaction to the virus. Others are probably sick but holed up in their units waiting in agony for the symptoms to pass. Most of the folks who have to be taken to the hospital are elderly or suffering from other debilitating conditions, but not all of them. Young, healthy people are stricken, too. The virus is like the aggressive lech at a party. He has his favorites, but he makes the rounds. Given enough opportunity, he will make a really disgusting pass at everyone before the host serves the last round.
Stacy steps out of her apartment. The elevator is empty, thankfully.
She has never liked elevators. They are cramped and stuffy even when she is the only occupant. When full the people are smashed together like stinky sardines in a can. Like subways and ferries, elevators remind us that we are not that far off from being longhorns in a cattle drive. We can buck one another with our sharp horns but cannot roam free. We are each on our way to the market to be quartered and sold off to the highest bidder.
Stacy does not like to think about that, which is why she typically skips a step when exiting from an elevator. She nods pleasantly at the lonely front desk girl, who is also partially veiled by a white mask. Stacy observes that she is young and pretty, perhaps, a college student working her way through school. Other than that, she has no idea who she is really. Stacy sees her manning the front desk alone each morning when she leaves for her run, and she sees her there alone when she returns. There is little for her to do since the virus has brought an end to most of the foot traffic which normally occupies the time of front desk girls like her. Still, she is dutifully at her job each morning, and has a pleasant smile that stretches beyond her mask. Stacy makes a mental note to get to know her when life returns to normal.
Stacy steps outside, and starts jogging down a quiet, empty sidewalk. What is it going to mean for life to return to normal? She thinks about the people, the noises, the modern world all at once opening its many storefronts and seducing people with unique names and life histories into “customers” or “clients” who exist for no reason than to be parted from their money. The normal world is a carnival, and everyone is everyone else’s carnival barker.
She used to think of this normal world as full of kinetic energy. Step into one of those open doors, and there may be an opportunity awaiting her. It could be a job, a man, a bit of entertainment, or just a glittery thing to buy and to store away in one of her drawers. There had been the illusion of freedom; so many choices, all just one click away on her iPhone, on how to spend her time and money. Like Pinocchio, and all the other little boys and girls on Pleasure Island, she had indulged with abandon.
She would be on Pleasure Island still, except that the virus has wrapped a big chain around the place and put up a “Gone Fishin’” sign. She had no choice but to go back home, and to rethink what really matters.
Stacy is not sure she has an answer. What she knows is that without the great hustle, the roads and the buildings downtown are a kind of outdoor mausoleum. The sun and the wind have not been forced indoors by the virus. Rising up daily from the east, they beat incessantly on these monuments to progress. Every time she runs her path, the roads and the buildings seem drabber; encrusted more with yellowed dust, or disheveled with tired leaves. If the virus is a lech, then the downtown is a morose, old man whose banker suit is turning threadbare with neglect.
Apart from wind howling through narrow alleyways, there is no noise. Stacy hears the beat of her own heart, and her stream of consciousness is like a phone call no longer muddled by static. Her thinking is clearer, but this isolates her even more. She may be a woman running alone on ancient ruins with no companionship but an occasional ghost whisper from a long dead civilization.
The world has been switched off for only a few weeks, and yet it may as well be many years. The wild has come back quickly, like it was always just under a thin layer of dirt waiting for its opportunity to creep back out to a stark sun that belongs to it as much as to humanity. Every day for the past week Stacy has observed a deer prancing down an alleyway or a raccoon scurrying back into a sewer drain. Though the beasts remain restless, scurrying away whenever she approaches, she senses it is only a matter of time before they reclaim ownership. Then, the few souls like hers still jogging through the ruins will be the interlopers who need to get out of the way.
Stacy wonders how different that will be. In the normal world, she senses we are all interlopers in our own modern civilization. We hide from our many pursuers behind Internet firewalls, workplace harassment laws, cultural censors, anti-burglar alarms, and deadbolts. Most people are good, but most of them are also rabbits; not much in the way of collective strength against the jackals and the snakes who really own the world.
So we are cattle on the way to the market and rabbits scurrying for cover? Is life so bleak? No, it is not, Stacy answers her own question. But it is lived on the edge more often than we would like to think. If civilization is one virus away from all this desolation, and people start hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer within a day of being told to stay at home, then we need to treasure the good moments frankly a lot more than we do. When ordinary life returns, we must live it extraordinarily, or that life will be as barren and as isolated as these downtown ruins.
Stacy thinks about other people she sees daily, but does not know. There are so many like that front desk girl. She whizzes by them with a nod, maybe a smile, but without wondering if they may be worth an undivided moment of her time. Really, is where she is going always more important than where she is?
With that thought in mind, Stacy turns down an avenue she has jogged many times. She knows the storefronts so well she really does not need to pay attention to them, but this time she chooses to do so.
She looks up, and sees that the familiar world is gone. It is not just weathered from the absence of civilized life, but actually has vanished. In place of the ruins are impossibly tall trees with intertwining branches which effectively serve as a canopy. The sun bleeds through cracks in the foliage, but for the most part the fragrant earth beneath her shoes is wet and cool. There is a flutter somewhere above, as an unseen bird takes off, and releases a shower of leaves and bark.
Stacy stops running. She looks back. The forest extends in every direction for as far as she can see. Her jogging path is not only gone. It feels like it was never there in the first place.
She thinks she must have been jogging inside her own head much longer than she knew. Maybe, she jogged out of the downtown ruins and into a nature reserve. If so, then why has she never encountered before this breath of fresh air? Why has she never seen it on a map?
While she considers her situation, the wind picks up a torrent of sun glittered thistles, and they converge into a rhythmic dance. Not too far off is the distinct cry of a whippoorwill. This is followed by the sound of heavy, slow wings flapping back on wet air. Droplets in the disturbed air sprinkle back down to a vast body of water that Stacy cannot see but can sense. The water whispers into her heart, and caresses out from her mind any anxieties she may have had still from finding herself off her path.
Stacy walks through the dancing thistles. They play with her hair.
She pushes aside low hanging branches, while she walks toward where she senses that water to be. She is not setting aside obstructions, so much as removing one by one the layers of civilization between herself and her wonderment. She is a child unwrapping a gift. It has been there all along, but now she is taking the time to open what has been set aside especially for her.
Stacy does not find that water, though she thinks she may have caught a faint whiff of it in the cool air. She thinks she may have tasted that long ago. Though time has a way of hiding those memories, it also enriches our experience of them, and for a moment Stacy is back where the world is completely still, quiet, and full of wonder.
Stacy is back on her path. She is not sure how, and frankly does not care. She is going to keep that moment with her, even if she never finds that forest again. This is the new normal for her. She hopes that this will be the new normal for many other people too, when we all climb out from our caves and find our lives again in the sun.