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Illustration by Raymond Biesinger

FROM: Ian Brown

TO: Johanna Schneller

Welcome home, honey!

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Lovely to see you again, even from the distance of 20 feet as you walked in the front door and I stood out on the sidewalk, to maintain non-contagion. You look well. Did you have a good time in California with Patty and Judy?

I hope so, because you are not going to have a good time back here at home. Because you’re returning from the United States, you have to undergo self-isolation for two weeks, on your own floor of the house and in your own bed and bathroom, while I have to practise the “social distancing” that everyone is supposed to be practising anyway. I don’t have any symptoms beyond a slight sore throat, but it makes sense for everyone to act as if they are infected, as there aren’t enough tests. Which is why I am in our 350-square-foot basement apartment, and you are in the house itself. Which is weird, but all of this is way beyond weird anyway.

In any event, I just wanted to tell you I tried to leave your solitary-confinement cell pristine by disinfecting everything I have been touching regularly before I took up my lowly place in the basement this afternoon: all the taps and faucets, the stairway banisters, the flush handles on the toilets, the front and back door knobs, the blind string on the window nearest the bed. I did not change the sheets; maybe I should have? And now that I think of it, I did not disinfect the kitchen counters or the range top, which was a massive oversight. I admit the mental planning involved in totally disinfecting an entire house leaves me limp – and not because I am not used to disinfecting. As you know I am the son of a woman so germophobic that for the longest time I thought Dettol was a fine French perfume.

My problem with disinfecting is that it is so easy to miss something like, say, the inside of the laundry hamper. I just read on the internet that we should disinfect the inside of the laundry hamper. This is a deadly virus, after all. But have we, two working people, you a feminist and me a traditionally lazy-assed male where housework is concerned – have we ever even considered the inside of the laundry hamper? Of course not. It needs to be disinfected. In any event, there is always something that needs to be disinfected that was not disinfected, and there is always something that was not disinfected that needs to be disinfected. And so there is no health in us. All of this exhausts my inner obsessive-compulsive. Thank God we had those Lysol wipes from your last trip to Costco; otherwise there isn’t a tub of disinfectant wipes, or a facemask, or a pair of sterile latex gloves, within a two-mile radius of our house. And according to the rules of COVID-19 self-isolation that I have seen, you, returning from the germscape of America, are not supposed to venture into any possibly common area of the house without both mask and gloves. So that is why I’m in the basement, in my own hermetically sealed pod.

FROM: Johanna

Oh, now it’s okay that I went to Costco?

In the spirit of virus-inspired honesty, let’s be clear. You did initially suggest that I live in the basement. But it was brief! You quickly ceded the house to me, partly because my office is all set up here, mostly because you’re generous and partly because you have hermit fantasies. So when I saw that you’d stocked the fridge with my favourite drinkable yogurt, and left the thermometer and alcohol wipes out on the bathroom sink, I laughed, and then I cried a little. You also left me the electric toothbrush. And the good comb. (Sob.)

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The speed of this is still so strange to me. I flew to Los Angeles on Wednesday, March 11. The aforementioned Patty and Judy, my oldest friends, and I went to a restaurant in Redondo Beach. Plenty of people there. On Thursday we drove east into the desert, and stopped at a diner for lunch. Plenty of people there, too – but now every table was talking about The Virus. An hour later, we walked into a supermarket in Joshua Tree, and something in the air made us immediately say, “We are buying all our food, no more eating out, period.” There was no sense of panic, just, ohh, this is what we’re doing now.

We’d booked this trip long before there was a COVID-19, and it turned out to be freakishly perfect: Our Airbnb house sat on 200 empty acres in the middle of nothing. A few times a day, we’d check in with the world, and watch the news pile up on itself. We felt pure. And yet, all our jokes were dark: “‘This is so great, we’re alone’ – smash cut to three isolated figures wrapped only in bedsheets, spinning stiffly in the twilight among the cacti.”

That’s why I was so resistant when you started texting me those many, many articles about how to self-isolate. I was all denial: “Let’s tough it out together! Let’s be Tom and Rita! Justin and Sophie! Let’s sit in opposite corners of the room and watch TV til the cows come home! What do you mean, you can’t pick me up at the UP train?”

You texted back, and I quote: “You are incorrigible! I would happily pick you up ... but everything about that plan (enclosed space, returned from highly infected place, me over 60) says bad idea. Because if you have it and I get sick and die you will feel terrible.”

BAM. You went right for it: Picking me up equals me MURDERING YOU. No more denial!

By the way, what is that weird loose tea in the teaball in the teapot? You never drink tea. I go away and you drink tea? The mystifying things spouses do when they’re alone! The impossibility of ever really knowing anyone!

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FROM: Ian

You are right, I do have hermit fantasies – and self-isolation is playing to them. I brought nine – nine! – books with me to the basement, including Cervantes. A very Don Quixote thing to do. Must have been the futility of sterilizing everything.

FROM: Johanna

You insist you’re an introvert, because you like to be alone. But hon, you also need people. You thrive on contact.

FROM: Ian

But self-isolation is going to be hard on extroverts. You need to be hermit-like now, to get through this. I woke up this morning profoundly depressed – like many people, I imagine. Then I made it worse by reading the (coronavirus) news. Better to start the day with music or a patch of great writing. Speaking of which, could you put my copy of Wislawa Szymborska’s poems on the porch? Plus a pair of my underwear (boxers). Use gloves. Do you have gloves? They are completely out at Shoppers.

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FROM: Johanna

I see you found the Szymborska on the doormat. And your underwear, which I put in a bag. While wearing gloves. To keep pristine the new bar of soap I also enclosed, I suggest you open the box, then … wash your hands with the soap.

And thanks for the bag of mushroom crisps, also from Costco. Which I needed you to get, because they were in the basement storeroom. Where you won’t let me go.

FROM: Ian

It’s not about not letting you go there! This is a pandemic, not a test of how much I love my wife!

FROM: Johanna

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We’ve been married a long time. It can be both. (#CoronaJoke.)

FROM: Ian

What I find depressing is not just the obvious possibility that you or I or anyone could die – even millennials are more vulnerable than we thought – but the way the virus has deprived us all of a future, of a frame of reference to plan by. But if I actually face the possibility that my end might come sooner than I think – that makes me act. That’s enlivening, rather than suicidal. Which is why we need to embrace our inner introverts now.

I can’t imagine how cooped up and surreal you must feel not being able to go out for a walk.

FROM: Johanna

Well, I can go into the backyard. (I claim the backyard!)

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If Twitter is right, a lot of us are going through the same thing: At first, self-isolation sounds like some kind of spa. I’ll do my taxes! I’ll try podcasts! I’ll reread all of Chekhov! But what I really do is watch a baking show, because that’s who I am, at my core. Judy, who I was travelling with, is a teacher. She went home and launched a new venture, helping parents do home schooling – because that’s who she is. That’s what’s so immediately unnerving about self-isolation. We confront who we ARE. That doesn’t seem to change, no matter what else does.

FROM: Ian

I set out on one of my solitary mini-walks this morning and saw Kellerman on the other side of the street. We exchanged only waves. Hunkering and solitude are now baked into everyday life.

Then again, we aren’t cooped up with kids and no school for three weeks, like some of our friends. "I predict a spike in the divorce rate," a neighbour said the other day. Which do you think is harder in these circumstances? Being alone, or never being alone?

FROM: Johanna

I think being alone is always hardest.

FROM: Ian

I think everyone I see walking in the street is experiencing these existential throes. And the streets are EMPTY. Everything’s dead quiet when I wake up at six – none of the usual noises of the city re-bandaging itself for the day. I’ve heard one siren in the past week.

My focus has become very narrow on my little walks: details of houses in the neighbourhood, trees starting to drop seedpods. (Spring’s arriving and we’re all trapped inside.) I returned to my basement marvelling at how much I’d “seen” on my walk – how curious is the mind of man! – and suddenly it hit me: this is Day 3 of self-isolation. At this rate, by Day 10 I’m going to be snaring squirrels and roasting them over an open fire in the backyard while I prance around in a loincloth made entirely from salvaged plastic bags.

FROM: Johanna

Last night, after I called you – because I’d freaked myself out by watching three episodes of The Outsider in a row – I could not fall asleep. You’d think, in an empty bed, sleep would come easier – no one getting up to pee, no one snoring. (Notice that I’m not saying which of us is which there.) But the silence is loud. This morning I heard a noise that sounded like you sleeping on the couch in the TV room (which happens when you can’t sleep and don’t want to wake me). I think it might have been the radiator. I think it might have made that sound for the 20 years we’ve owned this house. But it’s never been quiet enough to hear it before.

FROM: Ian

As an antidote to the news, here’s a bit of a Szymborska poem about death:

It can’t take a joke,

Find a star, make a bridge.

It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,

Building ships or baking cakes….

In vain it tugs at the knob

Of the invisible door.

As far as you’ve come

Can’t be undone.

What are you having for lunch up there? I am opening a can of salmon. We have four left.

FROM: Johanna

Wow, we’re vibing through the floor/ceiling. I had tuna. And half an apple. You also left me all the apples, thank you.

That’s a beautiful poem. And it makes me feel better about the baking shows. Please, Food Network On Demand, will you load up episodes of Spring Baking Championship? Or is no one there to hear me?

FROM: Ian

Annie Kidder told me her husband, the actor Eric Petersen (you know, the guy on Corner Gas) has been going around their house devising workarounds so that they don’t have to touch the same objects. He installed a length of weighted string for him to turn lights on and off; Annie uses the switch. Clips for the oven door; she uses the handles. I wonder if she’ll eventually kill him. But I admire it.

FROM: Johanna

Please note that they seem to be living in the same house.

FROM: Ian

Ignoring that. Lots of Italians liken their situation to the war. They suddenly have a common cause. I wish we could have discovered it around, say, climate change. But this could be a test. Doesn’t it feel a bit Biblical to you? Like a rebuke to the careless way we have been living, or to the who-gives-a-shit-as-long-as-I’m-rich economy? Okay, says the Virus: screw your economy.

And don’t you find you’re calling people more? I’m thinking of having a drink with Al and Colin on Skype.

FROM: Johanna

I thought you were giving up drinking?

FROM: Ian

That is no longer happening.

Hey, why doesn’t the TV in the apartment have cable? All it gets is network TV. Last night I watched a “comedy” called American Housewife. Apparently written by bots.

FROM: Johanna

Wow. What if COVID brings back network TV?

What you said earlier, about planning for the future. In my first hour alone, I vowed to keep busy: I’ll catch up on Line of Duty, that Netflix series you cheated on me with. I’ll touch my face as much as I want. But almost instantly, I felt adrift. It’s amazing how quickly we get to, “What’s the point?” What’s the point of showering, of getting out of bed, even? It’s not the realization that we’re all going to die one day (and maybe soon). It’s the realization that all the stuff we do, all the ways we keep ourselves busy, is to cover our ears against the clanging certainty that NOTHING MATTERS.

Except of course (cliché alert) people. We are in the first throes of this thing, and already all anyone wants to do is post videos of people singing together from separate Italian balconies, or figure out how to Skype their Nia classes, or share what old movies they’re finally getting around to watching. People want to be together, COVID be damned.

FROM: Ian

It’s not that nothing matters. It’s that our efforts to matter can (evidently) be snuffed out at random. But people try anyway.

FROM: Johanna

Which is why my favourite moment of the day is when you ring the doorbell and then reverse down the front steps to a safe distance, so I can open the door and pick up the plate of dinner you made for me. Last night it was two softly poached eggs on smoked trout on a bed of spinach. So delicious, thank you. Definitely not Costco.

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