On Thursday, just after noon, I bike to Bagel Emporium. My kids are at home in their rooms, Zooming into class. Sebastian, who’s 12, may be playing Minecraft. Tashi, 17, is probably flipping through TikTok.
On my way in, I bump into three moms I know from when Tashi was in elementary school. One mom and I shared a carpool during middle school. Another’s daughter played on her basketball team. Those were active times.
The three women are eating outside, chatting. I stand there straddling my bike. The carpool mom asks, “How are you?”
“Well…not great,” I say. “How are your girls?”
The basketball mom says, “Um, I’d say, average.”
“Average. That sounds like a win,” I say. “My kids have been in their rooms for a year. They hardly ever come out, not even to eat. They don’t seem to need food. Or light. Sebastian sits at a desk in front of his computer; Tashi doesn’t leave her bed. At 8 a.m. she opens her eyes and her laptop. Last year when everything went online, she just quit. She’s back in school, but she’s been so depressed, I’m beside myself. And Sebastian is right behind her. He’s totally addicted to Minecraft.”
Oh my God, what am I saying?
I look at the women’s faces, searching for commonality.
One of them asks, “Where are you biking to?”
“Here. I’m here for bagels because that’s something my kids will eat. If I don’t feed them, they won’t eat anything all day. I’m trying to fatten them up.”
Oh no, I sound like the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
I ask what their kids are doing this summer. The basketball mom says her daughter signed up as a junior counselor at the YMCA. “Camp is back,” she says.
“Thank God,” The other mom says.
Exactly. For a second, I think these women are with me. What a relief. Even though we’re bonding over the tragic state of the world, I feel understood. I feel like maybe I’m not the only one struggling.
I’m not the only one struggling, right?
I say, “I hope my kids…” when the carpool mom cuts me off. “Girl,” she says, “you need a nice lunch. Maybe a strong drink.”
I go inside and order the bagels. I feel like a total weirdo. A complete freak. Like I have a “kick-me” sticker on my back and everyone knows to stay away from me. I have cooties.
I thought I knew how to talk to people. When did I lose my ability to interact?
More than twenty years ago, long before this year of social isolation, I joined my first memoir writing class and I’ve been taking or teaching a writing class every week since. The class taught me writing skills, but it did something else. It gave me a community and connection, even with people I thought I had nothing in common with. When I joined my first class, I was a single lesbian, living alone 3,000 miles from home, in a tiny cottage in Venice, California. There was a man in class, ten years older than I was, a Zionist to the core; a woman who had spent years in Alaska cleaning up after oil rigs; and a woman who toured the country in a Christian rock band. Every week we were given writing prompts and every week we wrote the truth. Sometimes prompts took us back to our childhoods, which contained varying degrees of trauma. You don’t usually take a writing class unless you have something to work out. Even a prompt as innocuous as, “How are you?” would reap a story about something real.
Writing class ruined all other social interactions. Basically, nothing compared. While the conversations in my book club were pleasant enough, no one talked about not wanting sex with their husbands or how their kid tried weed at 13. While it was nice to see the other parents on the basketball bleachers, the conversations between baskets meant nothing. Dinners out with casual friends were equally surface. No one talked about what was really going on.
I didn’t like those conversations, but I knew how to navigate them.
Then, because of Covid-19, my one social steady moved to Zoom—writing class.
Now, on one of my first ventures back into society, I am more awkward than I was in middle school.
On my way out of the Bagel Emporium, I say, “Sorry. I realize you got more than you asked for with that, ‘How are you?’”
I wait for an opening. Am I waiting for an invitation to sit down, have a share session? They laugh, sort of. They don’t seem to know what to say. Am I making them uncomfortable?
Andrea! Stop talking.
I hop on my bike and say, “Keep it real.”
As I ride off, I remember my 15-year-old dog has a vet appointment later that afternoon, to be put to sleep. It’s a good thing I didn’t think of it a minute earlier or I would have made the conversation even more awkward.
I wish I were in writing class. There, I would write, “I’m killing my dog today.” And it would be totally appropriate.