On Easter afternoon, our family decided to indulge in a walk by the Baltimore Inner Harbor. It was beautiful out, one of the preternaturally clear days we've been enjoying since the beginning of lockdown. We walked East from the bottom of the harbor, past the sandlot, around by the empty marina and fancy condos. The kids fed pretzels to some ducks, and Hattie ran on ahead and looped back, excited to be wearing a new pair of shoes, making Jesse and Hannah and me touch them to receive magical powers. She had on the lavender shift dress and dark purple leggings she'd put on for Easter morning, and we joked that she looked like a grape. After a while, the new shoes started giving her a blister, so she took them off and walked barefoot on the sidewalk.
Near the Visionary Art Museum we crossed the street and sliced diagonally up Federal Hill. It's very steep. Hattie is concerned about bugs these days. She asked me why bugs live in the grass.
"Oh, I don't know," I said. "I guess it's cool down there, and they have shelter, it keeps them safe."
"Yeah, from creditors," she mused. She's been watching nature shows lately with her dad, and has learned all about predators, except how to pronounce it.
We scaled the hill, past a couple painting watercolors, past a boy passing a soccer ball with his dad, past another couple with a crackers-and-salami picnic. At the summit, we clambered into the park, onto another sidewalk. Like the harbor promenade, Fed Hill Park had a cautiously festive vibe: less crowded than it would have been, but not-not crowded. People in masks and people not in masks. People moving awkwardly, maintaining a conspicuous though often less than six-foot distance between each other. "I guess this is how the disease is still spreading," Hannah said.
At the northeast corner of the park we paused to take in a view, spreading out to a more or less socially safe distance from each other—not that we needed to, being a household, but more that it felt good to get a little space in a new venue, someplace with a view. I've griped a lot, since all this began (thirty days ago, to date from the day we lost daycare) about the psychological dimensions of quarantine for people with small kids. If I hear one more person on Twitter or the radio opine about how "people" have more time now—well, nothing will change, but the point is that one thing this crisis has impressed upon me more than any other is that there are no "people" now; while Americans are "together" in being in lockdown, the overwhelming product of this togetherness is to accentuate the particularities of each life circumstance. Lockdown intensifies the differences between people's lives, because it forces everyone to live in their individual, snowflake private life around the clock.
In any case, I've been feeling quite stuck in my own particularities lately, especially the reality of parenthood, the rumpus that starts at 6:30 every morning and lasts till 8:00 at the very earliest every night. While other people in the country bore down into deep alone time, my experience of lockdown so far is one of constant surround. To be fair, there are some beautiful moments, as well as a creeping sense of prairie-woman pride that we can even take care of our own spawn for weeks on end without the diversions of places to go or people to see. But there's also a self-pitying sense of missing out, a high-revving envy of all those "people" who have so much "time on their hands." The relentlessness of being with children has me feeling cut off from enjoying a situation that, in some ways, could be the gratification of a deeply personal dream—time, decadent, gooey globs of time—to read, write, work, cook, organize the house, to look inward, to go deep. The dream of being sanctioned, indeed, compelled to realize a monastic, hermit-like impulse that's always been somewhere in me. I've taken to managing this sense of missing out by promising myself that twenty years hence, if I'm still here, if the world's still here, if something like normalcy returns, I'll re-enact this time; I'll treat myself to the forty, fifty, sixty days of radical solitude that other people are contending with now.
While we were pausing, Bobby climbed up by himself onto the dark, glossy slats of a park bench. He sat there contentedly, like a much older person, and then climbed down, and up again. At the other end of the bench sat an older woman, drinking what looked like a beer from a bottle wrapped in a koozie. She had short gray-brown hair, skinny jeans, athletic shoes with a slash of neon in their soles. As I stood a few feet off, I watched Bobby, making sure he wasn't getting too close to her, and I watched her watching him.
At some moment, he made a lunge toward the stranger, and I went to snatch him. "He never met a bottle he didn't like," I said. She asked me how old he was, and I said sixteen months. "He's big for his age," I said, and she agreed, "Huge." She added, "He looks like he'll make some coach very happy someday."
I sat down on the bench where Bobby had been, and let him go on the ground. He crawled across the path toward his dad and sister, who were examining a ladybug that had landed on Jesse's leg. "It's quite an adventure having them both home all day," I said. "Quite a change."
"Oh, I know," she said. "At least they have each other. I have a gal who works for me, who has a five-year-old girl who's an only child. She told me that the other day, the girl crawled up into her lap. She burst into tears and said 'I'm so lonely.'"
At least they have each other, I agreed. Recently, Hattie has been harder and harder to put to bed at night. Not an easy job at the best of times, it's gotten to be a bit of a horrorshow over the past two weeks. The effort starting at 7:30 and often not ending till over two hours later, after fights and bargaining and threats to leave the room (mine, and hers, far more effective), and ridiculous arguments ("Close your eyes"; "I don't know how!") and finally agreeing to hold her hand until she falls asleep. But, just two nights before, we'd finally moved Bobby's crib into Hattie's room, and, so far, she'd been going down easy, like a kid in a movie. "Maybe she was just lonely," one of my mom-friends had said.
The woman and I chatted about Bobby for a few minutes. "He looks like a boy who'd only ever go by his full name," she said. "Like if his name was Michael, everyone would call him Michael." I had to admit he was a boy who almost always goes by a nickname, but it gave her an opening to talk about her brother, Heath, who'd been called "Boodie" or something like that as a child, but one day insisted on "Heath" and never went back.
I was liking this woman. I was liking her androgynous style, and the feeling of talking to someone I hadn't talked to before, not in a Zoom room but in real life, watching the light play off her face, experiencing the natural and undistorted pauses of a real, live conversation. I wanted to ask her if she had kids of her own—she seemed old enough they might be grown up and living elsewhere—and I kept thinking she would probably volunteer the information, but she took things in another direction instead.
"It's hard for everyone. My husband had chemotherapy for brain cancer, so he isn't quite right." At first, for a second, I thought she was trying to say he was high-risk. "The people who usually come in to help take care of him can't," she said. "I come up here from time to time when I just need a break."
She finished her drink and stood up. "Well, nice talking to you. Take care." She took a last glance at my family spread out on the hill and the harbor below, and walked nimbly off toward the reality that was hers alone.