The air we share

These days there is a chronic lack of time and energy in our isolated household. Daycare is closed for the foreseeable future. Our days are composed entirely of work and childcare, a schedule so tight that air and sunlight rarely penetrate.

My wife Jackie and I both work full-time, demanding jobs. We are very lucky: both of us are able to work from home, and both of us work in industries that, so far, have been able to cope. But the load is still hard to sustain.

I am prone to anxiety and burnout and have learned over the years — slowly, sporadically, reluctantly — a few ways to cope. Meditation is helpful, but in the current midst of our crowded, noisy house the time and quiet it requires are hard to come by. Outdoor exercise — running and bicycling, in my case — is the next best thing: leaving the house brings some quiet, but the time to do so is short.

One recent night, we were planning the dinner menu for the week ahead. I volunteered for taco night, but we were out of shredded cheese and refried beans. There were a few other basic things we needed, so I decided to make a run to the grocery store. On a whim, I also decided to ride my bike.

It was already 9. I hadn’t ridden at night in some time; the prospect of riding in the dark always left me a little apprehensive. But now I’d take what I could get. This errand, however short, seemed like a good enough opportunity to get some fresh air and move my legs.

I put on my backpack and pulled a fleece gaiter around my neck (we hadn’t had a chance, yet, to make proper masks). I hauled my bike down from its hook in the garage, clamped my headlight on the handlebars, and set out, a little nervous, into the dark at the end of the driveway.

Once I was moving, though, the night opened up before me. As my eyes adjusted, the cloudless sky lightened from black to a cobalt as deep as the solar system itself. Soon enough I could see the dome of stars overhead, growing brighter alongside the crescent moon. The streets were deserted and silent. Silhouetted tree branches, adorned with muted flowers, a few chirping bugs, and some restless birds, framed the sky. The cool wind rushed by my face and hands, hummed in my ears.

I arrived at the grocery store, pulled the gaiter up over my face, and made my purchases. The store was a jumpy and overstimulated place, shockingly bright compared to the streets outside, each aisle bathed in unrelenting fluorescent light but, nonetheless, filled with blind corners and tight spaces. I sidestepped other customers, my back against the opposite shelves, their faces erased by masks, their eyes moving quickly over me and then up and down the aisle. With every turn, a chance to walk into a sneeze, a cough, a lingering exhaled breath, an invisible cloud of infected droplets that could end your story right here.

Back outside, I unlocked my bike and stuffed the groceries into my backpack. I was standing under the outside portico, lit by the same fluorescent tubes as the inside. It glowed aquamarine against the surrounding darkness. Jumbled rows of waiting shopping carts cast thorny, twisted shadows on the concrete. A couple of the store’s workers leaned against the wall nearby, having a smoke break. They chatted absently about shifts and scheduling and kids and bills, their masks, unfastened, hanging loosely against their collarbones. Their cigarette smoke — exhaled breath, made visible — drifted, curling, in the glowing air.

One of them nodded to me, smiled, and wished me a good night. Looking at her, I felt a rush of gratitude and I hesitated a moment, searching for a reply. Words tumbled over one another in my head. Thank you for keeping this place running. Thank you pulling late shifts so the rest of us can eat. Thank you for risking your life every day. Thank you for making it to work, somehow, with schools closed. I’m sorry for all of this. But everything I started to say, on playback in my tired, prickly mind, sounded presumptuous and ingratiating.

They weren’t here for me. They were here to feed their kids and pay their bills. They were doing what they had to, and right now they wanted a smoke break, not a speech.

Instead I smiled back and said thank you, have a good night yourselves. I could only offer them basic courtesy: the normalcy of passing small talk. I see you there, neighbor, under your mask. It wasn’t enough, but it was all I had.

As I pedaled out of the parking lot I took deep gulps of the fresh night air. That clear, cobalt sky, filling my lungs. The wind scouring me. The nervous energy in my back and legs draining away as I spun up one hill after another, breaking a sweat against the chill, the heavy backpack against my shoulders. It felt so good, for a few minutes, to have a body and use it for something.

Passing an entrance to a diverging bike path, I paused. All the work of my day was done, my family in bed. For once, no one was waiting for me. I could take that turn and ride for hours if I liked. This trail led down to some nice lakes and forests that I used to visit often. But I also felt the tiredness of the day pulling at me, making itself known in my joints.

Another night, I told myself.

I continued home, instead, the worries in my mind still there, but a little quieter under the sound of the wind. It wasn’t enough, but it helped.