Congratulations to Tess Kelly for winning first place in flash prose for the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest!
You can read the winning entry, “Woman in the Covid Bubble,” below.
Woman in the Covid Bubble
You eat leftovers, lots of leftovers, in microwaved containers. On second thought, don’t bother with the microwave, straight out of the fridge will do. Scrambled eggs from breakfast, or crock-potted lentils, three nights running. Air-popped popcorn doused in butter, add some nutritional yeast, and it’s healthy enough. Sometimes you eat over the sink, or while standing at the counter. No napkin, just use your sleeve, no one’s looking. Eating alone is like taking medicine, you do it because you have to. Loneliness eats fast, without thought, without tasting. Eats in front of a screen, while perusing the already-read email messages, the news that scarcely changes, the latest Covid-19 death counts.
You move by yourself, through the streets, the same streets, at least six-feet apart from anyone and aware of how mothers swerve their children from you. “Stay in the middle,” one warns as her son pedals toward the side of the road, closer to you. We are all potential victims, we are all potential vectors. If you are single and childless you are acutely aware of those who walk hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, discussing life during virus times without having to shout. Maybe you need a dog.
You know you’re lucky, more than lucky to work from home, from the dining room table, the makeshift basement classroom. Online meetings with teachers, online classes with students. You smile into the camera as your heart breaks at the little squares of confused faces. No hugs, no shared breathing space. No hurried gossip over quick meals in the staff lounge, no spontaneous conversations in the halls, no playground laughter. A colleague tells you she cries three times a day. “Only three?” you ask. But the truth is you don’t cry. You know if you start you might not stop. You worry you’ll be deemed nonessential and commit to working harder.
You fire up FaceTime, which requires less money and exertion than meeting in a bar. In one way this is intimate; you peer inside his home: free weights in the corner, Persian rugs over oak floors. You note the king-size bed. Did he clean his condo just for you, or is he always so tidy? You don’t have much in common, but chitchat for nearly an hour and never speak again. You realize it’s not much different than dating before the pandemic.
Hands deep in dirt, among the tangle of unstoppable life rioting around you. It’s a connection that nourishes, mends the spirit. It’s a way through this and around this, at least for the moment, at least for now. Even the weeds are cherished; the act of pulling them gives a tangible sense of accomplishment on a planet of shifting measures of success. “Look what I’ve done,” you say with pride to no one but yourself, as you peer into the full yard-debris canister and close the lid.
You dream of touching people, of touching people you have no business touching. You dream of embracing non-human mammals: lions, cougars, wolves. You dream of touching any warm-blooded creature. Oddly, you sleep more soundly now. It’s the one grace bestowed upon you, the one that permits loneliness to forget it exists, to forget the world that becomes more distant each day.
Tess Kelly is a writer, editor and teacher based in Portland, Oregon.
View the list of all of the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest winners.