They considered themselves to be an average American family. Louise and Jerome Williams had been married for 19 years. Louise had 1/2 of a college degree with no declared major, but quit to go to vocational school, which seemed more practical. Jerome had a bachelors degree and made enough money to support the family, buy a middle class home in a middle class neighborhood; there was enough for the bare necessities, but not much more. Louise and Jerome seemed fairly content with their lot; they didn’t really question it often. Still, there was an underlying sense of ennui that neither of them ever voiced or perhaps, of which they were unaware. Theirs was not a passionate life, but it was comfortable.
They had 3 average kids. Lu-lu, 17, a bit sassy, brown hair to the middle of her back, a pleasant face, on the swim team, average student, a few friends, the usual anxiety and depression for a modern teenager, but nothing serious. Jerry, 15, disheveled brown hair that always fell into his eyes and looked like he just got out of bed, a bit of a chip on his shoulder, probably because he wasn’t too sure of himself yet, which accounted for his slouched posture. Oftentimes, he plucked away, with no real talent, on an electric guitar that had no amp, communicated with his friends mostly on computer in on-line games, even though they lived within a few blocks of each other. Maeve, 9 years old, an unplanned, but well loved child, still young enough to be sweet and endearing, smarter than the rest of the family, a bookworm with a few smart friends, the apple of her parents’ eyes. Most of the family, with the exception of Lu-lu, the swimmer, were a bit chubby due to a typical American diet and a lack of movement.
Although Louise and Jerome lived in the same house and raised the same children, they rarely interacted. Jerome did man things. On most days he could be found in his garage fixing or building something, or in his office working, or at least pretending to work. Louise did woman things. She played cards with her girlfriends once a week, and sewed costumes for church plays or Halloween. Louise took care of all the household chores including shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, running the kids to events and appointments, etc. Jerome never went to church anymore, and the kids stopped going when they started whining about wanting to sleep late on Sundays. Louise also worked an hourly job that gave her just enough hours to pay for some extras for the family, especially after the third child came along, and since teenage boys ate so much, and since life got more expensive as the children grew. Working and raising children gave Louise and Jerome a sense of purpose and responsibility; it was what one was supposed to do.
The Williams were not particularly opinionated, nor were they particularly savvy about most things. They were intelligent, but not overly informed. They just didn’t care that much about politics or current events. They watched the news, but more often than not, they watched it as a prelude to their shows; it was on and they felt they should know a little something about what was happening in the world, but not too much because, after all, what could they do about any of it?
The family rarely ate meals together anymore. Louise cooked on some nights, ordered in on the others when she couldn’t cope with working and running a household. The kids would come and go. Depending on their schedules, Louise and Jerome would take their food to the lounge chairs in the living room that had fold-out tables and watch TV while they ate. They watched a few sit-coms, the news, a few reality shows, and a couple of cop dramas. The only kid left who watched TV and ate with them was Maeve; Lu-lu and Jerry watched shows on their computers in their rooms, or ate fast food out with friends.
This was family life in 2020 in middle-class America. There was very little communication amongst family members. Everyone owned a smartphone and had their attention on the little contraption most of the day. Were they content? It’s hard to say, but nobody seemed to be overly concerned about it. Nobody really wanted to be bothered.
One day in early March, 2020, Louise and Jerome were watching TV as they always did on weeknights. They mindlessly shuffled food in their mouths that Louise bought from the supermarket: pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, potato salad and coleslaw from the deli counter, little white rolls, and chocolate pie, washed down with Mountain Dew that they drank from aluminum cans. On the news, the commentators talked about some kind of virus that came out of China, and that was apparently traveling around the world. It had no natural enemy, was extremely contagious, and there were no signs of antibodies in any human on the planet thus far.
“I sure hope they can contain it,” Jerome remarked. “Remember SARS or you know, what was the name of that other virus that came out of China?”
Chatting about the news when it was on was practically the only conversation they had. Louise answered, “Yea, I think they had viruses that came out of China a few times. What was that other one? Bird Flu? What year was that?”
Jerome answered while chewing, pushing the food in his mouth to the side with his tongue. “I can’t remember. Don’t worry, they catch these things and take care of them. We’re luckier than they were in the days with no modern medicine or vaccines.”
Louise’s reply was simply, “Mmm. Yeah. Good chicken, huh?”
“Yeah. Love the lemon-herb rotisserie,”
One week later. March, 2020. Maeve joined her parents for dinner in the living room. She had requested pizza, which was pretty much a staple for the family at least once or twice a month.
The first bite of pizza at the apex of the triangle was the best part. Maeve took a bite of the meat supreme, gulped a swig of her orange Fanta, and turned her attention to the TV. “Dad, what’s a pandemic?”
Jerome answered, not really believing that a pandemic had occurred. “That’s where some disease occurs all around the world.”
“But every disease can happen around the world,” Maeve aptly countered.
This time Louise chimed in. “Yes, but when a pandemic happens, some disease starts infecting people all over the world quickly, because it’s super contagious.”
Jerome shushed everyone. “Let’s listen to the news, please. I want to hear this.”
From the news channel it could be heard, “Don’t worry everyone. This will be over pretty soon. If you remember the virus that came from China the last time, we had it under control pretty quickly.”
“See, what’d I tell ya,” Jerome mumbled with a mouthful of pizza, “nothing to worry about.”
Louise seemed a bit more concerned. “You’re probably right, but I sure hope this doesn’t come to the United States.”
Jerome reassured his wife. “I think they have some cases already, but they’re getting it under control like they did with the others. Don’t worry.”
One week later. March, 2020. The Williams were once again seated in front of the television. Lu-Lu and Jerry joined the family that night because it was Chinese take-out night and they had nowhere to be. The table in the kitchen had a good view of the TV, so all the kids sat there, playing on their phones and watching the family TV at the same time. Jerome was out working that night, but Louise sat in her chair in the living room; she had eaten her dinner while standing up and cleaning the kitchen.
When the news came on, they reported that the Covid-19 virus had spread around the world and was now in the United States, gaining steam. They also reported that the government was thinking of asking everyone to stay home from work and school, at least for a few weeks to slow the spread of the virus.
“Woah,” Jerry said from his place in the kitchen. “We get to stay home from school!? That is totally radical!”
Maeve yelled back at him from the living room. “Jerry, that means that we’ll probably have to make up the work over the summer, and that would suck.”
Louise, forever the optimist, always looking for the silver lining, spoke up. “I’m sure this will blow over in no time at all. The president said it would and he’s got medical experts working with him. Don’t get your hopes up, Kids.”
Lu-Lu piped up from the kitchen, lifting her face from her phone for a brief moment. “I’m supposed to graduate this year. I’m not going to miss my graduation, or my prom for that matter.. Hello! There’s no way I’m staying home longer than spring break. And also, I have a really important swim meet coming up. This is bogus. They’re not going to close the schools.”
Twos week later, April 1, 2020 Schools and businesses around the country have closed. In most states, restaurants had to close. Any place where more than 10 people gathered was forbidden to be open, unless they were considered essential to daily life, like supermarkets and doctors’ offices. During the first week of the quarantine, somehow nail and hair places were considered essential, until everyone realized how absurd that was, which is when hair dye started flying off the supermarket shelves. Toilet paper was also really hard to come by. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before; it was unprecedented. The government asked everyone to self-quarantine if they could, calling it shelter-in-place.
The Williams family sat in front of the TV. After the news, everyone had a different program they wanted to watch.
“Kids,” Jerome said in his placid manner, “don’t you all have your own computers? Why don’t you go watch something on those?”
“Dad, we’re sick of being in our rooms. We’re sick of being in this house. There’s nothing to do. It’s so boring. We can’t see our friends. We can’t go anywhere. Why should you guys have the big screen TV to yourselves all the time?” Jerry queried.
“Jerry has a point,” Louise backed her son up. “Why don’t we find something that we all can watch? What’s something that’s appropriate for all ages?”
Jerome, who usually had the remote control when he was in front of the TV, scanned the channels. “Hey, what about the Wizard of Oz?”
Lu-Lu and Jerry snorted. Maeve had never seen it, but she was interested.
Louise stepped in to save the day. “I’ve got an idea. How about we watch the Wizard of Oz tonight, and then tomorrow, someone else can make the choice?”
Everyone in the room agreed. After all, there wasn’t much else to do. Actually, there was plenty they could be doing, but they were in shock. It wasn’t every day, or even every year or decade that a pandemic struck the world and threatened the lives of everyone on the planet. A real pandemic hadn’t occurred for 100 years. Everyone in the house felt like they were moving through jello.
As it turned out, all members of the family loved the movie. Louise made popped corn and Lu-Lu got out the ice cream. It was just like going to the movies.
Everyone had a huge adjustment to make. Louise’s job put her on furlough until further notice, but they barely missed the extra income because they weren’t spending money on gas or entertainment. The kids started doing schoolwork online, but the only one who had grades attached to the work was Lu-Lu, because she was a senior in high school. At first, Jerome wanted to do his own thing, or just play video games, but Louise, who still had some influence as his mother, insisted that he work at least two hours per day on schoolwork. Jerome figured that was a pretty good compromise, and he didn’t want to tell his parents that playing video games all day was actually getting boring. Lu-Lu and Maeve had no problem working for two hours or more; they were happy to do it, especially since it eliminated some of the boredom.
Since Louise was used to doing everything around the house anyway, much of her day was no different than any other day, except that the family was around all the time, even Jerome, because he only had to go somewhere when his work called him out. Louise now had more time to get things done.
As the days passed, Louise and Jerome seemed to find things to clean and organize. There were kitchen drawers, the garage, the closets that had not been rearranged in years. They went through all the bookshelves, cleaned baseboards, and behind the refrigerator. As they kept themselves busy, it dawned upon them that they had children with idle hands that could instead be helping hands. When they first asked for help, the kids gave them the usual attitude, making faces, saying they had better things to do. The thing is, they really didn’t, so there was no excuse. As they started working together, they started talking and joking and getting to know one another in ways that they hadn’t in years. They even started a garden together.
One day, Louise noticed that the family was starting to bond, and she was pleased. She started asking for help around the kitchen, to clean, and to make food. Although the restaurants stayed open for delivery, it seemed silly to go out for food all the time when they were home. And, how could you know if the people in those restaurants were wearing gloves and masks? It was safer and cheaper to make meals at home. And then a strange thing happened. Everyone wanted to showcase their food. Jerry cooked an entire meal by himself one evening, for the first time.
“Maeve, please set the table,” Jerry instructed his sister.
“When did you suddenly become the boss of me?” Maeve protested. She was not used to this new-found brother.
“Maeve, it was my turn to cook, so it’s your guyses turn to do the set-up and clean-up. I’ll ask Mom and Dad to clean the dishes, don’t worry.”
“What about Lu-Lu?” Maeve asked with good reason. “What does she get to do?” Maeve had a tremendous sense of fairness.
“Well, I’d like to say that I could have her do the worst jobs,” Jerry explained, “but she is the only one doing schoolwork that counts for a grade around here and she is having a test tomorrow, so she’s excused from working dinner.”
“Fine,” Maeve caved and set the table. “Mom! Dad! Dinner is ready.”
Louise and Jerome came to the kitchen. “Are we eating in the kitchen? Around the table? That’s novel,” Jerome remarked. “We used to do this all the time. I’m kind of glad to see that we’re doing it again.”
“Me too,” Louise said. “I’ll get Lu-Lu. She’s studying.”
The Williams family gathered around the table for the first time in several years, other than when they had company, which was rare, or visited with the grandparents. The first night was awkward, since they had rarely spoken to each other, except to make remarks at the TV.
Louise revved up the conversation, since she was the peacemaker and the homemaker. “Why don’t we all say grace,” Louise ventured.
“Mom, don’t push it,” Jerry replied. “We haven’t said grace in years. . What is up with you?”
“I don’t know,” Louise answered. “ I just have this warm, cozy feeling suddenly.”
Jerome did not wait for the conversation to be over and asked someone to pass the potatoes. “This looks great, Son. Give us a tour of what you’ve cooked.”
Jerry was beaming with pride. “I made twice-baked potatoes, steamed carrots with cinnamon, sugar and butter, and meat loaf.”
Everyone had a look of surprise and delight on their faces. Lu-Lu asked the first question. “Where did you learn how to cook like this?”
Jerry smiled as he passed the carrots. “You Tube. Of course. That’s where you can learn how to do anything.” The children all nodded in agreement. His parents hadn’t realized you could take lessons on YouTube.
“Jerry, this could be a profession for you,” Louise offered, very impressed with her son.
“Mom,” Lu-Lu reprimanded. “Why is it that when a guy cooks, he’s suddenly a chef? And when a woman cooks, she’s just taking care of her family? That is so last century, seriously.”
The Williams family started cooking dinner together almost every day. Each day, a different person had to plan the menu. They also sat at the table and ate dinner together. No cell phones were allowed at the table. They almost forgot that they used to watch TV every day and scarf down their food without even realizing they were eating.
A few weeks later, April, 2020. Louise approached her husband when they were getting ready for bed. “Jerome, you know, I’ve been thinking. This quarantine has its silver linings.”
“Louise, that’s one nice thing about you. You always find the positive in everything. What could possibly be good about this pandemic? The economy is tanking. People are dying. Some people aren’t as lucky as us to have family around them and are all alone. What’s good about this?”
“Well, for one thing, it’s brought our family closer together. We haven’t eaten together around the table every night for years. We’re taking walks and going for bike rides out of sheer boredom. We’re talking to each other. We’re playing board games and doing jigsaw puzzles. The kids have been playing basketball in the driveway; that hoop hasn’t been touched for years. I’m teaching the kids how to knit. I feel like I am getting to know my kids again. I hadn’t even realized that I missed them. And we’re all getting exercise that has been sorely needed.”
“You know, I hadn’t really thought about that. I guess we are coming together as a family. It’s funny. You don’t know what you’re missing until you have it,” Jerome agreed.
At that moment, Louise and Jerome looked at each other in a way they hadn’t for several years. The feeling between them was less than status quo, it was non-existent. Louise sat on the side of the bed in her cotton nightgown and spoke first.
“Jerome. Do you remember how we first met?” Diving into an intimate space with her husband felt strange, even though they had known each other for 22 years, raised three children, and ran a household together.
Jerome felt awkward too. “I don’t think I could forget. You were working in that restaurant that I used to eat breakfast in every day. You wore a blue and white uniform, wore your hair in a ponytail and found a way to get me as your customer whenever you could.” He was almost embarrassed to speak this way to her; it had been a long time since he felt any stirrings as a man, or in any way romantic or intimate. He had pretty much repressed those feelings. It hadn’t bothered him, or even occurred to him, because that was just the way life went. You raised kids, everything ran like clockwork, you had your routines, you got comfortable and turned into a couch potato. Life was just okay, it wasn’t anything too fabulous or anything too horrible. He lived in the in-between spaces.
Louise was pretty much in the same mind-space as her husband, but being a woman, and more emotional as a general rule, sometimes she craved affection, or intimacy. She got connection from her womenfolk, and affection from her children, until they were too old and pulled away, except, thank heavens, for Maeve, and the dog. Then, she settled in just like Jerome had. This quarantine, though, had forced her family to pull together, the way she knew family could be. That’s when she became nostalgic for some connection with Jerome. It might be too late for them, but suddenly she felt compelled to try.
“Jerome, I can’t believe you remember what color my uniform was.” She blushed.
“What do you remember?” Jerome asked, suddenly curious.
“I remember that you had hair, and that I had my eye on you. Gosh, what did we used to talk about?”
Jerome was washed over with a wave of warmth. “I don’t even know what we talked about, Lou. I think we just giggled a lot. Who were we then? And who have we become? It’s hard to believe so many years have passed. It feels like those kids were two different people entirely.” He sat on the bed next to her. His leg touched her leg, flannel pajama pant leg next to cotton nightgown. “They’ve been pretty good years, haven’t they?”
“Pretty good, Jerky,” she said, using the pet name she gave him so many years ago. “I think we’ve made some fine children, we have a pretty nice home. But, I have to wonder, where did we lose us?”
Jerome got a bit nervous at that question. “What do you mean, Lou? We’re right here. We didn’t go anywhere.”
She punched him lightly on the arm. “Jerky, you can be such a …jerky.” They both laughed nervously. “I’d like to get to know you again, the way we’ve been getting to know the kids again.”
He looked confused.
“Why don’t we have a date tomorrow?” she continued.
Jerome looked even more confused. “Huh? We’re quarantined. We can’t go anywhere.”
Louise sighed a big sigh. “Silly, when the kids go to bed, how about you take me out to the backyard with a cocktail and we sit out and look at the stars. And maybe talk to each other. And then, who knows what might happen. We haven’t talked to each other in a long time, Jerky.”
“What would we talk about?” Jerome asked.
“Same thing we used to talk about? Who knows. Maybe, we’ll just giggle.”