Disconnecting from 2020
My mom jokes that her hometown of Enon, Ohio, is “none” spelled backwards. She didn’t realize it until she moved away from the town near Dayton, Ohio.
On the way to my grandparents’ house, I pass my old Montessori that was attached to a nursing home, a tavern where I’m told my great-grandpa used to kill time, the McDonald’s we used to frequent before my grandparents hopped on a health kick.
My grandma and Papaw are away in their RV, and I’m taking care of their chickens for the weekend.
I’m here to center myself in true isolation. No roommates or parents are here to ask me what I’m making for dinner or remind me about what happens after graduation. I find out quickly that I miss these welcome disruptions. My existential dread fills the space that my conversations with other people usually take up.
I planned to use this time on my own to escape the obvious perils of being around other people during a pandemic and the looming election for a weekend. I realize that this isn’t possible when I spot my grandparents’ “TRUMP PENCE 2020” sign before I even pull into their long gravel driveway.
It’s dark. Cold. I’m driving up to the one-story house my Papaw built, surrounded by lush green woods I can’t see right now.
My grandparents are in their 60s, and my Papaw jokes about having O-L-D. I’m more worried about their health than they are. I’m coming from Oxford, which is teeming with COVID-19 cases an hour and 20 minutes away.
Papaw worked in construction before he retired. Since my childhood, he’s built a garage, re-done the bathroom — before that, the rust in that room gave me nightmares as a kid — torn out the kitchen and extended it, re-done the floors, added a room connecting the house to the garage, built two sunrooms — one in the back of the house with a fireplace and one in front with a swinging chair — a garden, a small greenhouse shed, a chicken coop, a small metal arch leading to a bonfire down a set of steps, one small backyard deck and another on the side of the house that overlooks their empty acre of land seen through the trees and down the hill.
When I drive to the end of the driveway, I realize that since the last time I visited, Papaw has added a wooden shade on the side of the garage with room to shelter a car from the elements.
The idea that my grandparents are looking at houses two states away and are considering selling this house is unfathomable to me. This house has been around since my mom was small. She remembers neighbor kids skipping the house altogether on Halloween night, not even stopping at the natural arch of trees that outline the long driveway, with the house at the end of the curved gravel carpath tucked out of sight.
I think about what I hope is the far away future: This house, with people I don’t know in it. This house, full of memories of leaf piles taller than my six-year-old self and Thanksgiving turkey mishaps and learning to drive in the acre of grass down below, but empty.
I turn off my music. I stop my car, and the engine slows.
It’s just me and the crickets.
I have assignments due at midnight, but after I finish, I hear creaks throughout the house. I’m wide awake.
I feel guilty. The fact that I’m avoiding the news at all just speaks to my privilege. I find Trump mail in the house and realize avoiding news of the election is futile. I consider having a bonfire. Then I catch a notification on my phone saying President Trump and First Lady Melania both tested positive — I turn off my news notifications.
I make peppermint tea and immediately forget that I made it, until I wander back into the kitchen hours later. I make breakfast at 4 a.m., quartering small tomatoes that Papaw must have plucked from the garden at some point and placing them alongside scrambled eggs. I heat up tortillas my grandma left for me, cover everything in green salsa and look out at the backyard from the window. I eat while it’s still dark outside.
I can’t sleep this first night. At all. The hours before dawn are comforting, but I don’t condone this behavior.
Being here is supposed to be an escape, but responsibilities have followed me since I still have an internet connection. It’s Friday, 6:30 a.m. for me, but it’s 6:30 p.m. for the student in the Republic of China who I tutor in English writing.
Instead of rolling out of bed to answer her call like I usually do, I’ve been up for hours and have finished a cup of coffee by now. No sleep, but I’m more chipper than usual. I hear her voice pick up in response, but she still sticks with mostly one-word answers to my questions.
She turned 12 a few weeks ago. She used to want to be a doctor when she grows up, but she doesn’t dream of that anymore. Since January, she has refused to write about her daily life. She doesn’t like reading the news and summarizing it like we used to do before. She prefers fantasy and fiction to real life now, and I don’t blame her.
I ask her to read aloud part of a dystopian novel that’s tamer than reality. She sounds out words in a chapter of The Giver.
We log off an hour later, and there’s finally enough light outside to start the chores for the day.
It’s a simple routine that stitches the days together. In the mornings, I feed the cats and let the chickens out. In the afternoons, I feed the cats again, pour seed out for the chickens, collect any eggs laid so far and walk down the long driveway to collect the mail. In the evenings, I close the hatch to the outside of the chicken coop.
I step out in my grandma’s moccasins to feed the two stray cats, but they aren’t on the small backyard deck to greet me. Instead, I find a raccoon curled up in a cage trap just a few paces from the deck, past a crowd of potted plants.
I text my grandma a picture of the raccoon — still breathing, just glued to one side of the cage for some reason — with the caption, “Uhhhh,” and she tells me that Papaw’s friend will come and take care of it later today.
I let the chickens out so they can extend to the outside part of their coop. My grandparents used to let them roam free, even going past their property to their neighbors’, until a hawk swooped down one too many times.
For a few minutes, I am technically not alone. A yellow-vested electric meter reader appears in the backyard and spooks me in the middle of a Zoom class session. We don’t interact.
My grandma assures me an hour later that he’s supposed to be there, but I can’t help but think of worst-case scenarios. My mind wanders during class. I wonder when my body would be found if someone killed me, or if I just died out of nowhere.
I roam the house for a few minutes between classes. I pause to look at the homemade dream catchers, knives and turtle shell purses my grandma collected in the early 1990s, when she started attending powwows and making Native jewelry in the tri-state area. I gently pat a fern only a foot shorter than me with leaves wider than my head. I peruse my grandma’s homemade canned goods.
My grandma once told me that she enjoyed life not because of a successful job, but because of her family: cooking for us, making space for us to pull our chairs into a circle, serving us another helping and taking her canned ham and navy beans home with us.
In the kitchen is a zipped up notebook with a Bible quote on the front: “Faithful Servant: Be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.” I peek inside. The notes have been torn out, but there are two mindless drawings tucked in the side. They could be random squiggles, or they could be penis graffiti. It’s unclear, but the thought of my Papaw drawing obscene sketches expected from a teenage boy makes me laugh in this empty house.
When I step over the chickens in their coop to reach their food in the afternoon, I’m surprised that one chicken pecks at my feet. I wear my grandma’s slip-on moccasins, the same pair she wears to take care of the chickens or to take care of the garden.
I rub my eyes after my last meeting for the day. Lack of sleep starts to get to me. At least once every hour, I forget what day it is.
I get a text from my professor, Dr. James Tobin, about a piece of equipment. He teaches remotely from home. As one of his undergraduate associates I set up a webcam facing the students who meet in person for his entry-level class.
Tobin: Could you check that webcam and send me whatever brand and model number you can see….and a photo of it?
Chloe: I am at my grandparents and left the webcam on my apartment desk, but I can ask one of my roommates to take a picture
Tobin: no dont worry about it…..later…..have a good weekend
Tobin: is this the all-alone weekend you may write about?
Tobin: well, if you wanted to get away from the news…..there’s plenty to [get] away from
Chloe: I saw a notification about trump and Melania having COVID before I turned off notifications
Tobin: yeah….keep em off
Chloe: There’s more??
Tobin: well….he just went to walter reed hospital
Tobin: but walking and looks ok
Chloe: Uhhhhh all right I’m not gonna think about Pence as hypothetical president
I have always been more afraid of Vice President Mike Pence than Trump. Do I tend to assume the worst-case scenario? Yes.
That night, I worry that I am missing a call I planned with my friends before I realize that I am worrying about this a day in advance. I fall asleep by 10 p.m.
The next day, as expected, there are no footsteps plodding through other parts of the house or smells of my grandma’s coffee that usually rouse me. No headline notifications are prompting my usual doom scrolling of the news in the morning. The only thing that convinces me to get out of bed is the thought of the cats and the chickens expecting me to feed them.
The cats are waiting for me as soon as I open the door. When I pull open the hatch to the chicken coop, the chickens pile out into their caged outdoors.
It’s nice to feel needed.
I plod over to inspect the garden, where I’m surprised to see two lines of tomatoes and tomatillos are still growing. Some perfectly red, small tomatoes have fallen off their stems, while others have clearly been wormed through. I pull apart the decaying tomatoes and toss them through the chicken coop cage. The hens race each other to grab it with their beaks before the others do. Sometimes it bounces off the cage but is still in reach for a hen to extend her neck through a square and peck it into her mouth.
I make coffee and sit outside on the deck overlooking the acre of grass below through the trees. It’s warm, but the wind whips the tree leaves above me into a gentle frenzy.
I don’t feel alone surrounded by trees. I feel small, but I feel more aware that the same force of gravity that keeps these trees in place, even when the wind changes, keeps me in place too.
I don’t feel trapped in quarantine for once. Just transfixed.
I wander the house again, still tired and knowing I have things to do, but I can’t decide what should come first. I flit to different parts of the house. I intend to shower, before I change my mind and turn to the living room to work on homework before changing my mind again. I realize if anyone was here with me, they would probably laugh. I finally stop in the guest bedroom where I’ve been sleeping, and lay down.
I wake up 30 minutes later and feel much more centered, just in time to feed the animals. No eggs yet, but one hen is still in her nest. I wonder if she is convinced that her unfertilized egg will hatch, and is ignoring her need to eat for a chick that will never be born.
While drinking coffee from the comfort of the sunroom, I look up at the huge trees, and the light pouring through their leaves. I feel small. I ask myself if I’m really alive.
I still wish to reach out to talk to someone, but part of me doesn’t want to interrupt the silence of the day just yet. I cancel a meeting. It could have been helpful, but we can accomplish our tasks without it.
I walk to the mailbox without my glasses. I spot a curved white object in the grass on the way, but I can’t make it out. I move closer until I’m near enough to realize it’s a hawk wing severed from the rest of the body, which is nowhere to be found. Flies and carpenter bees are picking clean the exposed cartilage of the wing.
I guess I am alive.