By Gail Wallace Bozzano
Sometime in the Anthropocene, pandemic transforms our neighborhood. Front stoops blossom with chairs: plastic Adirondacks, dainty wrought-iron conversation sets, blocky cushioned contraptions. Backyards are ample in this former prairie-former farmland-now suburban subdivision, but people want to sit out front—to wave to neighbors? Wait for the FedEx truck, for further instructions? They sit and watch their children draw with chalk, their dogs’ leashes twined around wrists or tangled around the legs of chairs. Released from school, children draw rainbows and hearts and butterflies. When I can break away from online meetings, I pace the neighborhood, stepping around signs scrawled on sidewalks in pastels: Thank you, essential workers. We’re in this together. Stay safe. Shine on. The colors are the same shade as the marshmallow charms in the cereal my child can now coax me—single parent, whittled down well before this all began—to buy.
Dogs wag wildly at others across the way. Spring breezes blow, daffodils tilt star-shaped faces toward the sun, kids fling kites into the sky, bounce balls against garage doors. Time seems to move backward, and backward again. People yearn for Starbucks and soccer games and hair salons. I yearn for the good years: for the soft sound of my ex’s breath as he slept next to me, for the coffee he brewed before I woke, for the time when my daughter was young enough for bedtime stories and sidewalk chalk, the time when I believed she would inherit an inhabitable world.
In the morning, sitting on their front stoop chairs, people wrap their fingers around steaming mugs and bite into sourdough bread. The people marvel at this simpler, quieter time. Like it used to be, they say. No one mourns the extinct, lime-green Carolina parakeets that once perched on limbs of old growth trees. No one remembers thundering herds of bison or certain types of long-gone mussels or running buffalo clover. People barely remember last fall’s hurricane or the fires in Australia and the Amazon. Soon enough, they will tire of this invisible calamity. They will sign their children up for summer camp, sign petitions to reopen schools. Rain will wash away their children’s chalk signs. The sidewalks will remain bare.
When the cereal with the lucky charms runs out, I pull on latex gloves and a homemade face mask bearing a pattern of paw prints. I push a creaky grocery cart through quiet aisles marked with red arrows and directions: One Way. Stand Six Feet Apart. I roll my eyes at the woman wearing the N95 mask and the face shield who picks up plums and potatoes with her bare hands, then puts them back in the bins. I feel my precious breath pulling mask fabric tight against my nostrils. In the parking lot I slip off my mask, breathe deeply just to test, to make sure I can still smell asphalt and gasoline and sun-warmed vinyl car seats and the sharp, citrus tang of hand sanitizer.
In the evening, after dinner dishes are rinsed and dogs are fed, people stroll down darkening streets. My daughter and I pause on our front stoop, listening to an owl hoot from a cottonwood the next block over. Our next-door-neighbor stops as her dachshund sniffs our silver maple. She asks my daughter about her online learning. My daughter says it’s going fine. “Hang in there,” the neighbor says to me. “This too shall pass.”
Later, my child and I slide into separate beds. I wait and wait for sleep to chase me down. Some nights, I dream of crushing crowds and snarling dogs and fluid-filled coughs. Tonight, my door creaks open. My daughter slips in and pauses near my bed. She hasn’t slept with me in years. I pat the mattress, lift the blankets, curl around her warmth, rub her back until her breath deepens. I imagine our dreams rising from our heads, braiding together in the dark. In case this is true, I send her bright visions: her friends’ laughing, unmasked faces, their arms opening for hugs. Her younger self walking through a wide green field, one parent on either side, holding her hands. One vision shifts, morphs, transforms into a new dream as I slide into sleep: our neighborhood in a far future time, engulfed by forest, pines and oaks and cottonwoods. Tiny wildflowers bloom in pastel constellations in the moss under the trees. Roots push up blocks of pavement, vines twine around chimneys, branches poke through broken windows. Smiling foxes lounge on front stoops. They lift their heads to watch an orange cloud of butterflies the size of owls rise above the rooftops, wingtips touching, flying into a clean, healed sky.