This story appears in the July 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine. A version of this story published on March 26, 2020.
The nomenclature was so strange at first, and then it was everywhere: in our stories, our questions, our arguments, our dreams. In California, where I live, I wake with a racing heart one morning because in the nightmare I was trying to buy cloth, for a mask, but the other shoppers wouldn’t distance. How do they say it where you are? I type online to friends in other places, and the responses pile on. Distanciamento social, Brazil. Distanciation sociale, France. To meters avstand, Norway—two meters distance.
From Mexico City comes a picture of the new cartoon superhero, Susana Distancia, grinning from a sort of isolation bubble inside of which she holds both arms straight out to the sides, marking the no-approach zone. A Delhi friend passes on a comic’s line about wanting to meet this famous new guy, Soshal Distan Singh. A friend in Boston insists the phrasing has been wrong from the start, that what the coronavirus began forcing upon the world isn’t “social” distancing at all. Anybody fortunate enough to have access to a screen and an internet connection has rushed toward others, wildly, inventively, using live chat and video conferencing to talk, plan, teach, cook, drink, work, dance, sing, weep, exercise, pray, listen, mourn. This distancing is physical, my Boston friend observes. We can connect. We are connecting. We just can’t … touch.
We can’t throw ourselves into shoulder-to-shoulder rescue work with strangers, the way we would if we were digging someone out of earthquake rubble. We can’t funnel into houses of worship or yell together at ballparks.
My local public health instructions, as I write this with summer still more than two months away, probably sound like yours: I must not rest my head on my daughter-in-law’s shoulder, rumple my godchildren’s hair, or put a hand on my neighbor’s arm as we tell each other we’ll get through this. Flatten the curve. To meters avstand. Maybe two meters isn’t enough, it turns out; look up “airborne coronavirus.” Or, better yet, don’t, because you’ll find yourself reading arguments about whether invisible little virus clouds left lurking by six-feet-away heavy breathers could conceivably find their way up our noses. Maybe we should stay 20 feet from other people. Maybe we shouldn’t walk out our front doors at all.
For how long? Not knowing, trying to get to sleep every night still not knowing, is one more hammer to the heart. By the time you read this, things will be better where you are, or worse where you are, or zigzagging from worse toward better as long as you sit at least three bar stools away from the next person and figure out how to sip under your mask. Do you love someone whose daily life requires exposure danger? A bus driver, a nurse, a police officer, a home health aide, a grocery clerk, a production line worker at a meatpacking plant? Will looking back on 2020 remind you of the last time you could breach the distance barrier without taking a COVID-19 test first?
My daughter is an ambulance-driving paramedic. One city over from mine, that’s all, but for us she’s a voice on the phone, a face on the screen, until somebody can promise that sharing a kitchen table won’t inadvertently set off a new chain of transmission. Our deepest human impulse for the giving and receiving of comfort, especially in crisis—to move closer, to join hands, to feel the literal nearness of others—is the one we cannot indulge.
I listen every morning for the boys across the street. Their mother is Australian, and the school-gone-online routine starts with driveway cricket, one parent pitching, the other jiggling the baby sister. They shout and whoop, the ball smacks off the cricket bat, and somehow it’s like the sound of those Italians singing in unison off their balconies, and the people in great cities opening their windows for evening salutes to frontline workers, and the balloon-covered Happy Birthday Kevin! car that honked and blasted music through my neighborhood this week. Halfway out the sunroof and waving like the star of a parade float, his legs pinioned by adults within, Kevin—I’m going to go ahead and assume that was Kevin—had block after block of Oakland residents wishing him a happy birthday and merrily waving back.
“Let us not let this virus infect our souls,” I heard a local pastor implore his congregation last month. He was getting the hang of preaching by Zoom, the amens floating up the chat window on one side of the screen. A soprano sang a hymn at her living room piano, and it was possible for a while to imagine all this improvisation as terrified humans fumbling for grace and, at odd moments—driveway cricket, a mask-sewing brigade, a How are you? that means something new—finding it.
My husband is a labor lawyer, his days consumed with pandemic-collapsed businesses and workers losing their paychecks. During the outdoor walks we are still permitted to take, we keep reminding each other to notice spring poppies as we distance-veer back and forth, alert to the sound of the phones in our pockets. His sister might be calling, or my brothers, our son, our cousins, our oldest friends. Even on duty, the paramedic daughter checks in occasionally, from the ambulance, between hospital runs.
The mission is reassurance. We all understand that. She hits the FaceTime prompt, if the signal is good enough. During one of the calls, she smiles at us from the little screen and reminds us how we used to assume she would one day take a temporary posting someplace far away and tough, a war zone or a desert refugee camp.
“All we have to do is pretend that’s where I am,” she says. “And look how lucky we are. With these technological devices, we can see each other from opposite sides of the world.” So we have that, for now, for as long as it takes. We will cherish it. We will make it be enough.