The New Old Normal

“Exactly how many people will be at this thing?”

Calvin asked as he rinsed his razor. His voice betrayed just enough anxiety, so that Kate skipped the question and went straight for the comforting words.

“It’ll be okay, Cal. I promise.” She reached for his hair and gently tousled it in what was supposed to be a humorous gesture.

“Easy for you to say,” replied Calvin involuntarily moving away from the hand trying to pat his head. “You’ve been out in the real world this whole time. You’ve been WITH people, face to face. I. R. L., as the youths like to say.”

“Yes, true, I have been with people – In Real Life – but it’s all been very controlled, hasn’t it?

I’m behind so many walls, screeners, people taking patients’ temps before they come into my office? It’s not like I’m mingling or socializing at all. Plus I haven’t seen so many of the folks who’ll be there. My god it’s been so long, can you believe we just lost a year of our lives like *boop* it’s gone!” 

Kate watched as her husband struggled to shave off the hairy beast – his COVID Beard. She hated it and wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of even giving it a proper animal name; no Grizzly Bears or even a Honeybadger here. Instead, she called it his Face Gopher and made him promise to shave it off when they finally went out in public together.

And that day, that “Finally” finally came.

An honest to goodness social event. No web cameras, video links, or bad internet connections today. This was going to be the real deal, and Kate for one was not going to pass up the opportunity to see friends face to face.

Calvin winced suddenly as a spot of blood began to blossom on the left side of his jaw. “Dammit. I definitely did not miss this,” he said, shaking his head as he stepped over to grab some toilet paper.

“Awwww, my poor baby,” Kate said with mocking sympathy. “Shall I kiss your boo-boo?”

“Cute,” Calvin answered dryly. “You haven’t been out of practice for over a year.”

“Well,” said Kate, “who’s fault is that?” She absentmindedly checked herself in the mirror, but the air of superiority was unmistakable in her voice.

“First of all, I happened to like my COVID beard. Was it really that bad? — NOPE DON’T answer that! And secondly you chose to keep shaving your legs during this whole pandemic despite the fact that you never go out of the house in anything but scrubs anyway. Don’t blame me for insisting on maintaining unnecessary habits.”

It’s true that Kate had stubbornly maintained the practice of shaving her legs with a regularity scarcely seen among humans in the entire year of 2020. But it was those small acts of “being human” that helped her get through the pandemic, helped her maintain a sense of self and of purpose.

It was that very sense, Kate’s very normality, that seemed to stick in Calvin’s throat for the entire COVID-19 era.

While his wife continued her work and basically her whole life almost uninterrupted or unchanged, his life had ground to an unforgiving halt. It turns out that marketing for a local restaurant group did not constitute as essential work. His furlough came early. And although the company did eventually ask him to come back, clearly his work could be done from home. Even now as the economy opened up he had only gone into his office once, and that was on a Saturday, to pick up items from his workspace. The only human contact he had then was with Cole, the building superintendent who was there repairing a dripping sink in the break room.

“Well, thank you for shaving today. I know you’d gotten used to it, but outside of your work, nobody has really seen it, and we don’t need to shock the whole world now, do we?”

“Ugh. Do we really have to go see the world? “

I was pretty comfy here at my Fortress of Solitude. Nobody bothering me, no one making me talk. No hugging.” He hated how everyone hugged. Maybe one benefit (if you could call it that) of the pandemic would be that people would stop hugging each other. “How great would it be if COVID has turned everyone into germophobes who hate hugging?”

“I don’t know, hon. People are going to be glad to see each other after so long. There might be some hugging. You should prepare yourself.”

“God, really? Are you sure you want me there? This is going to be your work friends. They’ll all start talking medicine and small talk.”

“You mingle well with my work friends. And despite what you think, we haven’t all been exactly socializing at work, so we’re all going to be out of practice. You’ll be fine. Better than fine. Great! You’re a natural socializer! Now hurry up, Julia will be here soon.”

“Oh sure. Just like riding a bike,”

said Calvin with obvious sarcasm as he continued to hold pressure on his obviously mortal shaving wound. “I mean look at me. When’s the last time you saw me wear pants?”

“Oh come on”, Kate said. “You’ve been out and about. Especially recently.”

“Listen. Dropping the Bug off at daycare does not count as ‘out and about’. Nor does stopping at the grocery store, going for my jog, or picking the Bug up from daycare. Let’s face it, I’ve been a complete exile from the rest of society, and I’m not gonna lie, I kind of like it.”

“Oh stop”, Kate chided. “You don’t mind people that much. You still get on to those zoom meetings with your baseball buddies every week. And they couldn’t keep you away from trivia night with your nerd friends.”

“Oh sure”, said Calvin, “I still meet up with people. But it totally is a different thing when you’re behind a computer screen. It’s just not the same thing.”

Calvin resumed shaving his beard, now that the bleeding from his neck had apparently stopped. “For one thing, I’m going to have to actually pay attention to what people say. You know how it is in these Zoom meetings: people totally zone out. It’s a wonder we get any discussion done at all. Even when we’re expected to talk, we can just say ‘Oh sorry my connection froze for a second. What were we saying?’ Calvin mimicked that classic online voice where you get a little louder as if speaking with more volume will make the Internet work better. He paused to zip up Kate’s dress when she turned her back towards him and gestured wordlessly. “I’m thinking it’s going to be exhausting having to actually listen to people again. Not only do I have to pretend to be interested in what people say, I have to actually, like, know what they said. What a chore.”

“Yes, one at which you are very adept. Anyway, all that you’ve said to me just proves that you need this as much as I do. You’re turning into a hermit crab locked up here in the house. This will be good for you,” Kate said as she adjusted the shoulders of her dress. “What do you think? Are you sure this one and not the first one?”

Calvin looked at her with a wry smile and said, “Babe you know how you totally rock the Little Black Dress. But seriously?” 

Kate rolled her eyes and responded, “OK fine but don’t you think this one’s a little less flattering? It makes me look like I’ve gained 20 pounds, even if I have.”

Calvin turned back to his shaving and said, “You know I’m not even going to answer the ‘does this dress make me look fat?’ question. Even when you try to disguise it.” 

Kate kissed the back of his neck, gave his midsection a tiny squeeze, and said, “That’s why I love you. Now hurry up, we gotta go or we’ll be late.” She turned and walked out of the bathroom. Calvin could hear her footsteps into the hall.

“Oh no. Not late. Guess we should just stay home,” Calvin spoke under his breath.

“I heard that! It’ll be good for you!” Kate called back as she walked down the stairs.

“Four-twelve, Cherry Street. Yup that’s it. Wow, there’s already a lot of people. Good luck finding parking.” After circling the block twice and a moderate amount of cussing, Calvin did manage to find a spot, struggled to parallel park.

“Could’ve picked a venue with some parking, you’d think?” grumbled Calvin, as he virtually paid for parking.

“Really? That’s what you’re going to complain about? I bet they didn’t exactly have much choice in the matter. I mean, the state isn’t totally open yet, so most places like this aren’t allowing gatherings. It wasn’t that bad finding parking for a Saturday.” Calvin knew with each new complaint he was trying his wife’s patience, pushing the envelope just a bit more each time. 

It wasn’t just the conversation in the bathroom or his complaint about the parking.

He had basically whined non-stop the whole way here. He’d complained about his pants not fitting. That one was at least a legitimate complaint…the pandemic had not been kind to his figure, or rather, overly generous to his waistline. He’d complained about his neck and jaw itching incessantly now missing it’s Face Gopher. He’d even complained about how he now constantly wanted to run his hand through his now missing beard. “You’re a doctor,” he had said insistently, “isn’t that a thing? Like when an amputee has the urge to scratch an itch on his missing leg??” Kate was quite unwilling to get into an argument over whether or not “Phantom Beard” was a thing.

When the babysitter had arrived, he’d complained about how much she now charged. This complaint defied logic according to Kate. Julia had been their babysitter for four straight year, starting while she was a high school junior, and now extending into her second year of college. The fact that she stayed in town to go to school was a blessing. She had raised her prices then, being a college student. But now she had raised them again, and Calvin just felt the need to complain.  Although, to his credit,he only did so in the car. Kate patiently reminded him that finding a babysitter whom they trusted, who was vaccinated, who agreed to wear a mask the whole time, AND who knew their Clara for four years was a damned miracle and told him to just drop it. He dropped it.

He had complained about needing to buy gas for the first time in months.

Walking to and from Clara’s daycare, and being able to bike to their market for groceries, meant that his car’s MPG had gone from Miles Per Gallon to Months Per Gallon. She had very little sympathy for this, as she had continued driving to work day in and day out.

His only complaint that had gained even the slightest purchase came when they left their townhouse. Actually, he didn’t even have to complain then; Clara had done it for him. “Why can’t I come too, momma?” she asked plaintively. Calvin had, except for a few daycare hours, three days a week, had not been apart from his daughter during this entire pandemic. Now he felt his own version of separation anxiety as Clara’s question struck somewhere deep in his gut. 

But Kate, who had continued to say goodbye daily throughout the pandemic to her Clara-Bug, remained unphased. “This is a party for grownups, little Bug. It’s momma’s work friends, okay? There won’t be any other kids to play with. You’ll just be bored.” 

“Wouldn’t be the only one there who’s bored, I’ll bet,” Calvin said under his breath.

He instantly questioned his decision to speak aloud and simultaneously cursed his wife’s hyperacute sense of hearing. She shot him a withering stare that he was sure could be contributing to global warming. All the while she maintained her smile for Clara and continued to console her without losing her momentum towards the front door.

“Besides, Bug-bug, aren’t you excited to see your Julia? It’s been over a year. I’ll bet you guys have some great games and adventures!” These were apparently the magic words.  Clara jumped down from her chair and ran to Julia, who herself seemed to be calmed by Kate’s words and voice. Damn, she’s good, thought Calvin. He could only sheepishly grin at Kate who now resumed melting the cellular matrix of his entire body with her stare. “You guys have a GREAT time and we will be home after dinner okay?”

“B-B-B-B-B-Bye-bye-bye-bye-bye B-B-B-Bug-bug-bug bug bug!” Calvin said in an absurdly echoing sounding voice. He had used this comically goofy voice years ago when they first dropped Clara off at daycare. It was an instant hit back then. It had worked like a charm for so long, that now, even though she didn’t mind daycare drop offs, he still did the voice. She usually rolled her eyes now when he did it. So great having a five year old going on fifteen.

But today, the goofy voice seemed to be calming to Calvin, if not Clara. Much like when the daycare center reopened requiring all kids and teachers to wear masks, Clara’s excitement at seeing her teachers was only exceeded by Calvin’s anxiety and guilt. Kate and he had made the decision to go back to the center three times a week, more for Clara’s benefit than for theirs. Sure it was nice for Calvin to get some time to concentrate on work in his home office. But did he need that time to be more productive? Clearly not, and this became all too apparent when Calvin realized he really didn’t get much more done with her out of the house than with her running around underfoot. 

But they hated watching this huge chunk of her early childhood spent in near complete isolation, so part-time daycare was their decision. Well, mostly it was Kate’s decision after she thoroughly grilled the daycare staff’s policies on mask-wearing and sanitization of every and all surfaces. Calvin remembers teasing Kate about whether she asked the staff if they all took “Silkwood” showers prior to entering the premises or if they had a vat of Purell to marinate the kids if any of them so much as coughed.

That first day of pandemic daycare not surprisingly caused a near panic attack for Calvin.

Between the continued fears of COVID in the pre-vaccine era, the guilt for exposing her to the outside world, and the social anxiety of actually having to talk to teachers face to face, albeit from the parking lot fully masked, he needed the goofy voice to calm himself much more than Clara did. She waved goodbye and turned to meet her long missed classmates and teachers. He waved goodbye and surreptitiously wiped his eyes while reaching to take off his mask. 

Feeling this much separation anxiety today took him somewhat by surprise. It probably spoke more to his growing dread of facing crowds than anything else. Obviously Clara was perfectly happy to spend time with her Julia, and Julia would be great for Clara as always. Clara would be fine. Why wasn’t he? What was it about today’s event that gave him such pause? As Kate pointed out to him, he really was a good socializer; he could small talk with the best of them, and always had a quick wit to elicit laughter among crowds. Not a comedian at parties, but one who could always move things along with a quip.

No, the act of socializing would be fine. His social skills fine. But what might actually break him would be people.

Real live people, actual body heat, breathing and exhaling. People without masks, without six feet of personal distance, without a mute button. This might take some work to get over it. He took a deep breath and followed Kate.

When they started up the stairs people were smiling, but some without a mask. He could actually see the smile. For so long he and all of society had to learn to read people’s faces purely by the expressions in their eyes. Was that crinkling of the wrinkle lines around the corners of their eyes a sign of a grin or a grimace? Was that a frown in those eyebrows or just a furrowed brow of concentration? The sensory input of now seeing entire faces almost overloaded Calvin’s pandemic muted brain.

The real shock to his system came when Kate saw some of her closer friends, those who didn’t share the same work schedules or were at other satellite locations. Those whom she really hadn’t seen in forever. That’s when the reality of the situation hit Calvin right in the solar plexus of his brain; smiles, handshakes, and (yup, there it was) the hugging had commenced. Kate went in like a rockstar stage-diving into the arms of adoring fans. Calvin remained just a step back, smiling as if to say “Hey, it’s great to see you again, but I’ll stand here while you guys hug it out.” Which is literally what he would have loved to have said if it weren’t for his wife’s extraordinary auditory prowess.

There was the expected barrage of “Oh my gods!” and “How are yous?” along with general squeals of delight.

Eventually amid the embraces and cheers, one voice, (was it Kate’s?) rose above the din and gently but firmly (it was definitely Kate’s) pushed back the noise with, “Don’t you start crying. If you start crying I’ll start crying.”

It was a hopeless order though, and the laughter and squeals eventually gave way to prolonged sustained silence or at most contented “mmmmm’s”. And just as Kate had predicted, the tears had started. Calvin saw just inside the lobby doors on a small side table a box of tissues next to the obligatory bottle of hand sanitizer. He quietly moved through the doors towards the table, happy to put some distance between himself and the scrum of huggers. Just as he reached the box, a loud voice rang out in the lobby. “Folks, if we could all make our way inside, we’re running a bit late, so we’re hoping to get started.”

After a bit more prodding by the attendant, a momentum gathered within the crowd and people began to heed his wishes, moving through the double doors of the hall. The attendant continued his call for people to go inside while Kate found Calvin by the side table and nodded. She came to him and took the tissue that he wordlessly offered. The gesture looked slightly as if Calvin was holding up a white flag of surrender, now ready to take the knee. Kate quelled any such fairy tale thoughts with a loud squishy blow into the tissue. She handed the soiled kerchief back to her attendant knight, and Sir Calvin took it without a moment’s hesitation, his new quest now to find a trash can.

In a few moments people had filed their way into the main hall of the venue. Chairs had been placed in pairs with prescribed distance between sets. It seemed a nice compromise between allowing close “pod” contact while maintaining some semblance of social distancing. Many of the guests had found seats, so Calvin moved quickly toward an open pair, silently urging Kate, who was again distracted by colleagues she hadn’t seen in months.

Seeing the entire party in that room really drove home the sense of the size of the crowd.

For some thirteen months the only human contact outside of his house had been a wave from the parking lot at Clara’s daycare, the occasional jostling if the grocery store got crowded, and the increasing numbers of leisure seekers outside at parks and playgrounds. But never this many. At once. Never this many with the same intention of meeting and greeting one another. Never inside in one room. Never without masks. Welcome back to the New Old Normal, Calvin thought to himself.

Finally from the front of the room over a small microphone/speaker a voice rang out. Silence fell quickly, far more quickly than usual for a crowd this size, thought Calvin. “Good Afternoon, and thank you all for coming.”

The speaker paused, and the effect was clearly powerful.

The gravity of the moment became unmistakeable. “Dearly Beloved, friends, family, colleagues. We are all here to celebrate,” (another short but effective pause), “to celebrate and mourn the loss of a beautiful soul from our midst. Dr. Annabelle Camp. Wife. Mother. Sister. Daughter. Leader, and fearless, tireless healer among so many who suffered. Taken too soon from our world by the very disease she unceasingly strove to combat. She would always be heard saying, “I can’t cure the pandemic, but here in our little corner of the world, I can kick some COVID ass.” A smattering of laughter erupted, intermingled with the sounds of some sobs and sniffles.

“The New Old Normal” whispered Calvin as he looked around to the now many teary faces in the room. Kate didn’t hear him this time.