Back to Normal

Sandra Benson

Before you enter a Zoom meeting, you should change the settings so you can’t see yourself.  They say if you don’t look at yourself, you can reduce your levels of depression and anxiety. It’s too late for me; I leave it on.  For this meeting, I’ve set a fake winter background with lots of cheerful looking snowy trees.  Fake backgrounds save me from the embarrassment of letting coworkers see how I live.  I use them a lot.

 

Carl was on.  His gray hair looked more sparse than I remembered, and he was wearing the same cheesy Christmas sweater he’d worn to the office holiday party every year.   That was a disturbing thought, that I’d been in this job long enough to know everyone’s party wear.  No more, I promised myself.  I can do something better with my life than this.

 

Mary was on too, fiddling with a string of mini lights around her neck.  A large tabby cat leaped onto the back of her chair and started batting at them.  “Get the hell off me,” she muttered, pushing at him.  “Where’s my mic setting?  Oh, it’s on.  Okay.  Everybody got something to drink?” she asked more loudly, raising a half-empty glass to her camera.  We both did the same.  Everyone smiled politely.  Then Pete’s name popped up.  “Pete?  Pete, I’m so glad you came!” said Mary.  Silence.  “Pete, can you hear me?  We can’t see you.”  Pete’s name disappeared.

 

“Is the whole office coming?” I asked.  

 

It used to be a big office.  There were a lot fewer people now, though it didn’t really seem to matter while we all worked from home.  I kind of fell into my job as assistant personnel supervisor, because the pay was better than the work I’d been doing before.  I needed to earn more so I could get an apartment in the city.  I needed the apartment so I could be close to work.  Had I only known.

 

My life stretched out ahead of me like a desert highway, straight and flat.  It didn’t feel like it disappeared into an endless horizon anymore.  There was an end point, and my mother had already reached hers.  That meant my generation was next in line.  The thought made my stomach swoop.

 

“Everyone was invited, but I’m not sure who’s going to show up,” Mary answered.

 

“Well, this is nice, though.  Gives the three of us a better chance to chat,” I said.  No point wasting a good excuse for another glass of wine.  

 

“Say, has anyone heard from James?” asked Carl.

 

Mary shook her head.  “Not since he left.  He was, what, the first round of layoffs?”  

 

“I heard he moved back in with his parents,” I volunteered.  “They live in a seniors’ community.  He’s picking up groceries for the whole neighbourhood, so they’re bending the age rules to let him stay in his parents’ basement.”

 

“Well, that’s nice,” said Mary.  “I wish we had a basement.  Our daughter works at the hospital, you know, and my Jimmy’s got a lot of risk factors. So she had to move out of the house.”

 

“That’s too bad,” said Carl.  “Did she get an apartment?”

 

“She can’t afford one on her wages, but we’re making do,” replied Mary gamely.  “We have our trailer parked in the yard.  She’s living in there.”  She paused.  “Winter’s a bit of a challenge, but she’s got everything she needs.  There’s electricity, and we’re running a hose from the garden faucet.”

 

I thought about that for a minute.  “What about, um, a toilet?”

 

Mary took another drink.  “Mostly she holds it until she gets to work.  But she has a bucket with kitty litter in it.”

 

I had to ask.  “Wouldn’t it be uncomfortable, having to sit on the rim of a bucket to pee?”

 

“What kid wouldn’t be willing to pee in a bucket to keep her parents safe?  And it’s only tipped over once.  Then she got the hang of it.”  

 

Maybe someday I would have a house with a yard and a trailer.  The trailer would be parked in a weedy patch in the corner.  The house would need a new roof.  I could imagine that more clearly than I could imagine a daughter.  I topped up my wine glass.  “How are you doing these days, Carl?  Are you still running that retirement countdown app on your phone?”

 

He glanced away from the camera.  “Uh, no, I decided to take that off.  Alice and I might wait for a few more years.”

 

“Not much point retiring when you can’t do all that travelling, right?” asked Mary lightly.  “With most countries closed and all.  But they’ll be open again before you know it.”

 

Carl sighed.  “Wouldn’t make much difference at this stage.  We kind of panicked when the markets dropped last spring.  We sold all our retirement investments and put the money into term deposits.  I thought at least we’d get some interest.”

 

All right, then.  No need to ask how that was going.  

 

Should I be making retirement investments already?  Or saving for the down payment on a house?  I could probably afford to buy a backpack; how much would it cost to go around the world?  Oh wait, the borders were closed.

 

Carl rubbed at his chin.  “And then our youngest lost his job, so his family has moved in with us.  Which is great, mostly, although Alice says she thought she was done with babies crying in the middle of the night.”  

 

I searched for something more cheerful to talk about.  This was meant to be a party.  “So, what are you all doing for the holidays?”  Silence.  Okay, that was probably a stupid question. 

 

“We’re setting up Christmas in our garage,” said Carl at last.  “Alice got the tree decorated and she’s taped tinsel on the deep freeze.  And I took the tools down off the wall so we can hang stockings on the pegboard.  I’m still worried about the grandkids getting too close to the circular saw, though.”

 

If I stayed with the company as long as Carl had, I could have a garage and a circular saw.  Might need that to fix the roof in my future house. How do you fix a roof, anyway?  “Wow,” I said.  “That’s … resourceful.  What about you, Mary?”

 

“Oh, I’m baking up a storm!  I’ve got enough cookies to feed the whole neighbourhood.  Thank goodness we don’t have to worry so much about groceries now.  Remember last spring?  All the empty shelves in the supermarket?  It felt like the zombie apocalypse was upon us.”  Mary paused to have another drink.

 

“Toilet paper.”  Carl smirked and shook his head.  “You couldn’t get any toilet paper.”

 

Mary raised a finger.  “You had to think ahead.  Most people weren’t thinking ahead.  Before they started putting limits on, you could go to Costco and totally load up on everything.  Toilet paper.  Hand sanitizer - don’t you miss good hand sanitizer?.  Good thing we have the truck.  The number of trips we made…”

 

I shifted on my chair uncomfortably, then asked, “Were you stockpiling?”  Although I could see the benefit.  Maybe my house would have actual storage.  A bigger closet would be nice.

 

Mary pursed her lips.  “Well, I wouldn’t call it stockpiling exactly.  More like stocking up.  But you know, I didn’t really want to tell people about it at the time.  In case word got out about what we had.”  Another drink.  “You never know what other people might do.”

 

Well, that was a conversation-killer.  It was difficult to swap stories with Mary about how best to protect her home from the hordes who were out to get her toilet paper.  

 

“What about you?”  asked Carl.  “Got any plans for the holidays?”

 

“Not really,”  I confessed.  “My family’s not feeling it this year.”

 

“Oh, now you can’t let this all get you down!”  said Mary.  “Look at Carl!  He’s going to move everything outside to the garage so they can still have the holidays!”

 

“In fairness,” Carl put in, “there’s two grandkids living with us and three more who’ll want to come over.  It’s different when there are little ones around.”

 

Mary waved her wineglass in the air expansively.   “There must be a way that you can set up to have a bit of festivity.  Especially now; who doesn’t need that?”

 

I took a deep breath.  “It doesn’t seem right,”  I said.  “We lost my mom.  She worked her whole life and never got the chance to do all the things she wanted to do.  So there’s gonna be an empty chair at the table this year.”  My voice rose to a squeak at the end.  Damn, I shouldn’t have said that.  Shouldn’t have had that last glass of wine.  

 

“My nephew too,” said Carl.  “He’d had a kidney transplant.  He had two kids.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry Carl,” I said.  

 

“Me, too.  For your mom.  Life’s short… Sometimes, way too short.”

 

Mary poured herself more wine.  “Well, it’s almost -  oops!”  She reached out of sight of the camera and returned to wipe the table in front of her.  “It’s almost over.  We’ll get the vaccine and everything will get back to normal.”  She sounded wistful.

 

I smiled for the camera again and took another sip of my wine to steady myself.  I was so ready for a return to normal.   Although if normal meant I had to share a cubicle with Mary, I might make a kamikaze run at her toilet paper instead.  At least I could go out in a blaze of glory.  

 

“So, does anybody have New Year’s resolutions?” asked Carl.  Mary was staring morosely at her wineglass.  I considered his question.  We’d moved through 2020 with brave phrases about how “this is the new normal”.  Could I create a new new normal?  Put a curve in my highway?

 

“I resolve to quit my job, go to Marrakech, become an artist and make love naked under the stars,” I said recklessly.

 

Carl blinked.  “Sorry, what?  I think my connection cut out.”

 

I sucked on my teeth.  “I said I’m going to get more exercise and lose a bit of weight.”

 

Mary nodded and had another drink.  “Me too,” she said.  “We could do it together.”

 

And just like that, there we were.  Back to normal.

Sandra Benson is a writer living in Victoria, British Columbia.

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