By Teresa van Luyk
PROMPT—During Covid-19 ...
I met my cottage neighbor, Joe, on the beach a month or so ago, before this latest stay-at-home order, and we caught up; it’d been a long while since we’d spoken.
How did you survive the winter, each of us asked the other.
Joe said the Covid shutdown hit him hard in December, when he knew he and his family wouldn’t get away for a holiday, nor have their usual Christmas festivities with the relatives.
Joe is a large man; he struts the beach like he’s an important man in some aspect of his life. He’s so full of machismo that I’d never heard him utter more than fact. He’d comment on the weather, rising water levels of the bay, or a reno project he was having done.
But yesterday, Joe looked me square in the eye, shook his head in disbelief, maybe at what he’d experienced, or perhaps that he was about to share it with me.
“It broke me,” he said. “One day I just got into my car and drove to Mississauga. I went into my old neighborhood where I grew up, I parked in the lot of my elementary school, and then I drove past my old friends’ places. I don’t know what it was about,” he said.
“Maybe it helped you look back over your life,” I said.
“Everything was empty. The park where we played ball, the yard where school kids should’ve been shouting and running around. The mall parking lots—not a car in sight. It was as if everyone had died and I was left to witness that.”
“Gosh,” I began. But Joe wanted to keep going, this normally reticent guy.
“But it was worse than death. Because I knew everyone was in their own home, stuck together with people they were tired of seeing, or, for some, living in solitary confinement. There’s people living out this nightmare on their own,” he said, not even seeing me anymore.
“Life in a bell jar,” I said.
His gaze turned to the lake in front of us, the late afternoon sun riding each small wave toward us until it disappeared in the sand.
We stood silent, each of us in a moment of raw, shared anguish.
“It’s good to be here,” I said, after a while. “To be back in this healing place with spring on the way.”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “Sure is. Happy first day of spring.”
With that, we walked in opposite directions, carrying on our solitary walk. And, with that, we’d come to overlook the unpleasant encounter we’d had four years earlier when, upon first meeting me and learning I was a teacher, he told me teachers are overpaid and most were pretty useless at their job. I tried putting him in his place, this puffed-up man who owned a successful business, but a satisfactory retort was slow to come to me then. But I never let go of my resentment.
Not until Covid struck and a year of solitary confinement forced me to hit the reset button, which has me getting better at letting others be just who they are, while accepting who I am too.
Teresa van Luyk has been a writer all of her life and has a few short stories published in various journals. She writes from Holland Landing, Ontario, Canada.