The last gatherings

·5 min read

My last gathering was a book club meeting on Friday, March 13, the day the schools in San Diego closed.

Looking back, that was the week everything changed, each day launching us into a new reality that seemed unimaginable the day before. On Tuesday my business trip was canceled. On Wednesday I mourned the news that Pearl Jam had scrapped their North American tour. On Thursday long lines started forming in the grocery stores, and our book club host told us she wouldn't be able to make the Irish stew she'd planned to fit the theme of the book we'd picked: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. Six people had RSVPed yes. We told her not to worry, we'd all bring food.

By late Friday afternoon, two more people said they weren't going to make it. One said she had a cough she couldn't shake, the other didn't give a reason. I considered skipping it, too, tempted to give in to my introverted tendencies in favor of a quiet night at home with the family, but my friend said she'd give me a ride and it would be good for us to get out of the house. When I got in the car I handed her a container of disinfecting wipes.

Once there, the four of us gathered in the kitchen, talking about the lines at the grocery stores and the shock of schools closing. We ate from the plates of cheese and crackers, piling salad on our plates, filling wine glasses. When we were ready to start our discussion, we moved to the living room, where we all instinctively sat on opposite ends of the room. Our book club meetings normally consist of at least 10 women packed together on the couch, some sitting on the floor, with multiple conversations going on at once. This new distance felt strange, and gave our conversation an odd formality.

We discussed the book, the spring break plans we'd have to cancel, our ideal birthday celebration — would we rather have a big party, a surprise trip to an unknown location, or a dinner at a fancy restaurant? We didn't know that in a week, none of those things would be possible.

Around 9:30 p.m. a familiar feeling overcame me: a sense of social exhaustion. I thought about my bed, the book I was reading. I stood up and the book club was over. We waved good bye. I was home before 10.

I think about that night a lot now. It's been three weeks since, and the coronavirus pandemic has forced much of the nation into lockdown. We're told to stay home, to only go out for essential errands, and to practice social distancing. I've seen friends and extended family only through my phone and computer screens, or from a safe distance of six feet when walking in the neighborhood. I've not been inside anyone else's car or home, and nobody has been inside ours.

Before the coronavirus changed everything, I turned down invitations to parties. I was rich in social interaction and activities, so rich I actually complained I was too busy. I craved quiet nights at home with nothing to do. Now, nights in are all I have, week after week. I used to spend my afternoons driving multiple carpools, then rushing home to walk the dog and make dinner. Now the afternoons are quiet and tense, each the same as the next.

Now, I'm never alone, but I often feel lonely.

I spend my day working from home — like I did before the pandemic — but also worrying about my kids, the economy, my job, and of course, someone I love getting sick.

If I'd known that book club was to be my last gathering, I don't think I would have stayed any later — I'm always going to be an introvert with a limited tolerance for socializing. But I do wish I'd savored it more. I wish I'd savored the taste of that chard salad grown in my friend's garden. I wish I'd been able to quiet the noise in my head and fully listen to what my friends were saying. I wish I'd appreciated the natural flow of in-person conversation, where everyone talks at a regular volume and I'm not distracted by my own image in the corner of a screen. I wish I could remember what music was playing, what the artwork looked like on the walls. I wish I'd asked to borrow some books.

As the memory of that last gathering fades, I'm looking ahead to opening up my home to friends. I'm looking forward to saying yes, to feeling like there's too much going on. I'm even looking forward to driving the carpool. I'll savor it all.

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