We meet at the corner of where her street meets ours, meets mine. No beats missed between our feet on the pavement to each other across the pedestrian crossing, no moment missed as I grin and raise my elbow. We bump. I fall into step with her, running back the way I came.
Normally, it would be a kiss and a tight hug like only we do. But this isn’t ‘normally’. This is new.
We haven’t run together for months, but it’s easy enough to fall back into that rhythm with each other. Sarah once told me she could feel my wairua radiating off me in waves when we ran together. I laughed and joked, “Aūe, sure that isn’t just all the sweat?” and then I popped my airpod back in, but I don’t wear airpods now, because I don’t listen to music when I run.
Another new. Another normal.
A few weeks ago I went to visit a hypnotherapist/psychotherapist I’d seen over a decade ago. He still had his hand-written notes from our session back then, when I was 19. I didn’t realise until we sat across from each other how much had happened, since then. When I was 19, I didn’t yet need glasses, let alone LASIK. I hadn’t yet fallen in love, even once. I was a few months out from running away from home. My ‘normal’ was about to change, end, and I had no idea. Though, I was studying Computer Science… not everything changes, I just teach it now. Now, I’m conducting research on hypnotic linguistics and its application to teenage self-esteem development. Huh.
How I listen to things has changed, this year. I consume podcasts more than music, I listen closer to what those around me have to say. I’m emptied of words to speak, but I can hear my heart in there, relentless. New and normal, both. So, I’ve stopped listening to music when I run. I listen to the push, pull, fill of my lungs and lean into the gratitude, instead. I hear my feet on the pavement, the rustle of my running shorts slipping over my hips — 10kg down, another new, another normal.
Sarah and I reach the corner by my street, and we turn down it in step.
Our street is always quiet at this time, but it feels ghostly. I’m thinking of the lockdown drill we had last week and how we had instructions to check the corridors for any students to pull into our classes before barricading ourselves in. I lingered on the threshold of my classroom, leaning out into the harrowed klaxon of the gutted corridors screaming back at me, “Lockdown. Lockdown. Remain in your positions until further instructions.”. I’m thinking of the Dettol spray I took into school on the first day of term, before COVID-19 had a name, only because I wanted to clean my classroom of the spirits of the hope I’d had when I’d last sat in that classroom in December, last year.
So much has changed. Rearranged. So many normals have passed.
I’m thinking of how we scrubbed down our desks this morning before staff briefing. I’m thinking of the panic attack one of my students had, and how I led her through a breathing exercise, and the whole time I was wondering, calmly — which one of us could be more deadly to the other, right now?
“Alert, but not alarmed,” our principal says. He didn’t grow up playing the ‘What if’ game with my parents, I see. He didn’t spend his whole life preparing for these moments, when the calm descends, and you’re the one they’re counting on to know what to do.
Half-grown bodies in collared shirts lying on gum-stained carpet under desks, huddled together, eyes wide in their faces. Your back to a door, hand on it, bated breath, waiting for a shadow to fall across your duty to protect them at all costs.
I’m thinking of Italy, and Ida, who showed me how to pluck the skin of the milk from the pan and eat it, because nothing goes to waste when you’ve lived through Mussolini. Today, 368 people died in Italy. I think of sweeping the hallways of that long farmhouse, after the meditators left, and watching the dust dance in the wake of loving silence left with a riotous Italian accent. People can’t die when they are so animated in your memory.
Sarah and I stop at the gate as I key in the code. The red glow of the keypad makes me think of the apocalyptic jokes we made when Dad installed the thing, this mighty white fortress. He built it to keep the dog in — not the world, out. But we joked about it all the same. I wonder what jokes will turn out to be omens, in this new normal we are heading towards.
Sarah’s dad is in his last throes of death — the other C-word — soon she will be in a new normal all of her own.
We shower separately and dry off, metres apart. Sarah needs to stay healthy for her dad. Our phones buzz intermittently. “It’s just another corporation telling me they care about COVID-19,” she waves off, but checks the screen anyway, in case it’s her mum. My own home screen is littered with cancellation e-mails and yes, more empty corporate cares. We’re careful not to touch each others’ phones, as we are each other. I’ve started to grow accustomed to moving amongst my family as though encased in a bubble. My new normal looks remarkably like other moments — solitude I’ve sought, Vipassana meditation centres, Italy. This is far less serene.
I am the most liable of them, we agreed. By tacit obligation, I enter rooms only after they leave, I stay cocooned and clean. With my job, with continued contact, it’s not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’ I contract it. I’m writing emergency management plans I hope someone will listen to, stored for the right time to strike. Our schools are a ticking time-bomb… but they remain open, for now. Public gatherings of 500+ are cancelled, but the daily gathering of 4000 young people, congregating on one campus, is greenlit.
We don’t have the capacity to close. But do we have the capacity to remain open? So, I plan. I write. While I hear you repeat the same discussion for the fifth time today, I’m applying my degree-with-Disaster-Risk-Management to the new conversations we are yet to have. I build structures for the inevitable.
…I must build allowances for the ineffectual.
Planes are grounded. Jobs are lost. Memes are made. Somewhere on the internet, someone is still shouting “It’s just like the flu”, into the void left by the incumbent exodus of ignorance to the ignoble truth.
We’ve been building up these layers of new, and normal, for so long now, we’ve forgotten what a normal new should look like. So much new, for so much normal. We want the newness of the future without giving up the normal of our consumption. We want the newness of experience without giving up the sacrifice of the normal it requires.
We want the newness of falling in love in perpetuity, without the normalising of shared experiences, and time, and a steady foundation of connection — even from across a FaceTime — to guide us through the equalisation of each layer of progress.
I drive Sarah back to her house in my pyjamas, a matching Harry Potter set we both have for nights like these. We laugh as though the world we knew last year isn’t ending. We talk about our futures, as though they aren’t part of the current alternative-universe timeline we’ve all fallen into. For a moment, we cocoon ourselves in the lives we were living this time, a year ago. Before her dad was diagnosed. Before Australia caught fire and burned for a whole summer. Before this novel coronavirus that seemed “just like the flu”.
Before, before, before.
There’s no use looking back but for gathering strength to us, now, for what is to come. For the next, new, normal.
Sarah opens the door, and the passenger seat dome light comes on. Our last conversation is the disaster management plan for her grief. What movies we’ll watch, what foods I’ll stock up with, what days I’ll take off from school — if school still exists. “I love you,” I say. “I love you,” she replies. We bump elbows, goodnight.
Some normals remain; love is one of them.
For all our sakes, I hope it’s here to stay.