On March 25, I met a friend for a picnic near my home.
For about eight months, he and I had gradually become accustomed to spending more and more time together. Before social distance began, we routinely spent 10-12 hours a week together, sharing meals, errands, conversations, and artistic projects, with the occasional evening date scattered in there for good measure.
We’ve both struggled to adapt our pre-pandemic routines to this strange new normal we live under so, when I suggested we might take a social distance appropriate walk together on the bike trail that winds through town, he leaped at the idea.
Wednesday was beautiful in southern Colorado. Temperature about 70 degrees, blue skies, a scattering of clouds, just enough breeze to keep comfortable. The grass was coming in but trees weren’t quite budding yet.
My friend called ahead, wanting to know if I’d eaten yet. Would I like Greek takeout? The restaurant he suggested is excellent. I told him what I’d like.
A little bit later I grabbed my knitting and went to the park. I sat on newly green grass with my back to a tree, keeping track of K2 P2 in my head, thinking about all that had shifted since our last lunch.
It didn’t seem that anything could possibly get worse or harder; that we might have to endure social distance for a few weeks but that all would go back to normal without too much trauma. I already had friends in Colorado and elsewhere who had been affected by COVID-19. But still, I hoped this was as hard as it would get.
He said, “Hello, curly” as he came to a stop eight or 10 feet from where I sat.
I had to remind myself to maintain the distance between us. Since the first lunch we had together more than a year ago, hugs have always been part of our physical vocabulary. As our friendship morphed, we’ve come to hold hands, touch back and shoulders and faces.
We lean into each other over restaurant tables, our legs brushing together under them. This careful maintaining of distance felt oddly formal, as if starting our friendship over from scratch.
I’ve said over and over again that the difficulty we’re all experiencing now feels like grief. I should know. I lost my husband of 14 years to a flu virus in February 2019. Having all of my external coping mechanisms ripped away in a matter of days feels as traumatic as seeing my husband progress from BiPAP mask to ventilator to dead in barely three weeks.
We sat on the retaining wall by the playground, ate our gyros, and talked. Beforehand, I had worried about the pace and ease of conversation. We’re accustomed to talking quietly across cafe tables in coffee shops. I worried that the six feet between us would become an insurmountable amount of space but I shouldn’t have worried.
As always, conversation took off, winding through several local issues, a community meeting I’d attended, conversations with other friends, current events and concerns. We had said we would eat, then walk on the bike trail. Instead we ate, and we talked.
A couple of times, I hinted that if we were going to walk, we should do that, and he demurred, saying he was enjoying the conversation too much. At that point, we hadn’t sat in the same space for 16 days. The pleasure of conversation in shared space outweighed the potential of a walk and seeing things to photograph.
We’ve rarely met for a meal that lasted less than two hours and our picnic was no different. We ended, thinking we’d be able to have these kinds of picnics once or twice a week until COVID’s most potent threats passed us by.
“I’ll get grocery store sushi next time,” he said. Apparently, the Albertson’s in our community has an excellent sushi counter. We walked to his car a little after 3 p.m., parting with namaste-like bows. The movements felt right, yet out of place. Careful and polite in a way that isn’t “us.”
I walked home trying to gather my thoughts. The very first time we talked about having picnics in local parks — weeks before COVID appeared to be any sort of significant threat in the U.S. — we’d both imagined cozy intimate affairs with a blanket under a tree and a pretty basket of goodies.
This didn’t work out that way but it’s still an afternoon I’ll remember, one of many firsts in our friendship.
It was almost 3:30 by the time I got home. I opened up Facebook to see what was new with friends and family and, instead, was confronted with a Colorado Sun post time-stamped 30 minutes earlier.
At the time that my friend and I were talking about the possibility of more picnics like this one, Governor Polis had been announcing shelter in place beginning at 6 a.m. March 26.
Reading that headline felt like the day my husband’s doctor pointed at the ventilator and the worrying changes in his brain wave readout and said, “This, right here, is the best outcome we can hope for.” And he didn’t have to say what the worst outcome was because we both understood. I’d hoped for social distance — isolation felt an awful lot like death.
It’s been 14 days since that picnic. We haven’t seen each other. We’ve dutifully maintained our shelter in place. We both have too much to lose if one of us gets sick.
Since the beginning of this odd little friendship we have, we’ve said it feels like there’s never enough time for all that we want to do and say. Right now, it feels like there’s no sand at all left in the hourglass.
All I can do is look at the sand in the bottom glass, waiting for the day I can turn it over, and we can start counting time again.
Miriam Neff is a poet, playwright and artist living in Pueblo.