There are two large cookbooks in front of me on the table. My wife used them to press the moisture out of the tofu we air fried. I don’t know what an air fryer is. It looks like a tiny oven. Not my area, though. I’m in charge of rice. I’m the rice guy.
My eye catches upon a few small white feathers that dance on an air current into the room. These have drifted down from upstairs. They originated in my expensive comforter, which exploded earlier today. The explosion resulted after my son ran down the hallway and leaped upon the bundled up comforter. I do not know if the resultant burst of tiny white feathers was his intent, but I am sure it delighted him. The ceiling fan immediately caught them up, and it was game over. I will be finding little feathers in my house for the rest of my life.
“Daddy, it is snowing in your bedroom!”
I consider how many downy birds were processed to make the comforter and if those birds could conceive the high purpose to which their feathers would someday reach.
I sit alone at the table, absentmindedly staring at the two massive books. One of them purports to show me how to cook everything fast. I don’t need fast. I am off the wheel, out of the hustle, out of the grind. In other words, I have no job. I am home with two kids whose school building is closed — every day. Books about making dinner fast are from an era when everyone was working, rushed, and precious time slipped by in a wink. I am no longer concerned with how fast or slow dinner takes. My measure of time has warped. The measure of time has changed from the billable six-minute increment into some new homebound dimension. It is day. Then it is night. It is time to make the coffee. Then it is time to pour the whiskey. In between, sometimes, I think about a nap.
Each day, as the sun kisses the western horizon, I stroll to the kitchen and sit at our little table, barely finding room amidst the flour and butter and oils. My wife leans into a flurry of activities. Making dough, emulsifying dressing, measuring, preheating, defrosting, pressurizing. I sip red wine and make wisecracks while she spins her knives. I am not as funny as I think. I have to laugh louder to make up for her smirks. The music is going. I’ll get up and twirl a kid I interrupted in a race through the house. Suddenly, I’m mincing, rinsing, reaching down big things from high cabinets, setting the table, and making rice. Remember — rice guy.
But right now, after all that, I sit alone in the near dark. My wife is upstairs in the bedrooms, reading to one child and yelling at another for squeezing the cat too hard while carrying it upside down. I am listening to the sounds of family and mewing as the two-hour bath and bed ritual winds around to the forty-five-minute mark. I can see in my mind’s eye the state of the nightly tradition. There is a trail of wet towels and discarded clothing strewn through the hallway. There is the toothpaste tube, squeezed incoherently from the top, left open, its white dentifrice spilled out in a blob on the bathroom counter among an assortment of hair ties, brushes, and used floss. And there is the toilet paper, pulled out off the roll an unmanageable seven feet, most of it then left on the wet tile by the tub to wilt, useless to everyone. How many trees have my children wasted in this manner? Hundreds? Tree slayers.
Only seventy-four more minutes to go. I’ll have to go up for my rounds soon. I have to tuck the corners of my son’s fitted bed sheet. I have to pull the cord for the light. I have to step on the Legos. Put the fish tank into night mode. Both kids will eventually come back downstairs for another clutch of hugs, and I’ll chase them up again to shrieks and giggles in a nonsensical game called shin. In shin, I attempt to slap their backsides before they can reach the top of the steps and declare shin! It is a made-up game that no one understands or knows how we started to play or what it means. The kids don’t worry about those details. I do. Should I tell them that shin isn’t a thing? I imagine my son, wise and aged in a successful corporate board room chastising minions, “You all need more shin, or you’re fired!”
Not long after the chase up the stairs, my wife and I will be sitting on the couch downstairs, and a child will appear next to me, quietly and suddenly as though they were an apparition just materialized. I’ll feel the shift in the air before I hear or see them, feel a breath on my neck. When I look at them, partly in surprise, they will begin to cry. Not sure why they will cry tonight, but we have a greatest hits list: my leg hurts, or I miss my friends, or the cat keeps licking my hair, and more often now from my preteen, am I still fun to hang out with?
We will go back upstairs, gently this time, without shin, but a guiding hand on the kids’ shoulder. Then, one more round of picking up stuffy animals and carefully laying them on the bed around the suddenly drowsy children. I will hobble back downstairs and join my wife in the living room. Now we listen quietly for any final mithering — may I have a glass of water, would you shut the closet door, or, again, can I have a hug? How many times have I gone up and down the stairs?
Finally, it’s just two quiet adults on the couch. Finally, we sit together. It’s now our time alone as married people. Our brains drained, our bodies wound down, our bellies full. It is night. We look into each other’s eyes, or sometimes I look over the top of my wife’s laptop into her eyes as she scrolls Facebook. My wife asks me that all-important question, “Do you want a glass of wine while you are up?” A note to unmarried men: this means, “you there, get me a glass of wine.” But you said you were sitting … I know. But why can’t she get … Shhh. I know. While I am uncorking, she changes into sweat pants.
She’s worked hard all day at her Big Job, and she’s made dinner, and she read and hugged and worked out and tidied. And really, some non-judgemental wine is the least I can do. Anyway, what else is there to do?
It’s been three hundred and twenty-eight days since my kids were sent home to enjoy the pandemic. They have not stepped foot in a school building since. It has been two hundred and eighty-six days since I got my master’s degree. After that, I planned to be working on policy initiatives for nonprofits. But then … nothing. No job search, no job fair, no round of interviews. I’ve been home with my kids every day since.
I have been busy during that time. I lost one hundred and twenty-three straight chess games to a computer on easy mode. I lost nine pounds. I lost most of my hair. I nearly lost my mind, listening to public school board meetings with executive members publicly outline their lack of competence and problem-solving skills, lifting their arms and shrugging as though the difficult challenges before them were completely unsolvable and would go away if they just ignored them long enough. Like, for three hundred and twenty-eight days.
With her wine in hand and cozy sweats on, she hands me the television remote. After ten years of marriage, I know this does not mean I get to watch Viking shows. It means I click through until she says yes. I am a remote control. A human-sized, voice-activated remote control. “No. No. Uh-uh. Next. Stop!” Rachel Maddow.
But that will come later tonight. For now, I’m still sitting alone at the table in the dim light. I start thinking about all the lunches and snacks and walks around the block and games of freeze tag and loads of laundry and pounds of coffee I have processed in the last three hundred and twenty-eight days. I know how to perfectly squiggle the mustard and ketchup onto a child’s pan-fried hotdog. I handcrafted seven thousand tacos. What would I replace these days with? What job would fulfill what this slow time provides? Which corporation can give me a room full of fluffy down feathers floating through the air and cozy glasses of couch wine with the woman I love and nighttime races up the stairs to shin?
Someday the schools will reopen, and the executive school board will congratulate itself for successfully handling the crises. Someday I will find myself in the grind again. I’ll be rushing the kids to practice or to a birthday party at the Bounce A Lot Infectious Zone. I’ll be running late for a PTA meeting. Maybe I left my badge at the office. I’ll have a report due tomorrow. I’ll count as a good cog. I’ll matter to the outside world because I’ll have a job. I’ll be ready when fresh acquaintances launch the eternal opening salvo, “So what do you do?” I won’t feel uninteresting for having to deliver the conversation-stopping answer of house dad. Our home will sit still and empty from nine to five. No one will count the motes floating in the morning light at the front window. No one will play the board games. No one will watch the cartoons. I won’t have time to do yoga or to meditate or write. No one will clean up the cat vomit until many hours after one of them came back and ate most of it. No one will dance in the kitchen, because when we all come home, we will want dinner, fast.
Until then, I’m hugging my kids until they yell for me to stop, loving that sometimes my son will just sigh and release himself into the embrace (my daughter tells me I smell and runs off). I’ll not get (too) angry when a kid leaves another two yards of toilet paper on the wet floor. I’ll make the mac & cheese for the nth time. And waffles. And toast. And tacos. And rice.
Until then, it is enough to sit still at the table and listen to the chaos above, to watch a feather spin in the air. I know that the fast time of the working world is necessary. But after these last three hundred and twenty-eight days, I know it won’t fulfill me the way these slow time days have. When the kids are back in school, and I drive down the road to some corpro-flex office space, I know I will miss it. In fact, I don’t know if I want to go back to the old normal. After all, what’s so wrong with a table covered in days of crafts, or kids sledding at noon on a Tuesday, or being able to welcome my wife home at the end of the day, because I’m there for her? Because I’m already home. Night and day.