Lauren Peace Went Back to West Virginia
I hadn’t left the house in five days like a good American citizen. I had washed my hands and watched the news and stocked up on Clorox wipes and toilet paper. I had fixed the leak in my ceiling and taken a shower nearly every day despite going nowhere and seeing no one. I had been meandering, listening to the same Fiona Apple song (her rendition of “Across the Universe”) over and over again, pacing the hard-wood floor trying to map out a future that seemed less and less certain with every delivery of the morning news. I listened to risk-takers outside my window, laughing and singing to the stars and wondered if I were one of the losers who misunderstood.
And then I woke up energized. Sunlight cast a warm glow across my still-undecorated walls and I was feeling bold, so I texted my boy Kevin and told him I would be paying him a visit. I took another unnecessary shower, put on a blouse, and even bothered to put on mascara (ooh ahh).
I took the train, which at this point was anything but illegal. It was empty for the most part, thankfully, and the smattering of people who rode measured six feet with cautious eyes and wore medical masks. A mother slathered her daughter’s hands with sanitizer. The smell soothed.
The upper west side was bustling, surprisingly. Old women with dogs were ordering cart halal, men in suits gathered outside the bank and traded business cards – their hands brushing casually against one another – a line of eager H-Mart patrons wrapped around the block, their arms full of full paper bags. Voices were hurried and upbeat; pets were smiling. There was a breeze.
Joe (Kevin’s roommate) is working from home, so I text Kevin that I’m downstairs rather than ring the bell. There’s a mirror that sits opposite the lobby door and I always check my hair and teeth to assess any damage the subway may have inflicted. I look different – when did this happen? My hair is long, dark, and my boobs have absolutely ballooned during a hearty round of what must have been a second puberty. It seems I am blossoming into a woman, at long last. It really is too bad I’ve been locked inside this whole time.
Upstairs, Joe has shimmied into his nook in the couch, laptop whirring on his lap. He’s cheery, albeit a little restless; Joe is very outgoing, active, and therefore suffering from the lack of human contact much more than I can really understand. He smiles as I come in and laughs when I beeline towards the sink. It’s nice to see him.
The apartment is warm, lived in, but well-kept. Two boys live here but despite this, there are no dishes in the sink and no mysterious body hairs scattered across the counter-space. It’s lovely to be somewhere else, to feel different water rushing over my hands. I turn to face Kevin, whose hair looks exceptional, and he wraps me into a hug.
To be held, to feel the warmth of another person, communicates more in less time than anything I could ever say, so I’m shut up for once.
“It’s nice to see you.”
For hours, the three of us operate in silent synchronicity: with the exception of the tip-tapping on keyboards and maybe the occasional boiling of water for tea, there is no sound. There isn’t much to say. We’re all keyed in, we read The Times and have open windows - what support other than one another’s company is useful now?
A pair of birds are building a nest on the air conditioner. Joe watches them intermittently, either charmed or territorial, I can’t be sure. He really is lovely.
It’s 9:30pm (or somewhere in there) when Lauren Peace calls.
Lauren Peace is a journalism grad student at Columbia University, which shut down on March 8th. By March 9th, she had galloped over the hills of West Virginia and away. She is now driving her mother’s car back into the city to clear out her rented room, turn around, and head straight back. Kevin talks to her for twenty minutes or so.
The doc kids aren’t going to graduate at all which just totally sucks, so I’m very thankful to be an investigative journalist today.
Kev and I affirm her gratitude, dash in a couple of “this is crazy”s and “god, those poor students”s. Lauren keeps driving; I keep researching 90s rom-coms.
My adviser has been completely MIA, obviously, he’s busy, so whenever I need to speak to him I just turn on the news. According to him, the city is going to get much worse.
Kevin affirms this too, quips about the rising percentages and increasingly stringent distancing recommendations. I find an article on When Harry Met Sally.
Do you guys have an exit strategy for if/when the city shuts down or, you know, completely implodes?
I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but according to my adviser and the CDC and every other reputable source, this is going to get much worse before it gets any better, and regardless of whether or not the hospitals are able to support all of those who get sick – which they won’t – the economic hole this is going to create is going to be massive.
Suddenly I’m miles away in a foreign wood, lifting a freshly chopped log over my head to shield me from the beating rain, teeth grating, weather-inappropriate tank-top almost seductively ripped rib-cage to rib-cage, trudging back to Camp through mud and muck by the light of the moon. I look at Kevin; he's there, too. We are animal shells of ourselves now, and I don't know how to get back.
Do you guys have a plan?
In an America where everyone is out of work, and many are ill, what job is more useless than that of the screenwriter? Practically speaking, of course, it’s already one of the more niche and luxurious jobs, something that benefits society in a quiet and reserved way; it’s nuanced, slow moving. None of these words describe a civilization’s reaction to an apocalypse. Once again I find myself asking: am I one of the losers?
I wander out to the living room, which is dark now. Joe’s gone to bed. There’s no sound outside. Usually the clank of a lone drunkard against the chain link fence plays beneath the conversations here; normally a child high on Ben & Jerry’s yelps to their father about a fat rat just up ahead, but it’s so dreadfully quiet now.
I open the fridge just to do something with my hands and stare blankly: Parmesan cheese, mustard, a sip of white wine. I hear Kevin and Lauren in the other room, continuing. I am tossed to an old buried memory of my father driving too quickly, one arm across my chest to keep me balanced on the backseat as he rips out of our cul-de-sac, the other clutching the wheel. He turns away from the absolute black and looks at me – a far and away look, the one fathers give their children just before the power goes out – and asks if I’m alright. I don’t answer because there’s blood in my mouth and I don’t want to worry him.
Lauren Peace is thirty minutes outside the city now and will be stopping by to pick up bits of clothing she’s left beneath Kevin’s bed. We sit against the wall and stare off into space for all thirty of those minutes.
“That was not a pleasant call.” Kevin says.
Lauren Peace calls again, parks, and comes through the door like an electric current. She turns on the light. She looks healthier than she did when she left, more vibrant somehow. She talks and packs simultaneously, really not one to sulk or move slowly in general.
You might not know this Lauren Peace, but you have your own. They are the people who rush into your life for never too long and completely wreck havoc – just on everything: your thoughts, your plans, your Crockpot, your self-awareness, past, present, future. Anything you thought you knew you probably don’t, and anything you didn’t know – well, congratulations, now you do! They’re the first person to ask you “why?” you think something. Really, where’d you get that idea? They are men who smoke and deliver great monologues, Maggie Pollitt with the levity of Emma Thompson and the gaze of a jaguar. They’re the girl who taught you how to put a tampon in, a really great coach, Neil deGrasse Tyson. And just as you have a satisfactory answer to that penetrating “why?“, they tip their hats and dip back to the dark before your lips can form a single stupid thought. Completely unpredictable and fast-moving, they're like an apparition haunting just for the fun of seeing the look on your face when you realize your basement is only in need of a cleaning, not an exorcism.
This Lauren Peace is on her way twenty blocks north now, flicking a lighter off and on between her fingers. “I’m going to my tiny disgusting room for the final time and I’m just gonna shove my things into these garbage bags. That’s my plan, if you two would like to join me.”
Kev and I look at each other. In what world do either of us say no?
Lauren Peace rents a small room on the west side.
Lauren Peace rents a children’s shoe-box on the west-ish side.
The building smells like Indian food, and that’s when I realize I haven’t eaten since yesterday. I am really not good at taking care of things these days. Nonetheless, it’s a comforting smell against the otherwise empty night.
We work like army ants: clothes in bags, papers in packs, food in trash.
“You want this lamp?
How ’bout a kettle?
Who needs a Vitamin D supplement?”
Within thirty minutes, the room is empty.
During the final load out, my arms full of desk, an older man enters the lobby. He’s carrying grocery bags chock full of old-fashioned oats and absolutely nothing else. He shoots us a glance, clearly not pleased to see our dangerous lungs out in public. Kev waves – a futile gesture. It strikes me that this may be the last social gathering I’ll be a part of for some time. It feels oddly appropriate: me, Kev, Lauren Peace, and some stranger with too many oats.
The car is full. The job is done. Lauren Peace decides to crash in the box for the night and head for home in the morning. The night is black and completely starless; it’s a safe idea. She drops us off a block away from Kevin’s apartment. The glow of a T-Mobile storefront illuminates our goodbye.
“Please tell Joe I wish him so well.” Of course we will. “I’m probably never going to see that man again, isn’t that crazy?”
That’s true: by the time Lauren Peace returns to New York City – if she ever does – Joe’s lease will have come to an end and he will be somewhere else. I wonder where. I wonder when will be the last time I see Joe, or Lauren, or Kevin, and under what strange circumstances our goodbyes will take place. Do they know how grateful I am? It’s a question asked so quietly I can almost ignore it.
Kevin and I tag-team a hamper full of last minute parting gifts (a lamp, a kettle, some Vitamin D supplements) across the street, laughing out of what I assume is deep-seated panic. I do not think we looked both ways.
“Take care of yourselves!” Lauren Peace waves, climbs into her mother’s car and is gone just as quickly as she arrived.
We jog back to civilization, emotional exhaustion finally weighing on our knees, our eyelids. I wipe sweat from my forehead and glance up just in time to see a searchlight stretched across Broadway flicker, live, and then die.