It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for quarantine, which is how we now find our family on our third year of riding out a global pandemic packed nuts to butts into seven hundred urban square feet.
Each day is the same. Is it Thursday or Monday? The answer ultimately matters not. Time idly slips through my fingers like dry rice from my son’s sensory bin, a Sisyphean misery that provides five minutes of distraction and forty-five minutes of clean-up. I check the New York Times COVID heat map. My eyes yearn to see the yellow that would indicate average daily cases have fallen below ten per one hundred thousand, but each day the map remains a shock of red.
I log into work, but within minutes John needs me to take the child. His salary is twenty-percent higher than mine, so what choice do I have? I check the heat map once more before going to play trains. I move the computer mouse just frequently enough to appear active on Slack. Train. Mouse. Train. Mouse.
It’s freezing and Omicron rages. The world has moved on, but my child is too young to be vaccinated. Daycare has closed three times without warning for stretches of ten days. I missed so much work that quitting my job was the only thing that made sense. I continue to check the COVID heat map. There’s something unusual happening with this map. I refresh the website. It looks as if the outlines of the states are trembling. The map is shaking.
“I’m so jealous of all this quality time you get to spend with our son,” John says.
“Women are having an unprecedented mental health crisis, John,” I whisper, but he’s already closed the door to his private home office and doesn’t hear me.
Life is a snack preparation ouroboros. I begin preparing the next snack just as the previous one is eaten. My days, a self-consuming snake of cheese and raisins.
I no longer sleep. Night is when no one needs something from me.
At night I study the heat map, willing it to turn yellow so I can leave this house. The map trembles. Some days it convulses and undulates. John says I should take more walks, that fresh air and exercise are all I need. It’s fifteen degrees outside.
We’re three weeks into the latest surge. I see people creeping outside. They’re licking the parking meters. They’re licking each other’s eyeballs. They’re sneezing into each others’ faces. “Come on out! We’re all getting Omicron to get it over with!” they yell up to me. “I have an unvaccinated child under five!” I yell back.
“WHAT’S THAT? WE CAN’T HEAR YOU AT ALL!” a man says before putting the entire bodega doorknob into his mouth.
“I know,” I say and close the window.
I’ve had a breakthrough, and it’s not COVID. I know why the heat map quivers. It’s the women! There are women trapped in the COVID heat map, and they are screaming. Here is a woman trapped in New York. She’s a pregnant teacher with a three-year-old. She’s screaming and New York wavers on my map. Here is a woman in Oregon who was made redundant after her baby cried during too many Zoom meetings. She’s screaming too.
John is upset. The stores are closed from understaffing, and he can’t get an appointment with his nurse practitioner. I explain that women make up forty-nine percent of retail and eighty percent of health care and now they’re trapped in the COVID heat map and society is collapsing without us. He says I need a doctor. I tell him the doctors are also trapped.
I’m going to get the screaming women out of the COVID heat map. It’s so simple. Women need access to affordable, reliable childcare.
John is banging on the door. He’s threatening to break the door with an ax.
I am childcare now. So the women can stop screaming. I can’t leave the house, because the children are still ineligible for vaccines. So I walk around my living room with all of the children of the world. Around and around the room. I have a nice groove in the wall where my shoulder hits, and it guides my path. I walk and soothe the children; the women are free.
John has broken the door. “What in god’s name are you doing?”
“I’m taking my walk, John. I have all of the babies.”
“You’re holding two Costco sacks of oranges!” he cries.
“It’s okay now, John. I let the women out.”