Second Shift

This piece was first posted as part of a weekly blog entitled Homing: Living Through Two Disasters, where it was called “Home from Work.”

A woman comes home after a long day of work. This is a sentence that could be written any time, but let us say It is January of 2021, which means that outside her house—but not yet inside it—the pandemic is raging. If she is coming home after her work, she is likely to be an essential worker, although the word “essential” does not mean what you—and she—might think. Mostly what it means is that she is exposed to COVID many times each day. She could be a grocery store worker who implores people to wear masks, or a delivery woman who drops packages, untipped, on porches of those who can afford to stay home. She could be a teacher in a state where the schools are open, praying that her face shield protects her from her students as she stands for hours at the front of a windowless room. She could, of course, be a nurse, so exhausted by the physical and emotional demands of her job that she sometimes doesn’t do a perfect job with her imperfect PPE.

A wood cutting of people doing domestic labor in front of a factory with the words "capitalism depends on domestic labour."

She fumbles with her keys because she is tired and because she is carrying groceries. She remembers hearing, when she was small, the sound of her father fumbling at the door when he came home drunk. It was the first sign, but never the last, that he had had too much to drink. But then she was on the other side of the door.

She crosses the threshold and unmasks herself. A few months ago, she would have put the mask directly in the laundry, but she has stopped disinfecting objects and cleaning surfaces. She is not at all sure that this is the right decision, but she has heard that the virus cannot be transmitted by things. In any case, she is too tired for cleaning.

If she is coming home from work, that means she has a job. Statistically, if she is a Black woman, she is more likely to have lost her job than if is white. If she is Hispanic, the odds of unemployment have gone up even further. But she is not a statistic, although this year she has not felt quite like a person. Like the rest of us, she cannot comprehend the numbers that she hears on TV: 32 million cases. 398K dead. 156K net jobs lost by women in the last month, almost all by Black and Latina women. She used to keep track of cases and deaths in the world, in the US, and in her own state.  She doesn’t anymore.

Two of her children are home. This is where they always are. It is time for homework. She remembers when there were different times:  a time for homework, a time for schoolwork, and a time for no work at all. Now the times are all mixed up. It is always schooltime, but never time for school. There is no difference between schoolwork and homework.  The children share an old computer, so they cannot log into school at the same time. Her daughter is lying on the floor of her room listening to music on the headphones that were supposed to be for online learning. They are not, they were not, for music.  Before the pandemic, her daughter was already beginning to disappear behind her less expensive headphones. Now, although she and her daughter are in the same room, it is as if they are remote. Sometimes she wishes her daughter would scream and throw things like her niece does. Today she is happy that she can pretend not to notice that her daughter is not noticing her.

Her younger son, who is in second grade, still has some enthusiasm for school, mostly because his teacher pours energy across the internet and into houses of her students. The teacher is full of ideas and tricks: breakout rooms, whiteboards, shared photographs. Sometimes the teacher’s technology breaks down or doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. More often, it is students’ internet that goes out because it is raining, because parents have not been able to pay the bill, or just because. She wonders how the teacher does it, keeps her voice at just the right pitch of excitement to fight through the black squares facing her on the screen.  She wonders how the teacher can bear all the stories the students tell her when she cannot even see their faces.

Her older son is not in the house. She did not really expect him to be. He goes out, promising that he will be safe, but she knows he sees friends who don’t wear masks or social distance. Sometimes she wants to tell him that he may well be killing his family, but then she thinks about how bad he will feel after they all die one by one of COVID and he is left alone with his guilt. She frequently imagines death, but in her imagination it is not always the same family members who die, and they do not always die in the same order.. Sometimes it is she who is alone in the hospital, at other times one of her children, carried away, as her friend’s daughter was, to the hospital where her mother could not visit. She has decided that if one of her children gets sick, she will keep them at home until the very last possible moment, but she worries that when that moment comes she will not recognize it. How, she thinks for the hundredth time, as she puts way the packages of ramen her children know how to cook, will she take care of her children if they get sick? She has a job—still—and they have only one bathroom.

Sometimes she does not want to think of her other children at all. In the old days before the pandemic she read articles online about “self-care.” For her, it was mostly about baths. Now that everyone is always home her bathroom no longer looks like the spa the articles tell her it should be. Of course, her bathroom was never like the ones in the pictures, but she bought candles (fake because of fire) and bubble bath. Yesterday she told her daughter to clean the bathroom, but she is sure that when she opens the door there will be dirty towels and worse. She knows she should not be expecting her daughter to clean when her son gets to escape, but she is too tired, God knows, to think about being fair. This is something her mother never worried about.

She remembers a time, before the pandemic, when she liked to cook. Not every day, not every meal, but some meals. Not the holidays, though, when there was too much pressure and she never got to sit down when everyone else did. Now she hates it so much it feels as if she is choking even before she puts the food in her mouth. Her younger son has always been a picky eater. She was planning to take him to a doctor to see whether he was allergic to milk or something, but she won’t do that now until everyone is vaccinated. Mostly it is pasta and potatoes in the microwave, things you can pour sauces on from a bottle. Sometimes everyone has cereal for dinner. It is cheap and full of vitamins, especially if there is a banana that is not green or black. Sometimes she thanks God for eggs because they are quick, healthy, and taste like real food. Even if the price has crept up to over a dollar a dozen. Her family can go through two cartons of them in two days and there is a two-carton limit at the grocery store.

The local news is too frightening to watch. Her sister says she should keep it on in case there is information about where to get the vaccine. Although she had hope in December that she would be vaccinated, she has given up. If she is a health worker, she might well already have the shot but there is no guarantee of this even though she would theoretically be part of the first group to receive it.  If she is an orderly or a janitor in a hospital, handling medical waste and bodily fluids, she is likely not on the employee email list with the link is to the appointment schedule. If she lives in Texas, she will have to wait until after the over-65s get the shot. If she lives in New Jersey, she will have to wait for the smokers to be vaccinated before her. She gave up smoking 17 years ago when she was pregnant with her son. Anyway, she can’t afford the time to wait in line, probably with a bunch of infected people. Sometimes she thinks it is all a scam anyway. Sometimes she thinks the vaccine will only be given to the rich, and sometimes she thinks people like herself will be forced to take it. She knows both things can’t be true but that’s how she feels. It is so hard to know what to do or even what to hope for.

Tonight, she will fall into her bed. Some days she doesn’t have time to make it, but today she pulled the sheets up tight and folded the quilt before work while her daughter was in the shower. A day with a made bed is a good day, and more importantly it makes for a good night. Tonight, she will not bring up the bottle of cheap wine she bought two days ago. She will take up the bag of sugar cookies from the bottom of the grocery bag that her children do not know about because they did not help her to put stuff away. There will be sugar all over the sheets, but she will not think about that. Tonight, she promises herself, she will not think about anything.