It’s Vanessa’s friend who works in bio-science in Holland that first gives her the idea that this virus could in fact be more of a problem than the bird/swine flu. Conference calls have been happening amongst infectious diseases experts around the world – they are actually putting together a taskforce to assess the situation. Yet somehow, the media is still portraying this as a China-centric problem. Vanessa can’t help but become somewhat alarmed at her friend’s warning which suggests that their lives are going to change, that they need to be prepared. The obvious question is, prepare how? The answer is no one really knows.
It’s February 2020 and Vanessa’s husband Shane has flown to Berlin for the annual film festival. While there, he receives the devastating news from their family in Australia that his father has had a fall and ultimately passes away. Vanessa and Shane each mobilize for Sydney from their respective locations on opposite parts of the world. Before heading to LAX for her departing flight, a niggle in the back of Vanessa’s mind prompts her to searches her apartment for the mask she bought from a novelty store in China a few years back. Only about 5% of people are wearing masks in the airport so she is definitely in the minority. Her masks displays a Chinese symbol and she hopes to hell she hasn’t put it on upside down. Or worse, that it means something offensive.
She spends a week in Australia with Shane before she has to fly back to LA where she works for a film & television production company. Shane is intending to stay on for another month to help his mother in the aftermath of his father’s funeral, however, he does not have a return flight booked, and a sense of dread fills the car as he drives Vanessa to Sydney airport. Somehow, they both know that they won’t be seeing each other for a fairly long time.
Vanessa is only back at work a few days when the collective film industry starts arranging “technical tests” to facilitate working from home – a concept which seems totally incomprehensible. She and a colleague listen with mild interest while sharing a bar of chocolate between them, breaking off pieces with their fingers. The very next day, the same colleague gives her an obvious, almost comically exaggerated wide berth, and it is clear that the days of chocolate sharing are over. They head to work for one last day for a director’s cut film screening which has been convened in the largest screening room. The 20 attendees are instructed to sit 5 seats apart. Apparently, this is what they are calling “social distancing.”
The work from home instruction comes into effect the very next workday and it is somewhat convenient that Vanessa has the apartment to herself so that she can utilize Shane’s office as her workspace. About a week later, the County, or perhaps the State of California (it’s impossible to remember which – the restrictions yo-yo over the next few months anyway) issues a “stay at home” order on top of the industry’s directive to work from home. The measures seem pretty reasonable given the now dire situation in New York. At a loss as to what she should do herself to prepare, Vanessa walks to the grocery store in the few remaining hours before the order comes into effect, queuing outside with the rest of the crowd. The shelves, however, are mostly empty. A woman, wanders around the store sobbing into her phone, apparently unable to arrange alternative childcare for her kids. Restaurants have been told to close and instead start operating as grocery stores selling off their inventory, including toilet paper, which is now missing from supermarket shelves.
The three weeks for which Vanessa had initially assumed the “work from home” would be in place, come and go. Shane is still in Sydney. He has not yet arranged a return flight; the covid situation in Australia has interfered with his plans to help his mother with her affairs plus he suffers from asthma which places him at a higher risk of contracting the virus. For Vanessa to return to Australia now would be tantamount to quitting her job, or otherwise being required to work all night due to the difference in time zone. And so, miles apart, they each continue their existence in separated spheres.
Naturally a fairly solitary creature, Vanessa initially adapts to her new living situation quite comfortably. It’s not every day that one is given the opportunity to live totally alone without a thought or care for anyone outside of yourself. Choices regarding meals, TV, sleep patterns, are truly yours and yours only. She is disciplined with sticking to the same routine as if she was still going to the office – getting out of bed at the same time, getting dressed in her usual office attire, and spending longs hours at her computer. Although filming has come to a complete stop, the work continues relentless, people’s productivity increasing exponentially as a result. There is now none of the downtime which used to occur naturally as people moved from one meeting room to the next; instead, zoom calls are stacked back to back without a reprieve and she literally doesn’t have to leave her desk.
Although not hit as hard as New York, LA unfortunately sees a significant rise in positive cases around May-June, thereby fuelling Vanessa’s concerns regarding the virus, as well as her sense of aloneness. Things have been stirred up in the community: there are riots as a result of the death of George Floyd (contributing to the increase in Covid cases) the National Guard is deployed to keep the peace; and her phone pings constantly with emergency SMS reminders about daily curfews – sometimes as early as 5pm. Explosions can be heard during the night – perhaps related to the riots (or, perhaps it’s just LA). She avoids going to the supermarket and orders all her groceries online, leaving the apartment only on weekends for a walk around her now Sci-Fi themed neighbourhood. Wandering through the streets she is aware of an increase in people out walking, faces hidden by masks. She gazes, fascinated, at political graffiti which is starting to appear on the streets, shops have been boarded up to prevent looting, and all the while billboards preach solidarity in the fight against Covid-19.
After so many months the apartment walls have become quite claustrophobic. Vanessa finds herself hyper-conscious of time, of her own aloneness, and the long term effect of all of the above, which manifests in a state of restlessness. Her strict daily routine has finally diminished – by this time she’s sleeping variable hours, not bothering with make-up and even wearing tracksuit pants; a jacket flung within easy reach in the event that she needs to appear semi-professional on a zoom call.
Shane finally arrives back in LA on 22 July, five months since he and Vanessa were last together in person. Even though it’s not a requirement, they responsibly decide that Shane should self-isolate in the apartment for 10 days when he arrives. They are fortunate to have two bathrooms which can facilitate the arrangement. Vanessa sits at the far side of the living room, watching keenly as he enters the apartment, their expressions partially concealed by masks. In the end, although a huge relief, the reunion is somewhat anticlimactic. Shane goes directly to the office, now emptied of Vanessa’s work stuff, to see out his home-quarantine period.
The adjustment to Shane’s return to the apartment is somewhat jarring. This space that she has fashioned for herself as home, office, and sanctuary, jostles to return to its shared former state. The process is something akin to that immediate post-marriage revelation, which heralds the end of a particular chapter of your life; one which is single, solitary. No longer can she unilaterally decide what she wants to watch, what she wants to eat, without consideration of another human being. But the preference for cohabitation is quickly victorious – calling to someone who you know is there, in the other room; sharing a meal together – those things that for many of us easily overshadow the benefits of permanent solo living.
These days, LA is more or less back to its former glory, albeit tinged with a certain scent of past Covid traits. Masks continue to be mandatory on public transport, in aged care facilities and it’s prudent to keep one with you, in the event that a particular business requires one for entry. Vanessa, even while vaccinated, still wears a mask in supermarkets. Restaurants have reopened, clinging to the pandemic tradition of on-street dining which makes sense in a city with such a temperate climate. Although filming has restarted, carefully designed Covid-protection measures in place, Vanessa continues to work from home, and expects to do so through the end of the year. It is still not totally certain whether the vaccines are effective against certain variants, but it seems like there has finally been some acceptance that this thing might be here to stay.
We just have to adapt and figure out how to live with it.