This afternoon, underneath a blistering Los Angeles sun, I walked to my car with two pieces of Key Lime Pie in a tupperware container. Midweek, the temperature had breached 90 and didn’t appear to be waning. The confection in my hands would half melt before I reached my destination, but I was taking it anyway. I tucked the pie in the darkest corner of my passenger side floorboard and put the A/C on high at my feet.
It had been 42 days since my own personal quarantine started. As COVID-19 began to sweep its way across the United States, I was busy working. My restaurant had felt only a slight hint of what was to come in the weeks leading up to the Los Angeles shutdown for essential businesses. I worked a bustling Saturday dinner shift the night before our mayor made the official call for midnight on March 14th. We were plunged into an unknown world overnight.
I drove the two miles east from my home to my restaurant straight down Santa Monica Boulevard, a mask snugged tightly to my sweaty cheeks. I had driven my car exactly four times in the last 42 days. I stopped at a red light, looked both ways, and then proceeded as if it was a four way stop. I gasped out loud to myself. Had I forgotten how to drive? To follow the rules of the road? There’s a small part of me that was on autopilot, but this moment alerted me to just how strange my recent days had become. I glanced in all my mirrors to be sure I wasn’t being followed by a police officer who witnessed my mistake and remained hyper aware for the rest of the drive.
I looked down to the floor and saw the puddle of what used to be key lime pie in the tupperware container. I wanted to cry. This was how my emotions worked lately. Melted pie made me weep. I took the last left turn from Van Ness onto Melrose and a deep breath. Hold it together. As I pulled up in front of my restaurant, still looming against the bright blue sky of the afternoon, I felt a pang of guilt followed by a wave of pride. When the pandemic flipped everything on its head for the hospitality industry, this place and its people had sprung into action immediately. Our cozy, moody, bustling dining room was now a fully functioning grocery and kitchen. Now the sun shone onto the dining room tables lined with brown paper bags overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and eggs, and flour. I clicked on my emergency lights and placed my car in park.
As I waited in the lane in front of the restaurant, I glanced at the sign posted by the City of Los Angeles on the sidewalk: “CURB SIDE FOOD PICK UP LANE.” This was our new reality. I wouldn’t be going inside. There would be no hugs or high fives or pouring of a small tipple of carbonic Sangiovese while I laughed at the bartender’s stories from the previous night’s service. I would stay here in the emergency lane. Outside. The world inside the glass existed apart from my quarantine. I moved up along the curb when the car in front of me drove off, and looked over just as three of my coworkers flooded out the newly installed screen door at the entrance.
Emotions pulsed through me, and I struggled to keep my composure when they each bellowed their hellos through the window of my car. I reached for the melted pie, and shouted “It melted! You’re going to have to put it in the freezer to try to save it!” You had to shout everything these days. Speaking through cloth masks was forcing me to enunciate in ways I hadn’t since I learned to read. I proceeded to yell apologies through my mask as they gushed.
“We miss you!”
“How are you?!”
“Are you doing okay?”
I was fine. I would adjust. How were they? These people who I had worked with most nights for the last year were unwittingly superheroes now. A wave of pride washed over me, and I yelled “I love you guys!” I needed to keep moving. There were cars behind me waiting, and I had become the hold up. I blew them all kisses from behind my mask and plunged my car into drive. I was going to cry again.
I was grieving. Every day, a hundred different things, I was mourning the loss of something else I realized I would no longer have again. I turned the volume up on my car stereo, and at the last moment, decided to take the ramp to my right for the 101 South. I needed to drive fast. To do something that felt familiar, even if there was no traffic at the 110 split near downtown. The pollution free view of the skyline in the distance felt like a friend I hadn’t seen in ages. I rolled all the windows down, opened the sunroof, and merged right. West toward the ocean. Another pang. The beaches weren’t open. But I could drive.
My foot was heavy on the gas pedal as I navigated my way around the vastness of Los Angeles. The freeways weren’t empty by any means, but the usual stop and go of the city was on pause. I hadn’t braked once. Across the 10, up the 405, down the 101. I completed my loop in less than an hour, and when I exited at Hollywood Boulevard, I giggled maniacally. There was something asinine about the time in which I had driven myself around this once pulsing city. 50 minutes! I was stunned. Traversing the giant freeways in that timeframe would never happen again.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on the feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was grief stricken, sure. But I was also giddy with pint sized freedom. For 50 minutes, I felt normal. For 50 minutes, with the wind whipping my hair around and the sun boring down on my shoulders, my heart felt thick with intimacy for the world.