My wife and I are recent arrivals in Tampa, and we’re staying here. We are at home here. We are going nowhere. We have our blue gloves, our bleach solution and our orders: stay in, don’t touch the grandkids. We live down the street from our son, his wife, and our two granddaughters, 4 and 6. We are—how shall I say?—another heat-seeking retired couple following the son.
We are perched here in our apartment tree house over Tampa Bay, watching the Great Pandemic play out. Here in this part of Florida, dread is never far away from odd, sunny amazement.
It’s true, we’re probably calmer than most because we have it easier than most. We no longer have jobs to struggle for, we’ve put aside some money. We dread the future devastation that may be coming for those with fewer resources, and we are grateful for those who will risk health and life to help the rest of us. But we do have skin in the game. After all, we are in our 70s, so we belong to the group “most endangered,” or as I now cheerfully call myself (because the rest of you repeat it so often ) the “elderly and infirm.”
Along with being of an exotic age, I have several colorful sprays of pre-existing conditions. Together, they may explain my calm attitude, bordering on fatalism, about what may come. Thia, my wife of 51 years, is likewise used to swatting at a whack-a-mole carousel of pesky illnesses. So it’s almost tempting to see the coronavirus as just another predator out to do us in.
Which may be a fitting image for our life here in Florida, where the frontier between the civilized and the wild is so … swampy. Here, a sleek new River Walk to the Museum of Art, there a stray alligator at water’s edge, chomping slowly on a monster boa.
In the Tampa Bay area, we have a fine contrast: On the one hand, we brooding seniors, facing the existential crunch of the plague. On the other, last weekend across the water, hearty-party millennial dudes were crushing beer cans on their foreheads, then burying their heads in the sand. Until last weekend, bars stayed open late, restaurants were filled with loud chattering spring breakers. What history will say about government officials who chose a final week of spring-break revenue over an exponential jump in virus cases, is not for me to say, if I survive to say it at all.
Returning to our missing grandchildren, it was just over a week ago that our 4-year-old, a light-haired dervish in a pony tail, begged me for a twirl in our living room. After a Hamlet-like agony of indecision, I raised a fist to fate. Reader, I twirled her. And might be tempted to do so again, if my back or my fate would allow me. That is, in that other carefree era, a week ago.
But now, in just one example of the profound shifts that took place this past week, I find I am no longer master of my own domain. In one short, cataclysmic week, every domain we’ve known has fallen. The world is upside down, its human inhabitants hunkered down. Globally, the gravest dangers now prey on us. Locally, we are no longer in control. The jungle is dominant.
More important, the new village chiefs, our adult children, have spoken.
“Dad, it’s for your own good,” son Tyler says. “You can’t hug the girls, you can’t be around them. We’ll FaceTime, we’ll talk, you can wave at them. But that’s it.” This, from a son whose runny nose I once wiped.
“I’m sorry, Pops and Nana,” says the potential carriers’ mother, Lina. “They’ll miss you, but we need to keep you alive.” Lina may sound like she was being tender, but listen to that steely determination. “You have to isolate. We’ll get stuff for you.”
My wife and I, once proud and independent parents/grandparents, with a full life and a busy schedule (though one dominated by the activities of the two little dirty-blond Petri dishes), are now shut-ins in our airy apartment. We can no longer socialize, babysit, dine out, go to movies, attend concerts or sports events, join our friends.
Indeed, we are specimens in cages, at the mercy of our trainers. They bring us food, they teach us to perform tricks (Skype, WhatsApp), they toss us chum, like the medicated ChapStick Thia requested. As with the other tectonic shifts, there’s been a profound power shift. We used to be pleased, even proud, to offer to watch over the grandchildren. Now it is we who are being watched.
Thia and I have managed to get hold of small boxes of surgical gloves, sizes XL and M. We’ve mixed our bleach solution. We wash vigorously, humming Happy Birthday twice. But eyes are upon us.
A curfew is about to descend. I am under surveillance, from the government and from our own progeny. I am not supposed to go out when there are others about. Call us, Lina has said, we’ll keep you supplied from Publix. Thanks, just shove the tray through the slot.
One evening I decide to quietly go on a foray, without alerting the authorities. I have planned a hunting and gathering mission for my little tribe of two. My destination: a small deli two blocks away. My kill: a Snickers bar, perhaps two, another Chapstick for my mate.
In the wild, confidence is all. By now, I am wearing the blue gloves easily, expertly. I don the blue latex protectors, use them on the elevator button, the outside door, grasping the potentially lethal surfaces with assurance. It is good at a certain age to learn new things. Soon, I know, I will be tying surgical knots in matchboxes.
My safari goes well. I hug the wall when I have to pass someone, keeping six feet away at all times. As I approach the deli, which I know to be low on merchandise, I am on alert. There are others seeking to feed. I need to avoid contact, have to evade the accidental bump, the dreaded sneeze or droplet. My eyes dart about, antelope at the stream. I enter.
Meanwhile, back at our apartment, the following scene takes place. (My mate informs me about it when I return.) There is a call for Thia. It is Lina, our captor. They chat, and then ... Lina asks to speak to me.
My wife and I have been married a long time. She knows how to spot a trap, she can smell trouble wafting in from the savanna.
“He can’t talk right now, honey.”
“Why?” The suspicion in Lina’s voice sets off haptic vibrations in the phone.
Thia’s protective mother-panther instincts kick in.
“He’s in the bathroom, with his Kindle.”
This seems to mollify her. “Okay, make sure Pops washes his hands.”
Consider the new, grim reality: Our own grown children, raised by once-rebellious boomers, are now calling to check on our curfews, skeptical of our alibis, sure we’re going to get into trouble, put our eye out.
When I return to my hut, my wife and I nuzzle. We make a jungle meal for ourselves, Amy’s frozen mushroom risotto, three minutes on high, let cool for one.
“Know what time it is?” Thia asks.
It is eight, just before the girls’ bedtime. One week ago, the universal fear was that our kids were growing up too attached to their screens. Now, suddenly, these phones and tablets are the vital, human connection. FaceTime is all there is.
“Here, Pops, here, Nana.” The 6-year-old, in pajamas, a wisp of hair braid in her mouth, is holding up a green Crayoned heart to the camera. “I drew it for you!” Crazily, I want to be able to reach through the screen. I want to take the Picasso-quality sketch from her clearly talented hand, and gumtack it proudly to our fridge. She seems as briefly surprised as I am that nothing is happening.
She lets the drawing flutter to the floor, looking as if we’d just said, “Nice try, kid.” Brutal.
Outside, the jungle sleeps, but predators are about.
Barry Golson is a writer and a retired editor who supervised the Playboy interviews, TV Guide and Forbes Traveler. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post and Salon, among others. His last book was “Gringos in Paradise,” a memoir.