Imagine stepping through a pair of glass doors, opened automatically as you come near. It’s late February, and the rainy season has paused, bringing warm sunny days that can’t help but make you smile. Consider yourself a woman of a certain age, who at first, and even second, glance appears far younger than her years. Pretend that you happen to love shopping, for anything really, but especially clothes, and that is why you are here.
The department store spreads out from the entrance closest to the parking garage. Temptations beckon – from shoes to handbags, jewelry and perfume. Under radiant light, you search for an escalator that will transport you to the second floor. On the way, anticipating a perfect find at a deeply discounted price causes you to smile, knowing how happy you will feel, having a new outfit to wear to dinner tonight.
Now, imagine that your happiness is suddenly swept away by a dark thought. Should I really be here? The question swirls in your mind, as you grow bored with the languid pace of the escalator and start hiking up the moving metal staircase.
Unfortunately, you don’t have an answer. All you know is that a frightening new virus has appeared, seemingly isolated far away, in China. At first, you assumed this wouldn’t affect you, because you live in the United States. But a case has appeared in a neighboring state, and you can’t help but be concerned.
You ferry the worry out of your mind, as soon as you reach the second floor. Instead of obsessing over alarming thoughts you probably don’t need to concern yourself with, you begin sliding hangers around a metal bar, looking at shirts and sweaters dangling below a forty-percent-off sign. You lift a few possibilities into the air, study them more closely, then drape a few over your left arm. Once you’ve gone around the display and returned to where you started, you head for the dressing room with your finds.
After paying for your purchases, including two short-sleeved tee-shirts and a sweet white cardigan you’ll wear tonight with a navy dress you haven’t put on since last summer, you head out of the store. You slide your parking ticket into the machine and feed in a crisp dollar bill, then struggle to remember where you parked. If someone were now to tell you that today would be the last time you’d enter this store for another ten months, possibly a year, you would have to say they were nuts.
A little more than a week passes before the handsome governor of your state holds a press conference. You have always liked him, ever since he served as mayor of the charming city where you used to live, an hour south. As you listen to what he is saying, your mouth falls open, astonished by what you’ve just heard. To protect against this deadly virus, the governor has ordered residents over the age of sixty-five to shelter in place, only going out for essential business. He defines essential business as doctors’ appointments, picking up medications, and shopping for food.
Prior to this moment, you have only heard the term shelter-in-place used when a gunman is on the loose or some toxic substance has been accidentally released into the air. The governor doesn’t explain how long he expects people like you — the elderly, as he says — to almost never leave the house. You can’t imagine, even for a few weeks, how you will survive.
At this moment, you are also recognizing for the first time that you, a healthy woman who still enjoys long, strenuous uphill hikes and doesn’t take a single medication, are elderly. Elderly is a term you would never have considered using to describe yourself. From your perspective, the elderly are people like your father-in-law, cared for in nursing homes, as they near the end of long and productive lives.
As difficult as it may be to accept, you understand that this virus could kill you. Even more critical, your husband is already battling another serious disease — cancer. Until he was diagnosed, your husband accompanied you on memorable hikes, to reach spectacular waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest or views of red-rock formations in Utah. Recovering from months of chemotherapy, he is getting his energy back. Yet you know when it comes to this new virus, he is at highest risk.
So, imagine this. Imagine that except for your friends and family, few people care if you or your husband get sick and die. Consider that political leaders in your country, and their spokespeople, feel perfectly justified telling the media that you and your husband should be sacrificed, in order to boost the economy. You might even pause to realize that your fellow citizens have been instructed over and over again to place a small piece of cloth over their noses and mouths, to prevent the virus’s spread and save lives.
But they refuse, no matter how often, or how many different ways, this message is shared. Consider that thirty, forty or fifty years from now, history books will reveal this dark chapter in your country, and students will be appalled that people were once so selfish and unwilling to change.
Imagine yourself stepping into the shoes of this woman, who doesn’t dare risk going out to dinner, even if it means getting to wear that sweet white cardigan. It’s important to do this, because if you make it through midlife, you will one day slip into your golden years, and experience living in her shoes. Consider how hurt you will feel when hundreds of thousands of your fellow citizens make it clear that they see your life as over, and not a big deal if you die. You might even notice that you’re experiencing some anger, which makes sense, since you’ve been stuck at home all this time.
But rather than end on an angry or sad note, imagine that while you’re stuck at home, you decide to try your hand at growing vegetables. You do this, in part, to ease the unending boredom. As it turns out, you find the garden, with its nearly daily surprises of new blooms and fresh produce, including fingers of zucchini and adorable plump lemon cucumbers, a place of hope.
And one day, you notice a startling, neon-striped caterpillar, lounging on a slender chartreuse stem, quietly munching a sprig of dill. You snap a photo with your phone, then share it on social media. One of your Facebook friends likes the photo, then comments that your caterpillar will soon become a swallowtail butterfly. You read everything you can find on the swallowtail. You’re doubtful this caterpillar will turn into such a beautiful creature. And yet, you hope.
A few weeks later, your colorful caterpillar, whom you’ve named Cal, covers himself in a dull tan coat, resembling a narrow, elongated tent. Every day, you rush out to the garden and check on Cal. But he refuses to change. That is, he refuses, until one sparkling August afternoon. Just before lunch, your husband rushes in to tell you that when no one was looking, Cal turned into someone else.
You go outside, step over to the raised bed and look down, to where you last saw the bland beige container attached to the black metal trellis, “Oh, my God,” you shout, when you see what’s happened to Cal.
Cal is now turquoise and black, with several dots of yellow and orange. Hanging from the trellis, Cal is testing out his wings. He is so beautiful, it takes your breath away. You stand there watching, hoping you will get the chance to see him fly.
Two hours later, you go out to the garden. By now, you’ve learned from your Google research that, because of the coloring, Cal is most likely a female. Since Cal has transitioned into a female swallowtail, you change her name to Caroline.
As you head toward the raised bed, you fear that Caroline will be gone. But the moment you step over to the bed, you are just in time to see Caroline the butterfly lift off. She rises high into the air, then circles over the end of the garden. It is as if she is preparing to say goodbye.
And then, after circling a third time, Caroline, the gorgeous swallowtail who for a moment transported you away from this frightening pandemic into a place of beauty and magic, is gone.
Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.