The Night Before

The day a sudden pandemic begins is usually unsuspecting.

It was Friday. Fridays at the office were either met with one of two attitudes: everyone was tired and ready to return home for the weekend, or everyone was feeling energetic and social. That day was the latter. My manager waltzed out of his office and began to chat with a few of my other coworkers who were focusing on all but the work. Not that there was much to do at that point. It was nearly four. I shut down my laptop and joined them in the main space to listen in and eventually contribute to the conversation.

“Let’s have a beer, eh?” I enjoyed my manager’s New Zealand accent and doing impressions of it. We gathered in our little cafeteria. He poured the remaining beers from the fridge into glasses and we cheered. We fell into a conversation of politics, weekend plans, the strange uncertainty the virus was stirring into the pot.

At that point, we had just entered the middle of March. After watching other companies in the Loop, one by one, decide to move forward with work-from-home policies, my company soon followed suit. Effective the next week we would all be answering calls and emails from the safety of our respective homes, from our couches and beds. Admittedly a part of me was looking forward to working from home. I could wake up a little later, have breakfast at a breakfast-enjoying pace, not wear pants to a meeting because they’d only need to see my face (and even then I could turn the camera off).

And yet, parallel to my growing enthusiasm about working from home, uncertainty was starting to pool inside my mind, a slow and leaky drip from a faucet that was certain to ruin the wood of the bathroom vanity. After we finished the beers, we packed our stuff and left to go to a nearby bar to continue the happy hour. When would the next happy hour be? I wondered if I was being more social, less quick to hurry home, than usual because there was no answer to the question of when is the next time. None of us knew. Perhaps that was the most unnerving part about being uncertain–everyone else was equally so.

At the bar, it was abuzz with the usual Friday happy hour attendees. We were all people from the skyscrapers in the area, in our casual blazers or blouses. Everyone looked joyful and relaxed.

That night, I had a glass of riesling, followed by two cocktails. Minutes after we arrived, we watched two guys arrange several computers, monitors, and file boxes into their SUV. “They look like they’re committing a crime,” one of my coworkers said. We laughed and continued to throw theories as to what kind of white-collar crime they were complicit. My coworkers asked me about the guy I was seeing and in the midst of our fun-drunkenness asked me to get him to come. When I called he laughed about it, but he was busy with his own Friday night activities.

That night, we stayed until the sun had dipped below the horizon enough for the sky to become deep indigo. We waved goodbye and I hurried up the station steps to get onto the arriving train. I grabbed a single seat and proceeded to sleep past my stop.

Funny how that felt years ago.

Now, as we begin the journey through May, most of us have been in quarantine since. Illinois recently extended the shelter-in-place order through the end of the month; in a meeting held right at the start of the quarantine, my boss told us to anticipate not being back in the office until the start of June. At the rate things are going I wouldn’t be surprised if the order was continuously pushed forward and forward. That isn’t to say I wish for that, but rather that it wouldn’t be a shock.

I write about this because I’ve been thinking about it. Had I known it would be the last night I’d see anyone for a while, maybe I would’ve taken the initiative to go out more, see more friends. I can’t call them regrets, but past wishes, little things we want to be true in another life. In another world, I had called my friend and convinced her to check out the Chicago club scene with me. We’d reach out to a mutual friend for her stash, enjoy the night as best we could and then clamber into an Uber to my place to crash for the night. We’d wake up kind of late and legs sore from all the dancing and otherwise overflowing with happiness. We’d savor it. It’d be a night for the books.

Maybe that’ll happen when this is over. I don’t know when “when” will be. All I know is that, today, the sky is overcast and the sidewalks empty. And perhaps that’s all the glimmer of hope we can hope to receive: emptiness and silence, because we are all looking from our windows, thinking about our past wishes from the night before.  

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