Jul/Aug 2022  •   Nonfiction

The Longest Walk

by Susan Bloch

I've been under house arrest for four months, fifteen days, and three-and-a-half hours. Whatever I try to do to escape from this pandemic, the virus rages out of control while I simply rage. COVID has me hibernating in winter isolation, wearing extra layers of clothing, chilled to the bone even with the heat set to 74 degrees.

The winter view of Lake Washington from my study window fluctuates from a steel-blue sky filled with distant cirrus wisps to grisly, low-hanging clouds shedding their tears. Framed by the charcoal skeletons of poplar trees waving their bare branches against ominous heavens, the canopy overhead clears moments before the cycle begins all over again. But in this never-ending Time of Pandemic, a slab of gloom becomes a permanent foundation above my head, and I begin to sink from its weight. Anxiety hugs me like a whale-boned corset and restricts my breathing.

Inside my home, the pale sun peeks through the shutters and into my soul. I have no one to laugh with, and there is nothing to laugh about. My frown lines deepen, bags sag beneath my eyes. Even my ears change shape, sprouting points at the top like a goblin's. Loneliness bloats my lungs. My emptiness tastes like a sour plum. The smell of mothballs stalks me wherever I go.

Most nights, when I finally fall asleep, I find myself running around unfamiliar hotel corridors, looking for my room, my driver's license, and my phone. In the mornings, I wake up with a hangover-dry mouth and chimney breath as if I'd smoked a pack of cigarettes. Bedsheets twist around my thighs, and my legs ache as if I'd run a marathon, even though I haven't left my bed.

I needed four years to get used to living on my own after my beloved husband passed away. Nothing prepared me for this. I doubt anything ever will.


I've no clue how to navigate the pandemic on my own. I don't do well in uncertainty, and the experts don't help. There is so much they don't know or won't say. One day, the CDC recommends wiping everything you buy with bleach because the virus can live on plastic and cardboard for anywhere from four minutes to four generations. The next day, they tell us all that wiping won't help. The uncertainty of when to mask up or if it will do any good hobbles my mind. Is it okay to go to the dentist to treat my back-molar abscess? Conspiracy theorists and fake-news pundits jam Facebook and Twitter, touting miracle treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and even a horse-deworming medication. All this uncertainty fuels the infusion drip-dripping into my veins. I can't remember when or if I washed my hair, took my daily thyroid pills, or ate lunch.

I can't deny the burning in my eyes and the long loud sighs echoing through the house for no apparent reason. On the bright side, I discover a new vocation: TV channel surfing. I switch from one channel to the next, seeking something other than doctors' five-day shadows, bowed shoulders, and red-rimmed eyes. Or nurses tending patients with garden hoses stuffed down their throats.

Webster endorses a new language filled with indulgent words such as infodemic, self-isolation, anti-maskers, covidiots, social-distancing, maskne, and Zoom-bombing. Add to the list infomaniac, or one who demands truth where none exists.


One night, I wake to find an intruder in my bedroom. I hear the silence as his shadow snakes across the carpet. The thumping in my ears explodes as he comes closer. My body stiffens. I feel his breath on my neck. I shoot up, grab my phone, touch the flashlight and shine it in his face. No one is there.

The following morning, I read a Facebook post: "Prayers on Zoom for Santosh, our dear yoga teacher. He's on a ventilator."

All that deep breathing, chanting, and stretching into downward dog never helped? It was all for nothing? I had looked forward to returning to his classes when the quarantine ended. Zoom was no substitute for his baritone Om shanti, shanti after the gong meditation. I miss our chats over a cup of his homemade yogi chai, the studio filled with the sweet smell of cardamom, cloves, and black pepper.

A few days later, during Santosh's memorial service—also on Zoom—I imagine what it must be like, living on a machine, surrounded by strangers from outer space in hazmat suits. I'm coming up short. All I can see are my fingers, chapped from washing, rinsing, sanitizing, and bleaching. When will it end?

Online shopping and home deliveries make cutting my lifeline to the outside world simple. I tell myself I'm one of the lucky ones. I still have my job, a warm home, a subscription to Netflix, and a fridge full of apples, mandarins, and Bulgarian yogurt. Not to mention a few bottles of Chablis. And one fresh chicken. Add some lentils, chopped onions, and roasted butternut, and it's dinner.

Yet, despite that evening's menu, my head throbs, and my eyes tear up for no reason other than I'm desperate to hug my kids, grandkids, and friends. Seeking a distraction from the side effects of the virus, I immerse myself in the detective series Bosch. Even then, I can't stop picking at a scab on the back of my left hand until the flesh is pink and inflamed.


My sanity meter is shot. I don't know what to do.

"Try walking," my daughter suggests.

"It's always drizzling."

"Try anyway."

She's right. It's the only way to escape my prison.

Still, even in the best of winters, I hate battling Seattle's mist and mizzle. I find little solace in gusts of arctic wind whipping through my hair and icy rain slithering down the back of my neck. But I force myself to bundle up and walk five miles a day anyway. As I drag myself up and down Seattle's steep hills and staircases, images of bodies in mobile morgues and nursing-home residents pressing their palms against their prison windows stalk me like a hungry beast.

Airpods in place, I hope listening to Dr. Zhivago on audio will become my safety valve, but that's a mistake. The Russian revolution and heartbreak for Yuri and Lara fill me with longing for my deceased husband. The narrator describes Yuri's struggles to find his love through those deadly Siberian blizzards. What was I thinking!


Things don't get any better. I get addicted to podcasts about the latest virus news and updates. The cries of health workers desperate for Personal Protection Equipment remind me of our latest medical terrors.

All that bad news blinds me to the squirrels darting across the road and the crows bickering over a piece of pizza. I don't notice my glasses fogging, nor am I aware of parched lips and watery eyes. Only when I nearly get run over by a red-and-white vehicle do I hear the siren. The shrieking brakes and slamming ambulance doors drown out the sound of people running and shouting. A gurney's rubber wheels jostle with the cracks in the sidewalk. I stumble and swear as I watch my Airpods roll down the street and into the drain.

I've got to get hold of myself. I've got to break out of this trance! As soon as I realize I've only been taking in half of what lies before me, the universe brims with sound once more. I hear drops of water plopping on a rhododendron leaf, a raccoon snuffling under a neighbor's lawn, my heartbeat shifting up a gear or two as I navigate the steep hills. I pick a bunch of sage leaves soft as a lamb's ear and stroke my cheek with them. Blue Jays whistle and whoop as a woodpecker knock-knocks at a nearby birch trunk. I skid on moss and stumble on slimy leaves. The smell of fresh pine clears my palate as if I were hiking in a forest. Mist coats my hands, and my skin tingles. My legs feel lighter, and my imagination burrows deep. I press one ear and then the other against a cedar trunk. The bark scrapes the skin on my cheek. I whisper, "Talk to me," and swear I hear the tree's reply, "You'll be okay..."

I look at snow-covered Mount Rainier, the skyscrapers in Bellevue, and the Cascades with their towering whitecaps framing the horizon. Poplars, madronas, cedars, pines, and maples decorate sidewalks and yards with their swollen greenery. I trip over the heaving roots of one cherry tree and push back against the trunk as I struggle to stand upright again. I swear far too loudly and continue on my way, glancing around at neighbors out walking or gardening. Some turn their backs on me and continue tending their overgrown weed beds, even though I'm a socially acceptable six feet away. One bends down and lets out a fart, a three-note trumpet solo hanging in the air forever. Strangers in a strange land, we're all wearing face masks. Feeling like a leper, I step off the sidewalk and cross the road to give parents with strollers, kids, and even dogs the right-of-way.

My neighbors' secret lives begin to unravel. Some emerge from their front doors, unlock their cars with a bleep, and speed off. Others curse at their dogs to stop barking. Some wave and smile to my intonements of "Good morning. How are you? Everyone okay?" Others don't reply at all, as if acknowledging my existence were a hanging offense. I see teachers, scientists, dentists, and sales managers running around their homes, desperately trying to connect to their Zoom calls. In between, they stop to scrub their pots and pans, fold the laundry, and scream at their kids to get off their damned devices and go read a book! Meanwhile, their employers are squirreled away somewhere, pulling out their hair and trying to find a way to keep their businesses running and their rent paid. I pass several couples sitting on their porches in fleece jackets, woolen hats, and gloves, hugging steaming mugs of coffee and reading newspapers. I see paranoid people avoiding eye contact. The streets are filled with thorny undergrowth grasping at my nylon parka as I pass, leaving wicked scars in the fabric.

My mind stumbles. COVID fever claws at me. Not the kind you get from contracting the disease, but the kind you get from worrying about contracting the disease. I feel like Alice. She made the best of an upside-down world. But what would she have done if she'd found herself dumped not into Wonderland but some other reality? Maybe on a stained wooden deck filled with oversized plastic furniture. Or a concrete pad sinking to the bottom of a pool of glistening blue water. Would Alice survive without her cast of wacky supporting characters? Could she live without her mandated mRNA jab?

I follow my gaze down to my feet, to a woman's—or a young girl's—abandoned compact. I stoop to pick it up, examine the ancient tortoiseshell cover. Inside, it's not a compact at all. It's a mirror. In perfect condition. But the face looking back at me is a mystery. It should be mine, but it's not. It's oddly contorted, angry, disheartened: a young girl caught by surprise and not at all pleased.

The girl looking back appears gaunt. The virus? Could be. Suddenly, I begin to sway. The woman in the mirror grows smaller, and so does the world around me. My quivering hands tremble, and I drop the mirror to the ground.

Suddenly I'm hovering over a scene in a strange new place. I look at a young girl. I look... at me! Me, wearing a yellow polka-dot bikini, lazing contentedly on a deck chair. It's been 30 years since I wore a bikini—even a modest one. But I don't look half-bad! As I soak up my surroundings and sip Margaritas with maraschino cherries stuck on the end of multi-colored paper parasols, the sun massages my legs and feet. A waiter in neatly pressed Bermuda shorts comes up and holds out a tray for my inspection. I set my spent glass on it, pick up a replacement, look up, smiling coquettishly, and... it's Anthony Fauci! I blink, and he's gone.

I dust myself off and take another look around at my home and neighborhood. Something has changed. The houses, the streets are fluttering, undulating as if alive. The buildings ramble and rumble like the floats in a Macy's Day parade. Here comes a Dwarf's Cottage with walls the color of glistening sweetcorn, charcoal shingles cover the sloped roof, and two curious aluminum windows staring out at me, daring me to unmask. Draped over the white picket fence, a necklace of fairy lights flickers crimson, pearl, and jade even during the day. Chimes tinkle through the breeze as if calling an armada of medicos to battle the Black Plague. Or worse. An emerald-green artificial lawn covers a yard the size of a tennis court. In the middle of the clipped green carpet sits an orange-and-red plastic slide. Next to it sprout waist-high stalks with curved handles—painted with red-and-white stripes like candy sticks—lining the winding brick road leading up the steps to the front door.

I wish I could pluck up the courage to walk into the yard and lick a sweet stick, but I can't for fear of getting busted. Inside, I imagine Snow White sweeping the kitchen floor as the dwarfs sing Hi-ho, Hi-ho! on their return from a day deep within the diamond mine.

Suddenly, my buzzing phone snaps me back to reality. I pull it out of my pocket and hoist it to my ear.


"Mom!" It's Paul. My son is calling from his home in London. "I just wanted to let you know. Lisa has COVID."

I try to speak, but not a whisper comes out. My granddaughter Lisa is a vibrant, healthy 19-year-old. Vibrant, healthy 19-year-olds are not supposed to get sick.

"She says she feels as if an elephant is sitting on her chest."

"Oh, my God," I hear myself mumble.

"She's on medication, and they're taking good care of her in the hospital, but I just wanted to let you know. Please pray for her."

Of course I'll say a prayer. A long one. Or two. Or a whole damned litany of them, if that's what it takes. I don't know what else to do. I tell Paul not to worry, that everything will be okay and I'll be thinking of them. "And you do everything you can to see she gets better!" I sound more like a mother than a regular human being. "And take care of yourself!"

When we hang up, I hold my phone out in front of me as if it were the source of all bad news. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand. Pressing my palms together, I stumble through a forgotten prayer. A FedEx truck rumbles by. I screw my eyes tight and carry on, murmuring, "Please help her, Oh, Lord. Please help them both."


The next day after my walk, I reach home just as the unkindest sky of all sinks lower. Snow flurries flutter like fairies' wings against the ashen canopy draining the barren patio of color. Ugly thoughts, pooling like day-old rainwater on the muddy path, suck me under. Fuchsias, confused by the mixed messages of winter and spring, bear the first signs of buds on brown stalks awash with questions. They stir, begging to be pruned.

"It's too early," I say to this graveyard of fickle flora. "Snowmageddon is heading our way, and it's almost here." Veins of ice, a dangerous reptile, slither up the stairs toward my front door. My foot slips as I bend down to untie my laces.

"I've had my first vaccination shot!" I yell to no one and to everyone as I kick off my muddy boots and fling them across the porch. "And I still can't meet with my damned friends!" Straightening up, I turn to my patio companions, trying to remember their pre-pandemic beauty and fragrance when the summer light was sweeter and my reflections brighter, when roses and petunias gathered informally around a bonsai maple, and when the Rosa Peace with lemony blooms blushed near Lady Hamilton, its deep red petals set in a frame of bronzy green. What regal pageantry they represent! When a honeysuckle flower buckled under the weight of a bumblebee and a hummingbird inserted his needle-sharp beak into the Bleeding Heart's stigma with the delicacy of a seamstress stitching a ball gown, his orange-and-green necklace catching the rays of the evening sun, his beady eyes focused on mine as he hovered closer, pointing his tail at my face as if telling me to back off.


Weeks pass. Lisa recovers. And then at last. Spring. I begin rediscovering life. I start cooking again. The aroma of roast chicken with garlic, rosemary, and eggs scrambled with tangy shitake mushrooms and freshly brewed coffee fills the house. Slurp after slurp of acrid-rich Java feeds my body and awakens my soul. The sun fills the room with orange light now instead of pale gray.

My homegrown fantasies and fairytales remain a welcome diversion from the never-ending COVID burnout. The red-bricked path leading up to the yellow house brought me hope during that evil year. I don't tell anyone that, in a moment of madness, I bought a yellow polka-dot bikini online at Target. I also don't tell anyone I'm now listening to Hans Christian Anderson's The Nightingale, where I learn about the pain of broken promises, loss of freedom, and imprisonment in a gilded cage. No one knows in the evenings, I'm alert for the bird's lilting song. Or, that when I hear it, I whistle back. No, best keep that a secret, my secret, like a nuclear launch code.

At night, when I take a sip of my favorite cocktail, a vodka and orange-juice Quarantin-i decorated with an olive on a parasol-bejeweled toothpick, I often glance up at the maple tree, hoping Harry Potter's good luck owl, Hedwig, will be there, perched on a branch, bearing an envelope of good news in her beak. There is no sense in trying to understand it all, but I feel stronger. Strong enough to deal with whatever is yet to come.

Of course, if the Alzheimer's paranoia I'd been lugging along with me long before the pandemic struck returns, that just might put a sorcerer's curse on all my dreams. Who knows, I might land up in a rocking chair, glasses at the end of my nose, sipping on a cocktail and reading Grimm's Fairy Tales. But I don't care. There are worse things in life than fairytales. Besides, COVID is here. COVID is gone. Long live the memory of COVID.

And long live the memory of a girl, her looking glass, and a reawakening to life as usual.