Missing Links: After Months of Quarantine, Small Moments of Connection Matter Most [Essay]

Illustration by Hannah Agosta

I have a confession. I talk to a spider that lives in my kitchen. This is what months of soul-sucking pandemic isolation has reduced me to. When I told a friend about Spidella—yes, I named her—she said, “Put on a pair of pants—with a zipper. We’re going out.”

With the reopening of business almost-as-usual, my friend and I ventured back to the magical world of South Coast Plaza. The moment we entered, our senses were assaulted—by happiness. We’d missed the mall almost as much as we’d missed each other. Our gazes darted frowm one sparkling window to another, then we both smiled and said, “Shiny things!”

The entire mall seemed more sparkly, more polished than anything in my home. That’s my fault. Without friends visiting, I have no motivation to clean. Why scrub a toilet until it dazzles if no one will see it but me? My cats don’t care; they drink out of it no matter what it looks like.

I wanted to see everything, including other people. Especially other people. I window-shopped until I was literally drooling, which is not a good look for me, though it made me glad for the first time to be wearing a mask. It’s important to look for silver linings.

Did you know the French term for window-shopping, léche-vitrine, literally means to lick the window? Though not recommended during a pandemic—or any time—the term made perfect sense to me that day.

My friend and I walked from one end of the mall to the other and worked up an appetite. I’m a takeout regular at my favorite local eatery, Surf City Fish Grill, hoping my patronage will help it stay in business. But this would be my first foray into a sit-down restaurant since March.

We checked menus at every eatery. The choice we made today would be the most important restaurant selection we would ever make. No pressure, but it had to be outstanding or we’d forever regret wasting our first reopening outing on boring, ho-hum food. After an anxious search, we decided on Ruscello, the indoor-outdoor balcony cafe at Nordstrom.

If we thought choosing a restaurant was hard, deciding what to order was even more challenging. A menu decision has never taken me so long. A meal that wasn’t perfect would be too much to bear and force me to flail myself nightly for my woefully poor menu skills. My heart raced, and for the first time I understood performance anxiety.

To get this right, I peppered—no pun intended—our poor waiter with questions. “What did you just deliver to the corner table? Does the club sandwich have real turkey, cut off a roasted bird? What are the soups and what do they come with?” As he patiently described the turkey and the soup, it occurred to me that I was asking extra questions just to talk with another human being—dragging out my choice so I could keep chatting.

This was not the first time I’d done this. A few months earlier, I was oddly happy to go to my dentist in Irvine for an emergency extraction. Normally the thought of having a tooth pulled would raise my anxiety level high enough to need a 12-foot ladder to come down, but I had two assistants and the surgeon to talk to. Even though I’d had Novocain, I somehow managed to converse despite being unable to feel my mouth. I don’t know what I said or if I even made sense, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, I was talking to people—not to a Zoom, image, or a spider, or to three cats yowling at me to clean the litter box.

I had a similar experience when I went to see my doctor for my first office visit since the stay-at-home order—not one of those telemedicine appointments where I try to stay on the line and chat as my doctor tries to diplomatically hang up. While I talked with the nice intake nurse, her ministrations felt so warm and soothing that my pulse and blood pressure dropped to alarmingly low rates.

“You should make another appointment so we can check this out,” my doctor said when he saw the numbers.

“An in-person visit?” I asked. “Sure, anytime.” Before this, I’d hated going to the doctor.

At the restaurant, the
tomato soup with crispy cheese toast was divine and the club with real turkey served on a chewy, rustic bread was fabulous. It featured a sauce with a spicy kick that reminded me I was not at home doomscrolling the news on my phone while eating my usual processed lunchmeat on Wonder bread, slathered with Miracle Whip for that gourmet touch.

After lunch, we went to See’s Candies for a box of peanut brittle and a free-sample chocolate. In these uncertain times, it’s reassuring how See’s never changes, though the samples are now individually wrapped for safety, which I kind of liked because the plastic wrapper was shiny. That was the best butterscotch square ever.

The pandemic has not only made me appreciate the little things, like a favorite chocolate; it has made me grateful for the people in my life—my friends, family, and the kind and patient grocery clerks, waiters, and medical staff who put up with my chatter. And I really appreciate the freedom to go eat some cooking other than my own.

Plus, the nice waiter who took the time to talk with me added something extra special, and it didn’t hurt that he served my lunch on a bright, shiny plate.

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