After a five-week-long closure, my coffee shop is scheduled to open on May 5. I miss my coworkers and I miss my routine, but I don’t know if I can return, because I don’t know where I’ll spend the night.
I have two options:
- Commute 50 miles from Puyallup to Seattle. That means driving at least an hour, twice a day, each day I’m working, so that I can make approximately minimum wage for three or four days a week.
- Move back to Seattle. Return to my house with my seven housemates. That means taking my predictable number of close contacts, and multiplying it by at least seven. I wonder if that will prevent me from spending time with my family anymore.
Is it worth it to work a few hours at a coffee shop, making less money than I would if I were on unemployment, and be exposed to my customers, and then either be exposed to my housemates, or commute two or more hours a day to put my family at risk? I do not think so.
I pace around my parents’ kitchen. I text my boss about the dilemma. I explain that I’m afraid to cancel out all the social distancing I’ve done by moving back to my full house, but that I dread commuting from Puyallup to Ballard every day. I ask her if I can continue taking time off.
“If it’s only a matter of where you’ll stay at night,” she texts back, “there’s always the Airbnb.”
I stop pacing.
My boss owns a few properties around Seattle, and the most recently acquired one is a big old house near the coffee shop. She remodeled the basement and made it a separate apartment, with the intention of putting it on Airbnb and using the profits to keep the rent low for her upstairs tenants. But with the pandemic, all of that fell through and the house has remained empty.
“There’s no one there and there’s a full kitchen,” she texts.
“That is so, so kind of you to offer,” I reply, hesitating. I don’t know if I can say yes to this, but… “That wouldn’t be too much trouble?”
“Not at all. It would help make it a better Airbnb. You can provide your feedback for when it’s up and running.”
“What can I pay for it?”
It feels like a punch in the gut. I don’t know if she knows what she’s just done. She has just casually offered me a safe place. With a walkable commute. In a beautiful house.
I don’t deserve that. Things are uncertain, but I’m in no more dire straits than anyone else. My boss doesn’t owe me a home, just a paycheck.
Besides, she hasn’t seen me lately. She doesn’t know how much of a turd I’ve become. If she knew how moody and unmotivated I’ve been, how shoddily I’ve been investing in my relationships, she wouldn’t offer this.
It feels like a boundary violation. It’s too intimate. I can’t pay her back enough for this, so it feels too loving to bear.
I go to downtown Puyallup for a run, and I stop by the post office to drop off more books.
There’s a man in front of me in line, wearing what looks like the dingy end of a sweatpants leg over his face. I don’t have a mask to put on because I ripped mine up in frustration the other day.
“What I wanna know,” he says suddenly, spinning around to face me, “is when I can go to a ball game again. I wanna go to a ball game.” I can’t tell if he is angry or cheerful because of the pant leg.
“Mm. Yeah, that’d be nice,” I say, glancing at the frayed blue cuff over the bridge of his nose before looking away dismissively.
Then I remember that I’ve just been shown kindness. I should be kind, too.
“What have you been doing instead of ball games?” I ask.
“That’s the thing,” he says. “I do nothing. I work from home already. That’s all I do. I want to see a ball game. I come here. I go to Costco.”
“Oh, what do you do?”
“I’m a bookkeeper.”
“Ah, very nice. That’s something.” (It occurs to me that I don’t actually know what a bookkeeper is.)
“I do go to Costco.”
He approaches the counter, where he and the clerk discuss masks and Costco and how expensive everything is. All the talk about safety makes me feel self conscious. I’m wearing short shorts and a tank top to run in, but the skin I’m most embarrassed to show is my face. I should have a mask, if that guy is wearing a pant leg.
On his way out the door, I tell him, “I hope you can get to a ball game soon.”
I try to run fast, but I keep slowing down to think about my boss’s offer. She is giving me a place to live, for free. I think of all the things I’ll be able to do: I can bring my clothes there. I can shop for exactly the foods I want and I can cook them. I can wake up early and read a book and drink coffee. I can go to bed early and read a book and drink whiskey. I can sit on the porch and watch cars go by. I can keep the place as clean or messy as I want–though I will keep it spotless, in her honor. I’ll leave it better than I find it. I’ll weed the cracks in the sidewalk and trim the blackberries and conserve the water. Whatever I can do to tread lightly and keep it beautiful.
And then another thought slaps me:
This kindness is nothing compared to the kindness of the people who are closest to me. The people I take for granted, the people I’ve been with during the quarantine, the people who have been loving me deeply this entire time–they have been heroes this whole time. Mom and Dad have cared for me in my childhood home like I’m a little kid. They’ve fed me for weeks and weeks. They have listened to me when I’ve been talkative and left me alone when I’ve been reclusive. Maybe I just was given a free home, but I’ve already had a free home with them. And Matt. There’s another home I’ve been welcome in all along. I go there and I dump all my complaints on him and he smiles at me and takes me on hikes and listens and makes dinner. He stays for days at my parents’ house, working a tech job with our spotty internet and distracting dogs, so that we can be together. He’s seen me messy and ugly and he’s only met it with care. He seems to know when to let me fuss and when to make me buck up, when to hold my hand and when to suggest we go work out. He can get me to smile so easily sometimes, it makes me angry. And what about my siblings who are always there, always funny, always honest, always generous, always planning something fun to make this time bearable and memorable? We’ve done the dumbest, funniest stuff. We’ve survived Tiger King. We’ve made each other bad cocktails. We’ve watched my baby niece start crawling.
I have been the recipient of love and I have not returned love. Maybe that’s a little simplistic and hard on myself, but it’s not that far off. The point is that I think I suck at COVID-19 pretty bad.
As I jog through Puyallup, I see my boss’s kindness for what it is: only the latest in an infinite litany of kindnesses, all of which have begun to turn this scary year beautiful. I bet I’ll even be nostalgic for 2020 one day. I want to get better at loving my loved ones back. But first comes this moment of grace, in which I simultaneously experience my unworthiness and others’ goodness.