When my neighbor waved at me from the other side of the street, I imagined his lips moving on the other side of his mask as he asked, “How’re you doing?” I must have taken too long to answer because he squinted his eyes and added, “How’re you coping?”
His words pinned me. I felt like a specimen on an insect display: I wanted to be seen, but this inquiry was more than I had bargained for. I said the words I could find, the expected ones, “I’m fine.” By the time I shut my front door, I wished I had said to him, “I got a package.”
* * *
The package came on a Monday. Inside the brown box, twin aluminum cylinders nestled together in the cardboard. They were filled with carbon dioxide. With the help of a carbonator, they could infuse bottles of water with gas and make it sparkle.
Before the pandemic, I drank liters of carbonated water every day. Whenever I felt like it, and sometimes when I didn’t, I would pad to the kitchen, palm a cold bottle of flat water from the fridge, link the bottle into the black plastic carbonation mechanism, and suck down the crisp effervescence. When the silver canister emptied, I would unthread it, tuck it inside my cloth shopping bag, and drive to Target to trade it for a new one. I didn’t know it at the time, but I made my last trip like this in February.
The trip was so unexceptional that I have no memory of anything about that day. I couldn’t tell you if it was early February or late February. I couldn’t tell you if the sky was blotted white with snow or blue with bracing cold. But I can tell you that, by the time that canister ran out in March, Target had stopped its exchange program, and the world had stopped most everything else.
Everything else in the world was more consequential than a canister whose sole purpose was to make flat water effervesce. So those things got my attention, mostly. I stuffed our cupboard with canned beans. I tracked which businesses were closed until it became simpler to track which were not. I set up a Zoom account. Fifteen days to slow the spread stretched into April, then May.
As the pandemic mushroomed, my life contracted. I focused on beans and Zoom and staying further from people than it seemed like the virus could jump. I needed to create a container for myself because the pandemic seemed to have none.
After particularly difficult days, I sometimes wondered about the shape my life had taken. I needed to test the bounds of this new world — to see if the edges were still there. Was this real life? When these days happened, I called Target. I asked if they had resumed the canister exchanges. The answer was always the same: They hadn’t. No, they didn’t know when they would. They didn’t know whether they would at all. This continued until, one week in May, no one answered at Target. The store had been a casualty of the uprising.
Maybe you don’t know what I mean by the uprising. Let me try to explain: I mean the civic action triggered by the police killing of George Floyd in Powderhorn, Minneapolis — my neighborhood. But that is not all that I mean. I also mean the ongoing resistance to 400 years of injustice in the United States — my country. I can feel these explanations failing. I can feel myself failing. I want to tell you about pain and about fire and about air. About what the uprising means to me and about how what it means to me isn’t the important part of the story. About how the story doesn’t have an ending — not yet. The forces behind the uprising are not narrative: They are elemental. Like a gas, they seem to fill every crevice of every container they encounter.
After the uprising began, I stopped calling about canisters. Even so, the carbonator stayed on my counter. It stood next to the sink: A shoebox-sized monument to something I didn’t have at the moment. It meant something to me. Something about control. Something like hope.
I think that I couldn’t put the carbonator away because I knew that carbonating water meant something to me besides itself. It had also been something I could do when there was so little else that I could. Long before the novel coronavirus, my own personal timeline had stretched into something I could no longer recognize.
A decade before Covid-19, my husband and I had planned it: Three children, each 21 months apart. I knew enough about babies and about fate to expect those months would be approximate. But I had not expected this: Four pregnancies, two babies, and 29 months into trying for our third.
During those unexpected months, I learned there is a lot you can do that may help you make a child and nothing you can do that will guarantee it. When apps, friends, and doctors said, “Stay hydrated,” I accepted the advice with the solemnity of an oath. I drank iced water. I drank lemon water. I drank water through a steel straw. But, most of the time, I drank carbonated water. It was something I could do every day, every hour, all the time that maybe, just might bring our third baby closer to this world. Opening the fridge, linking the bottle, pouring the liquid, gulping it down — it was like a ritual. I wasn’t just drinking water; I was purifying a vessel that I hoped would manifest a soul.
Which is to say: When I saw an email promotion for carbon dioxide canister delivery six months into the pandemic, two months into the uprising, and 29 months into infertility, I opened it. I accepted the offering. During the pandemic, during the uprising, during infertility, this has become my new ritual: Accept, adapt, keep going. Most of the time, the work of this ritual feels puny and insignificant, like adding a tasteless gas to a tasteless liquid. Other times, it feels like the only thing that’s true in the world, a theory of everything that matters.
The next time my neighbor asks me how I’m doing, how I’m coping, maybe I will tell him about my package. Maybe I will say:
I am doing.
I am coping.
I am figuring out how.
This essay was also published on Medium.