Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
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May 20: I was taking Anna’s to her mother’s house late this afternoon. As has become our Wednesday afternoon custom — replacing the old Tuesday evening custom — we went through a drive-thru to get her a Coke.
As we pulled away she began talking about the little tabs on the lid that they push down to differentiate between Coke and Diet Coke and root beer and Dr. Pepper or whatever. She asked me if those had always been there. I said that I vaguely remember a time when they weren’t there but, “once Diet Coke came out” necessity bred invention.
Anna: “What do you mean ‘once Diet Coke came out?'”
Me: “When it was put on the market. In the early 80s. It was a big deal.”
Anna: . . .
Me: “They had a huge ad campaign for it. The commercials had a song — ‘Introducing, DIET COKE! You’re gonna love it, just for the taste of it!’ There were celebrities in the ads. And not just one. Like 20. Big names too. It was like some movie opening or whatever.”
Anna: “OH MY GOD!”
Anna: “How old ARE you?!”
Me: “It was just the 80s! It was not that long ago!”
Anna: “More like 80. Like the year 80 A.D.”
Me: “Shut up.”
We got to her mother’s house. When I go to the door I told her mother about the Diet Coke thing. She said, “you should’ve told her about Tab. Would’ve blown her mind.”
I got back home. Allison was at work and I texted her, telling her about how Anna didn’t believe Diet Coke didn’t exist before the 80s. She said, “that’s what Tab was for.”
See, sometimes it’s the kids who are wrong about stuff, not me.
I was glad to have the conversation about Diet Coke, actually. It broke the silence of the drive up until then.
It wasn’t a tense silence. Anna and I weren’t fighting about anything and as far as I know nothing was wrong with her. It was just quiet, as sometimes happens with a couple of people who often get lost in our own heads. Still, I’ve tried to take better notice of such silences recently to make sure they aren’t anxious or depressed silences born of all of this isolation. Indeed, I’ve tried to pay particular attention to these silences when they come from Anna.
Allison is back to work and sees people at the barn. Carlo has a job outside of the house. I’m an experienced work-from-home hermit who’s used to this. Anna, though, has basically not seen anyone in person besides immediate family members and cats since school shut down in March.
She has a job but it’s online. She has gone for a few walks. She texts and FaceTimes friends, but I think most of us have figured out by now that there are limits to two-dimensional interaction. I’ve learned that my kids are wired differently enough from me that projecting my own feelings from my own adolescent memories onto them is usually a sucker’s bet, but I can’t imagine it’s easy to be so cooped up at 16.
Of course, whenever I ask her how she’s doing she says “fine.” If I try to probe even a little bit, like I did on our drive today, I usually get eye rolls and polite-but-firm deflection. My Gen-Z kids may be wired differently than me, but they’re still an awful lot like young Gen-Xers were when it came to talking to us sincerely about our feelings. Or anything else for that matter. It’s especially bad when it comes to Anna and me. We share a strong streak of ironic detachment — don’t say I never gave you anything, kid — and a cynical sense of humor that has created a considerable bond between us in certain respects, but which does not lend itself to A Very Special Episode of “The Calcaterras” moments. She plays everything close to the vest.
This is not new. It’s something I first noticed in her many years ago, right after her mother and I split up.
It wasn’t, at least as far as the kids would’ve been able to detect at the time, an acrimonious split. They were shielded from fights and drama to the extent it existed and neither seemed to suffer any apparent trauma over it. They were very young when we separated — Anna was seven and Carlo was six — and they were at a point in their lives when, basically, whatever Mommy and Daddy said was Good and True. We told them what was happening together, helped them adjust to the new living situation tother, and worked together, then as now, as cooperating co-parents.
Still, there were adjustments to be made. Back in 2012, a few months after the split, I wrote something about how the kids were dealing with it. Carlo had some early anxiety issues with going back-and-forth between our two houses — an in-between time I referred to as “the middle” — but those eventually resolved themselves.
Anna’s adjustment was a little bit different. Here’s how I put it at the time:
Anna is better at dealing with this but she has her own in between too. Rather than a time and space in which she feels anxiety, she has a time and space in which she can hold on to secrets and experiences for an extra day or two before she feels she has to share them with me. The details of her time at her mother’s place seep out slowly, days after they occur. In the interim she keeps things to herself, often savoring good things, often mulling things that trouble her, but always having this middle space where she is essentially on her own, mentally speaking.
This is less heartbreaking. Unlike Carlo, I feel like what Anna is experiencing is more or less typical. An independence which all kids eventually experience. The only difference is that she’s getting it earlier than most kids do, it having been imposed on her rather than sought, even if she does find it welcome in some respects.
I don’t think that ever stopped being the case with her. She has always kept her own counsel. Indeed, she sometimes gets impatient or even angry if she is not the one who is in full control of the information flow. If, say, a teacher tells us something, good or bad, that Anna either did not choose to tell us or did not choose to tell us in that particular manner. It’s not about deception or suppression, really. It’s about maintaining an autonomy and a certain control over the information of her life. An autonomy and control that has only grown over the years by virtue of her doing well in school and showing everyone that she is responsible and trustworthy. An autonomy that she first got a taste of when she was seven and has no apparent desire to give up.
Which brings us back to the car ride and life in the pandemic.
This is the biggest, most disruptive fucking thing she, or most of us for that matter, have had to deal with in our lives. While Anna has spent 16 years as the coolest cat in the room most of the time, even the coolest cat in the room is likely feeling some stress and misery these days. Stress and misery that, one would think, would be expressed in ways beyond the gallows humor and “god, this sucks, doesn’t it?” conversations we have almost every day. I don’t worry about Anna very much, and I was satisfied today after the Diet Coke conversation and all of the verbal and nonverbal cues that surrounded it that she was genuinely fine. As I sit here this evening, I believe that today’s silence was just run-of-the-mill Calcaterra stuff.
But when I do worry about Anna, I worry that there’s stuff going on with her in that middle space she loves and protects so much that she can’t handle by herself. Stuff she doesn’t feel comfortable expressing or, maybe, that she doesn’t really know how to express. She’s just 16. It’s only going to get harder. At some point those silences will conceal things she doesn’t have a handle on.
I hope that when that happens, she feels comfortable breaking that silence and asking me or her mother or someone else she trusts for help.