In my apartment in Brooklyn is a blue-and-white china vase. It once held a geranium but is now a receptacle for my wine corks, which overflow onto the lightly worn oak of my kitchen table. I assume it is still there, anyway, the corks lying scattered as they fell, as I haven’t been in that apartment since the beginning of February. For four months, I’ve been on a long and unanticipated hiatus at my mother’s home in Maryland. I came here to help her through cancer treatments, a bag of laundry in the car, anticipating months of back and forth during her long battle. But she was hospitalized three days after I arrived and I had to go on immediate leave from work. The laundry was done and packed in my trunk, where it has been ever since; the pancreatic cancer claimed her life in six short and vicious weeks. When we buried her on March 10th, the country was beginning to shutter. So I stayed, confined to and quarantining in my childhood home, forced to use my time to go through her things, our things, my family’s things, room by room, with many tears. In some ways it’s been helpful, confronting all that grief head-on. In others, it is a hell I can’t escape.
Sometime in March (who knows when; “time is a suggestion,” my aunt said when this all began and the hospital days were blurring together, a statement that fits Quarantine Time, too) I began a cork vase here, this one clear glass with a scalloped rim. I remember when it was filled with fresh cuts from my mother’s well-tended garden, sitting in the center of our old kitchen table where I am writing this now, the table around which we breakfasted and dinnered and homeworked for thirty years and more. The small vase was quickly overrun, the corks spilling onto the shelf where it bookends her cookbooks as my family and I (and eventually just I, when they went home at last) went through the supply of wine I had driven down from Brooklyn, congregating over glasses in shared grief.
But lately the additions to the vase have slowed. More often, I’ve found myself making dirty gin martinis. Martinis are really the only cocktail I drink. I am not a cocktail person, and I never make them at home. A martini is a mood—a treat at a bar, ordered on specific nights at specific New York institutions with specific friends; Minetta Tavern, to start the annual holiday dinner with my father; Long Island Bar, with the double-fried fries; Bobby Vans, where they are icy and wildly overpriced and my best friend and I had to kick them back fast once to run away from a stout and over-served Wall Street man.
But I can’t go to any of those places. None of us can. Our bar rituals are part of the Before Time, which for me looks even more starkly different than now—in the Before Time, I had a mother. I’m not the only one who has lost someone; as of writing this, nearly 100,000 people in the US have died from COVID-19. For all of us, the life after this, whenever it comes, will always contain that loss, even as we gain back our rituals.
There is so much we can’t control. The martini, I realized, was something I could. Now, once or twice a week, I get out the shaker and ice, the dwindling handle of Bombay, the comically large and cheap steakhouse-style martini glass I ordered just for this purpose, the olives and the bottled brine—a lifesaver when you’ve already drained your olive jars of their liquid. I dribble in the vermouth and swirl it around the glass, measure the gin and olive juice (2:1), and stir the long cocktail spoon with my middle and ring finger until I feel the metal grow cold. I pour it in a gold-green stream over the olives waiting in the crook of the glass’s V and watch it fog, then take a quick sip to be sure I’ve done it right. I am somehow always surprised that I have; I didn’t mean to acquire this skill.
I can make this martini thanks to the cocktail stylings of my other best friend, Sarah. (Her words and others will follow mine below.) Sarah is a pro home bartender if there ever was one, and often the person I meet to share a martini with in Williamsburg, where I live and she works. Now, we cheers over Zoom, her glass a pretty coupe with a toothpick of olives resting just so on the rim. I’m impatient and will fish out my olives before I’m finished my drink as she neatly pulls hers off with her teeth and we talk about all the things we would talk about in person: Writing, not writing, books, Twitter, partners and exes, small and petty dramas. My mother. Our late-afternoon conversations see more sunlight these days, outside of our usual dark-ish watering hole, and the scarred wood my glass finds is not a bar but the blonde planks of the dependable old kitchen table. We remember to hydrate from our Swell bottles instead of free pints of that sweet New York water, and run through every topic imaginable and more, trying to find a reason to have another round. We don’t want to go home, to leave the bar, to shut the screen and find ourselves back in exactly the same place we have been every single day for months. We text when the call is over: I miss you. That was so much fun.
I mentioned the unusualness of this new routine to her and we agreed that we were supplementing, missing what we can no longer go out to enjoy. And so I wanted to ask other writers about this. Are you, too, changing your routines? Are you wining and dining yourself? What are you drinking? Is it helping? (I did not ask them if they’re writing—we know the answer, and we don’t want to have to say it.) Some of them indulged me, and below, you will read the answers to those questions. We are all going through it right now, all finding ways to soften the sharp edges of reality and the constant ache of grief. I hope these little stories can do that for you too, and perhaps help you feel a little less alone.
— Mickie Meinhardt
It started with red cups, the kind we all drank beers out of when we cut class on the vacant lot across the street from my high school in the Bronx. I’d long left them behind because of ecological reasons, but stocked up in a buying frenzy in early March while staring at empty CVS shelves just before I got sick; they were some of the only things left for sale so I bought them. Then I spent two weeks in bed self-isolating. The solo cups were one of my better moves. (Not stocking up on toilet paper was one of my worst ones.) Our dishwasher broke just as my fever went up and I was paranoid about hand-washing glasses with COVID, so, recycling be damned, it looked like a little keg party had taken place in my room. After I recovered enough that I could walk from our building the three blocks to the park, I’d make myself a G&T with lime in one of those remaining disposable frat-boy cups after work. (My legs still wobbled when I stood up but, you know, it was five o’clock somewhere). There was something steadying about watching that steel gray Hudson River move, and the “mostly gin” helped me to get my shit together before going home. We’re four adults now in a small apartment, my grown-up kids and my husband. Compared to the suffering of our neighbors we’re doing fine, but it is still easy to feel trapped. (Sometimes, in desperation, I go out on the street and sit in our car just to be alone.) Finally, when the weather got warmer, our nearby burger joint reopened and started selling takeout frozen watermelon margaritas and guac and chips. One day, when my daughter and I were curled up on the couch together in a cocoon of shelter-at-home despair, we ordered the whole package, picked it up at the restaurant’s doorway and headed to my spot in the park. The sun was shining, kids were riding their bikes, there were too many people with masks hanging off their chins and not secured on their faces, but we were far enough away to spread out and drink and talk. My daughter started to cry, but not from despair. “It’s the first time I’ve felt normal,” she said. And it was true. We were just hanging out, being ourselves. We were relaxed. Margaritas and chips, the sunset, and then at 7pm all of New York cheering our first responders. Alone together. The “new” magic hour.
I used to fucking hate wine. Bound up in the four-letter word, a whole mess of bad memories rose to the surface each time I heard it. I thought of patrician WASPs like the one I’d dated, of dim wooden bars that dripped with condescension, and I remembered the shame of being caught ordering it down here in my neck of the woods. But in the same breath, as a first generation American born to an Austrian mother and South African father, some of my fondest memories are tied to the word. Along the edge of Vienna, set back in the deep green of the forests that march downtoward the Danube, bottles of grunerveltliner ferried four generations of our family through countless dinners, drinking and laughing together. And then at the confluence of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, my father and I reconciled a distance between us with wine from the Constantia, from the Karoo, or rather from the places our family immigrated to a century prior. And in the course of thinking on this, chewing on it like a morsel of fat, I remembered an amber afternoon in Central Park in New York City, a reunion of family separated by 8000 miles, where I can still hear the toast with Sara and Adri, still smell the mint and elderflower syrup. I can smell the petrichor in the desert between Johannesburg and Cape Town. I remember falling in love halfway through a Beaujolais, and then returning to the same bottle as I reassembled my life in the wake of that loss. And this sort of thing, this sort of remembering, is something I’ve come to associate with wine. It’s not unlike making photographs or deciding just how to tell a story. It’s something I’ve shared with family, friends, with past selves, and in hopes of gleaning something of the future. Today, in the midst of a pandemic that has kept most of us at home, my memories of the word become doubly meaningful, and doubly embarrassing, because the bouquet of empty bottles piled in a box outside my kitchen is doubly tall. But staring at those bottles doesn’t conjure shame. Instead, they remind me of gauzy blue nights on my porch in the good company of my best friend, Christian. They remind me of the peaks and valleys in our lives and in our past, and they remind me that this dim period will soon grow distant, too.
— Michael Adno, writer; quarantined in Sarasota, Florida
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phrase “making do.” Making do with quarantine, making do with what’s in our pantry when the grocery store shelves are empty, and also making do without. Without seeing our loved ones, without a vaccine, without loving child care and school for our kids.
It’s easy to feel like we’re living half a life, and it’s easy to mistake poverty of circumstances for poverty of heart. Some might say that moonshiners are experts at “making do” for the way they craft spirits from what they find in nearby fields and creeks. But that doesn’t tell the full story.
Moonshiners don’t “make do” with what they have. They make things new. They take corn and water and sugar, mix them together, and give them new life. A shiner with his copper still wields the same transformative power as an artist taking up her paint brush, and it’s the very power that’s available to you and me, too.
Here’s what I did to make things new: a cup of cold whipping cream, two tablespoons of moonshine, and two tablespoons of sugar, whisked together in a chilled metal bowl. After five minutes, I had my own spiked whipped cream—perfect with coffee, ice cream, pie, or just as it is. Then I dropped some off on a friend’s porch as a reminder to us both that, even though we can’t share a meal or a drink together now, the day is coming when we will.
As a meaning-making, pattern-seeking species, humans are predisposed to ritual. Mine isn’t religious, or about skin care, but it is meaningful: Every day after work I drink a beer and a shot.
I manage a coffee shop, so my day ends by 1:00 pm. Nine-to-fivers don’t have to memorize a map of places that’ll be open when they get out of work should they want a drink, but my friend and I did, and our favorite was Rocka Rolla, the classic rock–themed haunt in Williamsburg.
I used to go after every shift and order the “low life”—a Miller High Life in a 12oz bottle and a well shot, specifically tequila.
After quarantine went into effect, Rocka Rolla transitioned to the now-common takeout model: order from a safe distance, wait outside without clumping up in a not-socially-distanced queue, retrieve beverage and bag of shit chips that makes the sale of to-go liquor legal, and walk on. A little bit of Bourbon Street in Brooklyn, just with masks and gloves.
Still, swinging by for happy hour isn’t something my friend and I should or want to repeat as often as before, so we’ve transposed our habit to home. Most afternoons, we text each other “shot?” and send along pictures of our brimming shot glasses or selfies in a “Cheers!” pose, then drink around what is presumably the same time, feeling a little buzzed and a little less alone. Another friend and I FaceTime for the duration, and it’s almost as though we’re at the bar, lingering for a moment of intentionality before returning to our days. Part of its joy is the fleeting, unscripted conversation it brings—taking a shot together bears less social pressure than a proper Zoom date, but is just as connective. And of course, we can always decide to have another. The other night we essentially went to two bars—our conversation changed tenor as we changed drinks, an intimacy deepening as we made that decision together. You’re alone and you’re drinking, but you aren’t drinking alone.
— Sarah Madges, Guernica copy editor; quarantined in Brooklyn, New York
Early in the COVID plague days, a dull pain in my lower back woke me from sleep. I clenched the right side of my torso, more annoyed than distressed. There couldn’t be a worse time for this. The “this” I knew, with growing surety, was kidney stones. I knew because it had happened to me twice before, both times resulting in visits to the emergency room. This time a trip to the hospital, I knew, would be ill-advised. The whole world had started to shutter and the emergency rooms were filling with people seeking treatment for the new, still mysterious, highly contagious, and potentially deadly novel coronavirus. The hospital had become a dangerous place; why go in to treat one thing and risk coming out with a more dangerous, potentially life-ending thing? So I spent the night on the bathroom floor, writhing, screaming, and wracked with pain and nausea. Each time this has happened, my wife points with certainty to the energy drinks I consume. It’s a habit I picked up in college, hoping a fizzy sugar- and caffeine-laden liquid in a can could create for me more hours in which to study. The habit then expanded past the academy and into my life, where I often found myself falling asleep at the keyboard, writing only after everything else (work, family) got its due. And the other reason that these kidney stones were arriving at the worst possible time is because in the other room—just outside the bathroom where I lay incapacitated on the floor—there are stacks of paper to attend to: student papers, contest entries to judge, my own writing. I’m not convinced Red Bull caused the stones, but even if it didn’t, the truth is that while Red Bull is nice, it could never save me. When those stones are stuck somewhere between your kidney and the toilet bowl, there is but one beverage lord and savior: water, and lots of it. Simple, fizz-less, bland-tasting and homely. At that moment, though, it tasted like life.
I believe it was ten dollars at Trader Joe’s? It’s the only place I will shop because they’re the only gig in town that limits the number of shoppers inside, and the last time I did the Safeway it was so, so harrowing. I picked it up because of how it looked—the bottle was round and friendly; the wine was millennial pink. I am used to wine that costs more than ten dollars, but it felt good to buy it, and so. It surprises my new friends to learn that I have always been a hedonist; I look too buttoned-up for it. My belief that we should deny ourselves no reasonable thing has only intensified in pandemic times, and even though I knew it would taste like ten-dollar wine, the hedonism wasn’t in the drinking but the purchasing—the comfort of its aesthetic. Calming. The wine was fine! A little sweeter than I might have otherwise have chosen, but it was cool and relaxing, and the setting sun hit it such that it looked like a glass of gold. Which is what I wanted. Because this wine was something to drink while I took thirst traps standing on my balcony. I am trans and began taking testosterone on January 8th of this year; I started seeing changes right when lockdown hit. Largely unwitnessed during my slow werewolf transformation, I want a record of my body in a way I never have before. Something full of how I feel about it: joyful, desirable, comforting in its aesthetic. Gold in the setting sun.
— A.E. Osworth, part-time faculty at The New School and author of We Are Watching Eliza Bright (forthcoming April 2021); quarantined in Oakland, CA
When I was a bartender, the beauty of the after-work shift drink was less about the substance than the demarcation of time. The drink meant off-the-clock and into freedom. We could speak in longer sentences, not just transactions. Everyone else’s night had ended, and that our time was morning, not evening, made a small society of us that seemed then doubly free.
It’s true we spent a lot of that time complaining about customers. But on a good night, our grievances were only people whose preferences were nonsensical, like those who demanded their martinis “extra strong.” We’d tease one of the guys on staff about his secret penchant for 99 Bananas. We’d congratulate each other for not having conniptions at idiots. We’d take our time on whatever we were drinking, enjoy not moving fast. We were no longer trying to get to a later hour faster.
I don’t like to drink alone, and since stay-at-home orders have been in place, I have drank infrequently. The exception is occasionally have a drink while on a long telephone call with a friend. The drinks now also signal a shared time, though they no longer mark shared space.
These days, I’m more apt than I’ve been since my teenage years to linger on the phone. There are less logistics to these. We do not call to say we’re running late. We are direct about our motivating desires: I wanted to hear your voice.
Like when I was a bartender, it seems these chats over drinks happen in some inverted temporal stretch. It’s not that the shift is over. Some of us are working and some of us aren’t. But it’s a time during the pandemic I do not hope to get over with more quickly, a time made free by its sharing.