It’s a cold October evening; the house is warm and full. Fifteen people sit around a table laden with food. Chicken breast, hot sausage, and sweet sausage get the center of the table as the star of the show. A deep dish of penne swimming in a rose sauce sits beside a bowl of boiled then fried rapini, double-cooked in the sincere hope that bitterness melted away. A salad in balsamic vinaigrette sits on the far end, an obligatory addition to the table; a palate cleanser, something to eat after you’ve gorged on all of the other delicious choices. There are baskets of fresh bread sprinkled throughout the table, whose main purpose is to clean the plate of all sauce after you’ve eaten your last morsel of penne (Italian’s refer to this as scarpetta).
Everyone has a glass of wine, water, or pop. Dishes are passed over and across the table. Some guests are asking for seconds while others are still slow dancing with their pasta. There is a quiet chatter between the people sitting closest to one another. It feels like a reunion, the kind you dread before you arrive and then end up having a better time than anyone else.
It’s been a long time since I sat around a table with this many people. It’s been a long time since I met anyone new or had to make conversation, to be so social. It took a few hours to get situated and for my self-diagnosed social anxiety to soothe itself. I spent the first hour or so hanging out with my three nieces. They’re easily entertained and do most of the talking. With them, I can just be.
It’s not until I realize how much my nieces have grown that I think about how much time has been lost. For everyone. Time we could have spent traveling, with our friends, with our grandparents, exploring new cities, trying new restaurants, meeting new people, or starting new careers. We’ve missed birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries.
When we bought our condo, I never thought I would spend so many hours between its walls. Since March 2020, 90% of my time has been spent in my home, sprinkled with those rare evenings of family time, still laden with fear and angst. I am one of the lucky ones who can work from home and I will not pretend that this isn’t a huge blessing. I’ve only been to the office dozens of times since the beginning of the pandemic. The rapid testing, the beige walls, the phones ringing, the endless small-talk chatter have me itching to go home by lunchtime.
Every time I go in, I need to get used to being around people. The first time I went back to the office, I put my headphones in and focused on the task at hand. I then farted and burped in my cubicle, which isn’t much of a cubicle and more of a bullpen. I don’t know how loud either of the sounds I made was. If anyone walked by they could have smelt or heard the gas leave my orifices. Embarrassment flooded my cheeks.
At home, I don’t have to hold anything in; I can roll my eyes, yell, swear, fart, or burp. I can wear a bra or not. I can dress up, curl my hair, and put on makeup, or not. There is both freedom and a loss of decorum when you work from home.
The evening is almost over. The dishes are washed and dried, my nieces are in their pajamas sitting on the couch. The first to leave are standing in the hallway, putting on their coats and saying their goodbyes. There is tension in the air from fights between siblings and judgments passed in low voices.
I’m talking to my husband about something when my dad lets out a fart. It’s clear by the look on his face that he meant for it to be a lot quieter than it was. His body betrayed his intention, the sound of his own flatulence startles him, as well as everyone in the room. There is a brief pause where we all know what happened but don’t know how to react. The silence erupts into laughter—the tension disappears in the shadow of the stench.
The laughter chants we’re all human, and we need each other to survive.