Call me the girl in the bubble, but I like the comfort of my space. I’m not an especially affectionate adult—a flaw I own and often ponder. I’m reserved with PDA, sometimes a bit stiff. So when 2020’s tsunami of a coronavirus rose from the depths of the Wuhan meat market, engulfed the globe, and banished humanity to our six-foot bubbles of isolation, I was more than willing to adhere to the restrictions. Six feet? To be frank, that was more in keeping with my preference.
Though the CDC guidelines suited my needs, I was aware that not all society felt the same. My younger sister, for instance—the touchy-feely one of the family—is my polar opposite. While she lamented the lack of sight, touch, and scent of others, I took to wearing my six-foot isolation bubble like haute couture. Paired with matching mask, all that was missing was a spot-on accessory, a petri dish perhaps. Bubble fashion was on trend, at least for me.
In deference to my bubble, I rarely left the house this past year, with the exception of a grocery run or an occasional dash to the big-box store. I even ceased all visits to the hair salon. It has been a year since I’ve seen my stylist, a fact which is all too glaring. Had we a tower in our humble abode I could let my hair down, but the strands have become so brittle I doubt it would make for a sturdy climb. My husband, on the other hand, dared to tend to the activity of his follicles when restrictions permitted. Unfortunately, this created the need for safe distancing at home as well. Kisses resembled sideswipes of the jawline, a faint smear of L’Oreal’s Blushing Berry the only evidence of our encounter (provided I even bothered to apply makeup that day).
“Are haircuts really necessary?” I asked him each time he headed out to his appointment. “Are they essential? I’m thinking not.”
Much like me, my mother, who lives some thirty miles away on the Reserve, was holed up in her bubble, snug as a winter’s waistband. An elder of slight construction and a diabetic to boot, she wasn’t taking any chances with socializing. She was masking up, sanitizing, avoiding crowds, and abandoning her shoes on the doorstep upon her return home from essential excursions. On the rare occasion I delivered something to her or stopped by the house to help with a technical issue, we kept our distance, yelled at each other through our three-ply masks, and when I exited the residence, I’m certain I heard the hiss of a Lysol can in my wake. We blew kisses from afar and though pre-virus I would normally hug my mom, instead I hugged myself on these visits and mentally teleported the action to her. We were satisfied with that for now.
But that was us.
It was on a recent trip to the Reserve that my bubble was finally burst. It occurred two days post snowstorm, when I picked up my huggy sister to drive her to a medical appointment at the health clinic. A long-term cancer survivor, she’s tough as jerky and what’d you classify as a fighter, but that doesn’t make her any less of a people person. She had sequestered herself securely throughout the year, not by choice, mind you, but mainly because her immune system had been wracked by past chemotherapy. A novel virus was the last thing she needed, and she’d done a good job of avoiding it (knock on wood, as Mom would say).
Though in her youth my sibling had been delayed in physical development, as an adult, you wouldn’t know this about her. She’s fully bloomed now, her legs long, her trunk robust. True, cancer was a setback, but she emerged from the disease with a lush head of hair and the wisdom of one who’s tread the abyss, a trait which might jade others—but not my sister. Years have kissed her delicate face, but her smile is wide and her eyes bright, the combination of which emanates a childlike affection very few of us possess. It is this affection she is compelled to express. She is drawn to hug, to pat, to touch, her fingers like those of a seven-year-old pianist, slim, lithe tendrils, the only physical part of her which has not kept time. She is a perplexing blend of woman and child with a need to be nurtured through contact with others. Thankfully, on this particular day, she was respecting my rather stringent boundaries, keeping to her space in the rear passenger seat of my Subaru.
“We’re stopping by Mom’s, right?” she asked as we headed out of town, her voice eager. “I wonder if she’ll let us in.” We both laughed. Sometimes humor is our only defense.
The medical appointment was brief, and afterward we drove the few miles to Mom’s house. It was the week of my birthday, and she’d asked me to stop by to pick up my gift. With masks secured and hands sanitized, we climbed the porch steps. Mom was waiting at the door. She waved us inside. She’d had both her vaccinations by this time, and though she still wore her mask, was feeling a bit saucy. The three of us stood in the narrow hall, pressed between the washer and dryer on one side and a boot bench on the other.
“Here,” Mom said, presenting me with a large gift bag. “Open your present.”
“Right now?” I was surprised she was willing to remain in close contact with us for that length of time.
“Yeah! Go ’head!” It had been a year since she’d been able to watch any of us open a gift.
I reached into the bag and pulled out a card and three little bundles wrapped in white tissue paper: two sets of sleeveless, floral pajamas ideal for the post-menopausal woman and a pair of purple scuffs. Amethyst is my birthstone, and Mom often buys me things in hues of purple. “Mm,” I said, smiling. “So pretty! These’ll work perfect. Thank you!”
The gifts opened and pleasantries exchanged, our short visit drew to a close.
“I’m glad I got to see you,” my sister said to Mom. “I miss you.”
“I miss you too, honey,” Mom said, a nib of sadness there. Regret in a lower key.
My sister’s gaze tendered, her eyes hazed. Time lulled as a clock’s tick faded. The air grew thick, alerting me. Something was coming. Something was about to happen.
And then it did.
I watched as my sister’s arm reached out across the expanse. A hand in need. Gloveless. It emerged from her bubble, slipped through mine, eased into Mom’s. The tips of her fingers brushed the skin of Mom’s wrist, the back of her hand, her knuckles. A forbidden gesture; perhaps the first touch in over a year. “Mommy,” she whispered in her woman-child way.
I dangled there on emotion, aware of the significance of the moment—not just of the physical exchange itself, but of the struggle which had propelled it. The year-long isolation. The deprivation. I had witnessed an innate craving for affection, for an intimate connection with another human being. It was all spoken in a single, gentle sweep of warm skin: the toll this pandemic has wrought on something so human as touch. I had all but forgotten.
One’s bubble may be a comfort, but another’s may be a curse.
Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe and French Canadian/Cornish descent. She is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community on the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. Her work has appeared online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book. Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.