Bubble Trouble

Written by T. Marie Bertineau

Indigenous author of the memoir THE MASON HOUSE (Lanternfish Press), a 2021 Michigan Notable Book.

March 8, 2021

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.

Photo by Pixaby on Pexels

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.

Photo by Pixaby on Pexels

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.

Photo by Natalie Carolyn Photography

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.

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  1. Liz H

    Wow! As an introvert, the year-long pandemic of no touch is just, just beginning to wear on me, but I get how the touchy-feely folks have really suffered. My cat has gotten thoroughly spoiled by all the extra cuddling.
    We are in strange, alien times, so much so that the simple acts we took for granted strike like a lightning bolt. Very powerfully written, here.

  2. T. Marie Bertineau

    Thank you so much, Liz. Your words mean a lot. Let’s hope we’re on the other side of this once and for all.

  3. Jules

    My bubble was not as restrictive as yours. But it was a long time before I saw much less hugged my grandchildren. I’ve got a bubble of people I see… regularly, but we don’t touch.

    I do however hug my hubby. We are a team. And work together. While he may be eligible for the vaccine soon… I am too healthy and on the young side of the cut off date. So I will still have to be very careful as restriction for the public ease.

    I am a hugger… If I could not hug my husband – I am not sure what I would do. I have no pets. I think though it will be a long time before I hug other relatives other than my grands. And as for strangers, handshakes will remain head nods. I think the rush to get back to what was may be a mistake. We need to still be as diligent as we can be until the declaration can be made that the world is safe. And I’m sad to think that may not be for several years yet.

    Stay safe and sane, Jules

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      You, too, Jules! Thanks for your input!

  4. Becky Ross Michael

    Absolutely lovely and so clearly expresses what we have all faced in one form or another. Beautiful story.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Thank you, Becky, for your kind words. I do agree, there is a wide spectrum of experiences related to this past year.

  5. Ann Edall-Robson

    I nod my head in acknowledgement and agreement to the words you share with us. A different set of priorities have entered all of our lives. I too don’t mind being alone and I find it has not been a heavy lift to follow the “rules” because I am still able to see those I love.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      It’s definitely been a strange time and one in which we’ve learned a great deal about ourselves as human beings.

  6. kathy70

    Wow. This is so true and amazingly moving. You have totally captured this past year.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Thank you for your feedback, Kathy. Hard to believe it’s been a year.

  7. Colleen M. Chesebro

    As an introvert, I totally empathize with your situation. The pandemic has left us all feeling alone in ways we never imagined. My husband and I chucked at first, because we’re used to it just being us… but after a year, I missed being able to go out to stores and restaurants-safely! This story deeply touched me. What an amazing family bond you have. <3

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Hello, Colleen! Thank you for reading Bubble Trouble, and for your kind thoughts. I do miss stores and restaurants too. Especially restaurants. We have a local family-owned restaurant that serves an incredible prime rib dinner on Saturday evenings. We’ve tried it as takeout a few times, but it doesn’t compare to getting it served right there on a plate. It’s coming though. Hopefully in the summer we’ll be able to have a sit-down meal without fear of our table neighbors.

      • Colleen M. Chesebro

        I agree! Once the vaccinations are available we will all be better off! Hugs to you, my friend. ??

  8. Anne Goodwin's next novel is out May 28

    Welcome, Marie, I enjoyed your first column. Hugging etiquette was already complicated before the pandemic, for those of us who grew up in less touchy times and in a less touchy place. But we do need some touch and I really feel for those without it at any time.

    Do you do the elbow bump in the US? I cringe every time I see our PM force himself on strangers on photo calls. It was useful a year ago when we were just beginning to adjust — or not — but totally pointless now. Why not bow?

    I had my first dose of vaccine last Friday *does happy dance*. One bit of this puzzle the UK seems to be getting right (so far).

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Hello Anne! Yes! We do incorporate the elbow bump here in the US. I do that with my family sometimes. I haven’t seen this practice of your PM, so now I have to Google that! Congratulations on your vaccination! We just received word yesterday that if a group is fully vaccinated, they may socialize indoors freely with no mask or social distancing! It’s the first time since this all began that those words have been spoken, and I must admit it was liberating! I am most happy for my mother and her husband as they are both seniors and hated to see another birthday or holiday pass by without being able to share it with their family.

  9. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    1st: How cool to have you as a columnist at Carrot Ranch. Welcome!
    2nd: This was so well written. Dang!
    3rd: Yeah. The huggers took it hard, we introverts and those who relish alone time had/have it easier, but still…
    We all approach the situation as we will, as we can and hopefully as we should for everyone’s sake, but I think it’s toughest when you share a home/bubble with someone who does it differently than yourself, as you describe. I think the men in general had a harder time changing and adapting, and that’s a tough situation when couples Covid differently.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Thank you so much for the kind welcome and the especially kind words! Yes, there were a couple of things my spouse would not forgo, haircuts being one of them, but for the most part he was cautious. I am grateful for that. I feel for those couples with opposing views who share a living space. What a challenge it must be at this time.

  10. Charli Mills

    So good to read your first column at Carrot Ranch, T. Welcome! Funny, we get to meet up here and not at KC Bonkers. I think a year of bubbling has pushed me over the I/E spectrum and I’m feeling twitchy for touch. This puppy I have has been held and hugged and cuddled every day. I love how well you write people and happy to have you writing from the Keweenaw.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Thank you for the welcome! Soon we will be able to meet up. I have faith! And as for the pet cuddles, I’m seriously considering getting one of those baby snugglies to carry my cat around in : D

      • Charli Mills

        Your cat will be so happy!

  11. Hugh W. Roberts

    If anything, it’s the hugs I miss most of all. I can’t wait until hugs are back and we can not only smile, at each other but hug each other too.
    This was a lovely read about family life during the pandemic, T. Welcome to the group of columnist here at the Ranch.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Thank you, Hugh! Glad you enjoyed it and glad to be here!

  12. suespitulnik

    Welcome to the Ranch T.. Thank you for a superb description of both sides of the no touching “rule.” I could feel and see each reaction.
    I am a hugger and have certainly missed that, but now I find myself not wanting to fill my schedule as it used to be. I fear the psychological harm this distancing has done to adults and especially children, the results we won’t know for a few years.
    My husband and I have been eating out, shopping, and learning a lot about how to use Zoom, because we refused to live in fear. All is well and we have had our first shot.
    May we all be able to meet in person very soon.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      I do think it’s on the horizon, Sue! Let’s keep heading in that direction! Thank you so much for your feedback : )

  13. Marsha

    What a beautiful story, Marie. I go though bouts of introvertism, but I haven’t been nailed behind closed doors. I bundle up in my mask, but I go out even to eat on rare occasions. I’ve had all my shots (like a good doggie). Eventually this will come to an end. It’s been easier because of blogging, that is for sure. Thanks again for sharing your personal and well-told story. I hope your family continues to stay safe. 🙂

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Hello Marsha! I appreciate you reading the post, and your feedback. I have in my mind that we will be out of the woods by mid to late summer. I hope I’m not being overly optimistic . . .

      • Marsha

        You are probably right. When this first started, I thought it would last 2 weeks! LOL

  14. Mr. Ohh's Sideways View

    I love the post But as a dyed in the wool extrovert your bubble would kill me. I am following all the rules I must but I also look forward to what I can do. I’m glad you have what you want

    Keep laughing, It don’t cost nothing

  15. Norah

    I really enjoyed your post, T. It’s lovely to have you join the team at the Ranch. As another introvert, I didn’t mind the lockdown either and was quite happy to have no demands on my time for a while. I understand how difficult it is when someone you live with doesn’t take the precautions quite as seriously as you do, as that is my situation as well. While Hub may do better than most, he doesn’t do it quite to the extent that I do. However, here in Australia, we have been fortunate to have isolated ourselves from the start and have had ony brief lockdowns and are almost back to what would have been normal. I’m not sure that we’ll ever get back to that and I won’t mind. I don’t mind hugging friends so much but was never really into the peck on the cheek that seemed to be compulsory in many situations. I’ll be happy to see that dispensed with. Shaking hands I could probably do without as well, but would be looking for sanitiser straight away if it occurred. I was carrying it (sanitiser) with me long before covid erupted and it is still readily available in all public places. I was never keen on the handles of shopping trolleys or the rails on stairs or escalators so am happy that wipes are now available for trolleys and I avoid (as I always did) touching the rails. I realise that this makes me sound obsessive. I’m not. Just careful. Just wanted to let you know. You are not alone. Thank you for your touching (pun intended) post.

  16. Sherri Matthews

    Beautiful and moving post, Theresa. Apologies for my way too late reply, I’ve been absent from blogging for a while. You write and capture so beautifully.That pull for your sister to touch your mother…my heart was in my mouth. The worst part for me is the enforced and protracted (15 months) separation from my adult sons. I am crumbling inside over the missing of them and not being able to hug them. We are in constant online contact…but it’s not the same. The part of me that sings when I’m with them has been stolen. So now to get it back. I am moved to get to know you and your family a little more, thank you, Theresa. Sherri


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