Carmen Maria Machado is the author of the bestselling memoir In the Dream House and the short-story collection Her Body and Other Parties, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. She’s writing from the Philadelphia home in which she’s sheltered and convalesced since March.
Two weeks before the city of Philadelphia went into lockdown, I was in an airport in Ixtapa, Mexico, staring at a travel advisory about the coronavirus. It was early enough that the sign was asking if you’d recently traveled to China or Italy; early enough that it was small and had come off a laser printer and was taped near our airline’s check-in desk.
We’d spent the week at a resort on the Pacific coast with a fellow writer couple, taking our first real vacation — our first travel experience without a restrictive budget or attached work or other obligations — in our adult lives. There’d been a break in my book tour schedule, and I took it. I wanted to read, eat seafood, see the ocean, and swim in an infinity pool, and I’d done all of those things. I even had the patchy mix of a tan and sunburn to prove it.
I’m a speculative writer and a hypochondriac. I’ve written stories about pandemics; imagined their slow and terrible creep, the way they stifle and challenge. Still, back in February we had not been to China or Italy. We flew home. We hugged our friends goodbye and declared the vacation a success. Let’s do it again next year, we said. When we unpacked, everything in our suitcases smelled like vacation: sunblock, salt, chlorine. I inhaled every piece of clothing before I put it in the hamper.
You know what happened next, of course. Coronavirus crested and broke on our shores and we, Americans — leaderless, stubborn, foolhardy to the end — were uniquely unsuited for thriving or survival. The welcome pause in my travel schedule turned into a monthslong quarantine that has not yet abated. My wife, Val, began to work from home. I did thousand-piece puzzles and re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy and read books and stared into space. I talked on the phone with my girlfriend, Marne, who was quarantined with their aunt and uncle on Long Island; I read out loud to them from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a few pages at a time. Our ancient beagle mix, Rosie, went from overjoyed with our presence to vaguely neurotic, shadowing us everywhere we went, unable to be left alone for even a moment. Still, we were luckier than most. We were safe, able to do our work from home. Plus, our house had enough space that we didn’t want to murder each other.
A couple of months into lockdown, I was approved for some long-awaited ankle surgery. A few weeks later, a post-op complication with the incision felled me. My doctor put me on hardcore antibiotics that kept me awake for days and made me manic. (“Maybe I can sleep like this,” I’d apparently insisted to my horrified wife, twisted into a bizarre pretzel on our living room couch; I have no memory of the incident.) I was also prescribed a wound-vac, which turned out to be a medical fetish object that relieved pressure on the incision through a gentle sucking organ; the experience is not entirely unlike being seduced by an octopus. I made jokes about “fresh, organic Carmen juice” and watched liquid move through the tube and listened to the creature’s gentle burbling when everything was quiet. A few weeks later, I was given a skin graft that had been grown in a pig’s bladder. It was thin as tissue paper. My doctor told me I still couldn’t bear weight on that foot, and I had to continue to use my mobility scooter to get around. I left the appointment in a terrible mood, blasting System of a Down at full volume.
As my infirmity stretched on and on, my girlfriend decided to temporarily move in with me and my wife to help out. “I guess it’s like Big Love over there?” their aunt asked. It was certainly specific enough of a scenario to be prestige TV: polyamorous writer dykes and their internet-famous geriatric hound riding out a pandemic and a climate-change-worsened heat wave in a rambling Philadelphia Victorian.
This was how Eater found me: Did I want to go camping and write about it? asked a very nice editor. Did I want to do a road trip? Maybe stay at a cabin in the woods? It’s the new American vacation; socially isolated, iconic.
We were tempted. We spent time scrolling through listings for beach houses and lake houses, but the necessary elements — within a reasonable driving distance, dog-friendly, scooter-accessible, on a body of water, and affordable — seemed impossible.
It was Marne’s idea to pitch a staycation. It’s a hateable word, as overused and near-meaningless as “self-care.” And it has a distinctly American flair to it: our inability to take actual breaks, the way we accept lack of real vacation the way, say, Europeans never would. And how does one create a true staycation? That is, a vacation from home that feels genuinely relaxing and separate from the everyday grind, not just an excuse to binge seven seasons of The Great British Bake Off?
Val and I had our recent perfect vacation as a kind of platonic ideal. I loved the understated luxury of the experience: I swanned around in caftans and bathing suits, swam, ate well and always al fresco, read a ton, was good about staying off the internet, and was generally oblivious to the apocalypse inching towards us (that is, mostly stayed off Twitter and turned off New York Times news alerts). This both translated easily to a staycation — outfits, reading, and staying off the internet were well within my grasp — and not at all. We don’t have a pool. We’d have to cook ourselves. The outdoors are full of mosquitos, and getting to them required me to climb down flights of stairs with one functioning leg.
Val, on the other hand, had primarily enjoyed our trip’s lack of responsibilities: no cooking meals, no walking the dog. Her staycation version of this was doing everything she wanted — puttering around in the backyard, harvesting produce from her plot in the community garden — and nothing she didn’t. Marne had different ideas: They wanted to make something. Their idea of a vacation was buying a new cookbook and trying a bunch of different recipes. Everyone agreed on one thing: We wanted to be able to swim, or something akin to it.
I ordered a self-inflating adult-sized kiddie pool from the internet. An ice cream maker, too, and David Lebowitz’s The Perfect Scoop (recommended by Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen) and a portable projector to have a drive-in movie experience in the backyard. (My idea; as a child, drive-ins were one of my favorite parts of summer.) We agreed on a set of principles: to stay off social media as much as possible; eat frequently and well; do our own personal activities that we enjoyed and come together when we wanted to. We would share the cooking, make one night a takeout night, and have brunch on Sunday.
And we decided to pull a single tarot card each morning, as a way of bringing ourselves into the day. Val is a long-time tarot enthusiast; I am generally suspicious of woo-woo but find tarot to be a pleasing intersection of art and the language of the subconscious. And of us love the act of ritual. So yes, we said. Tarot it would be.
On day one, Marne pulled the death card, of course. The deck is the Carnival at the End of the World, and the death card is a scythe-bearing skeleton on a dead horse upon a hill of decapitated heads. Marne barked with laughter and then, slightly freaked out, left the room to collect themselves. Val had to explain that, unlike in the movies, a death card was rarely bad. It was powerful but positive. It was about transitions, changes. Exactly the sort of card you’d expect to kick off a move from the harried hours of real life to a true break.
But we weren’t ready, not yet. The house was a mess, something I knew would impede me from enjoying vacation fully. We’d ordered a new bed frame a few weeks before that should have been assembled, but it was missing a necessary piece; said piece had only shown up the day before. So the bed needed assembling, too. Oh, and there was dog hair everywhere: lining the couch cushions, floating like tumbleweeds across the hardwood. I realized that this was the piece of vacation I missed the most: arriving in a new, clean space with your responsibilities wiped clean. Not having to fuss about details because someone else has fussed about them for you. But that sort of vacation has evaporated into the ether, so we agreed to just power through a final act of cleaning and organizing and assembling, and have our vacation start at happy hour.
And it did. At 5 p.m., I made us a batch of cocktails — bastardized Pimm’s cups, complete with cucumber, mint from Val’s garden, and dried orange slices. I put on Taylor Swift’s Folklore, which had dropped the day before. Then we made dinner: corn risotto, whose page in Cook’s Illustrated we’d dogeared and been salivating over for days; seared scallops; and fried artichokes. We got slightly tipsy and marveled at the recipe’s fussiness: pureeing corn cob milk with fresh kernels and then squeezing the liquid out of the resulting pulp. Val shucked, Marne made the rice. I hyper-focused on my task, pressing the mixture down with the back of a spoon, staring at the measuring cup. It was the first time in a month that we’d all cooked together, and the process felt light and almost labor-less. The jumbo scallops sizzled and browned and looked restaurant-elegant; the artichokes seared beautifully.
It was as fine a summer meal as I’d ever eaten. We sat at the dining room table with the windows open; replaced the fading sunset with the light from an overhead fixture. After the food was gone, we moved from subject to subject. Marne maintained that while the risotto was delicious, corn is best served on the cob. We meditated on the true meaning of the Death card we’d drawn. Was it about using up the week’s leftovers? Finishing assembling the bed? We moved on to the topic of ejaculation (comma, my ex-boyfriends, comma, their ex-girlfriends). After dinner, we watched two episodes of Steven Universe — aptly, the ones that introduce a polyamorous character, the Gem Flourite — and climbed into bed feeling very satisfied with ourselves.
Saturday morning, we sat in my office and drank coffee and drew the emperor. This deck’s version of the emperor is a eyeless gentleman elephant standing on a mountain of tusks. It is considered a sign of stability and material wealth. It made sense, then, that we remembered to make a batch of milk-chocolate-raspberry ice cream so that it would be ready in the evening. It made sense that a particularly beautiful cream-and-cocoa silk chiffon caftan that I’d ordered a month ago from Jibri arrived in the mail, and I put it on with nothing underneath. It made sense that we ate leftovers — practical! — and then made our way outside, where I read Jennifer Egan’s The Keep beneath a fringed umbrella and Val and Marne blew up the inflatable pool and paddled around, insisting I join them while I demurred. It made sense that we ordered out for dinner, and could not decide between New England-style lobster rolls and bright summer salads (corn, grilled peach, and scallion; watermelon and feta), from Philly summer pop-up Anchor Light, or Lebanese plates and dips (from Suraya: hummus and baba ghanoush and labneh and tabbouleh; charred runner beans and fried cauliflower in hot-mint yogurt and lamb kebabs and crispy batata harra), so we ordered both. We sat and ate and Val and Marne went back in the water and I finished reading as the light bled from the sky. We hardly noticed the strange smell that was developing in the backyard. We went inside and our ice cream was waiting.
When we woke up on Sunday, I opened the bedroom door (shut to preserve the air conditioning) to a smell like I’d never experienced before. It smelled like a moose had climbed three flights of stairs only to die in our hallway. The odor permeated every floor of the house.
I closed the door and went back to bed like a woman with the vapors. Val and Marne ventured to the backyard, where the tiniest tentacles of the smell had begun the night before. Flashlight in hand, Val rooted around under the crawlspace and discovered a decomposing squirrel. It felt like an omen, or maybe a metaphor, or maybe a giant fuck-you from a year that won’t let up. In bed, I began to call wildlife removal services, all of which were closed on Sundays, prohibitively expensive, or too far away. “This doesn’t happen at hotels,” I said, staring at the ceiling.
Val smeared vapor-rub under her nostrils like a coroner and crawled under the house to retrieve the squirrel. She bagged it and walked several blocks away to our old apartment building, where she disposed of it in the dumpster. She came back and filled every floor with shallow dishes of white vinegar and baking soda and coffee grounds. She showered. We drew a tarot card. An inverted eight of wands. A wreathed and naked woman upon a pangolin over a scattered pile of sticks, and a cosmic imperative to take a break. The smell faded.
We knew we needed to get into the mood for day three. Brunch, we agreed. I pulled together a bloody mary — homemade horseradish vodka, EPIC Pickles bloody mary mix from central Pennsylvania, pickled okra, cornichons, dilly beans, and a strip of bacon — and made a tomato salad with whipped feta. Marne made biscuits, and we ate until we were full. I took a long, hot nap in our sunroom and then went to the living room, where we watched Gourmet Makes videos from Bon Appétit. It was supposed to be outdoor movie night, but we couldn’t do it; we were exhausted. In bed, we watched Birds of Prey projected against the far wall. “I just want to watch women beating up some men,” Marne said, and I could not argue otherwise.
On Monday, we drew an eight of pentacles: an omen of plenty, represented by a baker and a trio of puffins and a tray of rolls for sharing. We prepped another batch of ice cream, this one my suggestion: roasted banana. While it churned, we took a moment to mourn our last day. Marne and Val were determined to get me into the pool. I hesitated — I couldn’t get my bad ankle wet — but eventually I slipped on my waterproof shower sock and crawled into the water with Marne, then Val, with Marne supporting me like a human chair.
I confess that I’d been skeptical of the pool. If lying in an adult-sized inflatable pool was as lovely as getting in an actual pool, everyone would do it, right? When I’d ordered it, I was reminded of my grandfather asking my 6-year-old self if I wanted to go in a “Cuban swimming pool” before dunking me into a large bucket of water.
And yet, it is astonishing what water can do. The setup was practically nothing: a cheap pool ordered from overseas, barely cool hose water, a postage-stamp-sized city backyard. But we were in our suits and slathered on sunscreen and it felt, for a few hours, like summer. Not the unique misery of 2020’s summer, but other summers with their normal excess and low stakes and abundance, their cheap flip-flops and pool afternoons and water ice and late sunsets.
We stayed there floating, laughing, talking, until the sun went. Dinner was Beyond Burgers — the best of the meatless proteins we’ve tried — with aged cheddar and caramelized onions and avocado and chipotle aioli on toasted buns. We polished them off and they were perfect; the sort of thing you wanted at the end of a summer day. Then we had a sundae bar: homemade hot fudge with bourbon, fried peanuts, homemade whipped cream, and large marshmallows toasted over the flame of our gas stove. This, all over the weekend’s two homemade ice creams; a perfectly decadent end.
Outside, it was dark. We flipped on the string lights and set up the projector and screen against the neighbor’s fence. Then, we watched Twister, a perfect summer drive-in-style film about human arrogance in the face of natural disaster. Oh, and the indescribable appeal of Helen Hunt. But mostly the human arrogance thing. Val slipped me popcorn; Marne sat near our feet. A few blocks away, a dead squirrel rotted in a dumpster. We enjoyed our pleasures even as we were trapped by a country that can’t get its act together. We ate and laughed and mourned our lost summer and laughed again. And what’s more American than that?