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Anxiety in the Deep End

Drowning my worries of germy kitchen surfaces and ethical COVID-19 concerns in the blissful oasis of a vacation rental pool

Alanna Bennett is a screenwriter and culture writer living in Los Angeles, and vacationing for the first time in Palm Springs.

I stood, face dripping over the fake-marble countertop, staring at a black washcloth and wondering if it might kill me. It looked clean. Freshly washed and crisply folded, the cloth had surely been placed in the guest bath by the cleaning crew our AirBnB host assured us had scoured the property the morning of our arrival.

We’d tried to be diligent. We’d gotten tested, bought extra antibacterial cleaning supplies, and vowed not to enter any grocery stores in the desert resort town where we’d be spending the weekend, lest we drag in germs from home base. We’d promised ourselves we’d wipe down the entire place before leaving, just to be sure we weren’t poisoning this community. Upon arrival we did the same to protect ourselves, taking cleaning wipes to door handles in case any remnants of COVID-19 clung to the brass.

Absolutely nothing is simple in 2020. Merely existing, which already requires Herculean patience, now carries added layers of coordination and fear. The boogeyman’s in town, and he’s invisible and very mean. It has been a constant bludgeon to the psyche. We are in the middle of a prolonged assault at the hands of not only the United States government, but also the very air around us. Grief has permeated every pore of daily life. The concept of a functioning society feels like a myth.

With the exception of protesting to defund the police, my boyfriend and I have largely been trapped inside since early springtime. We’d both been wrung out, two Black people frayed by living at the cross section of the pandemic and the race war. There was no escaping that. Around July, though, I started to notice more friends and acquaintances taking trips out of town. These were the people who, like us, had been diligent about COVID-19. But as the new “normal” sunk in, the psychic toll continued to rise. The cabin fever became too much. Suddenly, everyone I knew just had to be elsewhere, if only for a moment. All over the country, those with the means to do so temporarily fled to Joshua Tree, Crater Lake, Big Bear, Woodstock. Each missive from these trips felt like an acknowledgement of unspoken compromise: Yes, we will avoid most of our friends and family; yes, we will forgo crowds except in the name of justice; but also, we are so tired, please just let us have this and trust that we were safe.

Large windmills on the route to Palm Springs
The drive between LA and Palm Springs was quick enough we wouldn’t have to stop.

It’s a tremendous privilege to travel during a time like this: Travel is always a luxury, but the gap between those who can afford to move around for pleasure and those who can’t is wider than ever. Many people are immunocompromised, live with someone who is, are elderly, or have older loved ones who’d be more vulnerable to the virus. The decision to travel at all now hinges on the crucial question of whether you can do so without putting somebody else’s life at risk.

But pulling off a trip safely felt like it could open up a whole new era of possibilities. As if it could show us what constructing a life under COVID might look like next. It could give us something to cling to as the world waits out an effective vaccine. Though we are neither doctors nor epidemiologists, three factors stood out as my boyfriend and I started discussing whether we could vacation responsibly: testing, cleanliness, and isolation. We established self-made guidelines — don’t go far; get tested beforehand; clean like crazy; and stay physically far away from as many local businesses and other humans as possible — and set about looking for our own personal bubble.

We set our sights on Palm Springs. A common weekend getaway from Los Angeles, the drive wasn’t long enough that we’d need to use a public bathroom along the way. In order to feel the rewards of being away from home, our main goal would be a good pool. The pandemic complicated that search immediately. We found plenty of places with access to pools and other amenities — the problem was, most of them were too public. Personal space was not something we could compromise on.

After weeks of looking around, we found a house that worked for the slice of summer we were attempting to capture: a mini-universe that would allow us to ditch the drain of our normal routine, to spontaneously abscond to a place that is simply not where we usually are. When that location is equipped with trappings you don’t have at home? Incredible. The diamond-shaped saltwater pool was what clinched it. At this private vacation home, I wanted to outrun my anxieties, escape the claustrophobic drudgery of my daily life. I wanted, above all else, to be elsewhere. But I’d forgotten to worry about the washcloths and towels.

Spontaneity is not a required element of giving in to vacation-brain, but it certainly helps. Who doesn’t want to step away from their lives at a moment’s notice? It’s a kind of relaxation all its own — get frustrated on a Monday, do some aggro Airbnb-browsing on a Tuesday, and cruise out of town by Friday. The pandemic complicates this. An overwhelming influx of others were trying to escape their bubbles, snatching the best properties out from under us. With markedly higher stakes, a last-minute zip out of town requires a whole new level of organization and consideration.

Before booking, I double-, triple-, and quadruple-checked multiple grocery-delivery services to make sure we’d have access to food without having to enter a grocery store. We planned on grilling, and then living off the leftovers and select takeout. No dashing out to neighborhood bars or dawdling at tourist-trap restaurants. A mix of excitement and anxiety hit the moment my finger left the “reserve” button. There was the thrill — a place I’d never been, with a person I’d never been anywhere with. The release, of being somewhere other than my home for more than a few hours at a time. But also the fear — would a vacation house be the thing that finally took me down?

a large dinosaur viewed from the road.
The views from the car were as strange as our new reality.
The writer stands in front of her car.
I’d never been to this part of the desert before.

Boyfriend and I got dual testing appointments on the Monday before our departure. Several friends had recommended the drive-through testing center that’s taken over Dodger Stadium. We rolled up to several lanes of traffic and an hour wait. Inching toward the testing site, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s image loomed on jumbotron screens telling us that Los Angeles would fight the COVID-19 crisis together. The video played on a loop, with audio you could access through your car radio or by downloading a sponsored app. Garcetti was periodically replaced by instructions for the test in both Spanish and English. Eventually a long grabber pole extended from a makeshift trailer and handed us our test kits. Phlegm deposited, we tossed the materials into an electric-blue waste bin and went about our days. The results landed in our inboxes 24 hours later. Both negative, a small relief that momentarily curbed the hum of background anxiety I’d grown accustomed to.

The blue sky was sharp against blond hills as we arrived in Palm Springs on Friday morning. We’d left Los Angeles shortly after daybreak to give ourselves plenty of time to explore the area’s various tourist instatraps by our lonesome before I had to work at 10 a.m. Given temps in the 100s and our desire to avoid other people, we wanted to give ourselves the chance to cruise through downtown before locking ourselves away in our little corner of the desert. The main stretches of town were deserted. Shopping centers and restaurants stood empty, the occasional jumbotron telling people to wash their hands and keep a safe distance. The restaurants bore banners, reminding passersby, “WE DELIVER.” I read them as “WE STILL EXIST.”

a swimming pool.
A private pool was our top priority.

Our Airbnb was a sweet ranch home in a deeply suburban subdivision. The decor was of the “LIVE, LAUGH, LOVE” variety — either a painfully ironic mission statement or a galvanizing display of perseverance, depending on your perspective. One wall of the dining room bore a sign in script that simply said, “GATHER.” We did not. Instead, I wiped down the dining table and settled into a day on Zoom while my boyfriend explored the house and settled in for a nap. Blissfully, the bed was as massive as a hotel’s.

Starving from the trip — we couldn’t duck into stores on the way for a quick snack — we settled on Mexican for lunch from a local place called El Huarache. We got two orders of asada fries topped with cheese, guacamole, and sour cream, and split an order of asada hard tacos. I threw in some horchata for good measure, and we wiped down every inch of the packaging before diving in. When our grocery order came in from Shipt an hour later, my boyfriend wiped that down too, while I tried to focus on writer’s room Zoom pitches instead of my ambient worry that the wooden table I was sitting at might secretly be a corona carrier. Overall, Friday didn’t start out so different from a typical day at home in the pandemic. It was a weekday, only elsewhere.

The elsewhere was what mattered. I couldn’t leave my psyche behind in Los Angeles, but a change of scenery can still pack a punch. Maybe that change is even more powerful now. At home I don’t have a saltwater pool that reminds me of the existence of the word “aquamarine,” or a sectional couch that in better times could easily fit 10 people, or pillows quite this fluffy. At home I don’t have a yard, or a pool, or even in-unit laundry. At home I am simply at home. This was at home, but different. At home but better — at least for the weekend. In a stroke of luck, that Friday ended with a work Zoom happy hour, so at 5 p.m. sharp my boyfriend handed me a perfect tequila sunrise crafted with Casamigos he’d brought from Los Angeles. By the time it wrapped we were both verifiably tipsy, and we christened the weekend with a jump in the pool. The saltwater was a balm against the heat of the night, and it finally hit — we were away.

Sadly, you cannot live in a swimming pool. The escape provided by a body of water and a body full of tequila is only temporary. Once we dried off, the anxiety was waiting for us.

There are certain things you give in to trusting when you travel. This is particularly true when you are traveling right into somebody else’s home. You do your best to trust that the sheets are clean — that the towels won’t poison you with a deadly virus — that the cleaning crew did their absolute best. I wiped down door knobs, the action feeling a bit like the crossroads so many people I know find themselves at with COVID-19 right now: Committed to not getting other people killed, but also determined to find the small compromises they can get away with. Seeing a friend here, taking a trip there. The small releases of the pressure valve. As I grabbed that black towel to dry my face with a knot in my stomach, I told myself that I had to unclench. There’s no point in a trip like this if you don’t let go of some daily worries. Caution is crucial, yes. So is picking your battles — and not instinctively giving into what the Atlantic dubbed “hygiene theater,” especially when the CDC insists that although it’s possible to contract COVID-19 via surfaces or objects, the “primary and most important method” of transmission is person-to-person. But tell my brain that after four months of wiping down every item that enters my home.

It felt almost hilariously pedestrian to find ourselves intimidated by the house’s propane grill. How to use the thing was a mental rollercoaster that had nothing to do with a deadly virus, or being Black people who’d passed multiple pro-police, pro-Trump sentiments on the way into a strange suburb. We just didn’t want to accidentally blow up ourselves or the beautiful house we were staying in. You know you’re in deep with anxiety when the question of whether you’re going to cause a literal explosion still counts as vacation escapism. At least for a moment, we weren’t thinking about the dystopian tragedy of the world around us.

a plate of bacon, eggs, and sausages.
We opted to have local groceries delivered rather than bring our own from home.

I was sous chef as my boyfriend moved our dinner plans to the kitchen. We’d chopped onions, potatoes, peppers, ears of corn, broccoli, asparagus, and Italian sausage for the grill. Now, we threw most of the vegetables into a wok and sauteed them in olive oil and seasonings. We threw the corn and the greens — the broccoli, the asparagus — onto sheet pans in the oven. We tossed shrimp with Old Bay we’d brought from Los Angeles and tossed those into frying pans along with the sausage. For the potatoes we raided the spice cabinets, sprinkling masala along with salt, pepper, and garlic. Simple as it seems, it wasn’t the kind of meal I usually have the attention span to create for myself in my daily quarantine life. It was as if purposely misplacing ourselves gave us permission to sink our brains into an activity we’re usually too drained to do together, inside a beautiful kitchen equipped with all the accoutrements I have been too lazy to buy. We ate in front of a Katherine Heigl movie from 2009 — and fell asleep in front of it not long after. We’d do the same thing at home. But that’s vacation for you — it still felt like release.

The next morning, we chopped the leftover peppers and onions and threw them into a scramble accentuated with bacon and sausage. We ate in front of Avatar: The Last Airbender while talking about the myriad chaoses of this era. I could feel the anxiety bubbling back up within me. The trip was a planned escape from that, but there’s no running away from your own brain.

We tried our best, though. After breakfast we slathered ourselves tip to tit to toe in sunscreen and jumped in the pool.

We spent at least five hours in that pool on Saturday. The temperature hit 105, but the gentle saltwater inoculated us. I reacquainted myself with what it means to give yourself over to the water, to just float with your face barely above the surface, trusting that it won’t consume you. We both revisited the flips and handstands we used to do in the summer waters as children. At times, we just threw ourselves over spaghetti-shaped pool noodles and let those carry us wherever they pleased. There was an ebullience, a lightness, and a sense of respite.

The end of the day brought the kind of exhaustion I’d missed: not brought on by the news cycle or a steep decline in fresh air and vitamin D. I’d been using muscles I hadn’t used in years. My energy had been provided and then leached away by the sun, the water, the heat. After showering, we collapsed, freshly moisturized, onto the massive couch, and ordered two big cauliflower-crust pizzas from Blaze.

An outdoor dining area beneath a pergola.
We spent as much time as possible outside.

The next morning we took one last dip, one more momentary escape. Then we got to cleaning — again. Basic etiquette demands clean-up at the end of any weekend trip, even in the best of days. I wouldn’t strew detritus around a hotel room for housekeeping. Here’s hoping that the better days saw you following whatever instructions your Airbnb host left — stripping the beds, most likely.

We followed the instructions, taking the trash out and piling the used towels into the designated hamper. Then we set about our own tasks. We wiped down every surface we’d touched — nightstands, kitchen counters, cabinets, stove knobs. Remotes, light switches. Doorknobs came last, just before our final sweep-through to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything.

Then we were back in the car, hurtling homeward. Hoping against hope that we’d made the right moves. Not knowing what the next weeks and months may hold for this still-new COVID world: whether travel home for Christmas to see our families will be possible or responsible; whether that starched-black washcloth would come back around to bite us in three to five days.

I wish I could say that we made another big, nutritious meal when we landed at my place, but we snapped right back to our usual exhaustion. We unearthed some leftover empanadas from my fridge and went to town on them. We ordered more takeout two hours later, and wiped down every inch of the packaging. Life slipped back into the claustrophobic resilience of our COVID routines. We slipped back into our own apartments — carting along those same tired brains, slightly more sun-kissed.

Weeks later, I’m still thinking about that pool. The cool, gentle way it held me, suspended me in space. Disappearing under its waters felt like slipping out of my current world and into another, even if just for a moment. The gift of awayness. It’s common, I think, to crave something slightly sideways from your daily state of being. Now my thumb instinctively clicks that small square on my phone. It swipes and swipes, exploring options. It daydreams. It reaches for what might be next, even as our own world sits just out of reach.


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