Six months into this gnawing, exhausting calamity that is our Current Situation, I decided it’d be okay if my daughter masked up and accompanied me on a quick visit to the grocery section at the back of Target.
It was the type of errand that, in the grand pastoral normalcy of 2019 or even January, would have bored a 9-year-old. Instead, as the automatic doors spread open and that air-conditioned, commercialized Target fragrance swept over us, you’d have thought the girl was beholding the Magic Kingdom for the first time. “The smell!” she blurted, arms raised, pink mask puffing with her breath. “Like popcorn! Oh, I missed it!” Her talking ceased, however, when we rounded a corner. A lighted makeup display on an endcap and aisles of colorful options—so much Aveeno, L’Oréal, Covergirl!—rendered the girl speechless, genuinely bedazzled. Not because she fancied those products, or being fancy in general. Because she hadn’t seen anything like a big twinkling lipstick display in half a year.
That’s 2020 for you, I thought, from the optimist’s perspective. The year big-box banality became amazing.
I remember thinking on Valentine’s Day, which was definitely eight years ago, how everything was going all right. A story project had just afforded my family a long weekend on enchanting Jekyll Island. I was due for a raise in a few months, my car was nearly paid off, my two daughters were excelling in school, my wife was settling into a new role with Atlanta Public Schools, and there was no reason to believe 2020 wouldn’t be a springboard toward another year of generally pleasurable American existence. As part of that assignment on Jekyll Island, I spent hours speaking with retirees who flock there in RVs to enjoy temperate coastal winters beneath the Spanish moss. They were well-to-do, worldly people from across North America—the type of folks who stay abreast of current news. But not a word was spoken about an impending viral threat. They were more concerned about late-winter island gnats.
Ten months later, on a chilly afternoon in December, I found myself enjoying that same sense of adventure, purpose, and progress while driving to an ATM in Decatur. It had come to the point that depositing a check felt like escapism, an honorable duty in the real world. That’s what happens when you’ve had no justifiable reason to leave the house for three days. Or when a career trajectory you’re proud of has devolved into a monthly scurry to cobble together the mortgage payment. When frustration infiltrates optimism. When necessary restrictions tighten like hot wool into a sort of homebound claustrophobia. When strangers, for another dismal month, are vessels of potential danger, another set of tired eyes over cloth in the dairy section. When the fear still won’t let go.
If there’s a bright side to god-awful 2020, maybe it’s the premium this long year has placed on so many small, good moments. The tiny victories. Things that were always there but overlooked; gold veins in the previously mundane.
I think of the first blazing days in May when we’d inflate a cheap little pool on the back patio and watch the girls cackle and splash for hours. I think of loading into the car for random summertime wanderings outside the city and finding, as one example, High Falls State Park, maybe a half hour south of the airport; down there, the Towaliga River tumbles with enormous power across mossy stone shelves toward the brick ruins of a hydroelectric plant as kids along the shore chase lizards into the hills. Another time, while hiking around Lake Nottely, a gorgeous mountain-girded reservoir near Blairsville, we stumbled on a rope swing and spent hours plunging into its cool blue waters—in street clothes. Bundled up in November, we discovered the craggy peak of Bell Mountain with sparkling Lake Chatuge beneath, which we immediately declared our favorite view in Georgia. On Sunday afternoons, back in the city, we’ve made a ritual of pedaling to Dairy Queen, where that creamy soft serve, in the estimation of my daughters, provided sugary, Red Bull-like boosts for biking back home.
For a while in the summer we got pretty much addicted to HGTV’s Home Town, though my hypercritical 6-year-old was consistently aggravated by those amicable Mississippians’ kitchen selections. (“Wait, green cabinets, with gold handles? In there? Green? No!”) And I’ll never forget, back in April, the girls’ enraptured glee while sitting and watching, of all things, the NFL Draft. I’m not sure they fully understood the draft process or its implications, only that some live and important event was happening. Plus, all those elated, whooping, crying families on TV were proof that—somewhere out in the bleak world, beyond the sanitized sanctity of our house, in The Plains, Ohio and Grand Prairie, Texas; in Opelousas, Louisiana and Sugar Hill, Georgia—dreams were still capable of coming true.
The pessimist’s perspective goes that normalcy is extinct, and that’s fine. I think we’re due for an upgrade on the old normal.
Just beyond the horizon, I like to think, is the new unprecedented—an era of insuppressible happiness, relief, and gratitude. A time in which we can congregate to burn our protective masks around backyard firepits, toasting the arrival of easier days. When debit card readers don’t make your fingers feel radioactive. When even a really shitty band sounds great because they are playing live, to a gathering of people. When the magic of lipstick displays is fully appreciated.
This year, at least to me, Target smells less like popcorn than plastic cotton candy with back notes of buyer’s remorse. But it’s the scent of having gone somewhere, however unremarkable and mass-produced, and taken part in society, if only for five fleeting minutes. And for what it’s worth, I think that smells delicious.