How it feels to live in fear of each other

Updated 7:13 PM ET, Thu May 21, 2020

In a series of essays called The Distance, Thomas Lake is telling the stories of Americans living through the pandemic. Email if you have a story idea.

(CNN)A lonely boy crosses a field in the late afternoon, leaving a young woman lounging in the grass. He might be 7. Near the edge of the field he sees a man and four children throwing a Frisbee. He asks if he can play. The man pauses, stumbling over his words, and finally says no, with some forgettable explanation about viruses.

I am that man. Sometimes I don't recognize myself. I am a distant figure in a season of darkness, with children who may remember the day we left the field in the middle of a game because their father was afraid of a little boy.
Thomas Lake
Do you remember who you used to be? Before you were told that anyone could kill you? Before you were conditioned to avoid people the way you might avoid malignant obstacles in a video game? Before your brain rewired itself toward a continual search for the proper angle of evasion, the likely field of airborne dispersion, the space least contaminated by human touch?
I recall the way it felt to hug an old friend. The enveloping arms, the smell of hair, the whiff of perfume or aftershave.
I recall how alive I felt on the basketball court, colliding with other men, and the thrill of standing in the shower afterward, taking inventory of my cuts and bruises.
I recall going to church, really going to church, a small room full of believers, a song of mercy and forgiveness, and when it was over the children would run wild.

Americans living apart and together in the age of pandemic

Do these memories belong to a different person? Sometimes I see a scary man wearing a mask. He looks at me when I look in the mirror.
I did not yet own a mask that day in March at the grocery store, when I saw a woman near the butter. I made a remark about the butter, how there was not as much butter as usual, and she must have heard me, but she did not reply. The silence lingered until I realized that I was the rude one, not her, and that rude was not a strong enough word to describe needless small talk in a grocery store that could lead to the death of an innocent stranger.
This was near the beginning, before I learned how to be afraid.
My education continued on Tuesday, March 17, when I took an empty notebook and two fresh pens and drove to Piedmont Park in Atlanta. I planned to walk several miles around Midtown and downtown, observing things and occasionally conversing with people, gathering the raw materials for a story on an American city in the grip of the coronavirus.
I made it half a mile. At 14th and Juniper, I absent-mindedly pressed the big metal button for the walk signal. Then, realizing my error, I recoiled as if my right hand were on fire. Holding it away from myself, I jog-walked across the park, dug the car keys from my pocket with my left hand, and found the hand sanitizer in a cupholder below the dashboard. I put it everywhere: my right hand, the keys, the steering wheel, the metal spirals of my notebook. At some point in this fever dream, I read the date on the hand sanitizer. It had expired in 2013.
That week I felt a sharp pain in my heart, and my breathing shortened. I spoke with a nurse practitioner by videoconference and got a prescription for an Albuterol inhaler, but I never got tested for the virus. Who knows. Maybe it was just stress, or fear, or sympathy pain for all the people who couldn't breathe.
The children began to understand what was happening.
"And help the doctors not to be sick and die," my 5-year-old son prayed at bedtime.
They stopped asking to go to the playground. When we were out for walks, and another person approached, the older two (9 and 7) admonished the younger two (5 and 2) the same warning tones they heard me using all the time. Wait! Don't get too close. We knew these people. Went to school with them. Sat on their porches and played in their yards. Now we stepped aside when we saw them coming.
Do you know those scenes in movies where someone is at gunpoint and they do everything slowly and carefully, announcing each move in advance? I have begun to act this way, even when I'm around harmless people who just need some help.
"I'm just going to set this on the table here," I said, pulling out some cash for a ragged man outside Publix.
"I'm just going to set this on the ground," I said, handing over a bag of snacks to a man on a bench around the corner.
"I'm just going to set this on the ledge," I said, late at night in my front yard, holding a ham sandwich on a paper plate for the neighborhood landscaper who was so hungry that he stood outside and yelled in the dark until I opened the door.
My 5-year-old keeps talking about death. This trend started before the pandemic and accelerated thereafter. One night he imagined people dying, imagined what would happen next. "And then someone else will have to bury them," he said, "and they will die, and then someone else will have to bury them, and they will die." He went on like this for a long time, greatly pleased with himself, having found a way to summarize all of human history through the repetition of 13 words.
Late in April, we went to Piedmont Park. It was crowded. We should have left right away, but I was tired of being afraid. I saw things clearly, as one does in matters of life and death. The colors were bright and sharp. I plotted our course. We just needed to make it through those trees, away from the main path, wait for an opening and get past those people on bikes. People streamed by on the asphalt trail, as perilous as cars on a superhighway.
I carried one child and guided the other three. They listened well. A wide lane opened up on our favorite hillside. The children ran up. To our right, various people lounged on blankets. To our left, an ill-advised crowd attended a fitness boot camp. The boys took turns throwing me the Frisbee. Sometimes they threw it straight. Other times it veered to the right or left, rolling down toward occupied territory. I ran very fast, snatching it up before it got too close. Not going to lie: It felt wonderful.
A day or two later we were walking home through a field by the railroad tracks. I warned everyone not to touch the portable soccer goal. The 5-year-old couldn't resist. The older two scolded him so much that I didn't even have to. At home I told him to wash his hands, and he did, but the older two wouldn't let it go. He'd been contaminated, or so they said, and they made a show of running away. The boy saw people running and did what any monster would do. He chased them.
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All this fear will have lasting consequences. We cannot know what they will be. Last Sunday, we had a visitor, a friend I'd known since childhood. Jessica knew and loved all our children, especially the youngest. Jessica got out of the car and sat on our front steps. We walked outside and stood at a safe distance. The 2-year-old ran toward her. Jessica told her to stay back.
"And she looked at me with the saddest eyes ever," Jessica told me later. "And that broke my heart."
    It hurts to be treated like a monster. The lonely boy never told me his name. Maybe I'll see him in some brighter time, and he will still want to play, and the man who said no will be gone forever.