I share a tiny apartment with my husband Scott in Klaipeda, Lithuania, a coastal city on the Baltic Sea. We moved here eight months ago to volunteer at a university where I teach writing and Scott works as a web developer. We have no car, and bus fare is cheap, as is food. Beyond that we have everything we need, basic language skills included.
Now, as we near the end of April, my semester is coming to a close. There are exams to write, research papers to grade, exit interviews to conduct, an end-of-year party to plan. I have no children yet, and so I work as much as I need to work to finish well. One more month, and Scott and I will move back to Michigan. We'll buy a little house. We'll bring our first baby home, then our second. We'll fight for the time we used to have, and we'll lose.
But in 2010, we are a world away from all of that. We take weekend trips to Latvia and Estonia, catch a series of rickety buses with broken seats and deafening motors and no heat. Or we sleep in on Saturdays and wake just early enough to amble down to the open-air market before it closes, select a sack of vegetables to turn into soup. We have come to love our lives here, but we also carry through these days an unshakable sense of isolation. We miss our family and friends, familiar foods. This culture can feel somber and impermeable, especially because the language beyond any basic level still eludes us.
Ten years later, and Scott and I are wading through a different sort of isolation—that of a quarantine brought on by a global pandemic. Our daughter and son, eight and five, have been home for over a month now, with the schools closed until September. Scott is a software engineer and our main breadwinner, so his work must take precedence, but we see that I get time to write. Most days, I homeschool for the majority of the morning. Then we trade off and Scott paints with the kids or writes songs or makes sand sculptures. After he's fed them lunch and I've written for a couple of hours, we trade back. In the evenings, he chops, and I cook. On the weekends, we ready the garden for spring. We are together, but we still feel alone.
Every day it is only the four of us, with no end in sight. Our other loved ones might as well be on the other side of the ocean.
Sometimes we remember our year in Lithuania. “Remember how nervous we always were?” we'll ask each other. It seems ridiculous now. “Remember how hard it was to find the right food? To read the signs? Remember how sometimes all we wanted was to go back home?”
I wonder what I'll think ten years from now, when this pandemic has turned into the past, when we can look back with the knowledge that we survived it. I wonder if this time at home will take on the same sense any challenging time has earned when its end has been satisfactorily written, rendering it safe to return to and marvel over.
“Do you remember that?” Scott and I will ask each other. “How scared we were? How everything shut down? How all we knew each day was each other? How we didn't know for certain that the time would ever end?”
Michelle Webster Hein's work has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize, recognized in the Best American series, and published in Midwestern Gothic, Ruminate Magazine, River Teeth, and Hunger Mountain, among other places. Her first novel Out of Esau is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press. She and her partner tend a small homestead in Waterloo, Michigan, where they raise their children, cats, chickens, vegetables, and a lazy beagle named Flannery. She encourages you to check out the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop: mnprisonwriting.org.