Of all the days that Olivia felt had like the walls were closing in on her, this one might have been the worst yet. The meeting had stretched on and on, moderated by someone who shouldn't have been chairing an in-person meeting let alone an electronic one; he had no sense of how to engage the participants or apparently how to achieve a camera angle that didn't most prominently feature his forehead. Olivia had alt-tabbed multiple times to her email box while being careful to feign a dialed-in expression.
Her attention was completely derailed by an email with a header reading "My Proposal". The sender was none other than Rafael Barba.
Well, she certainly couldn't leave THAT until later.
"My proposal is that we go for walks outside. Yesterday morning when the sun was just coming up I looked out the window and I only saw five people and we could walk before people wake up and we wouldn't get the virus because there are not many people and you catch the virus from people. And if someone walked by us we could hold our breath and then if they had the virus we wouldn't breathe it. Cordially, your son Noah. PS Please tell me at dinner if we can go for walks outside. PPS Rafa taught me cordially, proposal, and PS."
She was tempted to print this out; it felt scrapbook-worthy, not that she had ever had time to do something like scrapbooking. Maybe she'd hang it on the fridge. But while she was ready to celebrate the thought and execution, she wasn't prepared to deal with the request it contained. Suddenly she was glad to have the awful meeting to run back to.
When she sat down at the dinner table about 45 minutes later, Noah immediately climbed into her lap. "Hi, mama! Did you get my proposal?!"
"Rafa made me do it like school! I had to print it first with a pencil, and look up words in the dictionary, and then I got to type it!"
"I'm very impressed! It was so well presented," she praised, making him flush with pleasure. But this did nothing to delay the inevitable.
"So can we go? Outside, I mean?"
Barba was bringing their meals to the table, and she looked to him for...something. Support? Rescuing? Advice? She wasn't exactly sure. Whatever it was, his neutral expression didn't provide it.
"Rafa and I will talk about it tonight after you go to bed. And then we can all talk about it in the morning at breakfast. Deal?"
Noah opened his mouth, but Barba clocked that he was about to protest and cleared his throat. This was enough to remind Noah of what they'd talked about before: that this was a big decision and his mom might need more time to consider it, which Noah would be smart to respect. They'd even gone so far as to rehearse a response.
"I understand. Thank you for your consideration," Noah parrotted formally. This made Olivia laugh until she cried, and got the other two giggling along with her.
At around 8:30 the adults convened over wine and scotch, respectively. It had been Barba's idea to involve alcohol, as he sensed Olivia might need it.
"Sorry for passing the buck," Barba began. "While it turned out to be a good educational exercise, I mostly just needed to channel his energy into something besides trying to win me over; you know how obsessive he can get. And I didn't want to appear partial to any point of view."
"I've never known you to be impartial, so don't start now. What are your thoughts?"
"You're are his mother; my thoughts don't matter."
She rolled her eyes. "They've always mattered."
"As vulnerable as I generally am to your flattery..." He sighed. "I know he's going stir crazy. And he could benefit from more fresh air and scenery than the balcony is providing." The balcony had actually been a real lifesaver. It was small - very small - but had just enough room for three lawn chairs or when cleared for Noah to stretch out on a blanket and peer up at the clouds or roll on his side and look through the bars. It wasn't much of a view, but it made their world seem a little bigger. Just not big enough. "But I'm 100% sure he'll survive stir crazy. I can't speak to the odds around COVID."
"I would never forgive myself if something happened to him," Olivia commiserated. "And I would also be incredibly pissed if all the efforts we've gone through so far ended up being for nothing."
"That's fair. And I agree, obviously."
She waited, then prompted, "But?"
"I didn't say 'but'. I could easily argue both sides, but I don't plan to, unless you're asking me to play devil's advocate."
"No." She took a thoughtful sip from the glass in front of her. "You're right, I'm his mother. This one has to be on me."
"Listen, why don't you make a list of the things you are most concerned about. And then tomorrow Noah can try to solve them. It is his proposal after all; he needs to be able to argue it and it has to stand up to scrutiny."
"You trying to turn my son into a prosecutor?" she accused with a smile.
"Now that he's mastered ordering groceries online, I'm running out of life-skills to teach him. Work-skills come next, sorry."
"Fine, I will provide him with a framework for more "proposal-ing" tomorrow to keep him off your back. But you do realize that if I end up agreeing to this you're the one who will have to take him; there's no way I'm going to be functional if I'm out running around with him at 5:30 in the morning."
"Hey, a change of scenery make you more functional. You've been a bit listless lately." That was an understatement. Not having to commute, not being called out into the field at all hours, having few household responsibilities thanks to Barba, all this should have left her with energy to spare. And for awhile it had, but it appeared that being cooped up while being aware of the state of the world outside their safe bubble was taking a physical toll. And while she'd occasionally been back to her own apartment to swap out clothes and toys and to make sure it her building was still standing, the fear she carried with her of picking up the virus and bringing it back to her son didn't allow her to reap many benefits from the excursions.
She quickly jotted down a list of her 6 main concerns, careful to make them clear and kid-friendly and not too scary. The last thing she needed was for Noah to develop an unhealthy anxiety, and she voiced this to Barba. "Don't worry," he assured her. "I'll keep things practical and positive, and if I see him moving beyond that, we'll take a break or stop altogether. I've got it."
It remained such a relief to not just hear but to know and trust that Barba did have it.
"My Proposal, continued" arrived in her inbox mid-morning. And as they sat down to lunch, Olivia didn't hold Noah in suspense. "We're going to try it out on Sunday morning." She had to wait until his excited cheering died down. "But this is just an experiment. You need to show me that you can follow all of your safety plans to the letter, and that they actually work."
"They will! I will! I promise!"
Even if this all went south, it was just nice to see Noah have something to look forward to. It carried him over the next three days, improving his energy, his appetite, and his mood. On Saturday night none of them including Noah himself were sure he'd be able to fall asleep, but he dropped off quickly in Barba's bed before the first story was even over.
Noah had been given strict instructions not to wake Barba until 5:05 a.m. (when the man planned to take a quick shower to hopefully rouse himself), and not to wake his mother until 5:20 a.m. (as she was determined to sleep as long as possible). He didn't deviate by a second, literally watching the minutes flip over on the clock.
They had pledged to meet at the door at 5:30 a.m. sharp, and Noah wasn't going to let them fudge on that deadline. He effectively herded them there with seconds to spare, and immediately took the lead.
First came masks. They'd done a week of mask training together back in April when the mandate was handed down for NYC, choosing a method that Barba had seen suggested on Twitter where any recreation screentime must be enjoyed with a mask properly in place. Screens served as both a motivation and a distraction, so worked incredibly well. They repeated this once a week just to remain acclimated.
So masks were easy. Masks they could do still in their safe bubble. Now they had to leave it, and Olivia was glad Noah couldn't see her frown beneath the colourful fabric that covered it.
Noah narrated his plan as they went, which helped assure Olivia that he would not forget himself. "Rafa puts on gloves, then goes out first and looks to make sure the hallway is empty." Success. They were alone. They took the stairs; even if the elevator was presently unoccupied, there was always the risk that someone with COVID had just exited and the virus was hovering in the air. Barba used the railing for stability, and Olivia kept one hand on his shoulder for her own balance while holding Noah's witht the other.
Truth be told, most of her anxiety had been centred around getting in and out of the building. So by the time the heavy door clicked shut behind them, that Barba's gloves had been sealed inside a ziplock bag in preparation to be discarded in the public trash receptacle half a block away, and that everyone's hands had been bathed in sanitizer, Olivia was able to relax a bit.
Barba wasn't feeling his anxiety, at least not in the moment. He was laser-focused on warding off any enemy, be it human or germ. While Olivia had taken on the responsibility of the decision, Barba had shouldered the responsibility of the execution. He was feeling extremely motivated to make this first outing a perfect experience so that they would all feel comfortable making it a repeating one.
Noah was feeling all kinds of feelings, causing tears to track down his cheeks even before his sneakers hit the sidewalk. The adults were first concerned that he was frightened about leaving what had become his home after all this time, but he did his best to assure them in his childlike way that he was fine, more than fine.
The plan had been to walk, but they couldn't contain his need to let his little body give further expression to all that emotion. And so he ran. They all ran. Ran fast and free until their lungs hurt and their stomachs hurt. And then every bug and leaf and stick and piece of garbage on the ground suddenly needed to be examined and greeted, as though Noah was helpless against the compulsion to make all the connections he could with the world outside in case it was a while before he got to do so again. So he went on just ahead while the grownups kept a watchful eye. They weren't speaking; it was too early for small talk and it wasn't like they had anything to catch up on after months together as housemates. But then Barba took her hand and their fingers intertwined and that was saying more than enough.
There were few people out, most walking dogs. Everyone seemed like they were on the same page, careful to afford a wide berth to anyone they encountered. Though it was hard to tell under the masks, Barba suspected that those they passed had a smile brought to their face as Noah bid each of them an enthusiastic and genuine good morning. As for whether Olivia was smiling, it was more than a suspicion. Even before living together, he would have been able to recognize the softness, the brightness of her eyes.
Before they even arrived back home, Olivia had deemed the experience a success, and Noah had asked Barba is they could go again the next day. "Of course, buddy." Of course.
Olivia had expected to be drained and to go back to sleep on their return; it was the reason that she'd chosen Sunday, as she wasn't scheduled to work. But the elation of having done something new after a long stretch of being mostly stuck indoors carried her well into the morning. And somehow, as if by magic, rather than their sanctuary seeming even smaller after their taste of freedom, it actually felt bigger, or at least less constricting.
That night all three were watching TV in one bed in lieu of a bedtime story and all three dozed off, except for an occasional bathroom break sleeping through the night. And despite Barba and Noah's efforts to sneak out silently in the morning to get ready without disturbing her, Olivia was waiting at the door for them at 5:30, ready to run.