“Trash bag,” my partner texts me after the third of his four weekly 12-hour shifts at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, New York. It’s his first week back after self-quarantining for seven days, a length determined by the number of paid vacation days he had at his disposal.
Someone he works closely with tested positive for COVID-19, one of many Amazon warehouse workers who have been diagnosed with the virus in the past month. After trying and failing to get a test of his own, my partner was faced with a choice: either go back to work or take unpaid time off. The latter was something we could not afford, so back he went. Now, after a week’s worth of reprieve, every afternoon around 5:15 PM, I hang a trash bag on the doorknob of our front door so he can take off his clothes in the hallway of our apartment building, place them in a bag to be washed immediately, and take a shower before touching me or our two kids, ages 5 and 1.
It’s been difficult, to say the very least, to watch my partner of seven years and the father of my two children leave work every morning at 3:30 AM, knowing he is certainly exposing himself to a virus that, to date, has killed more than 64,000 Americans. I fear for his safety, knowing full well that the cloth mask my mother sent for him to wear is a far cry from the coveted and scarce N-95 masks capable of protecting frontline and essential workers from the COVID-19 coronavirus.
It’s hard to articulate what this particular experience is like; it’s hard to describe the sensation of all the different feelings commingling into something that borders on unbearable (but must be borne all the same). But I can talk about each of the feelings themselves.
I grow increasingly angry at the lack of support he and his workers are offered by those in positions of power. People like Jeff Bezos, who has grown his fortune by an egregious $24 billion dollars during this global public health crisis, but who initially only offered Amazon warehouse employees and contractors unlimited unpaid sick time off. (The company has since changed course, and now offers employees and contractors two weeks of paid time off if they contract COVID-19. Still no change if you’re exposed to it.) I’m furious that my partner is in a position where working isn’t a choice, but a necessity. I’m furious that our family’s ability to obtain health insurance is tethered to his continued employment. I’m seething at all the bigger conditions and structures in our economy that make all of this true.
It’s been exhausting to be sequestered in a 700-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn with two small children. While my partner spends 48 hours in an Amazon warehouse miles away, I am facilitating at-home e-learning for our 5-year-old, weathering his near-constant early-morning meltdowns because he hates “homeschool” and just wants to sit in his classroom, see his teacher, and hug his friends. I’m changing my 1-year-old’s diapers and cleaning the food he insists on throwing on the floor and trying to keep both my children from running (read: hurting themselves) in our tiny apartment.
I’m also cooking three meals a day, washing all the dishes by hand (because what affordable NYC apartment comes with a dishwasher?!), and working from home. My younger son, too little to wear (or keep on) a mask, hasn’t been outside in two months, and the only amount of time I have spent alone have been when I’m dropping off hot meals and self-care supplies to an acquaintance and traveling nurse, who left her husband and three children at home to come to New York and help the front line health care workers treat COVID-19 patients.
I’m so stressed and weighed down by worry and the inability to see the light at the end of this global pandemic tunnel. It’s a weight so heavy and inescapable that a part of me even resents my partner for his ability to leave and work outside our home, even though it’s the Amazon warehouse. That’s my dirty little secret in all this: I yearn for the small sliver of freedom he still has, even though it puts him — and our children and neighbors — in danger. And that jealousy fills me with guilt, because if I had my way he would quit his job and stay home with us.
Still, I yearn for something as simple as a morning commute — a moment to myself — as my children throw another toy, and one hits our television, and my youngest bumps his head on our coffee table because he was chasing my oldest, and I have another looming deadline that I know I will have to stay up until 3:00 AM to complete and three e-learning assignments I must help my child complete after his 10:30 AM live Zoom lesson with his “real” teacher.
All this said, in so many respects, my family is incredibly lucky. All four of us are healthy, my partner and I are still working (unlike the 22 million Americans who are now unemployed), and our home is safe and loving. We haven’t had to worry about our immigration status and how it might impact our ability to receive government assistance during this time, my partner is not an emergency room doctor, nurse, or janitor — people who are undoubtedly at the highest risk of contracting the virus — and we have supportive friends and family members across the country who’ve sent masks, gloves, care packages, and letters.
But there’s a dread that overwhelms me — a singing rage that consumes me — when that text comes at the end of the day, and I go hang another plastic garbage bag on the doorknob of our front door. Because here we are, in the richest country on earth, and my family’s survival depends on my partner going to a job where he is actively endangered every day. Some people sign up willingly for dangerous jobs, and they are usually paid accordingly for the risk they assume; they are heroes for choosing this path. My partner isn’t a hero — he is a prisoner. Mostly. I am outraged that I am made to feel thankful about him being in danger right now, because that danger means he still has a job, and with the resources this country possesses, everyone deserves so much more right now.
But I can’t do anything about any of that. So instead, I’ll worry and cook the meals and wash the dishes and stay up late to meet deadlines and endure my kid bucking against my strained attempts at maintaining his education, and I’ll hang a trash bag on the door every night and hold my partner after he showers off his day and feel lucky that we’ve made it through one more.