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Updated: Aug 21, 2020

After three months of staying at home, the past week has been a revelation. Going out and seeing people again is glorious. And nerve-wracking. And very, very confusing.

For me, being asthmatic and living just outside New York City, the situation has been pretty clear-cut till now. Did I want to catch the coronavirus? No. Should I stay home? Yes.

Near the epicenter, the virus is real and ever-present. My next-door neighbor caught it, and another neighbor died of it. My in-laws are health care workers on the front lines. My niece lives in Manhattan where the applause for essential workers goes on every night. Almost everyone we know has been directly affected by the virus, and most of us are glad to take the recommended precautions.

All it took for me to waver was a barbecue.

The weather was perfect on Memorial Day, and it felt fabulous to dress up (new spring sandals!). Seeing some of the people my partner and I have been missing was pure joy. There was excellent grilled souvlaki, homemade pasta salad, and cold beer. We dined al fresco in a grassy yard, with music, under a patio umbrella.

Never before would I have taken such giddy joy in these sweet but ordinary things. But this spring, life has been so quiet and gray, so full of worry, so empty of people.

With the change of seasons, questions confront us again: what is safe now? What constitutes a smart risk? Can we live normally while still practicing precautions?

We’re in a new phase, and nothing is as clear as it was.

Our mask-wearing hostess at the barbecue handed out latex gloves. We laughed self-consciously, but a few of us sheepishly took a pair.

As the day wore on, precautions started to slip. The guests gradually crept closer together than six feet. Those of us wearing masks kept pulling them aside to eat or drink until, caught up in conversation, we finally forgot to wear them at all. We passed our phones around to show each other photos, we shared food, and we laughed a lot.

I felt great that night when I came home, sunburned and a little tipsy. But the whole next day I fretted. It was easy to stay safe at home, with only one other person under the roof and the nearest neighbor a backyard away. But what now?

Should we handle that object, lean closer to hear what that person is saying? Should we spend time with someone who won’t wear a mask? Should we eat at another person’s house (and will we hurt feelings if we say no?) We’ve got to start asking ourselves these questions, we realized this week. Summer is here, and that means play.

Since our deck will be our only vacation destination this year, we’ve started sprucing it up. We’re getting it re-stained, and have ordered longer, fatter chaise cushions. Our new misting fan and zero-gravity lounge chairs arrived this week.

Yesterday, at our first party, we went mask-free, and mostly anxiety-free. We didn’t have to remind ourselves as often to stand six feet away from other people. Cautions that felt awkward as a wooden suit last week seemed easier to slide on this week.

So maybe we’re getting the hang of this new “normal.”

Today I’ve been thinking about a strict low-carbohydrate diet I once went on. It worked like a charm — I lost 13 pounds in a month. But when it came time to gradually introduce carbs again, I floundered. A single ravioli on a plate looked so sad. Stopping after two bites of creamy, fluffy mashed potato seemed like a cruel joke.

That’s what I think might be happening now. Last Tuesday’s news broadcasts ran images of festive crowds swimming and partying together over the long weekend. Where I would have felt shocked so recently (“don’t they realize how foolish they are?”), now I understand a little better. We all love sunshine, holidays, and other people. Most of us drink when celebrating, which lowers our inhibitions. And we are all so, so sick of lockdown.

We’re going to keep social distancing, because we’ve learned by now how to stay safe — or, at least, as safe as we can. We want to be smart, and not blow it now that the world is opening up again, inch by inch. Staying healthy means staying safe, so of course, we want to stay safe.

But deep down, what we really want is the whole potato.

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