By mid-January of 2021, winter already felt tedious and draining. I wondered if I’d suddenly become a person who hates winter. What had I ever loved about that soggy-socked, dry-aired, and brutal season? But I was still dragging myself out of the house for my daily pandemic walks, begrudgingly pep-talking myself off the couch so I wouldn’t miss the narrow strip of time between when I finished Zoom teaching and the arrival of the early Maine darkness.
On one of these walks, I passed a favorite bar and thought, I wish I could duck inside. I was caught off-guard by the reminder that I could even want something so off-limits. The sterile phrase ‘in-person dining’ was replaced with a memory of the bar’s big wood-fired pizza ovens and its high-backed booths. I remembered shrugging off my coat, shaking snow out of my hair, taking the first sip of an Irish coffee. Inspired by this flash of longing, I got a to-go coffee at a café nearby. Once I was safely away from people, I pulled down my mask to take a sip and was blind-sided by the smell of the brittle air: crisp, undercut with woodsmoke and pine. I’d completely forgotten. One of my favorite things about a New England winter—that lovely and unfairly maligned season—is its smell.
In avoiding restaurant dining and walking unmasked through public spaces and museums and theaters and coffee shops, I’d also partially blocked out their memory. I assume this was adaptive at first, while I was processing the greater losses of life under quarantine. And, in the face of so much large-scale tragedy, perhaps it felt selfish to mourn such ordinary and recoverable things. But after nine stalled and lonely months, recalling these things didn’t hurt. Instead, I found the process reassuring. This is not all there is. I’d somehow forgotten I was living without so many of the small joys that used to give my life its texture.
In the months following that January revelation, I pressed myself to keep those missing joys in mind. So much about my previous life seemed unfamiliar. What did I do on Saturday nights? How did I arrange plans with multiple friends? How did I fit so much more activity into my days? Was there ever truly a time when I wasn’t foggy and disoriented and overloaded by Zoom calls at 4 pm? And then something would prompt me—the sight of the stars when I took out the trash, the smell of damp earth when I removed my mask, a rare trip inside a new store—and I’d remember a buried feeling, a glimpse of life from the before-times.
I pushed myself to go on remembering. Train travel in the fall. Stopping at a coffee shop on a weekday afternoon and enjoying a stolen moment between the flurry of work and the relief of home. The relief of home, when home is a place to return to. My students doing a puzzle in my classroom during their lunch break; the bright background noise of their chatter. Open-mouthed laughter on a friend’s couch.
And so many smells! Newly fallen snow. The sour, bready scent of the breweries in my neighborhood. Beach roses. Moss. My grandmother’s coat when she pulls me in for a hug.
I kept taking inventory. What else? I’d think as I walked through empty streets or coaxed myself to sleep. Browsing bookstores, no title in mind. An unspoken consensus and then, Yes, can we please see the dessert menu? The end of the school day, when the last student files out of my classroom and I gather up my papers in the quiet. A coworker poking their head into my room, ready to swap stories or debrief the day. The sight of a friend, their jacket saving my seat at the bar. Movie theater popcorn. The staff picks shelf at the public library. Trivia nights. Trivia nights! What a strange and glorious thing. And cook-outs, and packing a bag to visit a friend in another state, and the silly excess of a trip to Target for no particular reason. And bigger things, too. Pride parades, and going dancing, and my whole family around one table. And last-minute plans! How could I have forgotten the delight of last-minute plans? It’s so nice out today! Want to go to the beach? Pick you up in twenty.
I suspect one day it will seem very strange that I had to force myself to recall the comfort of hugs or the smell of winter. But I hope that even in this longed-for future, when these joys are so commonplace that I begin to take them for granted again, I remember how this year showed me their power. How, even in their absence, they sustained me.
Rebecca Turkewitz is a writer and high school English teacher living in Portland, Maine. Her writing has appeared in The Normal School, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Masters Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Catapult, The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in fiction from The Ohio State University.