I Left New York for Greener Pastures — and a Puppy
The rolling hills of Appalachia have been my refuge from the coronavirus epidemic
GEN asked two writers to explore what it means to stay in New York, and what it’s like to leave. Glynnis MacNicol stayed in the city. Meghan Daum left New York to quarantine in Virginia’s Appalachian mountains:
Three weeks ago, I fled New York City for the countryside. I know there are arguments against this, some expressed more thoughtfully than others. I ran through them one by one as I was sitting in my Manhattan apartment, wondering whether my limited options were even worth contemplating. The shaming campaigns against defectors hadn’t quite begun yet, but I knew they would soon enough. I also knew that guilt awaited me no matter what I did, and not just because guilt is the organizing principle of my existence. I had a new guilt source in my life: a puppy.
Nearly a year after losing my Saint Bernard, Phoebe, I had, somewhat unexpectedly, acquired a 10-week-old Newfoundland. At first, I thought the timing would be perfect. Due to coronavirus, my upcoming trips and engagements were being canceled one by one. Not yet grasping the seriousness of the situation, I thought, “This is great!” So much uninterrupted time with the puppy and no need to pay dog sitters or lean on neighbors for favors. But then it wasn’t just events being canceled but life itself. The outdoors were being rationed. The air itself was deemed unsafe.
I decided to leave. It didn’t feel great, but it didn’t feel wrong. It was one of those least-worst choice kinds of choices. It helped that I would travel with a close friend, a neighbor with whom I have a strange sort of platonic partnership (maybe more on this another time), but he probably wasn’t going to stay long. This was my gig, my choice. Not to mention my puppy (per our agreement, my friend would do all the cooking but assume no puppy duties other than playing with him; a deal I was happy to make). I chose our destination after an evening of Airbnb research, deciding on a place in Appalachia because it was in the middle of nowhere yet within an hour of a hospital that wasn’t yet pegged to be overrun. I packed up a few changes of clothes, a lot of books, and every medication I had sitting around even if I couldn’t remember what it was for. I brought a copy of my health care proxy in case, god forbid, I ended up on a ventilator in that hopefully-not-overrun hospital. I dropped my rent check in the mailbox on the way out of the building, holding the envelope with the Clorox wipe I’d used to lock my door and push the elevator buttons. Then I met my friend in front of the building, put the puppy in the car, and made a 10-hour drive.
We emerged from the car into the kind of place you should be with a new puppy even when there’s not a pandemic going on. There are pastures in three directions and a forest grove in the other direction. There are cows roaming in the distant pastures and the occasional wild turkey strutting through the grass. There’s a deck right off my bedroom so I can grab a flashlight and trundle the puppy out in the middle of the night to relieve himself. When I think about trying to care for a new puppy in my apartment building in Manhattan, all I can think is I don’t know what I was thinking. When I think about trying to do so while sharing elevators and lobby space with neighbors who were already getting sick (before I left one called me, febrile, early in the morning asking me to take his dog out; he released the dog into the hallway, closed his apartment door behind him and I walked the dog wearing latex gloves) I think about the potential hospital bed I freed up in New York City and pray that, despite being healthy after a 14-day self-quarantine, I don’t somehow end up occupying one here.
I’ve had puppies before, though I guess it’s like they say about childbirth: You forget the pain every time. The reason babies of any species are so ridiculously cute is that otherwise you’d kill them. Puppies have the cognitive function of infants but the physical capabilities of ransacking burglars — incontinent burglars that are happy to relieve themselves on the floor even as they steal your jewelry (swallow it, actually) and rip apart your sofa. This puppy (for the sake of his privacy I’ll withhold his name for now, also I kept changing his name up until recently) is actually remarkably well mannered, at least so far. But the thing is we’re in a rented house, an Airbnb owned by astonishingly kind people who live across the road. Times must be hard in Airbnb land, because when I first got in touch and asked if they’d consider two New Yorkers who would self-quarantine for 14 days and a Newfoundland puppy who “would never be unsupervised,” they said sure. Are you crazy?, I thought. I’m still not sure whom I meant by “you.”
We made good on the quarantine promise and then some. Nearly a month in, there’s nowhere to go anyway, so other than a lone trip to Walmart for groceries and supplies after those initial 14 days, I’ve stayed mostly on the property (my friend goes for hikes and bike rides while I tend to the canine baby). And herein lies the essence of my quarantine. While the rest of the world withers under the weight of existential horror, my world has been reduced to an endlessly repeating cycle of eating, defecating, romping, gnawing, and, sleeping. (The puppy’s cycle that is; mine is even more banal because it doesn’t contain gnawing.) Indiscriminate peeing happens at all times during this cycle; any time the puppy rises from a lying down position, he will immediately urinate with the nonchalance of a yawn. This means that even while he’s sleeping I am on alert for the telltale leg shuffle that precedes his rousing onto four legs, at which time I must scoop him up, kick open the nearest door, and deposit him onto the lawn to do his business.
The property isn’t fenced. That’s part of what makes it so idyllic. It also means the puppy can’t go out without my chaperoning him. He’s outdoors at least 60% of the time. This is a good thing. I want him to be on that grass every possible second. I have taken dozens of nearly identical photos of him on the grass in various states of silliness or repose. But it also means that at least 60% of my time is spent ambling after him — occasionally playing fetch or trying to leash-train him, but mostly trying to wear him out by dragging around a giant tree branch that he chases as though it were a mechanical rabbit at a greyhound race.
This is no way to live. Except right now it’s the only way to live.
The more recently he’s eaten, the longer it takes to wear him out; on average every meal is followed by an hour of commotion. Because he eats three times a day, this means there are at least three hours a day in which I am doing some version of dragging around the tree branch. I know we’re approaching the finish line when he becomes so demonical that he’s biting my pant legs and squirming like a toddler when I pick him up to keep him from running toward the forest, a source of forbidden fascination. If the grass is wet, which it frequently is, I’ll have to towel him off and leave him in the mudroom to dry, at which time he’ll hurl himself against the door trying to come into the kitchen. After several minutes of that, he’ll pass out for an hour or sometimes more. This is my time to do everything in my life that isn’t puppy-related. Unless the grass is wet, in which case I have to change into dry clothes, clean the mud off the floor, and then do everything in my life that isn’t puppy-related. By which I mean doomscroll on Twitter or watch the news.
The New York You Once Knew Is Gone. The One You Loved Remains.
Those of us who stayed in New York are faced with the task of keeping the city alive. We aren’t going anywhere.
Since arriving here I have done next to nothing that isn’t puppy or news-related. Eighty percent of my emails remain unanswered. Friends send texts and I take days to reply. Someone straight out asked me if I was ill, since I hadn’t replied to his emails. I haven’t done a single thing on Zoom. I’ve read maybe a total of seven pages from the books I brought. I did manage to fill out a series of online forms to change my health insurance and it took an entire day. A month ago, I had what felt like a million projects in the works. I had so many balls in the air I was dizzy from looking up. Now I’ve dropped them all. Ideas that as recently as February I thought about nonstop haven’t crossed my mind in weeks. Instead I think about the last time the puppy pooped in relation to the last time he ate. I think about what time I next need to feed him and then run him around outside in order to tire him out so I can eat my own next meal in peace. I have these series of thoughts three times a day. I wish I could say there was something Zen-like about this state. Instead, I feel physically exhausted, professionally irresponsible and, of course, guilty — not just about leaving New York but about having to eventually take the puppy away from all this grass and go back there.
If the puppy is indoors and not napping, I leap up roughly every five minutes to make sure he’s not peeing on the floor, chewing a rug or, in his latest discovery, licking the sides of the toilet. The paragraph you are now reading took two hours to write because I got up four times, two of which required prolonged trips outside to pee and then root around in the bushes. Sometimes I try to bring my laptop outside, the idea being that I’ll work as the puppy plays on the grass. But natural light is no friend of the computer screen. I can’t see what I’m doing, and before I know it I can’t see the puppy. He’s wandered to the other side of the house, or crawled to his favorite hangout space underneath the porch, or started making his way toward the forest. And so I’m off again.
There are coyotes and even black bears around here. The coyotes would gladly grab a little pup if they could. The bears might hurt one if they got startled. Overhead, hawks with nearly five-foot wingspans glide low enough to incite worry as well as thrill. When I first arrived, the puppy was 21 pounds. Google tells me that’s right around the cut-off weight for a raptor to grab a creature in its talons and carry it to its demise. What are the chances? Minuscule, but not worth taking. So I sit on the porch steps and stare into space as the puppy rolls on the grass. When I grow bored with porch steps, I sit on the grass as the puppy rolls on me. Hours pass. Days pass. Weeks pass. Soon, a month will have passed.
This is no way to live. Except right now it’s the only way to live. What’s happening in the world is too vast and strange and horrifying to make sense of yet. The pandemic is a painting on a canvas so big you can’t step back far enough to even see what’s been rendered. One evening around twilight I took the puppy out for his fortieth bathroom break of the day. I walked about 10 yards into the pasture and turned my head toward the house. It was lit up from the inside, a tableau of Americana perfection against the rolling fields and streaks of indigo clouds that hung over the mountains. Through the living room window, the television was in direct view, the channel turned to CNN, where a three-way split screen between Anderson Cooper, Sanjay Gupta, and Anthony Fauci radiated through the glass like a laser beam. It encapsulated everything about the moment, at least this particular moment of this particular night. I thought that if I could take a picture it might help me make sense of the moment. I thought about how someday I’d look back at the photograph and say, “Boy, that was a scary time.” I thought about how someday when the puppy is a big grownup dog I might tell people about our earliest days together and how strange it all was.
I reached into my pocket for my phone, but before I knew it there was a My Pillow commercial on. As of this week, the puppy weighs 30 pounds. I’m not sure we’re going home anytime soon.