Writing Through the Pandemic: Novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff on the New Daily Rhythm

Relentless cooking, dog walks, dining-room ping-pong, and—oh, yeah—trying to finish a novel.

Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

Washingtonian is keeping you up to date on the coronavirus around DC.

We asked Washington writers to share stories, poems, drafts, musings, and other things they’ve been working on during quarantine. Today, the first in the series: a personal essay from DC novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff, author of Man Alive! and The Bowl Is Already Broken.

Yesterday was Friday, not that we could tell. My husband, our 19-year-old daughter, and I have been keeping it together. Also our dog, Arrow, who was born for social distancing. She’s afraid of most people and dogs, including dog sculptures, as well as cats, children, trucks, raindrops, and acorns. That sums up our DC neighborhood, which is also overrun with squirrels and bunnies, who for some reason get a pass.

We’re privileged to have food, a house, our health, and each other, and our assignment is to keep to ourselves. I think of the Milton line that used to be posted in the DC jury-duty room, appropriately from Sonnet 19, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

I showered and took Arrow for a drag, coaxing her down streets where cement dogs guard porches, cement flower baskets in their mouths, and where she was once chased by a cat. DC is all kinds of pink: Japanese magnolia buds look like teacups on their branches; flurries of cherry-blossom petals snow down. Back home, I made my own damn mocha—thanks to the AeroPress our friend David gave my husband and the milk he overbought yesterday. I’d left him a jelly jar of yeast in our Little Free Library in exchange.

I’m trying to wrap up a novel based on my Russian immigrant ancestors in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, yet I spent the morning editing scientific grants, because mortgage. My favorite phrase of the day was “alcohol-preferring rats,” and that grant also taught me about wild-type and knockout mice, some of whom get their alcohol on lollipops and some in a chamber of aerosolized alcohol.

Our son called from Arizona to say he might be recovering from a low-grade case of the virus, if they had tests for 27-year-olds with no underlying conditions. His wife had a cough and aches, too, but when they tried to take their temperature, the thermometer signaled “low battery” and then promptly died. I found one online with an arrival estimate of two weeks.

I took the dog for another drag, talking on the phone to my friend Maureen, whose family spent April Fool’s pranking each other across the country. Their shenanigans made me feel unimaginative, as every prank I thought of had a mean reveal: Surprise, you don’t get to go anywhere and the total confirmed cases have topped a million!

After three more hours of editing—face blindness, Parkinson’s, and bipolar disorder—I took a walk with my friend Margaret; we left our dogs at home. Neither my folded-bandanna mask nor her flowing scarf worked. My floppy ears couldn’t hold the elastic on, and she ended up doing the dance of the seven scarves with a single scarf. Tulips bloomed bright against dark, stinky mulch. Creeping phlox ran across yards and threw itself headlong over retaining walls as we aired our existential terrors—the writing we were supposed to be doing, health, debt, children. Halfway through our usual maze, we heard her son in LA and her daughter, live from her living room, chime in: “What’s going on?,” “Do you need us?” The voices were coming from Margaret’s right flank, and she pulled her phone from her pocket to discover that she’d somehow butt-dialed a FaceTime family conference. It was especially remarkable considering she doesn’t know how to perform that trick when she’s facing the phone and using her hands.

Our stroll fulfilled my New Year’s resolution to walk at three miles a day every day for 2020. February’s bum knee brought my average down, and I’d been hovering at 2.9. But logging five miles yesterday brought me up to 3.0 average. So I’ve accomplished something in 2020.

Back home, it was time to eat. Again. We’d done some strategic swapping and shopping, such as joining a block-long CSA our neighbors set up for the farmer who supplies their closed restaurant. I’ve eaten more pea shoots, turnips, and chard in the last two weeks than in my entire life. We’d been cooking relentlessly, and now we craved takeout. Our favorite Indian restaurant, Masala Art in Tenleytown, was running a Covid-19 special: Dinner for four included 30 eggs and four rolls of toilet paper. My husband brought the food to our tiny backyard table, where we served it outside. Having eaten our fill of paneer and bhindi and dal—all fabulous—I brought containers from the house to transfer the food inside.

We watched the finale of Blown Away, that thrilling competition that pits glassblowers against each other. No spoilers, but I wouldn’t have predicted the winner. Then we set up a net across the dinner table and played ping-pong in the dining room, trying to beat Arrow to the ball when we missed it. Only one puncture in the ping-pong ball at night’s end, a personal best.

In this global experiment, we are all alcohol-preferring rats, and I was ready for my lollipop (a vaporized chamber having scary overtones). I opened a can of premixed gin and tonic, and the three of us retired to our separate corners for a little night reading. Arrow burrowed her nose under my thigh. I called my mother in Oklahoma. She and my father are bored and healthy, which is as good as it gets. After vowing that she would not be making any face masks, she’d sewn us all masks and put them in the mail. Walking our mazes, we would soon enough be face blind. I told her I loved her. And I scrubbed down the kitchen counters before bedtime.

Another day gone by in which I didn’t finish my novel, where the main character who has survived so much, including the flu pandemic, discovers that by marrying a Russian-born immigrant, she has lost her American citizenship. In 1920.

This morning, I showered and took the dog for a drag . . . .

Mary Kay Zuravleff is featured in Furious Gravity, the latest edition of Grace & Gravity, a literary anthology devoted to women writers in the Washington area. On May 10 at 3 PM, Politics and Prose will present a live-streamed reading from it with Zuravleff and writer Tara Campbell.