We Are Still Here

Ever since the pandemic started, I’ve been having this recurring dream that I am Brandy from Boogie Nights, and I’m skating, naked and alone, down the silent streets of Louisville.

Most of you probably know Brandy as Rollergirl. Most of you can also probably conjure up that image of a young Heather Graham, naked on roller skates, if you think about it for a minute. I’ve never forgotten that image, the way Graham stripped her dress off with a sense of playfulness and joy, and deep in the pandemic, my brain brought the memory back with the kind of sensory detail that is only attached to the rarest of my dreams. When I close my eyes and drop into this dream, it’s like dropping into a pool: all at once I’m submerged, the sensations so strong I almost can’t breathe. I can feel the silken rush of fabric as I pull the dress from the movie over my head, can hear the sound of my skates on the asphalt. I can feel the rush of wind across my bare skin and around me, the utter darkness and silence of the world. Every time I wake up, I feel unsettled, and for a long time, I couldn’t figure out why. It seemed at first like it should be a lovely dream, a moment of movement and inhibition that indicates a small measure of freedom in the middle of isolation.

But then right before Christmas, I watched Boogie Nights again, for the first time in years, and I realized why the dream unsettled me. I had forgotten that Rollergirl spent the entire movie on roller skates. She was never able to take them off. She wore her skates to parties and in cars and even when she fucked somebody. It was because Rollergirl spent her life being traumatized by men and put those skates on in part so she could get away. But in the movie, she spends most of her time rolling from room to room, job to job, film to film, partner to partner, looking for some sense of belonging, some sense of family. And then I realized: when I dream of Rollergirl, I’m not dreaming of freedom. I’m dreaming of being stripped down to nothing and sent out defenseless, of skating in circles and going nowhere. I’m dreaming of being constantly on the run and never finding safety. I’m dreaming of being trapped.

Yes, I know—in many ways, we aren’t trapped anymore. People are getting vaccinated and society is opening back up. But the feeling of being in the thick of the pandemic is still with us. For many, there is something still lurking in the back of our brains, this sense that we are moving, that in the distance, there is light, but we haven’t quite reached it. And with this feeling, there is a voice: so many people are gone, and we are missing them, it says. We have lost the map and the compass and the rudder. We have lost a little of ourselves. Please don’t leave us behind. We’re still here, still here.

For months now, I’ve been writing about our wandering and our loss and our stuckness. I’ve written about how governmental incompetence has impacted caregiver lives and how devastating the pandemic has been on caregivers. I’ve been writing about how people, primarily women, have given up their careers and their identities to care for children and disabled folks and the elderly because every system that was supposed to support us has left us to deal with this on our own.

I’ve also written a lot about how many of the caregiver stories that end up in U.S. archives center the lives of cis, white, middle class, able-bodied women and how I want this column and this caregiver archive to focus on something different: the stories of Indigenous, Black, and other caregivers of color; disabled caregivers; undocumented caregivers; queer caregivers; and working class and low-income caregivers that are so often left out.

In the time that I’ve been gathering and researching these stories, I’ve learned that many of them fall into at least one of four categories of emotional response: rage, lust (or lack thereof), grief, or isolation and loneliness, and I’ve spent the last three months diving in to caregivers’ experiences with those emotions. And now, for the next two months, I’m returning to those caregivers to see where they are now, to see what has changed, because I do not want to leave them and their stories behind. I do not want to be another force in this callous, hurried world encouraging them to leave behind the horrible memories of the pandemic because they’re inconvenient and it’s time to move on. So instead, I’m traveling back to visit the ones like me who are still here, to listen a little again, and to offer updates on their varied pandemic experiences.

I first interviewed Selene Lacayo, 37, of West Chester, Pennsylvania, for my second column in February. At the time, she was juggling online schooling for three kids, her own translation work, and work on her thesis. Since our interview, a number of things have improved.

“You are catching me in particularly high spirits as this was my graduation weekend and we happened to have commencement in person and those of us who were fully vaccinated didn’t need to wear a mask at the ceremony,” she said. “It was certainly a taste of what used to be normal.”

Lacayo said she feels like she and her husband left the worst of the pandemic behind once they were vaccinated. “Not only did having the protection helped my husband get over the fear of seeing friends—something that we stopped doing almost entirely since the unfortunate passing of my MIL due to Covid right before Christmas,” she said, but spending time outside “also lifted up our spirits and I feel that was the key that opened the conversation to what I needed in order to have a successful end of my masters program.”

When Lacayo and I last spoke, she was on the verge of leaving for the weekend to work on her thesis. She was able to take that trip and wrote most of her thesis then, which left more room both for her kids and for herself. “I have been setting time aside just for a walk or to think about nothing at all and thanks to my vaccine, I felt fine returning to doing yoga at the gym,” she said. “Just doing that around other people has made a tremendous difference in my mood.”

Lacayo said she was also able to send her two younger children back to school full-time and while her fifth grader is at home, she’s largely self-sufficient, so she has enough time to complete her own work without getting interrupted.

And, said Lacayo, she said she hopes her family will be able to keep some of the changes the pandemic brought. “I do hope that as we start moving forward to a more structured routine, like the one we had before the pandemic, we are able to work remotely and with flexibility for both my husband and I,” she said. “The way things used to be, places added pressure on the stay-at-home-parent (in our case that is me) to be everything for everyone and that only leads to burnout.” 

I also reached out again to Anonymous, the 44-year-old white woman in North Carolina who I interviewed for my second column. At the time, Anonymous was struggling with an imbalanced marriage, caring for her two children who both have autism, and the realization that she was queer. Her update was markedly different from Lacayo’s.

“I’ve struggled with what to write to you for the past few days because honestly not much has changed,” she said. “I’ve taken on more (mostly volunteer) work, with the hopes of getting a paying thing soon, the kids are still doing school at home, still requiring different food for each meal, still completely my responsibility to care for 24-7. The older one is having trouble with anxiety more than ever, and the little one is getting bored and dangerous. We had to make our side sliding door inaccessible because he figured out how to unlock it and kept running out of the house and towards the street.”

Anonymous said her to-do list keeps getting longer, “which means I’m completing less of it than ever and feeling terrible about each uncrossed item, some of which have been on the list for months.”

Both of her kids are half vaccinated, she said, and summer is around the corner, and she has more hope for the new school year in the fall, but she’s still worried about public outings because of the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, so they aren’t doing much right now, which makes getting time for herself challenging.

“It’s a weird in-between time,” she said. “I hope in a few months, (there will) be some more space for me. Most days I still feel like I’m drowning. Whenever I talk to my husband about it, even when I ask him to pick up some responsibilities and tell him I can’t keep doing it all on my own, his response is ‘I believe in you!’ or to offer me weed.” But what she wants more than anything, she said, “is a day where no one yells at me. But I bought a bass I sometimes have time to mess around and feel badass with and I subscribed to a meal kit for a couple of weeks, and even though it took so long, making meals for myself felt nice.” 

All in all, said Anonymous, “the days are up and down, sometimes I fantasize about having a different life.”

I also returned to ask 26-year-old Ashley Lee, whom I interviewed for my third column,  about how she’s doing. Lee was one of the caregivers for her grandfather near the end of his life, when he was battling spinal stenosis and prostate cancer. These days, she said, she’s finding more peace and comfort.

“I’m setting the pace for myself: giving myself space to roam and change my mind; feeling outside—the grass between my toes, the hose on my shins and feet, the sun on my skin and scalp; being present with loved ones; deepening my relationship with myself; monitoring plants; working for causes I care about; celebrating wins,” she said.

Lee said she’s been focusing more of her attention on thinking about the global state of mental health, particularly “the interplay between loss, want, and crisis” and “how these signal the fleeting nature of life.”

In that fleeting, said Lee, “I want people to rest in senses of safety. I want people to thrive in any sort of risk. I really want people to hold as many possibilities as they can.”

The seeking of normalcy, of a different life, of possibility are all things that most of us are feeling right now. And they are in part why I’m creating Submerged Archive—because these are the stories that, in a few years, people will fail to remember. And because we are still here, over a year into this pandemic, and I am still having this dream that I am skating through my city at night, naked and alone, and I never know quite where I’m going, but wherever it is, I know I haven’t reached it yet.

The interview with Selene Lacayo, 37, of Westchester, Pennsylvania took place via email on May 24, 2021. The interview with Anonymous, 44, of North Carolina, took place via email on May 28, 2021. The interview with Ashley Lee, 26, took place on May 23, 2021.

All identities of caregivers who choose to remain anonymous for the purposes of this column or the archive are recorded but will be kept confidential in archive records.

For more information on the larger archive project, please visit the Patreon for Submerged: An Archive of Caregivers Underwater. If you have a story to tell that you think should be included in this column, please fill out this form, send a DM to @wearesubmerged, or tweet the #wearesubmerged hashtag.

Megan Pillow is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. She is co-editor of The Audacity, a new newsletter by Roxane Gay. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in, among other places, in Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly,  Hobart, Paper Darts, Brevity, Passages North, The Believer, TriQuarterly, and Gay Magazine and has been featured in Longreads. She has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, for Best Small Fictions, and for Best of the Net. Megan has also had stories featured on the Wigleaf Top 50 and the longlist, an essay honored as notable in the 2019 edition of The Best American Essays, and a story honored as distinguished in the 2020 edition of The Best American Short Stories. You can find her on Twitter at @megpillow.

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Photography by: William Bossen