A few years ago my husband and I watched a series titled The Last Man on Earth, created by comedian Will Forte. It was one of those dystopian genres about a virus that wiped out all but one man, though written as a dark comedy. It kept us talking for days about the impact of such a catastrophe, and what bothered us most was why the last man on earth had chosen to live in Arizona, one of those unforgiving regions in terms of heat and clay soil that are fine for growing cacti, if there’s good drainage, but not ideal for carrots or any other vegetation necessary for our sustenance. Why didn’t he choose a place that offered optimal farming conditions.
That was our main gripe while the danger of pathogens that may pose a similar threat to us had never crossed our minds. I promise that there have been no spoilers so far and you can watch this series without fear of knowing the outcome.
Okay, that was then and fast forward to March 2020, we mentioned The Last Man on Earth again but with a whole new perspective. In that made-for-television scenario, the virus had killed everyone, not discriminating between age and gender, humans or animals, and today, in the wake of a new pandemic we are battling a killer virus that discriminates against the elderly population and others with compromised immune systems, but that data keeps changing so who knows. And it’s not a movie or a television series—could you even call that genre of films sci-fi any longer?
We decided to watch the series again, and right after the teaser I pressed pause in spite of my husband’s deep frown and repeated gestures to hand over the remote. He gets annoyed when I need to research a detail in the middle of a show, but I get irritated when he talks over dialogue. I asked Greg whether he could imagine a world where people 60 and older would have to remain quarantined indefinitely, because the vaccine against COVID-19 would not be effective on them, and as a result they would be pushed to the sidelines while the young and immune took over. A semblance of life at the moment.
“The remote, c’mon,” said Greg, his hand still stretched out.
“But what do you think about such an outcome?”
“More ridiculous than what’s happening right now when all of us are bearing witness to a turning point in history: closed schools, businesses shut down, landmark events abandoned, or postponed, or cancelled. Death of loved ones! Would this have crossed your mind a few weeks ago?”
Still, that hand of his stretched out, inching its way closer to the remote.
“The young have always taken over, nothing new there.”
“What? No. Not true for everything. Not talking about underwear models. Sixty plus folks are a crucial part in every aspect of life. In my scenario the new ‘elders,’ the ones still included in government etc., would be people in their fifties i.e., me—you!”
“That would be bloody awful,” said Greg, ”there’s no way I’d be married to the oldest woman on earth.”
“The last time I was on JDate (age 36), mostly men in their 50s wrote to me. You were the exception, the only young guy to connect with me,” I reminded him. We were pros in terms of digressing from our original topic of conversation and drifting into bizarre, unrelated themes.
“There you go; perhaps I should get more respect around here!”
“Yeah-yeah,” I said then unpaused the TV. Let him think that he did me a favor . . .
After binge-watching about four-five episodes, we went to bed, Greg fell asleep right away (it’s a special talent), and I remained wide awake thinking about that cataclysmic scenario of no one over sixty allowed outdoors for, say, five years until a new vaccine would lift their quarantine.
“There’d be no more bingo, shuffleboard, or cruises,” he mumbled half asleep.
“Well, some things would continue online, but Florida would be a ghost state, no early bird specials, or high waisted jogging pants.
“That entire scenario—stupid!”
“You still don’t get it. Just imagine a world where in one short timeframe old people world-wide would disappear into their homes because of the virus, so for a few years at least—only young people around. What kind of a world would that be?”
All I heard was snoring.
I woke up the next day to the sound of a goat’s bleat and a chorus of birds wielded by Mother Nature’s invisible baton. Ahh, so lovely to live on top of a hill surrounded by farm animals and wildlife and flora that bloomed in silence though doubled and tripled in terms of volume each morning since the virus. After a long, deep breath, my wide eyes froze and our new reality had gradually set in.
A few months ago all of us could hug our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles; human touch was taken for granted and terrible things only happened to others in far away places. We had free babysitters and friendly smiles from elderly neighbors who were now confined to their home-prisons, while we had all been vaccinated and free to continue the lives we had put on pause for months.
I had not seen my parents face-to-face since the outbreak. When would this nightmare end? The skin around my neck shimmered with sweat; I pulled my sweater off, changed into a thin T-shirt then rushed out the door, hopped in my car and headed to our local French café. It was Friday, the thought of a warm, soft challah, and the distinctive aroma of sweet bread had raised a smile on my face.
That particular café sold a selection of breads including challah. It must have been at least six months since the last time I bought one for our Friday night dinner. I also pined after a chocolate croissant but my first-world problems seemed so irrelevant. Yes, I felt guilty that I could be outside while my parents were a five-hour flight away, growing bored and frustrated, and so many lives had been shattered.
We all dreamed of the day life would be normal again, though I imagined fireworks and crowds cheering in the streets once the quarantine was over. In reality people trickled out of their homes and the streets remained pretty empty as though it were the aftermath of a stormy night, and the sun was reluctant to show up. These were early days, time would tell how well we had weathered the storm of the century. After months of indoor living and only online grocery shopping and drone delivery, the one thing I wanted most was a bit of cafe life, you know, when you sit with locals, talk, and absorb the vibes. Social distancing may have kept everyone in-touch but we were all very much detached.
There was plenty of parking outside the café, people were still keeping a few feet away from one another; I thought that dating must be a challenge for singles these days.
“Excuse me,” I said to the girl behind the counter, “no more challah?”
She turned her head back towards the shelves. “Whatd’ya call it?”
“I buy my challah bread here every Friday, I mean I used to before the virus.” I explained.
“Not sure what type of bread you mean, let me go ask.”
“Never mind, just—um—can I have a chocolate croissant please—that would be puff pastry with chocolate inside.”
She rolled her eyes at me then handed over the pastry. I chose a small table by the window and gazed at my chocolate croissant, admiring it from every angle. Mmm, I attacked it in the speed that rabbits munch on carrots, licking my lips after every bite. The few crumbs that landed on my plate resembled the drumming sound of hail hitting glass. It must have been loud because so many stared, and I noticed there were no wrinkles or gray hair in sight even though I was not sitting at some fancy Beverly Hills dermatologist’s office.
A lady sneezed and coffee drinkers and staff alike shuffled their feet and wriggled in their seats, shifting positions. I could see eyebrows raised and hands that covered mouths and noses.
“Here, take this,” I handed the woman a pack of tissues but she refused them. “It’s not illegal to sneeze, you know, it’s no longer a terrorist threat or use of a biological agent–sheesh.”
The rest of the patrons gave me the once-over and glowered as though I were a snake-oil preacher trying to exploit them with misinformation. I realized that social norms from the quarantine days would probably stick with us for a while longer.
I overheard two women dissect an episode of The Crown, which reminded me that I never finished watching season three. That too was a telltale sign that people were ready to move on, albeit life was far from normal. I reached for my purse and fished for my phone, why does it always hide from me. My eyes felt heavy as I scrolled through my contacts—that damn virus. Still so surreal and I’ll never delete my numbers. I dialed my parents’ home, the machine picked up:
“We’re probably out fishing or watching an episode of Seinfeld but will get back to you soon.”
Those two had not lost their sense of humor. I dabbed my eyes with the napkin I used for wipe my mouth; one eye stung, probably from a spec of chocolate but I didn’t care and leaned back in my seat to observe my surroundings.
Psst, she’s never heard of challah. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
So much had changed in the span of a few months and these were our first wobbly steps outside our shelters. What would our world be like moving forward during these unprecedented times? Take politics for example, the Constitution had placed limits on one’s age before running for political office, but these days with most of our leaders in quarantine, young politicians have managed to secure new powerful positions. Also, celebrity politics is at its peak. More movie stars and singers would be competing for political office than Oscars and Grammys in the next year. It’s clear that expensive political campaigns are unthinkable during the world’s biggest recession, and celebrities don’t need to spend a lot of money for name recognition.
But how many of these new post-virus candidates know about challah bread?
Younger politicians may bring a much needed facelift to a system that’s been bogged down by ignominious politics, and monopolized by a bunch of elderly men for the most part—the average age from Senate to presidency is about 70, and Supreme Court Justices serve a lifetime appointment on the Court. Who else has such job security?
Mental acuity is an issue at times and has affected the advancement of important decisions. But the weightiest jobs in the world require intellect coupled with skill and experience, which so many of our former politicians possessed. Many of them were also out of touch with the rest of us.
This disaster has proven that Mother Nature is guilty of ageism. There I said it. Again, those probing eyes. Can they read my thoughts now? There’s a reason why many cultures revere their elderly, and in Judaism we have many references to this idea:
“Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7)
Goodness, look at the time. I dashed out of there.
When I reached home my daughter’s car was parked in the driveway. How odd, she never popped over in the middle of the week and always phoned to check whether we were in.
“No school yet because they haven’t employed new professors,” she explained.
Huh. What a world. “Okay, you could help me prepare for our Passover Seder since your grandparents will be, well, you know–”
“When is it? Should we even celebrate?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t bother,” said Greg, “that eleventh plague kind of puts a damper on the holiday. Did I tell you that my jury duty was cancelled?”
I could feel my eyes dancing from side to side, contemplating whether to wake up.
“But if we don’t have a Seder the kids may forget about challah.” I sat up leaning against my pillows, wide awake.
“What? Hahaha—what’re you talking about, you mean matzah?” He grabbed his laptop and headed downstairs. “I’ll be off to the office. Call you when I get there.”
“Please come up with new jokes, I’m begging you.”
“What’s wrong with you.” His voice echoed down the staircase.
“I don’t know—wait, you still there?”
“I can’t believe that the final season of The Last Man on Earth was cancelled—now we’ll never know what happened. How could the Network do that? So cruel.”
He climbed back up the stairs, smiling. “Yeah, but aren’t you glad that we’re now living in Camarillo, surrounded by farmland and trees of every kind. Yesterday you picked loquat on our evening walk. We may be practicing social distancing, temporarily, but we’ll never run out of fruits and vegetables!”
“True. But people may forget about challah bread.”
“Again with the challah? Who’re you talking about? You’re not making any sense Ilana. Check your temperature will ya.” He blew me a kiss and disappeared down the stairs again.
“But Greg–wait, how do you think the series ended?”