Onion Skin

Day 6, coronavirus quarantine, 6 pm:

You stand over the kitchen sink, a large onion in your left hand, a Global Sai kitchen knife in your right hand. This is a familiar position in the best of times, and it has become even more common for you since the coronavirus forced the world inside; you turn to cooking for the production, comfort, and satisfaction of it. You stare at the onion and you can’t help but think that lately, you feel a lot like this onion in your left hand.

You peel the brown, papery layer of skin from the onion. It falls away easily into the bottom of the stainless-steel sink. It’s identical to your outer layer. It appears protective and dependable. But look how easily it peels off. You feel like that part of you has been stripped, that you stand more exposed than ever. The outer layer is so easy to hold onto in good times, socializing with friends, working out in gyms, eating in restaurants late into the evening. You grasp onto your outer skin. But quarantined with your family, this layer drops off like the loose, brown skin of the onion. You barely have to pull at it, you can peel it with your hands.

You touch the next layer of the onion. It is slightly wet, having been protected by the tougher covering for so long. This skin is pale yellow, delicate, inexperienced at being exposed. You stare at the onion and think about last night, that part of you that became exposed, that part protected in times when the rules are clear and you always know what to do. Last night you didn’t know if your son’s friend, Liam, could come over and download a game from your son’s computer. You didn’t know if he could come in the house, or if it was safer if he just stayed on the porch. You didn’t know if he should stay in his car in the driveway. You didn’t even know if he should be touching your son’s computer at all in this time of social distancing, when the virus lives on keyboards and phones. The answer should have been no. No, Liam can’t come over, no he can’t touch your computer, no your friend can’t be that close.

The layer is exposed: you can’t say no. You walk away from conflict, even in regular times. Liam arrives because you can’t say no. He stays in the car in the driveway because you come up with a lame compromise about how he can download the game, but not come into the house. Your husband isn’t afraid to say no, and shouts at your son, “This is how the virus spreads! One friend comes over. Get Liam out of the driveway!” Voices are raised. Harsh words are exchanged.

“You all are crazy!” Your son shouts as he heads out the door to greet Liam.

“I’m tired of being the bad guy!” Your husband pleads with you, as he storms to his studio. “You are going to infect us all. You have to tell him no, he cannot have his friends randomly arriving at the house.”

This layer feels raw, unexpectedly revealed anew. You examine it, like the onion in your hand. There it is, your inability to say no, your conflict averse layer. It has always been there, a problem for sure, but now it is glowing, revealed like a rabbit under a magician’s hat.

You stare at the onion in your hand and keep peeling. Now the onion is weeping, tiny pearls of iridescent liquid emerging. It is more sensitive to the touch than the layer before it, and it appears in your hand as white, transparent, and slippery to the touch. Another layer revealed, in the rapidly changing, quickly thinning and collapsing walls of the socially distant life you live now. You stare at this layer of the onion. It is the layer of selfishness in you, the one that bends rules because the rules aren’t convenient. The layer that in normal times is rarely exposed or questioned. But in these days of threat of illness and quarantine, the stakes are higher and the consequences grim. This last conversation you had with your husband and son plays in your head like an annoying song.

“I’m going to play lacrosse on the field at Gilman,” your son says, referring to his old school.

“Sounds good,” you tell him.

“Who will be there? How many people are coming to the field? Do you understand that every time you come in contact with a new person, you expose yourself, your parents, and your grandmother in a new way?” Your husband reins in the rules again.

“Oh my God, Dad, we are on an open field. I won’t touch anyone. I won’t come within six feet of anyone. I understand what you are saying.” He grabs his lacrosse equipment and hauls it outside, pulling the door shut behind him.

Your husband looks at you. “Can you help here? Do you understand the consequences of him being with a bunch of boys on a field?”

You stare at him, tight-lipped and teary. This layer is exposed. You think you can help enforce the rules, but it does not come naturally to you. You are not a good follower of rules. You stand in front of him; this layer appears naked and selfish.

The onion is still in your left hand, the knife in your right. You are down to the core now. It is a small ball, white and exposed. The core is slippery, and the skin has veins, like the very thin blue arteries that run up the inside of your arm. You observe every line, each place the skin might tear apart from the center. Deep inside the onion a small green sprout emerges. Oh, you think, maybe this onion has been in the refrigerator too long. Then you reconsider. The green is new growth from the inside. No one can see it, concealed, growing and gaining strength from the layers of protection. It may never get there, forced back inside by the stronger outer layers, but you notice that the bud is there. It can change and grow. This global pandemic shines a spotlight through to your core. When you emerge from this quarantine, from this house, from this stance in front of the kitchen sink, knife in one hand, onion in the other, you will remember: the green sprout is buried deep inside, but alive.


Image: “Onion Skin 3” by ~jar{}, licensed under CC 2.0.

Judy Sandler
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