A couple eons, several millennia, four score and seven years, a hundred and sixty-odd days ago, when the world was new and we were all still so young and innocent, I ended my first full/real week of quarantine on a Facetime call with my best friend from her rooftop in Brooklyn. New York City was shutting down at end up day. My best friend had invited several people to join her on the rooftop for a last hurrah, but most everyone had already loaded in their dried beans and toilet paper, changed into soft pants, and double latched their front doors. So it ended up just being me and my best friend and a real love of another friend, a man I always associate with good food and better drinks and the kind of irresponsible late nights that find fully grown human beings literally skipping arm and arm down Delancey Street at 4am.
You know, the good stuff.
The New York sky behind my friends was that eerie overcast red, as was mine beyond the bare-knuckled limbs of the trees above my deck, and I could hear the muddled howl of ambulances through the iPhone speaker. I always associated those red skies with London and in those days the parents and the editorial writers were already exhorting me to catch up on the Blitz to get some perspective on the lockdown (note: not actually helpful). In an effort not to be grim, we’d had copious amounts of alcohol and were almost giddy with incipient apocalypse, as if bombers would, at any moment, rumble across the sky behind us and we’d see quite the light show before the world collapsed, I’d bought a bottle of Jameson as a peripheral glance at St. Patrick’s Day, the first cancelled non-holiday holiday of the The New Normal, but the days long panic squall in my stomach had kept me from enjoying it on the 17th. But on that night, that kind of sort of last night, I poured fat fingers full into a too-fancy tumbler and wished that I hadn’t been a non-smoker for ten years. I’d always planned to buy a pack of Camels for the end of the world. I could see the orange tip of my best friend’s cigarette through the screen and thought I could almost taste it.
After the call, I poured more whiskey into a red Solo cup and walked around the pond in darkness listening to Spiritualized on headphones until I landed a the house of a friend of a friend, who was also hosting a pre-siege party, though none of us called it that. I didn’t really know anyone there, save the friend. The rest were, I think, my neighbors, though I was then, barely eight weeks into being their neighbor. We sat in our plastic Adirondack chairs and brought-from-home camp chairs around a damp, mostly burnt out fire pit making awkward conversation and experimenting with gallows humor, because if we ran out of jokes we’d have to go with panic, and, as I said, we didn’t really know each other that well. Most of the jokes fell flat and none of us really had anything to say to each other. When we drifted, around midnight, we made idle promises to get together and check in, but I haven’t really seen any of them since.
I think about that night a lot. I think about it more than I do my last party (February 22), my last trip to a bar (Friday, March 6), the last time I went out (to the movies, Tuesday, March 10), and the last time I had people over who were not (at least temporarily) living with me in my house (March 13, and yes, I know that was late). All of those things feel like they should be more memorable, more portentous, but they don’t.
That night, that last Friday, feels more like the precipice, and not just because I woke up the next morning to gray skies and a terrible hangover, and spent hours staring bleakly at a Sir Christopher Wren-themed jigsaw puzzle, which, if you’re the kind of person that knits together her overthinking as elaborately as I do, felt a little too on the nose for End of the Worlding.
Those days, those early days were impossibly bleak. I didn’t handle them well. I’m of an age, class, culture, context, and geography where the great beasts may have wandered over the landscape, but they were far enough removed that I only felt the tremors. This virus, this plague was the first one to really crack my foundations, and on a very personal level, my foundations were already buckling under too much weight, on what is, at best, fairly sandy, porous ground.
I turned 40 in 2016, which means I edged into early middle age at the exact moment the US started to wriggle into fascism. I always imagined I’d be younger when that kind of thing happened. I always thought—and you’ll forgive my superficiality– I’d cut a more dashing figure, all leather jackets and spiraling smoke as I plotted resistance in the cinematic dark between streetlamps. I always hoped I’d be healthier, more carefree, less distressed, more up to the task. I never thought when history rolled up and started laying on the horn, I’d be fat, lonely, fretting in solitude, literally afraid to go anywhere or see anyone, especially not at secret-conveying distance.
Because the virus . . . the virus was just a sliver of 2020. It turns out that constant anxiety over plague and pandemic doesn’t quite muddle into background noise, but it does become rote. You get used to the chapped hands from so much washing. You have clean masks, of various styles and shapes, stocked in every convenient location. You buy bulk hand sanitizer and refill bottles. You get used to never seeing the inside of other peoples’ homes. You get used to not seeing most people. You know the fastest way in and out of the supermarket. You adjust to not feeling another person’s touch. You know what a Covid test feels like. You’re ready for the days when you take your temperature seven, eight, seventeen times on two different thermometers because you don’t trust only one. You have a pulse oximeter in your bedside table drawer—just in case—and a post it note specifying end of life plans—because you don’t have a will–and you are aware that many of your friends do too, because they stopped being ashamed of talking about it. You realize your Friday night, Zoom Happy Hour has been going on for almost six months. You can’t get complacent. Or, rather, you can at your own peril, at mine, at everyone else’s. Plenty of people have. That’s why, when every other state’s numbers are going down, North Carolina’s numbers are going back up again. Or how my county is now a hot zone.
I read an article over the last weekend that described the virus as patient and impassive, which is terrifying and terrifyingly accurate. The national conversation has shifted from When things get back to normal to If things get back to normal. I read an article a couple days ago about whether or not it would ever be safe to stand inside and hear someone sing in public again. Not just next year but ever again. Much of my life—personal and professional– is built around seeing live performance. This is the remark that would have spiraled me into oblivion in late March. These days? These days, it’s just part of the background. It’s the low level doom we live with because, for now, at least, we have no better, safer choice.
Because the virus is not always the thing that keeps me up at night anymore. It’s certainly not the only thing. The things I thought, that night at my neighbors, I thought were the worst thing that could happen? Well they haven’t happened (yet) and they seem less likely a lot of other terrifying things. At the forefront, these days is whatever our lying, venal right wing government might be doing, their enthusiasm for the violence that long propped up American structural racism. I worry about mass homelessness. I worry about people starving. I worry about my friends, peacefully protesting, getting beaten or murdered in the streets by federal troops, by heavily armed teenagers, gun-drunk on their own unearned superiority and toxic ideology . I worry about my friends being attacked in their own homes by local law enforcement just because of the color of their skin. I worry about black people getting killed by police. I worry about civil war, probably more than I should. It is one thing to be under siege from disease. It is quite another to be under siege from both disease and men with guns. I worry about the election. I worry, about how we’re collectively going to get through this winter without falling to grave despair. I worry (and I know it’s comparatively petty)about how I personally am going to navigate the holidays.
It’s a lot to try and wrap your hands around. Therapeutic and meditative texts encourage solitary, peaceful contemplation to really come to terms with how your place in the universe and how you as an individual can accept or affect change. Sometimes, though, I think that human beings are better at coming around to things collectively, in person, because you can feel bolstered and bounce ideas off people. You can arrive at some conclusion. It’s hard to turn your brain off when your only reliable hang is your thoughts. My world was never very big. And in these overwhelming, epochal, more-important-than ever days, my little world in the shadow of the shadow of the shadow of history could not feel smaller, less consequential, but lord, is it ever noisy sometimes.
That is privilege, right? That I can still abide here outside the furor and make cakes and take long walks and still waste thoughts on dresses and records and incidental social dramas because the tempest has yet to holler through my own back yard, even though I can hear the wind in the distance and feel the first drops of rain.
And maybe that’s why I keep flashing back to that Last Friday. The whiskey toasts. The mindless chatter. The banal recollections that didn’t yet feel like an evocation of a lost world. The dumb jokes in camp chairs. The neighbors pretending to be friends. The friends pretending to be okay. That night felt like the edge of the world. That night felt like the start of the world’s longest hurricane party, when everyone still has power and plenty of beer. Now, months later, I’m tired. I’m angry and frustrated. I’m out of the good snacks and all of the wine. I’m wondering why in the world I decided to ride out the hurricane instead of just leave when I still could, if I still could.But the windows have started rattling and the water is rising. And I guess we have no choice but ride it out.
Hope we make it.
Picture today is of another edge of the world, so to speak, in Arizona, back in 2018.
As of this writing, 17,938,973 people have recovered from Covid-19. PS: Sorry for the length. It’s been a while.