Plague Diary, January 27, 2021: A few weeks ago, a presidential election and a failed coup ago, I drove over to Hillsborough, to sit outside on a cold day, in a winter brown yard, ten feet away from a friend, the way you do when you’re trying to survive a pandemic. I stopped on the way for a short walk around the historic center of town, so I could feel like a tourist, and shuffled past the newly restored Colonial Inn. People were sitting on the front porch between heat lamps, enjoying a leisurely brunch, which is a thing I can hardly imagine myself doing. I peered in the windows to see the new interior, and saw a bunch of people in the interior dining room, also enjoying a leisurely brunch, which is a thing that feels about as unthinkable to me, at present, as joining a mass singing and nose-blowing event in an unventilated cruise ship cabin with a bunch of handsy, unvaccinated elderly nudists. But unlike The Great Snort, the Great Interior Unmasked Brunch didn’t look so bad, and I found myself temporarily incapable of my typical righteous indignation at people seeming to happily and steadfastly carrying on as if we weren’t still living in a plague. I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t frustrated or smug. I was just kind of sad. Because that used to be my life.
I remember what it felt like to walk inside a nice warm place that smelled good and looked different than your living room on a cold winter day. The ambient chatter and dishes and inoffensive jazz or whatever in the background. The food someone else cooked for you, that someone else would clean up for you, and conversation with the friend across the table that would maybe restore your mood if the Bloody Mary didn’t. Standing outside with my face pressed against the glass (metaphorically, I was masked, and standing 10-12 feet away), I felt a tug of desire so profound, I could have walked right in and sat right down at the slightest encouragement, if the wind at hit me the right way. I’m not exactly wishy washy on this quarantine thing. It’s been almost a year since I’ve been to Target, and a couple of months since I last went to the supermarket in person. I had a beer outside on a public patio the day they called the election back in November, and I basically had to come home and take a Xanax. So I know. And I wouldn’t. But like–the temptation. Sitting across the table and seeing my friends smile and laugh? Having a drink and reading in a fancy hotel lobby bar. I love a fancy hotel lobby bar. Even if you’re a local, and especially if you’re staying at the much less fancy hotel down the street, because hotel lobbies are a great place to disappear into a different life for a while.
I can’t seem to escape myself into that whole different life thing right now. It’s probably the biggest reason why I look at all half-finished plays and fiction projects that seemed just the thing for Covid escapism and I feel like any useful part of my imagination has just dissipated. I can’t even come up with dumb puns for ads. I think that’s because, though I may be booking hypothetical vacations in between the Zoom meetings, I know I’m not going anywhere anytime soon (and I typed that sentence before I read that the More Vaccine Resistant South African Covid variant is afoot and enjoying community spread in the other Carolina). In this context, does imagining a different life make me feel better or worse? I don’t know. I don’t like that.
My little sister called yesterday admitted that she couldn’t figure out whether to feel hopeful or hopeless about the future. I was stymied by both how accurately she described the feeling and for the appropriate response. Do I give voice to my actual worst fears? Do I throw in the unfolding climate crisis for fun? Do I try to make my little sister, who I love more than just about anything and I haven’t seen in almost a year, feel better? Is it more helpful to be confronted with the worst case scenario upfront and in the face? Is it better to, as both of my parents (divorced, but still somewhat psychologically aligned) parents say, think positive? Didn’t I just read another article today predicting that the next few months will be brutal and we should steel ourselves? Haven’t I read that article at least once a week since March 2020? I’m not Superman. There’s only so long I can pretend I’m impervious before inevitable stress fractures.
I say this because I can understand why people are doing crazy shit right now. I’m not talking about the militia member conspiracy theorists or the kids (they’re still alright, as I understand it, fighting the power and doing sea shantys on Tik Tok) or whatever Jim Jordan and his cohorts are up to. People are buying wildly overpriced houses in places I’m not at all sure they’re going to want to live in 12-18 months. People are getting way into Peloton. Friends are adopting puppies in the dead of winter with children in the house and nowhere to escape when they all start to cry at the same time. Friends are making fine-stitch knit blankets and taking up petit-point. At least two far left, secular academic friends (comrades?) up and started the process to convert to Catholicism (I failed at both the radical left and The Church, and both times just ended up back in the theatre). A couple more started selling real estate (see above) or stocks. Lots of people I respect and admire seem to have a lot of sudden respect and admiration for Taylor Swift (don’t get it, and I love dumb pop songs) and most of my favorite journalistic outlets have spent most of this week inexplicably obsessed with what a bunch of nerds are doing with video game store stock (don’t care and I’m too broke to gamble/invest). A couple of otherwise absolutely sane, pro-Science, Covid-believing people are planning elaborate trips for the near future, vaccine be damned. At least one of them invited me along and I wanted to go so bad it hurt. Like physically hurt. Because it would be so easy. It would be so easy to click a button, buy a ticket, let the chips fall as they may.
But Alison, you say, Alison. The vaccine is coming. Why start walking when the finish line is in sight? And of course you’re right. I’m a human being, though, operating at the edge of what feels reasonable with a real faith deficit given the fact that I’ve spent, at minimum, forty odd weeks an unwitting participant in a collaborative global demonstration of Murphy’s Law. I am tired. I am sore. I am having a hard time putting effort into doing anything right now because all of it, frankly, feels like it might get obliterated at any moment. There is absolutely nothing I can do other than what I am doing and what I am doing is nothing.
Yesterday, I stood up in the middle of a ridiculously busy workday, surrounded by piles of work I hardly even know how to start, and drove out to a dairy on the outskirts of town and bought a chocolate milk shake curbside for lunch. I sat in the car in a muddy pull-off across the street, sucking at the straw and contemplating the unfolding pastures under a sky so flawlessly blue it seemed impossible it was winter and would, in fact, snow about twelve hours later. My phone buzzed with emails. I didn’t read them. I just at the sky and enjoyed the way the chocolate coated my tongue.
When I was nineteen, and very unhappy, I used to sit in the strip mall parking lot outside the record store where my roommate worked, car pointed west, and think, “It would be so easy for me to leave. Start driving. If I had just a few more dollars, a word of encouragement. I would be gone.” Of course I never had a few more dollars. I never had a friend dumb enough to encourage me. I never went. It wouldn’t have been practical. It wouldn’t have been smart. It would have been dangerous and selfish. I don’t want to be either of those things.
Quarantine is tough for escapists. Maybe tougher for escape fantasists, because what do we have to imagine we’re running to but something so much worse.
I finished my milk shake. I drove home. I painted pictures of parties from the past until I got tired enough to sleep, because I, well, I couldn’t even dream of what the future might look like.
As of this writing, 73,819,457 people have recovered from Covid 19. More than 86.4 million vaccine doses have been administered worldwide.
Picture today is of the party paintings on my kitchen table.