At first it spreads through memes. A video of Kris Jenner leaving the office to work from home after she hears a single cough. Or Miranda Priestly telling people who are still going out to bars and restaurants, “Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you.” Or Lady Gaga saying something about 100 people in a room before the CDC shuts her down. We learn about the virus first as a joke.
Two news items appear on Twitter, listed one above the other: “Coronavirus whistleblower Li Wenliang has died, Wuhan Central Hospital confirms,” followed by, “Harry Styles Manicurist Says He’s Experimenting with His Nail Looks.” Everything is coming to us online, where news gets rapidly filtered through layers of ironic distance and referential nihilism until it comes out the other end dressed in drag and doing a stoned makeup tutorial.
There are playlists spreading too, with songs like “Toxic” by Britney Spears and “Evacuate the Dancefloor” by Cascada and “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins — foreboding you can dance to. (We’ll need these playlists later when we’re dancing in our apartments alone, for however long this will last.)
At some point, word spreads that toilet paper is disappearing from supermarket shelves, and I can’t work out why toilet paper has been singled out because there haven’t been any memes about the virus causing gastro. Only memes where Homer Simpson points a shotgun at Marge Simpson’s face from behind his turned-over mattress, standing atop of pile of toilet rolls.
People decide that pasta is the thing to eat for the next two-to-four weeks, so pasta is gone from supermarket shelves too. Whole wheat pasta remains the least desirable kind and is available. Hand sanitizer? Forget about it. My sister in Australia says she hasn’t seen flour in three weeks, presumably because, with all the binged seasons of The Great British Bake Off about to be streamed during quarantine, there will be a surplus of socially distanced scones — that is, at least, the way Australians would deal with all this. In America, people are buying more guns.
I had read Camus’ The Plague in December — a fluke. Looking at the cover, with its pool of dirty blood spilling into a rusted drain, I was prepared to be horrified, overwhelmed by scenes of grisly death, but as I read I was surprised, even startled, by how mundanely, silently, the plague overtakes the town of Oran, how rumors of the escalating deaths spread quietly as the townspeople still head out to dinner and get on with the minutiae of their days. One of Oran’s citizens, Joseph Grand, spends his time working on a single sentence, the troubles of the plague no more important to him than his need to perfect the sentence that will open his novel. The whole novel is disregarded, in fact, in favor of getting this one composition right, weighing whether it is right to describe a mare as “sorrel,” or whether there would truthfully be flowers along the Bois de Boulogne.
On a flight to Los Angeles on March 6, not a single person dares to even clear their throat for fear of fearful looks. Some people have surgical masks but haven’t pinched in the flexible top around the nose, so the menacing droplets can still sneak in through the gaps. Others clean their seats with sanitizing wipes; the wipes come up black.
The gym is almost empty. Spray bottles of surface cleaner and paper towels are stationed near the weights, the bottles probably gathering germs as people grab at them in a panic to wipe everything down. But nobody is wiping down the bottles. Once the gyms shut down, there are videos of people working out in their apartments and on their rooftops; of all the things people are willing to sacrifice, their summer body is not one of them.
People cannot resist sharing the headline, “Coronavirus Conference Gets Cancelled Because of Coronavirus.”
The New York restaurants and bars have one day left before shutdown. In some of the bars you can still see people drinking martinis on dates; in others, owners are sat hunched over calculators, their heads in their hands.
A friend is sick. He has all of the symptoms — the fever, the cough, the tightness in his chest. He also has asthma. I walk past his apartment in Bushwick and wave to him in his second story window. I try to calculate how far the droplets can travel if falling from a second story window and I position myself in such a way that the droplets cannot get me. I promise to bring him books to put in his mailbox — his primary concern is boredom.
I get together with other friends. We cook dinner for each other, lie together on each other’s couches, lose track of whose wine glass is whose. We hold onto denial, thinking things surely can’t be that bad, or that at least we’ll be okay.
Borders start closing. My sister wants me to fly home to Australia, where the health system is less dire, but Australia isn’t really home anymore. I send her photos of a crammed JFK airport, and tell her I’m staying put. Schools shut down, along with the restaurants and bars. Broadway “goes dark,” and dancers start teaching ballet and yoga from their living rooms. Drag queens add their Venmo details to livestream performances to collect digital tips. I learn through a Facebook friend whom I’ve never met that he, along with the entire restaurant’s staff where he works, is fired overnight, as is the case for thousands of other hospitality workers. Somehow, being a writer has become a job with job security.
A friend and I defiantly leave the house on Saturday, March 14, the day the first death from coronavirus is recorded in New York, but we haven’t heard about that yet. There are lots of people out, buying coffee and picking up coffee lids that many hands have touched and drinking through these coffee lids that many hands have touched. Parents are running alongside their children on scooters to the park to play soccer. We bump into another friend, who lives with our friend who is sick. We do not touch him and stand not quite six feet away from him, still making jokes about the absurdity of all this distancing. He gets sick two days later.
People post about how they’re going crazy having to work from their homes, which is strange to me because I work from home all the time and I go crazy from social isolation on any given week, and now the mutual forced isolation — my norm — is making me feel less isolated. “Work from Home” by Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign appears on the playlists.
Going out for a walk feels at first daring and beautiful. Spring is coming and the sky seems so open and blue and yet everything is still quiet. It is suddenly a luxury to wear a light coat and walk briskly enough for the breeze to catch it and to hear birds and cars and the voice of Dean Barquet, executive editor of The New York Times, reading C.S. Lewis to me through my headphones: “It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.”
Then, after so many days inside my apartment, walking outside is alarming, and paranoia begins to dominate the mind. I walk to the laundromat, having no other way to clean my clothes and bedsheets. Rather than risk having to touch the machines, I hand over my load of laundry for drop-off and leave, but immediately imagine how many people will be touching my clothes, breathing on my clothes, infecting my clothes, and I walk back into the laundromat and ask for the bag of laundry back. I touch the ATM buttons to get money out. I touch the bills. I touch the machine that dispenses quarters. I touch the handle of the machine. I touch the flap to put in detergent. I touch every quarter that slides into the machine’s slot, touching the edges of the slot as my thumb presses each quarter in. And I touch the door again on my way out, rushing back home to where there is hand soap. I seal the leftover quarters in a Ziploc bag.
I wash my hands eight to ten times a day and they begin to appear as if they’re diseased — stripped and peeling and raw, with red blotches and a crusty rash on one knuckle from all the washing. Staring at my hands under the purifying water for twenty seconds is the closest I’ve come to having a religious ritual in my life.
There are memes likening the virus to HIV, the queer community rolling their collective eyes at the outrage of those who couldn’t imagine an epidemic going ignored by the government for even a month (“First time?” James Franco says, a noose around his neck).
Another meme reads: “Climate change needs coronavirus’ publicist.” After years of being told it would be impossible to lessen air travel or mobilize international efforts or put a dent in the global economy to do anything about preventing climate change for younger generations, all these things are actioned within months to protect against this virus, which most significantly affects the older generation. Boomer Remover, the virus has been dubbed, and some young people are celebrating, still out in the parks. You could say they’ve learned from the older generation how to be so reckless with their futures.
Photos of the US Naval Hospital Ship Comfort docking at Pier 90 on March 30 show hundreds of Manhattanites gathering to take pictures, neglecting the social distancing orders. On Instagram, the images are followed by a compilation of the Real Housewives saying on repeat, “Are you dumb?”
There are odd moments of hopeful news, as when a map of China shows how air quality has improved since the closing of domestic flights, or when there’s even a glimmer of a chance that certain politicians — the ones who have been so negligent on healthcare — have been exposed. Penguins at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium are allowed to wander the closed aquarium’s corridors and visit their neighboring fish. The water of the Venice canals is running clear, purified. A video on Twitter shows an airport baggage carousel crawling with live crabs that have inexplicably escaped from a passenger’s luggage, and the caption reads, “Crabs are back in airports. Nature is healing.”
I join a group that will spend the days of isolation reading War and Peace. At first, I am diligent about assigning time each day to read the heavy book, delivered via Amazon, the packaging left outside the apartment door, but I slowly fall behind, more interested in playing a video game set in an apocalyptic America where civilization has collapsed due to a virus that spreads through air-borne spores, turning humans into mushroom-headed zombies.
A friend messages me to say she just saw someone attempt suicide. People are still dying in the usual ways, being hit by cars, overdosing, dying quietly in their sleep. How strange it must feel to learn that a loved one has died of something so irrelevant. Their deaths are peripheral to the larger story of this moment, and there is less time for them right now.
My housemate, after an online therapy session, walks into my bedroom and asks for a hug, and I refuse. I suggest we sit and talk together but I keep my distance, even as he looks as if he’s about to cry. I also need to be hugged, for no other reason than to feel touch. I read articles about how the quarantine is allowing us to reconsider our connections with our families in our homes, and I resent the assumption that we all live with family, that we all have partners to lie beside at night. Sexually frustrated, I talk with other single men online and we describe to each other what it will feel like to touch each other when we can. Meanwhile, my sister in Australia is running away from her two- and five-year-old daughters who insist on spending every moment of every day with her, including in the shower, and she just wants one hour when she can sit somewhere alone and unbothered.
I wake up with a tightness in my chest and what I perceive as difficulty breathing. But it is unclear if my shortness of breath is due to the anxiety I’m feeling about having shortness of breath. This lack of clarity is the biggest symptom these days, because even if I had the virus, a diagnosis for any kind would likely remain unknown.
Even before the virus, ambulances would regularly drive by my bedroom windows, which look out on the corner of two Bed-Stuy cross streets, but now the sirens seem to blare past every ten or twenty minutes. As I walk to the supermarket there is an ambulance stopped outside a building on my street. When I walk past 15 minutes later on my way home, another is stopped on the opposite side of the street, the siren off but the red lights flashing, the driver with his feet up against the dashboard, waiting.
Camus’ The Plague is sitting on my shelf and I wonder about picking it up again (I’ve fallen far behind on War and Peace). Instead I start reading Death with Interruptions by José Saramago. The novel begins when an unnamed country wakes up one New Year’s morning to discover that not a single person has died. Suicide attempts fail; car crash victims survive, mangled; the elderly linger in states close to death but never pass over. The victory over death lasts only briefly before bureaucratic dilemmas arise: the hospitals are overrun, the corridors filling up, as sick patients are unable to die; the church cries blasphemy as, without death, there can be no resurrection, and therefore no religion; insurance companies quickly devise a scheme to keep people buying life insurance despite the fact that they’ll be living forever, outlining a term payment plan that keeps the insurance companies profiting; eldercare facilities become places of overcrowded and tedious infinity. “Rather death than such a destiny,” one character says.
Some nights, I fall asleep early and wake up 12 hours later. Other nights, I can’t sleep until 1 a.m. and wake up two hours later. I have mundane dreams of sitting on the couch or of walking outside, my mind with only limited impressions of the day to process.
During the day I move between three rooms. I learn to withstand the waves of loneliness. Sometimes the quiet solitude feels comforting, other times it opens up into a debilitating depression. The depression can last for days, as I’m unable to sleep, then sleep all day; getting frustrated with friends for not reaching out, then ignoring calls from them when they do; sulking in front of the television, unimpressed by Netflix’s The Tiger King, which everyone else seems to love.
The isolation means more time to read, more time to catch up on movies or to listen to music. But things are still boring or poorly written or overly saccharine. More time to appreciate art doesn’t necessarily mean that the art is more worthy of appreciation, and all my usual petty criticalities arise, even as my empathy feels most generous.
Television shows where people ride the subway, or have an argument over dinner in a restaurant, or embrace, have suddenly become period pieces. Last week belongs to a different era, the pre-panic days. I feel distinctly older, being capable, within the space of a week, of starting every second sentence with “remember when…”
My housemate, the one I wouldn’t hug, who sews drag costumes in his spare time, makes us facemasks in an elaborate turquoise and golden flower print. He is starting to cough but assures me it’s probably allergies. The temperature keeps rising and dropping and there’s pollen in the air as the trees start flowering. I start to resent the possibility of him getting sick, unfairly blaming him as if he is willingly inviting disease into our house, just when I had felt safe to finally hug him.
When I visit the supermarket with my homemade cloth mask and walk past the shelves where toilet paper was once stocked — where it hasn’t been seen now for about three weeks — they are now stocking Yahrzeit Memorial candles, small candles to be lit for deceased loved ones.
The chance to leave New York, the epicenter (even in a pandemic, New York can’t help but boast of its status), to get on one of the remaining flights to Australia while I still can and wait out the worst of this in relative peace, lingers in my mind. But what would it mean to leave, besides good sense? What exactly is the fear of this moment? Not only death and disease, but the fear of proximity to collapse, of being too close to the desperate and the disoriented, all qualities that bring life into vivid clarity. I think I’ll stay, against all better judgement.
The bed starts to feel like a nest, the blankets burrowed deeply into. Panic rises outside the apartment walls and seeps in through the screens — panic of not enough hospital beds, of food shortages, of Great Depression economic turmoil, of crowded morgues, of no end in sight — and all of this, as we’ve been told to do, is kept at a protective distance. The trouble seems just far enough away: a friend of a friend died early on, having kissed my friend only weeks before; a friend of a friend broke his leg, caught the virus while in the hospital, and died; a friend of a friend has been in the ICU for six weeks, and was technically dead for 40 minutes before the nurses were able to resuscitate him; a friend of a friend was the first person to be arrested in Australia for breaking their mandated quarantine and will spend six months in jail, where the disease is spreading fast. For thousands of people the trouble is very immediate and real, but I no longer see these people anywhere but on screens.
Company comes through the screens too, hour-long conversations with friends that I haven’t seen in years. People dance together online in “quarantine clubs,” a grid of windows into other people’s bedrooms where they dance in their underwear, with digitally imposed cartoon backgrounds or colored lighting. I can’t decide whether this kind of togetherness is optimistic or sad. Dancing together, in a room full of people interacting and physicalizing, feels so invigorating, so vital, and the digital substitute is no substitute at all, and I would rather retreat fully and accept the isolation for what it is, solitary confinement, rather than pretend that dancing together apart is as satisfying as dancing together together. I am waiting until we can be together again.
My sick friend is looking better when I drop off his books, literally dropping them onto the outdoor letter box so I don’t have to touch a single surface. Even though he is personally through the worst of the sickness, he might still lose his job. Perhaps the worst is still to come, even for him, even as his health improves.
And there’s more time to write, more time to put off having to write, more time to agonize over something as futile as the perfect way to write a sentence.
Photo credit: Cor Fahringer