The other week I went full Churchill on one of my more Covid-shy friends, trying to talk her down from worrying about catching Covid at a distant cousin’s wedding. You know the drill: We shall not flag or fail, we shall dive maskless onto the dance floor. Life is short, and who knows how many more times we will dance to “Shout”? (One million more times, and I also sort of expect that hell will just be “Shout” playing on a loop for eternity. Sorry!)
It was over text, so maybe it didn’t have quite the same effect as Winston on the radio. Also, it was about getting the sneezes from someone squatting next to you during “Shout.” Anyway, you get what I mean, and I already regret tying myself to this metaphor, so I’m going to move on.
As if I’m some post-pandemic paragon of self-actualization. I keep acting like I’m done processing my pandemic agita only to find myself in some new emotional tumble dryer. Once I was done being scared of getting sick — sometime in February, after enough of my giant Q-tips had come back negative that the worrying seemed like a poor use of energy — I kept getting mad at people who weren’t wearing masks in places where they were supposed to be wearing masks. Not because I was afraid they were going to give me Covid, but because I’m the kind of person who gets mad at people who talk in the quiet car. E.g., I’m full of rage, and I probably should have found work with my hands, but instead I’m a coastal elite who inserts commas for a living, so I have to express my rage through other channels (Twitter).
More recently, I was fulminating over whether I should suck it up and stop wearing a mask because the only reason I was still wearing a mask was because I was worried that I would run into my friends who would judge me for not wearing a mask. I mean, the other night I met a friend for a Broadway show and we both showed up with a mask in our pockets in case the other one wanted to wear one at the show. (If you are not a liberal millennial living in New York City, this is what it’s like to be a liberal millennial in New York City. EXHAUSTING!)
I’m intentionally trivializing the genuinely hard process of letting go of a dogma that we perform — or don’t — in public. After two and a half years of reading the weekly Eeyore report from that dude from The Atlantic, who in their right mind is going to get up and say that they think watching strangers laugh at a Broadway show is worth everyone around you maybe contracting an illness that is still killing thousands of people around the world every day? (Well, geez, when you put it THAT way, Ed Yong…)
I’ll spare you all the tortured debate over the ethics of returning to a normal life. What I’m concerned with is remembering how to be. I mean, small talk. Basic human instincts. The things we learned as children that we’re relearning as adults.
Case in point: When I did stop wearing a mask on the subway, I noticed that behind my KN95, I had started making judgy faces at people doing weird things. It reminded me of one time in college at one of our musical theatre cabaret shows when someone whispered to me that I was openly cringing at the person onstage butchering — you know, I’m not even going to say what song they were butchering, on the off-chance they read this, but it wasn’t my finest moment.
Anyway, I don’t condone openly cringing at anyone with the self-confidence to put themselves out there (although really, know your limits). The salient point is that you can cringe at someone at a cabaret on your college campus in Poughkeepsie, but you can’t make judgy faces at someone on the subway in New York City in 2022. People get stabbed for less these days!
The easy thing for me to do after the pandemic would have been what I have secretly been dreaming of doing since I first read “Success is counted sweetest” when I was eight (in a children’s book by Garrison Keillor. Please, psychoanalyze me!): go full Emily Dickinson. Buy a closet full of white nightgowns and never leave the house again. Nobody gets stabbed. Nobody has to remember how to engage in small talk with the woman next to you on the airplane who has been watching Fox News on her seatback television for the past five hours.
Too bad that I live in the era of Instagram and am thus ruled by FOMO. (Also, I’m married to a normal human man who never harbored a desire to be Emily Dickinson, though he did have a pet hermit crab as kid.)
So instead here I am, ready to return full bore to my normal life. One problem: I’m not sure what normal life I’m supposed to be returning to.
My life prior to the pandemic was an adventure. My husband and I were living abroad and I traveled several weeks out of the year for work, visiting friends I had made in my company’s offices around the world over the nine years I spent working there. I had cultivated a “good at packing my suitcase” persona, which was really sophisticated for a lifelong twerp.
So obviously the pandemic itself was a crash landing, to use the most obvious metaphor possible. Then I quit the job left the city where we had been making friends before Covid hit, and returned to New York, a place where the mass media would have you believe there were more dining sheds than people by the end of the Delta wave.
I’m joking that I’ve forgotten how to get on the subway without giving the side-eye to people with the nail clippers out, but it’s more existential than that. I’ve found myself not so much afraid to leave the house, but more so unsure of where to go, what to do, and, most importantly, with whom.
My tagline on Instagram is “living in a body in the world.” It’s a sort of inside joke with myself that’s mostly about not identifying myself with any particular career or location, but it’s also about the life I was proud to have developed as a world traveler and explorer. You should have seen the kind of by-the-block itineraries I planned myself in the cities I visited. Let’s not kid ourselves; I was not clubbing in Ibiza, but I took some (a lot) (too many) (I pay for extra iCloud storage) sweet photos of houses that looked like gingerbread in Bruges and I always knew where to get the most photogenic oatmeal.
Did I doom myself during the pandemic by finally learning to cook my own oatmeal? No, I remember how to plan itineraries for myself. The problem now is that I do not have friends, I definitely do not have friends. And without friends, what’s the point of leaving the house?
This is an exaggeration. I apologize to my five friends for erasing them in the name of humor. (Also, I just started watching “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — why yes, I am on the cutting edge of culture, as per usual — and I just really needed to work that reference into this post somewhere because the damn song has been stuck in my head for a week.) What I mean is that I had more friends on Zoom than I do in the great city of New York.
One of the rare bright spots of the pandemic was how easy it was to reconnect with all my friends who have dispersed to the four winds, all of us squatting in our dumb little square windows like we were sitting around our precious college kitchen table and no time had passed at all. I forgot, upon returning to New York, that I was not returning to the set of “Friends” or my college campus. (This has not been made easier by the fact that one of my best friends from college recently took a job on our college campus.)
I do have a soul, though, so of course I was desperate to actually see my friends’ faces in person once the world began to reopen and confirm that they still had bodies below the necks. And I was so grateful to see them that during those first few weeks, we were happy to sit out on our balconies in the unseasonably cold April wind, shivering over bowls of takeout ramen, wrapped in every blanket we could find, because we weren’t all vaccinated yet. (Now I’m bitching about the thirty-minute wait at Walgreens and how the latest booster made my armpit hurt. Hey, gift horse, come over! I want to look you in the mouth!)
Now I keep looking at Instagram and seeing all these people out having their hot vax summers with their twelve zillion friends who didn’t forget about them while they were out taking photos of the Tallinn skyline, feeling a little like I did when I was working through my third grade Rolodex trying to get someone to sleep over on a Friday night. The same I age I was, not coincidentally, when I first came across Emily Dickinson and wondered to myself if the white nightgown life would be the life for me.
I guess knowing that at any given time, one of the several dozens of people I follow on social media is out doing something with one of their coterie of friends means that my lizard brain believes that I should, at any given time, be doing something with one of my coterie of friends. (I’m sorry, my five friends. Love you guys!) And I’m sure that social media doesn’t help, but I suppose it’s also just human nature to feel constantly dissatisfied with one’s life. I mean, the Kardashians didn’t invent the name of their television show, you know? (You do know, right?)
A small and very shameful part of me appreciated the pandemic for acting as a sort of social equalizer that made all of my friends into sad little Emily Dickinsons lurking in their bedrooms during primetime. I got to go to bed early every night and nobody gave me shit for Irish goodbying. I didn’t have to do the hard work of being a friend: showing up, reaching out, staying out, being there.
I don’t think I’m the only person who expected to emerge into an idealized version of life. It reminds me a little of showing up to college, thinking I was going to be a completely different person than I’d been for the past eighteen years — and a little of leaving college, thinking that everyone lived on the same superior moral plane where I did now that I had studied Global Feminism and Critical Race Theory (yeah, I took Critical Race Theory in 2010! Who’s the wokest now?!).
So what now? I have the kind of frenetic energy I last had several years ago going through a breakup, when I felt the irrepressible urge to get out of my apartment and do everything available to me. Not the worst thing in the world, though last time I had to draw the line after I ended up watching a prog rock version of the musical “Sweeney Todd.” (Honestly, it was better than it sounds on paper. I swear.)
Now that I have my feet in one place, I’ll be spending less time photographing the Tallinn skyline and more time… well, probably photographing the countdown clock on the G train platform because I’m spitting mad that it’s going to be 24 minutes until the next G train to Church Avenue (the G train, Nermal!). Now is the time to break my terrible habit of failing to take up open-ended social invitations from people I don’t know well because I’m afraid I might bore them by talking about the weather, you know? Might I finally fulfill my fantasy of hosting dinner parties? I expect that in the narrative of my life this will be a time of precipice, one that — as the word implies — precipitates great change in how I live.
I don’t love the visual of a precipice for this moment, though. I prefer the metaphor of a doorway: one that I’m making the choice to open, step out of, and shut behind me, even though I know what protection I could have if I stayed inside, and even though I can’t know what might be outside waiting for me.