a very covid christmas

I’m a bad but cowardly driver. It’s a useful combination — I’ve never merged so confidently into someone’s blind spot that I can’t swerve back at the last minute — but it means I’ve felt my heart stop more often than I’d prefer. Once in high school, en route to a party hosted by the crush who told me he liked to talk to his girlfriend about fun things and to me about serious things, I was jamming to “Creep” (Radiohead, not TLC. I’m the serious one!) and in my agony started to exit straight into another grey Honda. Its driver blasted me out of my communion with Thom Yorke and I had to pull in the shoulder for a minute to recover.

God knows why that’s the dodged bullet that’s come to mind this week as I recover from the coronavirus.

Yes, reader, I caught the creeping crud. My case is mild. I had a sore throat for a day or two, then what felt like the kind of sinus infection I always had during finals at Vassar that makes you cough when you lie down. It seemed likelier that it was the highly contagious illness infecting millions worldwide than a cold, so though I didn’t have the most common symptoms, I sent in for a test.

The NHS mailed me a shrink-wrapped Q-tip, and following this handsome doctor’s instructions, I stuck it into my brain. Two days later, they told me that I had it. I told a kind Scottish contact tracer about all the grocery stores I visited before I took ill and added another bottle of cough syrup to my Sainsbury’s delivery.

I’ve wondered a few times this winter whether I had died without noticing. Every morning I wake up and then I click buttons and talk into a pile of metals extracted from someone else’s backyard until it’s time to go to bed again. One of my best friends gestated and birthed a baby between the last time I saw her and now. I don’t know if there’s any gray left in my father’s hair or if it’s all gone white.

I got my results the Friday afternoon before our office “shut” for the holidays. It felt sinful to skip out for a mere cold, so I’d canceled only one meeting in the days prior and muted myself while I coughed during the other ones.

I don’t have the stomach for the hardcore self-sacrifice you need to document on LinkedIn to really make it in Silicon Valley, but I do dabble in performative masochism. I took a flight once with pink eye in both eyes. I’ve bought numbing sprays and cough syrups with labels I can’t read in a few foreign countries so I could show up to align the boxes on a PowerPoint that the speaker would forget to click forward on anyway. The rhetoric of “self-care” grates on me as much as calling someone out for “beating” their illness, as if not dying is anything but random or, if you prefer, divine, or as if I have a legitimate claim to skip out on clicking buttons on my computer because my throat’s a little sore. I’d be sitting either way.

Is illness next to godliness? I felt holy the last time I recovered from an illness that other people die from, too. That’s vile, but no more so than wallowing in my air-conditioned apartment because I don’t like Webex. I don’t feel guilty for not being dead. I feel lucky, and seen. I’ve dodged plenty of bullets in my incautious lifetime and as grimy as it feels to admit it, I like the praise. If I don’t get a gold star for getting out of bed in the morning, I’ll take one for getting over my mild cough.

The thing about covid that reminds me of not combusting on the side of the 215 highway near Henderson is that I can tell, viscerally, how much worse it could have been. I can feel in my lungs where the death rattle could form. Maybe I’d have noticed the same during my sinus infections if I hadn’t been busy crafting a harebrained argument from reading I only skimmed. Maybe it’s more natural to contemplate death the less life there is to distract you from it.

That sounds bleak. I don’t mean for it to. Having not died, I’m eager to get on not dying as I have since I first came on the scene of dying-or-not some three decades ago.

I keep telling people that I’m looking forward to looking back on this. I like to think about telling my friend’s daughter one day about the year we tried to keep scallions alive in glasses of water on the windowsill, because there’s no use in trying to land the weight of caprice on someone until they feel it themselves, sitting shaken in the driver’s seat on the highway shoulder or learning the news of a death — or a birth — in the tiny screen. Things happen or they don’t and yes, I still resent those people in charge who won’t make the decisions they’re supposed to and those people not in charge foaming at the mouth over something that Ben Franklin of the key and the kite probably wouldn’t have worried about. I’ve done what I can to hedge against all that. Now, I wait.

insult and quarantinjury

The other week I read some WSJ puff piece about how locked-down Americans doing burpees for the first time keep spraining their ankles. I rolled my eyes at all the bumbling idiots, like I’m not someone who once tweaked my neck so badly shampooing my hair that I couldn’t turn my head for a week, and then promptly burned my arm dumping a loaf of bread from an oven-hot pan, sliced my finger open with serrated knife, and stress-fractured my foot trying to jog for the first time in months.

All the while I have my hackles up for any sign of the creeping crud. I’ve Googled “covid or allergies” one zillion times (it’s always allergies) since March. More recently I’ve gotten into antibodies, and the other day I spent more than zero minutes trying to remember whether I’d had a cold in January or February. I didn’t — at least not according to my WhatsApps with my mother, where I register all of my complaints about my physical health and flight delays for unconditional sympathy (thanks, Mom) — but I did have a nasty bout of food poisoning. Did I Google “covid or food poisoning”? Yes. Did we have covid that January night when my fiancé and I woke up at 2 A.M. and then vomited for the next sixteen hours straight? No. Not only do I not have antibodies, but it’s still my fault for not washing the spinach properly before I stirred it into the curry.

Twelve years of ballet taught me to listen to my body well. I was always kind of a wet noodle of a dancer, which was good and bad; I was fluid and sinuous, but I never could get my weight out of my heels. And I always had a pulled groin, shin splints, mysterious hip pain, a bad foot, whatever. I learned to tell when something was about to go wrong so I could baby it. I did a whole Nutcracker season one year with my shins wrapped in Ace bandages. Now when my problem-child hamstring — the one I pulled a few years back walking wrong (wet noodle!) — acts up I listen to my Internet yoga teacher telling me to “put away my ego” and bend my knees in my forward fold.

(From my bent-knee forward fold, I think mournfully back on when I took ballet six days a week and had a perfect arabesque. Now I am Old Mother Hubbard.)

I know also when I’m about to be ill. Maybe my head feels an ounce heavier or I can feel a telltale pinch at the back of my nose. When I was still a performer and the cold inevitably began to creep on the week before the show, this was when I’d panic and start chugging a lot of water. (I maintain that Emergen-C is a scam.)

Lately I’ve felt similarly frantic when I feel the stirrings of illness. London is in full and verdant bloom, and every time I leave the house I return with a little sniffle. Then it subsides and I feel briefly sad that I didn’t get the virus, because in all likelihood if I got it I’d get better. I fantasize about being impervious and boarding a plane home to see my family, and then I feel irresponsible for daring to want to catch it, like I’m one of those mothers you hear about throwing chicken-pox parties.

I like that I have so much knowledge of and control over my body. Obviously, that was where the whole anorexia thing came from a few years back, but it’s not always so insidious. It’s helpful that I know (okay, knew, whatever, in my head I’m still a prima ballerina) to Ace-bandage my legs before I hop around on a poorly sprung stage six nights a week for a month. Even if I couldn’t stave off a cold, I knew how it would progress and how to hot-water-and-lemon it until I could sing passably.

I’m unaccustomed to a threat that I can’t steps one-two-and-three into submission, and one that has implications beyond my own body. A mask isn’t a knee brace, and my sprained ankles weren’t contagious. Lately I feel more like a time bomb, and with a world shrunk to the size of an apartment, it’s hard to see outside of what I can feel. (Especially when what I feel is searing pain because I bounced a loaf pan fresh from a 450-degree oven off of my bare arm!)

the name is the thing

Like every other once-idealistic liberal arts college graduate who took a post-recession detour into the tech industry, I recently cringed my way through Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley at breakneck speed. (I didn’t react as strongly to it as my colleagues have. Mostly, I was just smug all over again that I never lived in San Francisco.)

My most lingering takeaway has been the book’s hallmark stylistic choice: Winkingly precise descriptions in place of proper nouns. Anna Wiener’s employers Oyster and Mixpanel become “the e-book startup” and “the data-analytics startup”; Amazon becomes “the online superstore.” My colleagues and I have traded the same hypotheses that reviewers have over whether she was gunning for timelessness or just skirting the Valley’s notoriously watertight NDAs, but it occurred to me this week that maybe she’s as allergic as I am to true names.

Writing in my journal these past weeks, I’ve caught myself studiously avoiding the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19,” preferring instead the more cinematic “the virus.” I wince a little every time I read in a newspaper about who is and isn’t “practicing ‘social distancing,'” the scare quotes omnipresent around “social distancing” but not, mysteriously, “practicing,” which is jargon if I ever heard it; I dare you to tell me the last time you “practiced” something instead of just doing it. (You didn’t.)

I never was comfortable with argot. I chalk it up to a childhood spent studiously memorizing the mannerisms of an in-crowd I was outside of. I knew early what I could and couldn’t pull off and most nicknames, in-jokes, baby-talk, everything that was popular on the four-square court, were out of my league. They could smell on me my discomfort with anything that wasn’t of me or at least anything I hadn’t encountered in the dictionary that they insisted I read in my spare time.

(I recognize that in the grand pantheon of bullying, being said to read the dictionary in one’s spare time doesn’t count for much, but God, did it rankle me. I didn’t read the dictionary! It’s only now that I always keep a browser tab open to Thesaurus.com!)

Proof.

I only trusted language I acquired on my own. Anything else was a landmine. I remember once on the bus back from a field trip when one of the popular boys turned around to me with that glint in his eye and asked if I knew what a “cunt” was. I didn’t, but we were in middle school by then and I knew better than to take language cues from anyone with more mastery over hair gel than pre-algebra, so I just shrugged and returned to staring out the window.

(That bus ride was the first time I heard “The Remedy” and in seventeen years of hearing that song at dentists’ offices I haven’t been able to shake the association with B______ with the hair gel turning toward me with the look of someone who knew he was about to fuck a nerd over. Apropos of nothing, a few years after that I heard that he contracted a near-fatal case of necrotizing fasciitis after a wrestling match.)

So here I am in 2020 feeling like a fraud for calling the creeping crud COVID-19 when I hardly passed high school chemistry. Thus: “the virus.”

I am reminded of a time years ago following a gnarly breakup when I found myself incapable of referring to my ex-boyfriend by name in my journal. I referred to him as him, in italics, as if by abstracting him away on paper I could in real life too, or maybe I was just trying like the characters in Harry Potter not to invoke something I didn’t want around. Pronoun as amulet.

That time has also been on my mind lately as I try to compare right now — i.e., life under the shadow of death — to other trying times in my past. None reasonably compare to an invisible virus lurking on the chard at the grocery store. Logically, I know that. But every morning, five or ten seconds after I wake up, the oppressive weight of another day settles onto my chest like I’m twenty-five and newly single again and not thirty and living in a petri dish.

(“Time and distance,” a dear friend said to me back then when I was wallowing hard. Still relevant, K__!)

Now, at least, I’m affianced. The Thursday before last was the four-year anniversary of my first date with my now-fiancé. Our celebratory road trip around Romania has obviously been postponed until either after the pandemic or the afterlife. I can’t complain much about a celebration that involves lounge pants and a “Tiger King” marathon — let it be known that this is the first time since the second season of “American Idol” that I’ve participated in a cultural moment; I look forward to the next one in 2037 or, again, the afterlife — but I could do without the shadow of death circling ever closer.

The first several months of our relationship were blissful-ish. I got annoyed by things like a stubborn case of pink eye; a six-hour delay at SFO; a gargantuan cockroach that disappeared in my shoebox of an apartment, never to be seen again. The 2016 election took place the night before we were due to fly to Tokyo on a vacation I’d been planning since before we started dating, my Murakami fangirl dream trip.

We all know how that one played out. It played out like my gnarly breakup had a couple years prior; I startled awake in the middle of the night disappointed that it wasn’t a bad dream and then in the morning I would lay in bed for a minute or two adjusting, again, perpetually. In my journal I referred to “the ‘president,'” scare quotes and all.

Maybe it’s magical thinking: If I don’t name it, it can’t be. (It’s a backwards Ursula K. LeGuin.) It’s the writer’s delusion that if I can imagine it far enough from me I can keep it there, too; and the reader’s, that if I can find the experience I desire I can manifest it as my own. I know that my hand sanitizer can only do so much and so I’m turning for the first time to talismans. Can you blame me?

P.S. I wrote several years ago that “it makes me nervous to hear my own name.” I couldn’t figure out where to work that in here, but armchair psychologists are welcome to speculate.

a girl can dream

I tend to have vivid, emotionally draining dreams that ratchet up in intensity until, just before I wake up, I realize with tremendous relief that I’m dreaming. So yes, that’s what I’m waiting for here: the end of the dream, or the deus ex machina, or whatever it is that doesn’t involve me sitting in these filthy sweatpants in a foreign country for eighteen more months.

The other night I watched a documentary about Flat Earthers and this morning I found myself idly wondering how the conspiracy theorists are faring right now — they must be out of their damn minds, I thought — and before long I was starting to conspiracy-theorize myself. A grand plan by the deep state to reset capitalism and the social contract that takes advantage of our faith in science and the media, the timing of flu and cold season, and our having been primed to expect this by arts and entertainment? The next phase of Jeff Bezos’s plot to take over the world? Something something bioweapon something?

Yeah, they are out of their damn minds. But it’s nice to imagine that this is a movie plot, right? Since this is certainly right about when the hero is meant to show up?

Come on, Tris!

I find myself waiting for that. I’m in London for the foreseeable future. I was going to be anyway, since I live here, but it’s bizarre to know that it’s for an indeterminately long haul. I’m vacillating between the pettiest and most existential concerns: I’m going to forget how to put on makeup. (I had already forgotten how to put on makeup.) I’m never going to see my friends and family again. I’m not going to get to travel Europe this year. Someone I know is going to die. I’m going to have to eat something that isn’t a frittata tomorrow morning because none of the five grocery stores within a five-block radius of my apartment have any eggs. I’m going to die. I’m going to get fat. I’m going to get fat!!! (She wails, to the tune of a fatal virus sweeping humanity outside her window.)

Half the time I’m imagining myself into all of the books I’ve ever read set in the London home front during World War II, as if instead of hanging out in a flat that’s larger than the illegally converted four-bedroom I split with three Craiglist strangers in New York a decade ago making some harissa-heavy Alison Roman recipe I’m… in the line of sight of the Luftwaffe. (My fiancé and I watched “Dunkirk” the other night and felt duly chastened for having nodded at anything that compares our current circumstances to wartime.) The other half of the time I’m working myself into a lather what-iffing that this quarantine had happened when I split an illegally converted four-bedroom with three Craigslist strangers in New York.

I often think when reading history about how hindsight serves to heighten or assuage the tension of plot. I bite my nails at someone drinking a cup of tea in an English garden in 1938 and exhale as the calendar flips closer to May 1945. It occurs to me every so often to remember that nobody living during World War II knew to count down to V-E Day. (Pardon me for my fixation on World War II; I got a Molly doll for Christmas the year I learned to read and we had the same glasses and I’ve been imagining myself into life on the home front ever since.)

I can’t complain. That doesn’t mean I’m not still staring down the barrel. Time is passing intolerably slowly. I’ll be 31 soon — one hopes — and I’d been trying to break the habit of waiting for things to get better before I start to enjoy them.

That was an easier commitment when I was trumpeting about enjoying life even when [my job/my weight/the selection of books available on Kindle/the weather/the speed of my Internet] got me down. I can bake as much bread as I want — actually, I can’t; every one of the five grocery stores around me has been out of flour for weeks, but let’s speak metaphorically here — and I’m still going to be living, along with the rest of the world, under the shadow of death. Cool!!!

So I wait. Wait for the deus ex machina to drop, for the spunky heroine to show up, for the dream to end, for the flour shelf to be refilled, for my nose to run and my lungs to give way, for a phone call I won’t want to answer, for Last Week Tonight to return, for pubs to reopen, for a flight home, for the sun to set so I can go to bed and wait for tomorrow morning’s headlines.

no pomp due to circumstance

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To the second-semester senior who has been unceremoniously dispatched home by the coronavirus, just when you were about to depart on your victory lap:

I often think back fondly on the final weeks of my time at Vassar as the only time in my life when I both truly gave no fucks and was old enough to say “fuck.” I was done with auditions and done with room draw and done with fooling anybody — including myself — into thinking that I was chill. I had made peace with my B average. I’d started eating again after months of mostly not. It was an enchanted and rowdy six weeks during which I made precious, wild memories, did a lot of stupid things expressly so that I’d never regret not having done them, and played at being someone I’d never been before and would never be again.

In retrospect, it was only semantics that made me feel free; things would quickly become just as consequential as they’d been and I sank back into my natural state of being (neurotic and pathologically rule-abiding).

I was very hungover and absolutely not wearing that hood properly.

I hope all of you who have been unexpectedly put adrift can find that sense of freedom within yourselves even without the Senior Week booze cruise and nearly garroting yourself trying to put on your graduation hood. Here are a few things that you might keep in mind, especially as the unexpected time alone (perhaps in a place that you always thought of yourself as escaping) might be sending you into a tailspin:

  1. When great isn’t in reach, good enough will do. This isn’t to say you’re perfect as you are — you absolutely need to be washing your bedsheets more often than you do — but rather that you don’t need to regret having failed to peak during college. I never found my footing in college and by the end of senior year had made peace with my B average and haphazard curriculum. This period of quietude may be a good time to think about what it is that you actually like so you can look for it as you build your career. (I liked writing and persuasion. I started out selling shoes and freelance SEO blogging and later landed a job as a proposal writer. The people hiring me cared that I could write, not about my thesis or whether the classes I took added up to a coherent curriculum.)
  2. The operative phrase is “good enough.” Don’t totally check out (I say, having taught myself to bake bread yesterday while I was nominally working from home). A B average doesn’t maintain itself. Perhaps it will be easier to be productive from your childhood bedroom, where nobody is stopping by to offer you homemade Skittles-infused vodka (an offer you should always decline, as long as I’m imparting my most valuable lessons learned during undergrad). Consider limiting your use of social media to after nine P.M., like I did with Facebook after I graduated so I could force myself through the grind of applying for jobs that didn’t involve touching children’s feet for a living. (Yes, Facebook. Yes, during my spare time I also enjoyed calculations on the abacus and milling flour by hand.)
  3. You aren’t written in stone. Just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you can’t do it now. Just because you do something now doesn’t mean you ever have to do it again. As it turns out, this has always been true and will always be true; it’s just easier to see when you give no fucks. (Oh, and just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you have to do it now, either. I repeat: Decline the offer of Skittles-infused vodka.) There may be few opportunities to try on a new identity while you’re social-distancing, but idk, don’t millennials mostly live online now, anyone? Post a SoundCloud or whatever. A tock-tock. And when the global pandemic subsides, go kiss somebody unsuitable.
  4. One phase of your friendships is ending, but an even better one is beginning. During the weeks leading up to graduation, I gave myself heartburn trying to commemorate and lock down my friendships before I returned to my hometown on the other side of the country from where everyone else was settling. This wasn’t the only reason I staged an awards night for my friends that I called Phi Beta Krappa where we presented one another with awards that were decidedly un-academic, but it was part of it (mostly I was just obnoxiously declaring my lack of fucks given over not making actual Phi Beta Kappa). On the other end of the spectrum, one of my four best friends with whom I lived during our senior year Irish-exited campus during our post-ceremony party while everyone’s families were eating sandwiches on the lawn and I didn’t see her again until the following February, and we’re all still friends. In fact, I just messaged our WhatsApp group to see whether anyone remembered their Phi Beta Krappa award (that’s a no. Some things are too precious to last). Nobody forgot anyone else. We remember one another so well, in fact, that it’s something of a liability at weddings when we’ve had too much champagne and want to regale one another’s loved ones with our favorite stories from undergrad. We’ve now been out of school for longer than we were there, and the memories we’ve made since are even more indelible (mostly because we actually remember them), from the terrible bars of our early twenties to the terrible dates of our mid-twenties to the terrible jobs of our late twenties and now into our thirties, which were going great until… now. There are friends you’re stuck with and that’s foreordained. No early dismissal from campus can get in the way of the awful and embarrassing toast that they’re going to give at your wedding a decade from now.

Above all — know that a polyester gown and a few bad speeches were never going to give you the closure you needed. This transition was always going to be brutal, and I feel deeply for everyone for whom it’s infinitely worse than it was meant to be.

I can’t pretend that I felt as lost and disoriented as the 21-year-olds around the world who just got drop-kicked out of senior year, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was done, ready, prepared, equipped, or complete in any way that I expected to be when I left school. I felt like a failure, like I’d squandered my college experience, and deeply lonely without friends living on the other side of my bedroom wall, and I can only imagine what it’s like to feel all of that and to be battling suburban hoarders for the last of the toilet paper to boot.

So, if it helps at all, here’s a spoiler: You’re not a failure, you didn’t squander your college experience, and it’s actually more fun to be friends with people when you don’t share a bathroom. Graduation ceremonies are boring, booze cruises are overrated, and you already have within you the power to give no fucks. Channel it, and be grateful that you don’t have to embarrass yourself trying to put on that godforsaken graduation hood in front of every boy you imprudently made out with between freshman year and now.

P.S. For many students, campus closing is more than an emotional burden — it’s a significant and possibly insurmountable financial one as well. Fellow Vassar alumni with the means to support students in need can donate to the Vassar Student Support Fund, and I encourage alumni from other colleges to see whether their alma maters are doing something similar.

creeping crud

I used to joke that I would regret all of the postapocalyptic novels I read in my twenties and here I am, regretting all of the postapocalyptic novels I read in my twenties.

Mostly Station Eleven. Imagine me last week handing my passport to a gate agent in a surgical mask at SFO to board a twelve-hour flight to London, thinking about nothing except the scene in that book where a plane parks on the tarmac, forever hermetically sealing its flu-ridden passengers off from the world so their last act isn’t to infect it. If you haven’t read it, now isn’t a great time to do so, though maybe you’re a less anxious creature than me.

If so, good on you. I’m losing my mind. I want to go back to that time when I saw the first fifteen minutes of “I Am Legend” at the gym and change the channel back to CNN where it belongs. I want to un-read Susan Beth Pfeiffer’s Life As We Knew It quartet, and not only because the last book took a weird turn from climate-change survival thriller/teen romance to men’s-rights defense (complete with teen-on-teen rape scene. Aren’t you glad I read it so you don’t have to?).

Between that and Severance, I know full well what happens to New York City during the apocalypse: Seamless stops delivering, and everyone dies. I feel grateful to live in London now instead of New York. Here, I have enough space in my kitchen for twelve cans of beans.

Truthfully, though, my fear isn’t the apocalypse itself; it’s surviving it. I am slow, weak, and lazy; I have a face made for dying first in a horror movie. I bought the tenth-to-last 16-pack of toilet paper at Waitrose last Tuesday and it practically left me sweating. (And only to be chastised by my favorite Instagram doctor!)

Me while reading this: *strokes chin, picks nose, thinks gloatingly of all the toilet paper sitting in my utility closet*

I’m joking, but I spent this past week feeling pretty freaked. It didn’t help that I returned from the US early, while my fiancé was still in India, leaving me alone in a foreign country with nothing to do except read Tweets about better options for hand-washing songs and vote for Elizabeth Warren. In other words, at no point this week did I feel that I had a sense of agency.

I’m excitable. The other day my mind wandered to imagining myself on my coronavirus deathbed attached to a ventilator, reflecting on whether I’d lived my life properly. (Before I had time to negotiate properly with my response to that question, I set to thinking about how to make sure that someone capable gets a hold of my half-completed novels and essays upon my death so I can get famous posthumously. Hashtag priorities.) Yesterday I overheard a British woman with one of those really exhaustingly posh accents moaning about how everyone was making too big a fuss about the coronavirus and we just needed to practice “basic hygiene” and it was all I could do not to turn around and virtue-signal about helpless nursing home residents and also question whether she really soaped for 20 seconds every time she washed her hands before last week, because I refuse to believe anyone did or surely we’d all be walking around with our skin flaking off like mine currently is, singing Toto.

I don’t have anything of substance to contribute to the discourse. I’m just trying to be good. It’s not clear whether that means hunkering down to avoid becoming a vector or going out and propping up the collapsing economy and being performatively antiracist, so I’m splitting the difference, which conveniently means avoiding the Tube during rush hour and going out for Neapolitan pizza. For now, I’m living my life as I usually do (i.e., one day at a time, without much furthering the greater good), only sometimes I remember to wipe the weights down with antibacterial wipes before I start lifting at the gym and instead of reading people’s text messages over their shoulders on the Tube, I judge them for biting their nails. What more can I do than that?