if i could only make me better

In the spring of 2010, not long before my college dance company’s annual gala at the local opera house, I borked something deep in my hip. The gala took place each year in the dead of upstate New York winter, which meant that there was always a spate of injuries right before, mostly slip-and-falls down the steps outside the dining hall (or outside someone’s party) and, as in my case, overenthusiastic stretching on a frigid January morning.

My hip injury was a real bitch. I limped through the gala and got dye shot into my hip from a hypodermic needle. They told me it wasn’t a tear, which meant that I didn’t need surgery but also that nobody knew quite what was wrong. I spent a few months in physical therapy, until it hurt little enough when I lifted my leg above my waist that I could live with it, and that’s about where I’ve been since.

Not that there’s much call for me to lift my leg above my waist these days, but on the rare occasion that I do, my hip clicks and I’m twenty again, back beneath the MRI, blaming the demise of my dance career (I was never going to have a dance career) on my modern dance teacher for demands that were unreasonable on so frigid a January morning.

It’s more satisfying to pin injuries and illnesses onto bodies we could call into court to stand accused. I got this cold (remember colds?) from that mucusy SOB in the window seat on the flight from San Francisco, and so on. I carped at my modern dance teacher for, I don’t know, calling on us to be agile during a Hudson Valley deep freeze; I’ve been carping lately at the construction workers who wander maskless through the aisles of the Tesco where I swear I picked up covid back in December.

Especially when you have a reputation for drama, being injured doesn’t much endear you to anyone but the understudy who gets to take your place. In dance, failures of the body easily become metaphors for failures of gumption. (Analogue: Thinness is next to godliness.) And of course it’s practical to cover yourself in layers of tatty knit and pants that look like garbage bags while you swing your legs back and forth and roll them over tennis balls for forty minutes before class, but isn’t it a little performative? (A la certain Park Slope Co-op-shopping New Yorkers double-masking to signal their moral superiority over the one-ply masses?)

The trouble is that if you can’t blame your weaknesses on yourself or your perpetually sneezing coworker, then it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to being impotent in the face of life’s vicissitudes. In my tatty knitted armor and too many masks to breathe through I’ll live forever. Crush some vitamins into my leafy greens so I can comment on every New York Times article that every Covid death would still be alive today had they just shopped along the grocery store perimeter.

I want to believe that I can ward off wayward cars and cancer. That impulse is fine and good as long as it ends at vitamins, but vitamins are really just a gateway drug to wellness, and wellness is just a gateway drug to that Silicon Valley scourge, lifehacking, the idea that you could live forever or thereabouts if you can learn to tolerate Soylent. You think it’s just a bottle of Vitamin D and before you know it you’re putting butter in your coffee. Jade eggs, and all that.

This year of ritual hand-washing and altogether too much time for meditation has blurred the lines between self-preservation, performativity, and pathology. I felt betrayed when I contracted covid — didn’t the great diseasemonger in the sky know that I eat whole grains? That I journal in the mornings and practice yoga in the evenings? What am I doing all of this for if not to live without a lung full of gremlins?

The disturbance that persists in my chest didn’t show up on the ECG. I expect it will linger, amorphous, like what I borked in my hip a decade ago still does, and I can blame it in perpetuity for all of my failures to measure up. (There goes that marathon I was definitely going to run. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault.)

And every time it flares up I’ll wonder briefly whether, if only I had done my hip bridges or worn a second mask or taken my Vitamin B-12, I would be bulletproof, a lady boss, a Broadway star, or at least the kind of person who could hack it as a first year at Goldman.

heaven is other people

Sometimes I am boggled by the gallery of souls I’ve known. By the lore. The wild history, unsung. People crowd in and talk to me in dreams. People who died or disappeared or whose connection to my own life makes no logical sense, but exists, as strong as ever, in a past that seeps and stains instead of fading.

Rachel Kushner

My first thought upon reading this was of a middle school classmate of mine, the child of a champion poker player, who died of a heroin overdose. He was an object of affection traded among the blondes, and I found it unfair that he was in honors algebra, too. I thought at the time that he was a bit of a bully, but I think now that I just didn’t expect a pretty boy like him to want to banter with me and my Coke-bottle glasses. Then I stopped thinking of him for several years, until his death was mourned by one of the blondes with whom I was friends on Facebook, though surely we’d never been friends in life.

I thought then of another classmate of mine who died young several years after the last time I saw him. He had become a valet at one of the casinos on the Strip — we all grew up in Las Vegas — but what I remembered of him was that it was rumored that his family had an elevator in their house, and that his father had died in a private plane crash when we were in the third grade.

I wonder if I thought of the valet and the poker player’s son because they’re people I knew from Las Vegas who could only have been from Las Vegas. That quote is from one of those extremely New Yorker essays about pre-Patagonia vests San Francisco, where everyone had blue hair and moonlighted as a sex worker. I’ve known a lot of people but most of them aren’t metonyms for where they’re from. Most of the people I know are a little boring, like me, though if you pick out the right details anyone’s a character. (My college roommate liked to introduce me to people as “the dancer from Las Vegas.”)

I can’t remember if I used to dream about people I haven’t seen in years as often as I do these days. It’s been seven months since I last saw a friend in person. Bleak, yeah? There’s no proof my friends still have legs. Maybe it’s just me and the people who also shop at my local Waitrose who still have legs, and everyone else is just a head and a bit of torso floating up into the Zoom window.

After the Capital riots I stopped checking Instagram. I can only take so much moralizing into the void, and I had already begun to feel that two-dimensional people were empty calories, but now my other Chrome tabs are a yoga video on YouTube and the Wikipedia entry for “Nihilism.”

There’s not much left to learn from Instagram anymore, anyway. I’ve watched all the bloggers frost cakes, and I know that every boy from the Becker Middle School class of 2003 who isn’t dead went to college in Reno and became a financial advisor. (The girls are cosmetologists. One or two of them dropped out of ASU.)

Yesterday I told my best friend — who I haven’t seen in thirteen months — that I’ve been fantasizing about landing at Newark. Newark! Newark is a metaphor for fantasizing about seeing my loved ones in three dimensions again, but it’s easier to picture handing my passport to an American customs officer for the first time in a year than it is to picture reuniting with people who I suspect might not have legs anymore.

My ten-year college reunion was canceled. Or, rather, moved online, but come on. I don’t need to start wondering if all of those people are legless now, too.

I turned over this week’s Economist because I can’t stand to look at another photo of Trump, and on the back was that ad they keep running from some godforsaken cybersecurity company — another cybersecurity company, they’re a dime a dozen and yet the Russians have still read more of my last year’s tax return than I ever did — with two photos of young hotties captioned “One of these people doesn’t exist.”

Ya burnt!

The problem with Instagram is that you shouldn’t get to open Schrödinger’s box. Let the gallery of souls talk to me only in dreams; don’t let me learn that one of these people doesn’t exist and the other works for Merrill Lynch in Reno. I think it would be nice to be surprised, in a season or a year or a decade when we can sneeze on each other again, to learn that someone has had a baby or moved to Los Angeles or had another baby or moved back to Los Angeles, and I can feel sorry for them instead of resenting their having traveled home for Christmas in 2020.

The problem without Instagram is that I’m really not sure anyone still exists. If I swiped my hand at the people in front of me in line at the grocery checkout, would it pass through like Moaning Myrtle? Is it Malicious AI texting me back? These are convenient excuses for me to put away the books and return to watching Deb Perelman slice garlic in hyperlapse. But if no one exists, then why do I keep responding to work emails? (I’ve been trying to use this excuse to quit washing my hair, too, but I can only make it five days before the grease does me in.)

I couldn’t make it through the Wikipedia entry on nihilism, but I’m pretty sure Nietzsche never took a position on the aesthetic utility of half-assed movies about the pandemic we’re currently in, so I’ll have to look elsewhere. Anyway, it seems like Anne Hathaway still has legs, so there’s that.

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.

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.