A Year in the Life of the Pandemic
We stayed home. We wore masks. At first they were disposable and surgical; we did not expect to need them for long. Then we learned about N95s. We did not buy them because we knew there was a shortage. Some of us bought them anyway. We wiped down surfaces with bleach. We washed vegetables with soap. We bought canned food and too much toilet paper. We made fun of each other for buying too much toilet paper. We realized masks weren’t going anywhere, so we tried to make them fashionable. We developed strong opinions about nose guards and headbands. We learned to breathe only in private, in the dark, honoring the distance we hoped would save our lives.
We mistook trauma for boredom. We watched all the same tv shows as our friends, whether we liked them or not, just to feel connected. We told ourselves it was time to finally write that novel, knit that blanket, clean out that dusty closet. We shamed each other for sitting still. Then we all read the same article about grief, and we apologized. We sat still.
We baked sourdough bread. We made pickles. Some of us refused to order takeout, afraid of the lack of PPE in restaurants. Some of us ordered takeout every day, too depressed to cook and too afraid to go to the store. Some of us did not eat at all. We lost weight. We gained weight. We wore only pajamas and we forgot to shower. We watched our bodies change and thought, this, at least, I can control.
So we did yoga. Took up running. Bought ellipticals. We went for brisk morning walks and ping-ponged to the opposite side of the street whenever anyone approached us. We were glad no one was telling us to smile. Finally absolved of the rudeness that came with giving strangers a wide berth, we were ashamed of our relief. Our cars gathered dust. We stopped taking public transit. Or, we took the bus to work, holding our breath. We worried for the bus drivers. We worried for the other riders. We worried all the time.
When you go out every day, you can hide at home. Our homes became everything: where we worked and played and slept and cried. They had once felt like safe havens; the caves we could crawl into in the evening, taking solace in the furnishings we’d chosen for ourselves. With no place left to crawl from, that was over. There was nothing to look forward to. Existing inside all the time, we carried our fear with us like coffee, ambling from room to room. We spilled it on the kitchen counter and mopped it up with bleach wipes, since we had them on hand anyway.
We drank so much that we invented quarantinis. We were the band on the Titanic, celebrating everything and nothing, posting selfies of our smiling faces as if that would help anyone. It did help. And it didn’t. Some days, seeing each other from forehead to chin made us feel hopeful. Some days, it just broke us. We’d close the app and mix another drink.
We started getting high, or we got high more often. We met our dealers outside, hugged them like we always had, went through the same old dance of performative friendship to prove we could be trusted. We didn’t smoke together, though. We did not consider them essential workers. We didn’t notice how their businesses had changed. We didn’t ask if they were safe. If we were dealers ourselves, we had nothing to fall back on. We told ourselves the risk was worth the money. That lie came easily; we’d been telling it for years. Sometimes it was even true.
Some of us finally got clean. We couldn’t afford our drugs of choice, not even booze. Or, we just decided we were ready. We saw our lives unfiltered, all day every day, and we couldn’t stand ourselves. There was no party to pre-game for; no stressful family gathering. There were no occasions, period. Retreating into a bubble outside time is far less comforting when time does not exist.
What is time, we asked each other. We joked about it being Blursday, March 247th, and our memories faltered. Most of us blamed it on monotony. A few of us, the ones with secrets and diagnoses and regrets, had felt this kind of thing before. We knew that memory loss is a symptom of trauma. We felt at home in the abyss and ready for a new crisis. We found ourselves returning to the old skills that had seen us through before. We floated through periods of dissociation and agony, strangely grateful that for the first time, we were in good company.
And then, time did exist for some of us. We held tiny wedding ceremonies, livestreamed for our families. We gave birth alone in hospitals with our partners on the phone. We delayed funerals. Instead we sent out links to chatrooms, alone in our apartments, staring at our screens. We were very nearly comforted by the sight of each other laughing, crying, grieving even the best moments. It was all so bittersweet. We only spoke about the sweetness. We got so tired of hearing ourselves complain.
But late at night, complaints were all we had. We talked in circles on the phone with our parents, our grown children, and our spouses stranded across the world. We ran out of ways to say, I miss you. I love you. I can’t stand much more of this. We sent them gifts and flowers and advice. We dreamed aloud about where we’d travel together when we could. Or, we just stopped talking to each other. For some of us, it was easier to pretend we had no one to long for.
The shape of that longing changed. We started missing people we hadn’t seen in years, regretting our decisions to end friendships and partnerships. We missed cities and restaurants and hotels. We missed the people we would never see again. That list only got longer. Another kind of longing.
Some of us didn’t have the time to miss each other. We were trapped in shelters, or on street corners. We lived with our abusers and had no excuse to leave. We asked friends if we could stay with them. Then we realized they had asthma, or small children, or were just too scared. We couldn’t blame them for being afraid of us. We were afraid of us, too.
So we did what had to do, or what we felt we had to do. We became sex workers and rideshare drivers. We worked retail. We learned about cryptocurrency. We got by. It wasn’t all bad. Some of us launched new careers, selling masks or teaching remote yoga. Some of us got government assistance. We were ashamed of that. We told each other this in secret, guilty that we weren’t grateful enough.
We started seeing therapists. Or we stopped, because we lost our health insurance. Or, we tried but no one was available. If we were therapists, we learned how to work from home. We were overwhelmed. We spent so much of every session just looking at each other’s faces, talking about the news. There was a new kind of intimacy in these moments. We were all in this together, no matter who held the professional degree.
We went outside every night to clap for healthcare workers. We banged pots and pans, hoping they could hear us. If we worked in hospitals, all we could hear was the sound of patients dying. So many of us died.
We redefined the word “essential.” We realized what we could not live without: food, water, electricity. Healthcare. Transportation. Heat. If we worked in other industries, we felt grateful to be free of that responsibility. Or, we felt angry to be designated as unnecessary. We argued about where the line was. What about teachers? Artists? Massage therapists? What was worth risking our lives? What did we need — not just want, but need — in order to stay human?
That question only grew. George Floyd died. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. So many more. They were the sparks. With this newfound time to think, our rage ignited. And so we took the streets. We said their names. We got arrested. We got snatched and held in unmarked vans. We bailed each other out of jail. We donated money. We read books. We cried and screamed and cried. We watched one murderer after another be set free to live a life longer than the one they stole. We started and kept fighting. Some of us, the movement leaders, the ones who have been at this work for years, welcomed in new faces. Some of us, the new ones, were appalled to learn we had been living out a lie for our whole lives.
Some of us fought back. We stood on our front lawns with shotguns. We protested with automatic weapons and did not get arrested. We wanted to make America great again. We wanted to win. We wanted to breathe free, unmasked and unafraid. We forgot how Eric Garner died. Or, we remembered and we did not care.
And because of this, we voted. We lost and won. We watched each other storm the U.S. Capitol. We all demanded justice. We could not agree on the meaning of the word.
We cared so much that, eventually, we did not care at all. We apologized with brand new phrases that sounded eloquent at first: compassion fatigue, decision fatigue, caution fatigue. This was not eloquence. It was just exhaustion. Underneath it all: fatigue fatigue. We were tired of being tired.
Now, we’re beyond fatigue. It’s March 365th, 2020. We’ve broken through. Or, we’ve broken down. For most of us, it’s both. We’re talking about the vaccine with hope and skepticism. We’re facing the light at the end of the tunnel with Schrödinger’s optimism. No one knows what comes next. In that, at least, we are not alone.