Do you remember the early days? When every corporation sent e-mails, which they hoped would find us well during these unprecedented times, about their earnest plans to keep taking our money? In those early days I was determined to uphold the construct of time, and it made me sick.
I made a poster-sized calendar for March and April, using a ruler and three shades of marker, carefully collaging on the month names from xeroxed letraset. I hung it next to a heroically crowded kanban board and spent each day in ferocious pursuit of checked boxes. Each night I dipped a needle in ink and tattooed another tick mark on my arm. Later I’d find words to articulate my relationship with the future: prepare for the worst, hope for the best, but don’t try to imagine it. Don’t think about the future at all. Perhaps the tick marks were an inchoate articulation of just that. Or perhaps it was naivete, my act of honoring the pain of enduring time’s passage, stubbornly ignoring my boyfriend’s observation that daily tattoos aren’t great for an immune system, and if I were to continue, I’d need my whole damn arm (at least). I stopped after 20 marks.
My structure dissolved and my cycle crept toward the crepuscular. The hours after my boyfriend fell asleep and before I shut my eyes resembled less and less the routine of a sound-minded and healthy-bodied woman. Vodka tasted like water. I painted the dog’s nails. I shaved a paintbrush down to a wisp and painstakingly embellished gilded script onto a wine medallion: “WINE FLIES WHEN YOU’RE HAVING FUN!” I read scientific accounts of terminal lung damage from COVID-19, falling asleep with burning eyes as the sun came up. I drank kratom till I felt made of cotton candy, delicately (I thought) manicuring my nails and awakening to discover torn, bloodcaked nubs.
Despite such nurturing, meticulous self-care, I fell ill. It was the standard progression: Sore throat, dry cough, leaden, aching body. OTC meds did little to relieve my discomfort. My thermometer fluctuated for weeks, then months, as did my wellness. I was terrified at first, then frustrated. Any little exertion set me back days.
The most effective divination can often be found by looking backward. My younger self had access to wisdom she couldn’t wield and immediately forgot. It time-travels over the years to scold my older self. Lessons on love from songs I wrote in my early 20s prophesied the wounding relationships of my early 30s; refrains arrive first as forecast then as epigraph. My war against the calendar, in which my body was the only casualty, was anticipated by a print I letterpressed in 2013 proclaiming: “NO GODS NO MASTERS NO LINEAR FUCKING TIME.” Evidently I set that message letter by letter, yet remained chained to the clock, self-worth hanging in the balance like a pendulum.
My ailment, my helplessness birthed an exaggerated femininity. Under the full moon I fever-dreamed myself stranded in a flooded boarding house, surrounded by gators, losing my hearing, watching my boyfriend cheat on me. I awoke and informed him of his oneiric misdeeds. “Great,” he said, “Now you’re going to be mad at me all day.” Absolutely. I took it out on my bangs, dusted the uneven yield into the toilet, and promptly discovered I had a UTI. The divine feminine herself! Incubating an infection and a virus, my entire body a womb.
Weakened from pissing fire, I got sicker. A dry coughing fit produced blood. It got more difficult to breathe. My chest was burning, my sternum sore, my ribs and back in agony, nerves screaming to the tips of my toes. My fever returned. How do you tell people you’re seriously sick without seriously alarming them? How do you get support without prompting a feedback loop of panic that will shorten your already shallow, labored breaths? “Don’t get da rona or da ‘monia lol” I texted friends and family (alarming them seriously, prompting mutual panic).
In deference to the deadly respiratory virus ravaging the city, the country, the world, I quit smoking (for the fifth or so time in my life) at the first signs that Miss Rona’s path of destruction pointed my way. I should have been just resting, sipping broth, drinking plenty of water. And I did, I drank Theraflu and Pedialyte and Licorice Tea with blooming Pang Da Hai nuts. But I’m also human—a habitually stressed human—prevented by illness and circumstance from accessing my war chest of effective coping skills. So yeah, I drank a little wine at Passover, and many other days in my own personal mitzrayim. When we got the April issue off to the printer, I wheezed my way through a celebratory cigarette. Maybe I’d be well now if I hadn’t. Maybe not. This virus is relentless.
People forgive (even celebrate) flawed characters, but exclusively in film, television, and literature. We want our nurses to be heroes, not unwilling, resentful martyrs. We want sexual assault victims clad in modest garments, not flirting with the men they don’t yet know are rapists. We want the release of prisoners from those disease vector cages we call correctional centers—but only non-violent ones. We demand innocence and purity of our victims. Perfect save for an illness, an otherwise blemishless record of choice and behavior. No cigarettes, no drinking, no criminal past, a balanced diet, regular exercise. Victims, we insist they shed their flaws (what makes them human) before they can deserve our compassion (what makes us human). Flawed human Adrienne Rich wrote, after John Donne, “Any woman’s death diminishes me.” She was right and so was he; the bell tolls for thee.
Following a course of azithromycin for presumptive pneumonia, it seemed I was on the mend. I winded easily but the feeling of bruised ribs and the dry coughs keeping me up all night had abated. My energy slowly returned and with it, a month of deferred emotion that had hung in suspended time awaiting my attention. I’d curl up in bed, imagining hugging my mother, my sister, my best friend Sarah in as much detail as I could remember, building the scene scent by scent, texture by texture, crying at the interminable, indefinite distance, feeling like a biological weapon, feeling the fragility of life, the feeble limitations of our ability to care for or protect our loved ones.
No act was spared the widening lens of my grief. On the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Facebook page, I swapped unneeded items for necessary supplies and wept at the kindness of strangers delivering plant cuttings, medicine, condiments to my mailbox. And wept because “mutual aid” too often is the recirculation of resources within, loosely, one economic class or demographic.
The popular mantra when things go back to normal began to make my stomach turn, first in unease then evoking the same reaction as MAGA hats. At my sickest I filled out a living will, an advance directive, designated a Power of Attorney. When this is all over. As I write this it’s over for at least 6,500 of our family, friends, and neighbors in Orleans Parish. The end of the world is not a singular event but a rolling apocalypse. America was never great and normal had a body count.
As I write this, 49 days into quarantine, I’ve just achieved three consecutive fever-free days. I’m looking for new positive customs born of these uncertain times. One thing I like, though it might not hold up given further reflection, is how we’re always asking after each other’s health now. The inquiry no longer small talk but an intimate expression of concern. My wish is for that concern to only grow more expansive, for punitive inquiries about our choices and pasts to fade, for unconditional care to emerge in its place. I hope this e-mail finds you well.