Unlike Ian, I had adopted a decidedly un-ascetic response to isolation. Yes, I had signed up for a free fifteen-day trial of YogaGlo and roasted twenty pounds of vegetables, but I was also sleeping till ten, developing a costly online shopping habit, and making my way through my mother’s freezer at an alarming rate, defrosting one by one those very items—a honey-baked ham, a blueberry tart, stewed peaches, and smoked whitefish—that just a month before I had deemed too weird or too unhealthy. I was also drinking with abandon, looking forward with rather too much urgency to my nightly gin and tonic, which I drank beneath a blanket on the deck at sunset and most often chased with half a bottle of wine. (Ian “wasn’t much of a drinker anymore,” he told me, but he had offered to partake of his nonalcoholic aromatic spirits for our date.) By the time the sun had sunk beneath the trees across the water, and I had caught up with the latest news alerts—“Italy surpasses China’s death toll, becoming world’s highest”; “New York tells nonessential workers to stay home”—I felt lackadaisical and hazy, and distinctly intrigued by the prospect of texting with one of the several men in my life with whom I was now fixed in time. Indeed, for the single among us, the advent of coronavirus was like the sudden silence in a game of musical chairs; in an instant, the people we were casually dating—many of whom we had already deemed incompatible, and no doubt vice versa—were the people we were stuck with.
Take, for instance, Paul, a painter with whom I first corresponded back in 2016 and whose name I have changed for obvious reasons, along with several other names in this essay. At the time, he had failed to follow up on not one but two dates, first because he’d lost my number while “reformatting his phone,” and next because he had “crushed his phone in the studio.”
“Wow, you sure do have a lot of phone problems!” I wrote, a message to which he replied some four years later when we finally matched again on Bumble. “He’s a contested figure for sure,” said my friend who knew him from the art world. “Slippery comes to mind? But he’s always been very nice to me.” Later, another mutual acquaintance would describe him as a “bottom feeder.”
Paul and I had seen each other twice before I’d unwittingly decamped to Rhode Island, encounters dominated by talk of Walter Benjamin and postcolonialism; every so often I tried to ask about his mother or his childhood, but the conversation always pivoted to Big Ideas. He looked like a very beautiful lesbian, to the point that I braced myself for a surprise when we first took off our clothes, and he was very serious and self-absorbed, thrice sending me unsolicited links to a short film he had made and asking for my feedback. When at last I did watch it, penning what I thought was a generous response, he didn’t reply for four days. (Some day, when this is all over, I’ll write a homage to Rebecca Solnit called “Men Send Their Art to Me.”)
Even so, I was wildly attracted to him, and I was disappointed when the Rhode Island university at which he taught predictably sent its students home and he texted to say he was no longer coming for the weekend. In the following week, he reached out every day or so, sending me more art to praise—“We started a sound cloud!”—and links to articles I had already read because, again, I was consuming five hours of coverage a day. His own response to the virus skewed toward the paranoid; he was forever demanding to know why Facebook was removing everyone’s COVID-19 posts, why the media wasn’t reporting on the bleakest epidemiological models, why a freight train’s worth of tanks was heading westward to the city on the Long Island Rail Road. Still sitting on the deck, I would sip my cocktail and text back encouragement and validation—as I looked out over the water, breathing in the night sky’s pinks and yellows, it was almost impossible to believe we were at war. On Day 8, stirred by fantasies of a doomsday tryst, I invited him to come self-isolate with me. “Thank you!” he wrote. “I may take you up on that when the cities fall apart.”
On other evenings I reached out to Steven, a sweet, hirsute creature who was arguably even less of a match than Paul. The previous summer, for our first and only date, he had asked me to meet him at an abandoned fire station he was transforming into a bar and hostel—its location was so suspect that my mother, who had driven me there, pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot and kept watch from afar. Over beers in the communal kitchen he struck me as wayward and impoverished, so I was surprised when he later drove us to dinner in a smoke-steeped Lexus and made mention of both a recent Galápagos trip and a private charitable foundation; a quick Google search in the bathroom revealed that his family was worth $14 billion. Before the night was over, he introduced me to the nightclub that he owned, the existence of liquid cocaine, his beloved tabby cat, and the magical, labyrinthine loft in which he lived, one whole wing of which was given over to experiments in S&M—by two in the morning, I was lying prone and naked on his sex swing while he, fully clothed, affixed suction cups to both my nipples.
At the time I had decided that Steven was a little too frightening for my taste, but on a whim I had invited him to the now-canceled book event and we had since started checking in on each other from afar. One night he sent me a crying cat emoji and then apologized—he was in a mood, he said, having just left his parents in Connecticut; he had been bored all weekend, but then started bawling when it came time to say goodbye. Now he was just bored at home, for the state had closed his club and hostel bar. His plan was to drink his way through isolation, he said, while also finding time for home improvement and metalworking in his studio. When I said I was impressed that he was working, that I was having trouble focusing, he was full of good suggestions. “Perhaps a little mind adjustment like LSD could get you inspired,” he offered. “Or some relaxing sensual stimulation.”
Then, on Day 10, my best friend, Helen, who had underlying health issues and had been complaining of a sore throat, was admitted to a New York City hospital because she couldn’t breathe. I was walking through the woods when I heard, and I remember the sudden cold that passed through my body. It was the first time I had been able to actually conceive of the disease that had been obsessing me for weeks now, and the first time, too, that I realized that we would—every single one of us—be intimately touched by it in one way or another. I tried for a moment to imagine a world in which Helen no longer existed, in which I could no longer call her up to say hello, in which her two sons grew up without a mother, and then I tried to multiply that desolation by 14,443, which was the current global death toll, though of course I failed—our minds aren’t built for such vast numbers.
Afterward I went to the grocery store for the first time in two weeks, staring with fascination at the bottles of disinfectant in the vestibule, at the ravaged produce aisle, at the cashiers wearing masks and plastic gloves. I had been working my way through American history with a high school junior that semester, guiding her through the devastations of the Civil War and Great Depression, and it was startling to recognize in that faintly apocalyptic supermarket scene an approximation of the black-and-white images that decorated her textbook. I had never felt so much a part of history before, nor understood so acutely how little there was to separate us from the men and women of the past, how we had always just been people. I smiled at the other customers as we wheeled our shopping carts around one another in six-foot circles—“the waltz of the trolleys,” my mother’s friend calls it—feeling toward them such an odd blend of solidarity and distrust; I imagined us as the partygoers at Prince Prospero’s ball, soon to be dropping like flies. On my way home, I finally got a flu shot.
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