Nobody ever knew panic could be so boring, so mundane. But alas.
You pass a boutique sandwich board advertising N95s. The libertarian regular at your coffee shop wipes down his entire table and chair before sitting down, and nobody else comes in for the next two hours. You have no way of knowing that very soon your coffee shop will no longer be your coffee shop. That you won’t have one at all. That you’ll miss hating every third song that comes on and overhearing awkward first-date chitchat. That you will soon see strangers and immediately think: Stay the hell away from me.
The aura of disaster rolls in thick like a fog bank. It takes the familiar form of online goofery, which makes it feel unreal. You cycle through jokes about the importance of good hand-washing technique and the difficulty of not touching one’s face. Thousands of introverts make identical tweets about having practiced social distancing their entire lives. Maybe the shield of irony will protect you from the dawning suspicion that you’re posting your way through the end of the world. You’re like the film crew in The Blair Witch Project, still shooting as the situation descends into a level of dire you can’t come back from. What else even is there to do?
People who know things promise the virus will be everywhere soon. They say your friends will get it. They say you’ll be lucky if you don’t.
You talk to friends in Seattle, ground zero for American quarantine, and hear the phrase “virtual happy hour” for the first time. Soon you join them in virtuality. All work meetings and happy hours and friend hangouts suddenly start to look the same. Sure enough, they start to feel the same too. You are a Snapchat filter potato, which is funny for a while, and then abruptly not. You have no idea yet that you will be celebrating Thanksgiving over Zoom.
You start to really get to know the inside of your apartment. You redecorate. You develop preferred brands of hand sanitizer. You take a long walk every day, going out of your way to give germ-space for people walking in the other direction. Gyms are closed, so joggers zip by at all hours, unnerved looks on their faces like they’re being chased.
You support local restaurants, until you’re too scared to go to the makeshift takeout window. You buy gift cards, anything to help keep them afloat. It won’t save them. It won’t save you.
Every interaction with the outside world begins to feel like a horror movie.
They used to say it’s a recession when your neighbor loses their job, and it’s a depression when you lose yours. Now they say the pandemic is the great equalizer, and we’re all on the same boat, despite the fact that everyone is clearly on their own boats, and some of those boats are shipwrecked kayaks while others are actual yachts.
You become untethered from your old priorities. You pivot to survival mode. You flee the city where you live, and once you’ve done that, you wonder what else you might do.
You are told this is your opportunity to write King Lear. You are already on deadline for a project you were working on before this all began. Every time you work on it now, you want to reach through the screen and grab the person who did most of the work and warn them: None of this is about to matter; log off and hug some friends.
It feels obscene to worry about deadlines. Humanity itself is on deadline. The project you’ve been working on for the last two years is now an artifact from a lost civilization. You finish it anyway.
You begin to let yourself go in every sense. You only wear clothes that do not zip or button, you stop exercising, eat whatever, phone it in at your job. What does any of that matter? It’s the goddamn apocalypse; smoke ’em if you got ’em.
There is a thin line between self-care and self-medication. You completely obliterate it.
Every day, the news is as bleak as it was the previous day, sometimes bleaker, but there is better information about what’s happening, and you can finally sort of get your head around it. The scientists who said not to wear masks now say definitely wear masks. They remain consistent on this point. They say shut everything down and the virus will go away. This is not the end of the world, but rather the end to one iteration of it.
You watch your pets all day. Your hypothesis is confirmed: They sleep a lot. You think about joining them.
Your wife is now also your work wife. When she laughs in the other room, you ask what’s so funny and then you both laugh at the funny thing. You spend an unspeakable amount of time together. You find out things about each other’s formerly unobserved moments you were never meant to. At least not until retirement. Even though you’re both working, it kind of already feels like retirement: You hang around your place all day and take walks sometimes. You love each other to death, and you’re sick to death of each other—and you might go berserk if you were ever apart for more than a few hours. But you’re not.
You go to a Zoom wedding. You go to a Zoom funeral. You get a sourdough starter.
You go all in on a hodgepodge of hobbies and get instantly bored with nearly all of them. Wild horses couldn’t drag you away from the one you don’t get bored with.
You let your hair grow long. You shave your head bald. It’s a science experiment. What would I look like if _____? What would I feel like if _____? This should all be very interesting. It’s more interesting how often it isn’t.
Everything feels like this.
The ruling party never recovers from its initial confusion about masks. You watch them use the fact that scientists changed their advice once to argue that the scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, that masks are face prisons and lockdowns are unconstitutional.
You feel completely insane.
For the first time in recorded history, humans have the ability to make a pandemic far less devastating. It also might be the first time in history that humans hate being told what to do more than they love being alive.
You follow the rules. You break the rules. You judge everybody else for breaking the rules.
You forget to Purell or mask up one day and have a grocery store stress-dream that night. You feel trauma work its way through your system in real time and wonder how it will later annihilate you psychologically.
You cough once and have a panic attack. You think, We are not going to be okay after this. You tweet it. You delete it. (Not enough likes.)
Progress is always followed by a setback. Cases go down and restrictions get loose. Restrictions tighten up and cases go back down. You can’t believe there are people who don’t accept that the two are connected; that there are places in the world that have this all figured out, but you live in one that treats it like a baker refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding.
Government money stalls out over concerns like what if people get too much money and enjoy getting it from the government so much that they won’t ever be motivated to work again. Whatever you thought of the government before, you think worse of it now.
You donate to GoFundMe campaigns. You Venmo strangers. You download the Cash App.
You wonder why you seem to have more or less kept it together, emotionally. You realize it’s because you have money.
You hate living like this, and you resent that the only way to feel better about it is by constantly reminding yourself of all the bad things that haven’t happened to you yet.
Your adopted city is stuck in a performance of normalcy. Bars and restaurants are open again. You walk by a masked jazz band playing indoors to masked patrons grooving out on the dance floor. The drummer has his mask on, but the trumpeter’s is down below his chin, out of necessity.
Eventually, you eat outdoors at a restaurant. The server delivers the “Have you folks dined with us before?” spiel through a mask. She might as well be saying, “Normal normal normal.” You want to scream. Then the food comes, and it tastes so good in non-takeout form that you want to scream twice.
You read that nobody wants to have kids anymore. All of your friends announce on Zoom that they are pregnant.
Time gets weird. It stretches and contracts. Weeks seem to go by where you don’t leave your apartment at all, despite being technically not-depressed. It’s still March, you joke. March 259th. But you can’t believe it’s winter again.
The days get shorter and colder. You laugh at the idea of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Bring it on, asshole. How could this possibly feel worse?
You wish you hadn’t asked.
You angrily remember how lucky you are for the millionth time.
You look like garbage. You may have let yourself go long enough. You buy a video game designed for exercise. You wake up every day and do competitive aerobics on a TV inside your apartment in the city you now live in. You feel like a pet hamster, a lab rat. You feel like Desmond on Lost, stuck in the hatch, pushing a button over and over again to keep the world outside from being destroyed. You may have watched too much TV.
The president loses reelection, and multiple vaccines are announced. You are so used to bad news, you don’t know what to do with good news. Definitely not trust it. Up until now, optimism has seemed unrealistic—and arguably dangerous. You don’t know how to make it not feel like that anymore. After a while, it just does.
Everyone’s parents who survived start getting vaccinated. Then your friends start to, as well. It feels close to the moment you can start making plans again. It feels close to the moment you can start canceling plans again. You start to consider separation-anxiety solutions for your pets.
You can’t wait to be back in crowds, but even more than that, you can’t wait until being back in crowds again has lost its novelty. You don’t want going out to feel like a rebuke to the pandemic. You just want it to feel like before. You don’t want to see crowds on TV and flinch anymore.
You are not the person you were before the pandemic. By this time next year, though, you will no longer be the person you are now.
Some of the changes will be thrust upon you. Reflexes that prove impossible to shed. Elevator heebie-jeebies.
Some of the changes you will choose à la carte. Comfy clothes. The place you ended up living. Regular video chats with your now far-flung friend circle.
You will design your new life. You will grieve your old one.
You will wake up one morning and go the entire day without thinking about the pandemic or the year that you lost your mind.
You will notice someone wearing a face mask for the first time in a while and it will destroy you.
You will never unlearn the things you now know about yourself, about how you handle an emergency and what you can withstand.
You will be okay. You will not be okay. You will be you. You won’t.