About a year into the pandemic, meaning one year ago, people start to confidently describe the moment as “late-pandemic.” As though this distinction could be applied any way other than retroactively. As though you can ever know what an era really looks like before you see it in the rearview. Hindsight is 2021.
You take a vaccination selfie in a Walmart waiting room and embark upon the longest two weeks of your life. Never mind how steep the competition for “longest two weeks of your life” has lately become. You watch viral videos of newly vaxxed influencers, surprising their parents in person at previously off-limits houses, and pray your parents don’t see them.
The first time you dine indoors at a restaurant again, it feels like being reborn inside a casino. You’re fragile as a baby bird in the sensory overload of forgotten ambiance. A server appears and you reach instinctively for a mask that no one at the table can agree is necessary. You’re unsure of how this all works anymore. Not just in terms of germs, but the fundamentals of eating at a restaurant; the order in which we order. You’re rusty at the business of being a person.
The pandemic has changed who you are, but it’s also changed how you are with other people—people who, it must be noted, have also changed, in a world that is changing by the day.
The seal is broken. Movie theaters are once again inhabitable. Airplanes too, maybe. The masks come off, and you begin to get unused to them. The pods collapse. You go inside the houses of the friends you’ve made in the pandemic. They come over to yours, too, terrifying your pandemic puppy who has received no outside company whatsoever. You read articles about the fear of socializing and being perceived again. It does not compute. The walls between the world and you are finally crumbling, just as the weather is getting amazing. You think: Let’s fucking go.
You start making plans greedily, as though your new freedom could be taken away any minute. You have no idea this is exactly what’s about to happen.
For now, the promise of vaccinated liberation glimmers around every corner of public life. You marvel at the resurgence of “public life” itself. Horny strangers are reportedly having sex in public bathrooms again, and Lollapalooza is officially on for September. You hear the phrase “hot vaxxed summer” for the first time, just before you hear that local governments may be resorting to bribery to tempt skeptics into getting a free vaccine that apparently works.
Family first. Your baby nephew is now a toddler who is scared of you. Your grade-school nephews haven’t grown as much as you feared. They still laugh at your goofy nonsense without embarrassment. They’re still silly themselves.
Your siblings who have kids are scarred in ways you won’t understand. The things that broke their brains are different than the things that broke yours. They only want to talk about some of it.
Your mom cannot stop hugging you. The sudden abundance of in-person family time only underscores the pain of its recent, torturous absence.
You go back to the city where you used to live, and reconnect with the life you used to have. The last time you saw this place, you were fleeing it. Now you’re just a visitor.
Your broken friend-circle is temporarily reassembled, everyone jittery as they take in each other’s z-axis for the first time in over a year. Everyone has been hanging out without everyone else. There is no everyone anymore.
Your friends who got pregnant in the pandemic are now friends who have kids in the pandemic. You imagine what their lives are like now. Your imagination fails.
Despite everything, you fall back into old rhythms and maybe some new ones. That this reunion is timed to Independence Day begs for strained significance, the subtext of freedom from the pandemic becomes explicit text. You are drunk with your friends, and drunk on being with them, gazing at phosphorescent fireworks, the glittery promise of a future restored.
When people start talking about something called the delta variant, you tune it out. Absolutely not. The alarmists can’t always be right, right?
Everything soon falls apart. You hear the phrase “breakthrough infection” for the first time. You can still contract the plague while fully vaccinated, just with a drastically reduced risk of it killing you. There are people who receive this information and then wonder out loud, sometimes on television, “Why bother getting vaccinated?”
After living in sustained panic for so long, you made it to the promised land, only to find out the promise was false. You are crushed. Purgatory is not supposed to end with more purgatory. It feels like defeat to don a mask again in the grocery store. It feels worse when you realize how many people refuse to do so. “We’re not going back to wearing those again,” they say, as though talking about low-rise jeans.
You can’t believe what’s happening. You can’t believe what isn’t happening.
Every performer is finally going on tour. Every performer is postponing again. Everyone is going back to the office. Everyone is moving to a hybrid plan. There is never a good time to schedule anything. Make plans, COVID laughs.
The pandemic teaches you as much about what you don’t want as it does about what you do want. (For it to end.) Everyone is quitting their jobs. Everyone is getting divorced. They say assessing the state of your marriage during a pandemic is like checking your heart rate during a marathon. But even if you know why your heart is beating too fast, you still might want to know whether you’re going into cardiac arrest or not.
You spend so much time as a couple, it messes with your identity. You feel the urgent need to have secrets. You know things about each other that you can’t tell each other. You’re irritated by the world much of the time, and the person you love most in the world has to absorb all that irritation, adding it to their own collection. You’ve never been more in love, though.
You joke about all pandemic couples being owed a tiny vacation from each other. Your wife laughs and then takes the dog to a cabin in the woods for a long, otherwise solo weekend.
You’re not done with vaccines, it turns out. Another shot is available.
COVID is not done fighting vaccines, it turns out. Another variant is available.
The new variant is so contagious it’s almost funny. “Omicron makes delta look like COVID Classic,” you say to no one. It’s so contagious, cloth masks are useless against it. It’s so contagious, the entire cast of SNL calls out sick one weekend because of it. In the same weekend, the new Spider-Man movie puts $253 million worth of asses in theater seats. It’s going to be a long winter.
It’s hard to know who to trust anymore. You don’t entirely trust yourself. Everyone who seems to have navigated COVID as carefully as you have starts to come down with it.
It feels inevitable that you will, too.
Some people who have spent the entire pandemic complaining about safety restrictions choose this moment to declare they are done with the pandemic. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Americans die of COVID every day as they are declaring this.
When you finally do get COVID, it’s almost a relief. This thing you’ve been avoiding like the exactly-what-it-is for two years finally caught you. Incredibly, it doesn’t also get your wife. You quarantine away from her.
All this time, you’ve been working together to protect each other from lurking danger. Now, you are the lurking danger.
The fatigue is the worst part, like a jacked giant pushing down on you, gently but insistently, whenever you try to do anything. It’s surreal to feel as physically tired, for once, as you are mentally and spiritually. You lay in bed and let the days go by without participating in them, like time travel. The quarantine works, and your wife stays COVID-free. Until she catches it a few weeks later.
The initial dream of “late-pandemic” barely had enough time to dawn last year before it faded. Now it’s back. We’re loosening COVID restrictions, despite what happened every other time we’ve done so before.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. But by that logic, nobody should ever attempt CPR on a drowned person. You don’t know what else there is to do, and you have no say, anyway. Let the next experiment begin. What’s the worst that can happen: More purgatory?
You used to have firmer opinions about who most needs protecting and how that might be accomplished. You want to do the right thing but have no idea what that even is anymore.
Everything is changing. Nothing is changing.
Something had to give. It was you.