COVID’s metamorphoses, 4/6/20

Standing in a Safeway the day the shelter-in-place order was announced, I finally understood why people hoard things. What would I need to live if I couldn't leave my house for three weeks, I wondered, gazing around at the hordes of other shoppers—and who really knew how long this would all last? I realized I would need a lot. I also realized that I had no idea what exactly those things were. A heretofore unfamiliar feeling shot through me: a prickling anxiety that could only be assuaged by buying lots and lots of consumer products. 

To guide myself, I looked at which sections of the store were particularly sparse. The toilet paper and paper towels and household cleaning supplies had already been cleared out, but we grabbed a few cans of baked beans, which we never eat, by the way, and still have not figured out how to consume. (What are we supposed to do, eat them from a pot over an open flame, à la Blazing Saddles?) In the tundra-like bread aisle, we briefly considered some kind of flour-dusted "artisan" bread before spotting a lone loaf of Signature Brand whole wheat, which I inspected carefully before depositing it into the cart, along with an industrial-sized jar of peanut butter. 

The only pasta on the shelves were lasagna and manicotti. I picked up a box of manicotti, which contained 14 individual manicottos that looked like really big penne, considered it, and then put it back—things would have to get truly dire before I'd be willing to figure out how to cook manicotti. But even when I was choosing things there were plenty of, I felt uneasy. Where's the line between buying a reasonable amount and hoarding? Am I still a responsible citizen if I buy three family-size boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios? It was paralyzing, having to weigh the abstract but very real needs of everyone else with my own concrete appetites every time I took something off the shelf. Later, when we go to a different Safeway and see a sign taped up that says each household is only allowed five boxes of pasta, I feel a relief that borders on the existential. Then we grab five boxes of pasta.

One evening, we attempt to cook dinner, and our too-hot skillet sets off the smoke detector. I fling open a window. Half an hour later, while we’re sitting down to eat, we hear the same alarm, but more quietly. Through the open window, I catch sight of someone in the apartment across the way opening their own window. Quarantine makes inept home cooks of us all.

I have fled New York for California. But in my haste to leave the city, I brought a piddling five books with me, which made my first few days here about as psychologically hospitable as a recently-emptied Safeway bread aisle. (Admittedly, I had packed only for spring break, which I now see was a grievous lapse of judgment—couldn't I at least have had the foresight to bring the books I needed for the rest of the semester?) I'm usually reluctant to buy books because I'm a dirty cheapskate, but after about two weeks, I broke. I went on Amazon and the website of a local bookstore and felt another unaccustomed emotion: a wild-eyed greed that might be properly termed "booklust." When I regained my senses, I had purchased 10 books.

At one point, I went a full week without so much as breathing air from outside the apartment. It's overcast for a couple weeks, but one Monday it looks enticingly sunny out, so I suggest we go for a walk. It's nice—for about two minutes. (I had blissfully forgotten that wind existed.) We walk down the sidewalk, and a guy in a mint green Prius shouts “Six feet apart!” at us. Along a creek, we see an egret and a fat, slow squirrel, but all the miracles of nature can't transport me from the burning itch that progresses from the back of my thighs to just above my knees. When we get home, I claw at my legs, look up "exercise related allergy,” and lie down for hours. My nose starts dripping aggressively. I am soon surrounded by sodden tissues, and my throat is raw from sneezing so much. Attempting to breathe through one partially-clogged nostril as I lie in bed, I remember that I am literally allergic to being outside. I am made for quarantine.

I’m made for some parts of quarantine. Classes are still in session, but one of mine is now at 6:30 am, because I'm three time zones behind New York. I spend most of that class in a stupor, which is—throwback!—exactly how I spent 90% of my college classes. Every Wednesday, I confront anew the reality that I will never be a morning person. I can barely croak out a sentence, let alone well-formed ones about Christopher Hitchens or Maggie Nelson or Zadie Smith. After class ends three hours later, I flop back into bed and wake up at 1 pm, whereupon I am served a bowl of pasta that I blearily eat, also in bed. I feel vaguely guilty—I've been feeling this more and more lately—but all the rules of normal life have been, if not broken, at least a little warped. 

In the evening, I play Tetris for hours, staring worshipfully into the computer like it's an opiate and I'm the masses. Since I started playing three weeks ago, I've improved a shocking amount. The version I'm playing is called Tetris Effect, and instead of the standard rainbow of blocks and a boopy chiptune Russian folk song, each level has glowing tetrominoes, sparkly lights in the background that glitter and move whenever you press a button, and its own trance-y, ambient music, punctuated by wind chimes, tribal yells, firework explosions, bird chirps, or children vocalizing, depending on the level's theme. I also experience the Tetris effect for the first time: When I read a Jonathan Franzen essay for class, I start seeing little L- and J-shaped blocks in the white space between the words.

There are times when I look up from playing Tetris Effect or rearranging Bananagrams tiles (there’s something obscurely comforting about stacking little blocks right now) and realize that I have forgotten about coronavirus. This lack of alarm alarms me. I Google "coronavirus" and "coronavirus california" and "coronavirus new york" every few hours in an effort to scare reality into me, but even then, my eyes just slide right off the text, like they're trying to protect me from the truth. Is this how denial works? 

The times I don’t forget about coronavirus are when I'm attempting to write, which is mostly when I Google the news—trading one ambiguous torment for another. I've become even more distractible, scrolling through Facebook and my news alerts and all four of my email accounts like an animal restlessly pacing a cage, except the cage has lots of pasta in it and also the internet. When I ask people how things are wherever they are, they shrug. Fine, they say. Or "I don't know, I haven't been outside in approximately five eons." None of us really know what’s going on—news outlets (increasingly, for me, local newspapers) are our only windows to what’s happening out there. Unless you‘re sick, or caring for or worried about someone who is. Then, well, you are the news.

I, like most humans, am incredibly bad at internalizing abstract threats. My parents and sister are champions at it, marathoners who have maintained a state of active, proactive worry for weeks, which I feel both shamed by and impressed with. "My roommate bought me bananas yesterday and I washed each one individually with soap this morning," my sister reports. Another day, our dad texts us suggesting that we should carry around mechanical pencils so that whenever we're in an elevator, we can use them to press the buttons. 

While scrolling through Facebook, I keep coming across the idea that "however you feel right now is exactly how you are supposed to feel." One of the weirdest feelings I've had in the past few weeks is the foggy sense that it's somehow become harder to think. Things aren't quite clicking together anymore, like an extremely doomed game of Tetris; connections are harder to make. But I guess that makes its own sort of sense. What we know—about the future of literally everything—is so limited and provisional and in flux right now that how can anyone draw firm conclusions at all, or feel certain about anything? But then again, maybe that's always been true, and we're only just really realizing it now.



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I wrote a review of a book from the 1970s by famous Taiwanese writer Sanmao, feat. my parents!