Nothing in the past month feels momentous to me personally, or important enough to write down, except for the fact that I am young and generally healthy and have already had the virus. I have an autoimmune disease, so for the past five years all I’ve thought about is illness, mainly my own. Chronic illness scrambles identity around vulnerability. Being sick means being frail, a condition that I despise and also revel in, a condition that allows me to absorb the concern of friends and family. I treat that concern as a sign of affection, and—in weaker moments—as a kind of validation.
An autoimmune disease, the cliché goes, is an attack on the self. The immune system misidentifies itself as a foreign agent, and a civil war starts to rage. In the early 20th century, the immunologist Paul Ehrlich described autoimmune disorders as horror autotoxicus, or horror of the self. But now, for the first time in many years, I do not worry about how the presence of others may affect my immune system. Instead I think about how my presence may affect theirs. These days we all view ourselves as dangerous, as potential carriers. The realization that we are all enemies to each other dawns on me every time I go out in public, when I cough and reach for my own hand sanitizer in my purse, or when I put on the leather gloves my partner gave me last Valentine’s Day so that the men at the bodega don’t have to touch my hands, or when I touch my face and panic, hands being enemies to the rest of our immune systems.
An autoimmune disease is also an inappropriate inflammatory reaction—an inappropriate emanation of self, a metaphor that I have always thought doubled nicely as a description of good personal writing: something nearly unspeakable, an overload of self-knowledge manifesting outwards. What kinds of messages are available when everyone feels the urge to record? This is a staggeringly impersonal moment for life writing, when the personal seems to barely exist at all.
For years now I have often bonded to those closest to me through the shared experiences of vulnerability and illness. So when I heard my roommate coughing through the walls, I thought, of course we would be among the first wave; at the time the stats still said New York had about two thousand cases. We waved the white flag early, resigned to the fact that we would both most likely get it, that our initial bond over being sickly and malnourished would bind us to our apartment. That was the day something snapped, when I grasped what now seems comically obvious: we were in a pandemic, we would be quarantined for the foreseeable future. We scrambled to fill our empty fridge with produce and yogurt, pasta and legumes, Emergen-C and vitamins—anything to stave off the virus that we suspected was already within us. We bought Tylenol to keep a potential fever at bay, enough alcohol to last a while, and two bouquets of tulips.
Much mid-century furniture (chaises, daybeds, reclining chairs) originated in 20th-century sanatoriums for tuberculosis patients. Sun, air, and light were thought to be cures, so sanatoriums were structured accordingly, with flat roofs and balconies for patients to lay out on and large airy rooms for patients to heal. Before all this the knockoff Danish furniture in my friends’ Instagram apartments—and in my own apartment—had always reminded me of sanatoriums. Now I was stuck in one, awaiting another respiratory illness.
I scrambled around my neighborhood to different stores. I was sweating in my jacket in the blaring sun as people gathered together on stoops or smoked outside the coffee shop on my block, buds of magnolia blooms sprouted on bare branches. It was spring in Brooklyn. When I came home my head started to hurt. Maybe it was allergies. I started feeling foggy.
The Skype messages I was sending to my coworkers started to become hard to parse, and hard to write. I had a question about a translation of stolen Nazi logs that I was proofreading for a legal case. “The headings are on the right but they should be on the left” was the message I ended up typing. “I don’t know what you mean, can’t you move them?” my boss wrote back. “I’m a little baffled.” “How’s it going?” another coworker asked. “Good,” I typed back, though I had completed one page in two hours, my eyes sliding off the screen every time I made an effort to focus.
That night I dreamt I was a ballet dancer in a long white tulle tutu, dancing in a corps of women in a graveyard as a dead Wili in Giselle. Was it because of the Rosemary Collins with three shots of vodka I prepared for myself before bed? I woke up shivering with a low-grade fever and emailed my doctor and stepped away from my phone to get water. “How high is your temperature? I just tried your cell so we can discuss,” he wrote back. When I called back he said that no one knew how Covid-19 affected people with autoimmune diseases yet, we could only guess. I was on a high dose of immunosuppressants to kill my antibodies down to zero, so there was a likely possibility, he added, that more severe symptoms would be repressed. I would have been his first patient to be diagnosed with Covid-19 “so we’ll see,” but twelve hours before I was supposed to take a test, which would have also meant taking the subway, it was canceled. The newest guidelines stated that people with symptoms should stay home, and only those that needed to be hospitalized would be tested “since it puts you and others at risk just by virtue of testing.” I was counted “presumptively positive.” My cough lingered after my fever broke. I started panicking.
I started reading accounts of people who had died, some not much older than me, also with minor symptoms. I read a story about a woman who dropped dead in her kitchen awaiting a test. She had complained of a lingering cough. I read it aloud to my roommate. Was I coughing more than usual? Was she? The day before she died, the woman in the article complained of a loss of appetite. Had we eaten? Were we hungry? After speculating on each other’s symptoms, with no appetite, my roommate and I drank two martinis each and watched The O.C. Around the time Seth and Summer first fall in love, I blacked out on an empty stomach. Then the week after, we found out that woman we read about ended up testing negative for Covid-19.
When I felt well enough to move my body I started going on walks in the middle of my work day, weaving through empty streets to avoid human interaction. The neighborhood was eerily silent, but wasn’t everyone home? On my first walk I had the impression that each person in each room of each apartment was watching me as I took my jacket off to expose my bare arms, that they could tell I was hot because I had a fever, that they resented me for it. This felt vain at the time, but the desire to be watched, the longing for others to see me, permeates my isolation. In her essay “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf writes that those who are ill become deserters, dropping briefly from society and the workforce. “We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky.” Illness, she writes, is a solitary endeavor. But I do not want to be left alone with my own existence, so I look up, not to the sky but to tall apartment complexes full of people, buildings that feel newly menacing.
Then I recover, and my roommate does, too. I have been much sicker than this, I have been much sicker than this in the past year. But I am lucky. I had three days of a fever, a headache so bad I could barely keep my eyes open, and a dry cough that traveled down to my chest and gradually disappeared. Symptoms lift, but I am left with constant fatigue that caffeine doesn’t fix. From home, I work at half speed, like I am moving through water. I can hardly read, cannot clear new space in my mind for media that I haven’t already consumed before quarantine. Normal life doesn’t resume after illness.
On the days I don’t go outside, I watch a magnolia tree bloom outside my window. I watch my indoor plants reach for more light as they sprout new leaves and grow new blooms. I fantasize that I am Sylvie from Housekeeping, that there is a porousness between indoors and outdoors—that if I leave my window open in the rain, nature will plant itself in my living room and my domestic life will be uprooted. The plants seem to thrive when I turn my back to them. I hole myself up in my bedroom and come out days later to become attuned to the rest of the apartment again and I see that my peace lily has a new bud, my pothos has a new layer of unfurled leaves, and the buds on my new orchid, sent to me as a get-well gift from an old high school friend, have fully bloomed.
I read a Colette essay in which she describes the surging price of roses in the war, that no matter what was happening in the world they would bloom every spring. I think about how the cherry blossoms bloomed prematurely this year on the east coast because of an unusually warm winter, and I think about the diminishing prices of flowers, that over four hundred million of them were destroyed in the Netherlands last month due to shutdowns. I feel an urgency to take in every marker that nature’s cycle is still intact, as if this were the last spring. Then after two days of rain in which I do not leave the apartment, I go for a walk and find that half of the magnolia blooms on my block are on the ground. Pink petals scatter over cement sidewalks; I feel a small pang of grief. Time is passing. By the time fatigue lifts and I feel well enough to go on a long walk to the park, the flowers marking the first signs of spring are past their prime, giving way to more ostentatious blooms. The crocuses and daffodils point downwards while different assortments of cherry trees abound. Two single red tulips bloom on my block, the rest of the buds have wilted or have been yanked from their planters by a harsh storm, and the soil is mixed with several beaded mardi gras necklaces. On warmer days a neighbor sings outside their window in a piercing falsetto, the sound mingling with the nearly constant blare of ambulances.