Living Inside

Of course my worrying makes it worse, but it’s not as if one can just turn off a venerable, inherited tradition, refined over the course of generations. My mother calls, frantic, and begs us to go to the hospital. I try to patiently explain that going to the hospital, if not absolutely necessary, would be the worst thing we could do, adding to the nurses’ burden and potentially exposing other patients. I remember what a tree told me once, in a different hallucinatory dream: There are other ways to care about people than worrying about them. You can just ask them how they are.

The virus comes to visit

Barbara Gooding, Washed Away. 2014, oil on canvas. 20 x 30". Courtesy of the artist.

I’m just tired. Stressed, worked-up. And the cough? I’ve been getting a cold anyway. It isn’t chest pain, it’s anxiety over the state of things, some shadow of a panic attack. We drove up from the city yesterday, and it’s colder in the woods, has been snowing on and off, the house is drafty, the heat is dry—that’s why I’m sneezing, why I shivered. We go to buy groceries and I slump over the cart, letting the carriage hold my weight. But this exhaustion is existential, not physical; the runny nose must be allergies.

My head pounds, a raging ache, so I lie down, just for a nap. I wake hours later, shaking, and finally reach for the thermometer: 99.4. It’s low, but undeniable. We call the department of health hotline, and a friendly voice tells me to call my primary care doctor, who tells me to . . . call the department of health. Friends send texts: Alternate Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen, then follow up hours later in all caps—DON’T TAKE ADVIL!!—linking to claims from the French government, later debunked or at least softened, that Ibuprofen makes the virus worse. I get out of bed only to change shirts after the last one soaks with sweat, or to pee.

I dream that I paint my face in slick oil colors, some futurist camouflage, and still worry, pettily, about the pimples that may result. I dream that I lose my phone in a big box store but know it must be near: I hear my playlists looping over the intercom. I dream I can’t remember the name of an artist whose show opens tonight, am searching frantically through calendars in my phone to find it, then remember all the galleries are closed, the shows are canceled. I dream I am staring out a window, watching snow fall in fistful flurries, drinking glass after glass of water, achingly thirsty, sneezing up little bits of blood, only to realize I am awake. I think, melodramatically, of how much more I want to do with my life.

It’s Wednesday and I’ve had a fever since Monday afternoon, though it’s stayed low, peaking at 100.8. My girlfriend starts running a fever too, so we split into separate bedrooms and I listen anxiously for her labored coughing through the wall. I am worried and relieved in equal measure with each gravelly hack: the cough sounds gruesome, but it’s good to know she’s breathing. On the other side, she listens too—for my cough, for my thermometer that beeps every few hours, wishing she could see the number. I keep my eyes closed even when I’m awake and listening, to dull the sensory intake—headaches are the worst part, with pressure from both sides like my head is in some metal clamp, squeezed by an industrial compactor. My jaw is clenched, my back aches from lying in bed.

I sign up for a Teladoc service at 9:30 AM, but they’re “experiencing a high call volume due to the novel coronavirus.” I keep my laptop open to the video waiting room as I half-sleep half-sweat through further fever dreams. At 4 AM, I receive a phone call: Would you like to switch to a phone appointment? Our video calls are backed up. OK, I croak. The doctor calls back at 5:30 AM, but I miss the call by a ring in my stupor. I receive a follow-up email: “We attempted to contact you for your visit, and we’re sorry we missed you. Your visit request has been canceled but we recognize the extended wait time you’ve experienced. . . . Thank you for your patience.”

We are living inside the virus twice, I scrawl in a waking moment, by which I mean the virus is going on around us and we are also in its haze. In some ways, it’s a relief to be removed from the sociocultural panic by force of nature. I try to take further notes, but the pen feels too heavy. I try to read, but my eyes blur. I tell myself this is OK: It is OK to slow down, OK to hold on. To sit with the silence. Time warps like a bad drug trip, further days slip by.

The night the fever breaks, I wake in the dark with a wet hairline, slide from bed, lie prone on the floor, stretch—downward dog, child’s pose—and cry. The next morning I feel, not well, but so relieved I could run, dance, if only I could breathe better. I am lucky, I am young. Nausea comes in successive waves, my appetite is nonexistent. My body feels thin like it hasn’t since I was teenaged: clavicle, ribs, pelvic bones announcing themselves through my skin. I wave my arms, which float, ghostly light. My mind feels shriveled, and I imagine the gray matter pickling.

I make tea: mate, which tastes like water; peppermint, which tastes like water. I smell the teabag, bite it: nothing. I bite a lemon: a twinge of sour. Peanut butter tastes like sugar, lettuce tastes vaguely bitter. Mint lip balm tingles without taste or smell. I google: Loss of smell/taste a symptom of covid? and the British have claimed, Yesit is, in an article dated that morning. Is everything a symptom? I force down a tasteless smoothie that seems to run, unchanged, through my body in mere hours, then google diarrhea a symptom of covid? Yes, it is.

The virus tours my organ systems, wreaking havoc at each checkpoint. My girlfriend likewise personifies it, thinking of the virus as a sci-fi invader. She tells me she imagines it taking up temporary residence in her brain, the command center, maneuvering a joystick across her sensory receptors. But while I find the illness harrowing, she finds it tedious, yet clarifying: “Being sick is boring. All I do is sleep, drink water, sometimes juice. Lie in bed for a day, and then another one. Take a steam shower and lean against the wall so I don’t collapse. But I am not bored, as every moment has meaning. My purpose is infinitely clear: to get well.”

And, fortunately, we start to. The virus shows a gracious side, grants reprieve, and the sickness grows mundane. An occasional cough, and ongoing fatigue, but the heaviness of the fear lifts. I sleep less, the days take shape again. My girlfriend’s fever also breaks: I play canary to her miner, harbinger of the sickness but also its respite. I leave the house for the first time in a week. Five minutes down the dirt road, I pause, gasping, clutching my lungs. Is the tightness worse today than yesterday? Should I be worried? Or is the tightness precisely because I am worried, not the virus itself but its psychosomatic correlate?

I worry about my lungs, about my girlfriend, about my 75-year-old aunt down the street, about my boomer parents across the country and my immunocompromised friends in New York and my healthy friends in New York, my friends who work in the service industry who have lost their jobs and my friends who are doctors and nurses, security guards and building attendants, and can’t stop working. My girlfriend hasn’t been ill in a decade, and she remains somehow serene about the illness itself, trusting her strong, WASP-athlete’s body to perform healing with the grace and efficiency it performs everything else. We fight about the utility of worrying; she says there’s no point, that all we can do is rest and wait, be kind to ourselves. I tell her she was cocky, her bravado inappropriate given that she, too, got sick. She shrugs—everyone gets sick. We are just lucky it was mild. She laughs off the night she felt briefly paralyzed and her thoughts shifted into French, all the normal, sickness-delayed operations running in a long-neglected language.

Of course my worrying makes it worse, but it’s not as if one can just turn off a venerable, inherited tradition, refined over the course of generations. My mother calls, frantic, and begs us to go to the hospital. I try to patiently explain that going to the hospital, if not absolutely necessary, would be the worst thing we could do, adding to the nurses’ burden and potentially exposing other patients. I remember what a tree told me once, in a different hallucinatory dream: There are other ways to care about people than worrying about them. You can just ask them how they are.

I text friends and ask them how they’re doing. I play virtual card games with others I haven’t spoken to since college, attend a Zoom birthday party. Musician friends sing me to sleep over the phone, send videos to wake up to; Artist friends post daily paintings, send pictures of blooming magnolias. I can read for an hour at a time, then slowly more. I didn’t bring enough books, or my nail clippers. With how much I’ve fantasized about packing up for some disaster—how strategically I’ve placed the box in which I’d throw my notebooks in the event of a fire or flood—I’d never imagined the scenario in which I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, that I would think I was just leaving for days instead of weeks. Though, of course, my notebooks are still there, and I’ll go back to Brooklyn—I just don’t know when. I FaceTime my roommates, ask them to water the plants.

Our bodies heal, because we are lucky, and our rhythms resume. We stop tracking symptoms and instead count the days until we can safely reenter public life. Though of course, there isn’t much public life to enter. In the cloud, everyone wonders aloud: When will things go back to normal? But will they? Now, mostly recovered, my girlfriend starts to worry too: Will there be lasting symptoms? Will our sense of smell and taste return? Will we be marked? And what will New York look and feel like on the other side? I feel a surge of longing for all it has offered, for its vices and crevices, for the proximity that is its deranged pleasure, its grating hardship, and its present danger. There is so much ongoing, so much of it getting worse, that worrying about the future seems surreal.

Out here, we watch fingerling branches sprout tips of mauve and green, and rarely see another person pass. We walk the same path down the dirt road each afternoon, moving more swiftly as our strength returns. Ambient, wider worry shoulders out the concentrated concern of the past days—or, now, weeks. Has it been two weeks already? Still I catch myself pausing, blinking, staring, half-expecting to wake up, sweaty, from this dream.

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