Listen to me. The problem is your imagination. Stop using dystopia as your compass. Stop using metaphors. You have to live through this. We’ve been inside the house, inside the quarantine, for five days, and it is totally unreal even for people used to lying in bed writing. This is a proper quarantine, a real one, not just a brief dimming of everyday life. The newspapers are posting pictures of the empty Spanish Steps on their websites. They shouldn’t enjoy this too much, that messes up your defenses. You need them. I know this because I am endocrinologically impaired, and I know you have to stoke your immune system all the time to stay healthy. I left a WhatsApp chat of fellow writers and intellectuals the other day because they were posting and scrolling through photos of the apocalypse like children. I couldn’t stand it. No takes. No points. Stop making points.
Go back to Tolstoy, forget the dystopias you got secondhand from crappy TV, say your prayers, buy a block of pink salt shaped like a bar of soap and cleanse your energy with it. It burns. Buy limes and lemons and learn the proportions for sours: three quarters of an ounce of lemon juice, the same amount of simple syrup or any sweet liquor, two ounces of spirit. The margarita is a sour. The vodka sour is a sour. Alcohol keeps your family happy, and the citrus keeps the virus away. (This last bit is unconfirmed, but I love it.)
Let me go back to Tolstoyan basics and tell you about my father’s hip replacement operation. My father decided to do the dramatic, momentous thing of retiring in the summer he turned 70. That was last summer. This after forty years of life as an IT entrepreneur, as the man who sat quietly at dinner with his arms crossed, eating while his two children were kept from talking by his wife’s electric eyes. All work and no play with the kids, for decades. We were obviously scared that retiring from the only thing he’d done consistently throughout his life—and doing it at this fateful moment—would be too much. Too much drama.
If I remember correctly, the messed-up hip all goes back to when he screwed up his knee a decade ago. It was the trickle-up effect: the jumbled knee put pressure on the hip. I may be mythmaking here, but I think the trouble began at my sister’s wedding reception at his house in the country. The catering people got their car stuck in mud, and though he’d been an unathletic guy his whole life, he decided he had to help out and push the car. He fell, of course, and when he accompanied my sister to the altar he had a leg-brace over the left leg of his suit. At the time I decided this was a symptom of his overly conflicted feelings about my sister getting married. A shaman I know thinks my sister was my father’s slave in another life.
Ten years later, he’s retired and has been hobbling, or maybe even crippled, going on two years now. He is a resourceful man, especially in times of distress, or maybe only in times of distress, when he suddenly conjures a jovial attitude he otherwise never displays. It’s mystical, almost hippyish, impossible to square with his day-to-day sternness. He’s ready for the surgery: he wants to use the hip replacement as the fresh start his retired life hasn’t provided. Though of course he’d say that it’s a compelling life even under the constraints. He lives next door to his three quirky and handsome grandchildren—my sister’s children. He is a poet at heart. He can make the most of a stroll.
When the outbreak happens, three weeks ago, our society’s reckoning comes in spurts. In very slow spurts. I remember feeling panic on a train from Paris to Milan to Rome, and I remember the panic receding, but after that it hasn’t ever been so linear, going up and down on a whim. Now that we’re stuck at home it’s flattened out—yesterday, March 11, was my most serene day. The analogies aren’t right, but none of them could be. What we have in our minds are the soundtracks to Christopher fucking Nolan movies, a thousand action movie trailers blurring into a single mass, the GIF of goddamn Peggy’s reaction shot from The Handmaid’s Tale on loop forever. We think everything is ramping up, but it’s not ramping up. Writing the narrative of this thing feels like each of us is writing a novel. It’s not a linear process. But I can remember thinking: alright, my father is not canceling his operation, he’s not afraid of the prospect of the epidemic escalating like it has in Lombardy, or he must feel that if he doesn’t do it now he’ll have to wait for six months, because the hospitals will have become off-limit war zones in the meantime and his plan to be a healthy, retired senior citizen will be delayed. He must have thought—we’ll never talk about this—that six more months as a crippled man in pain would do him in.
Three days before my father’s due to be admitted to the hospital, Rome gets its first cases. The day before his admission they find a coronavirus case in his hospital. My sister and I don’t budge. My father and my mother—a very anxious person, tall and devilish and candid and childish and tricky to be around when you’re weak—decide to go.
I’ve been telling people my age that we have to let my parents’ generation go. I say that since these people never relinquished their power, we feel like their tragedy is our tragedy. We’re not an independent generation, I declare emphatically. My pep talk resonates well with my receptive and lonely audience of me and me alone. My anguish lifts. I think to myself that these people—these parents—are even cool. They’ve decided that they’re willing to risk being killed in order to avoid being lame. I don’t know if that pun works, but I’m asking you to be generous during this difficult time.
So they go. On the day of the surgery my mother’s anxiety is world-historical. The day begins at 6:30 AM and drags on forever, though it’s a comfort—sort of—that the delays are due to the surgery prep and not the virus. My parents say that everything in that fantastic, state-of-the-art hospital is safe. And you want to believe them, because their life is a fantasy. Their generation’s life is our porn, so I believe them. I’m praying and letting go at the same time. In the meantime, you have to understand that my wife, a hypochondriac, is dealing with the situation by crying for everyone’s safety. We get drunk at home on martinis and tiki cocktails that we have for lunch and dinner and after dinner. I have nine different rums on my shelf, and I’m experimenting with a recipe book from Smuggler’s Cove, the San Francisco tiki bar.
The surgery goes well, and my mother is less antsy. My father’s nagging pain has ceased and he is very happy.
The first night is fine. We’re on a family WhatsApp chat and are kept updated. My father’s IV drip is making him happy. Jokes and memes are exchanged. The doctors, we’re informed, are switching to a blander painkiller. It’s a Catholic hospital, so I assume they’re against recreational anesthesia. He has very low blood pressure.
OK, so the next day is a Saturday, and my wife and I are driving to the country with friends to breathe some good air. That night the government will decree its full-China response to the situation, and of course that’s all we’ll talk about. Even before that, my wife is miserable. We’re all scared. We have arguments, we drink, we have acid reflux. But that morning, before the worst goes down, my mother does this thing that is so her. “Some pics of the grandkids to cheer up a heavy day. Please,” she writes. No context and no additional information. My mother’s style. My sister posts a pic of her son recklessly launching himself from the fence around the park.
I talk to my mother that afternoon. My father was in too much pain from the blander painkiller. Hence the demand for grandkid content. I know it could have been worse—and she does, too—but I assume him screaming all night must have been a serious scene.
The next day my mother writes: “There was a moment of panic when a security person stopped me to tell me they were shutting down our sector, and I had to go home. I’m staying, though, because us family members are helping out the nurses with a lot of minor things. But we are stuck in our room. I was able to sneak into mass. The hospital is a desert.”
Hours later: “This soap opera of them trying to kick me out is still going on. We’re waiting to see if I can stay until tomorrow, or if a guard is going to escort me out right now. Dad told them that if they kick me out, he’s going, too. The nurses are helpless.”
Twenty minutes later. “The head nurse has agreed that I’m staying but they’ll have to bury me alive.” Buried alive, like the architects of pyramids trapped forever inside the walls. “They’ll decide on Dad’s dismissal tomorrow.”
As it turns out, even in the midst of dystopia you can still want to kill your mother, like in a comedy. I’ve been spending my days making cocktails for my wife. We wrote to the cleaning lady and the yoga teacher and told them we’d keep paying despite the shutdown. It’s a strange time when you want to give people money.
On Monday I get a call from my father, who’s much friendlier on the phone than my mother. He asks if I can pick up the walker he’s renting from this pharmacy ten kilometers away from my place, because he’s coming home. (Home is eight kilometers away.) The thing is, Monday is the first day of real awareness in Rome. My wife is bleak when I tell her I have to go do this. I feel heroic and skinny, if that makes sense. I feel like a sexy 20-year-old hero. I put on a tracksuit, sneakers, sunglasses and a fleece collar on my mouth and nose. I’m ahead of the curve of on the panic, but I think people will understand. I drive down the on-ramp to the eastern freeway and put on some Joyce Carol Oates online classes I’ve downloaded onto my tablet. She’s soothing as hell, and her commitment to explaining Virginia Woolf’s diary is making me cry.
I get off the freeway and end up on a tame little road in a very residential part of town. This must be the neighborhood’s main street. A lot of double-parked cars, not many people around. I get cash at an ATM and enjoy the experience of giving five times what I usually give to a young African man standing on the corner and an old Eastern European guy sitting on the curb. I’m a young, skinny cowboy doing apocalyptic errands for my father. There are three people in line outside the store where they’re waiting for me and my 100 euros and my ID. Everyone is keeping their distance, but I’m the only one there not looking for facemasks. When it’s my turn I ask the store owner about availability and turn to inform the people behind me. I’m never about being good, and this heroic day of errands is making me want to be good. I take the green walker to my car. I buy a Danish at a bar. I wait thirty minutes before eating it, hoping that the virus it’s obviously infected with will die out in that time.
I have a new book out, and I’m proud of it. It’s an essay about how Mrs. Dalloway can offer men today a new kind of sentimental education, how she can free us from our bad habits. I have a book out but I don’t care.
I drive to my parents’ house, where I wait for them to arrive in a black car. When they get there, I argue with my mother as I help my father slowly get acquainted with the walker. He moves slowly, but he’s not in pain. People on the street say hi and are clearly puzzled by this new development—so now the virus is also crippling people? In the deserted street his slow, assisted walk can’t help but look ominous.
I bicker with my mother about whether my father should start using the walker immediately, or stick to his crutches for this short walk to the elevator.
“Stop bitching,” she says. “I’m the boss.”
“Fair enough,” I say. “And then when it’s June, we’ll shake hands, and I’m never going to see you again.”
We go upstairs and briefly check on my father. He’s so relieved, I can tell. I start saying that I’m afraid my wife could fall apart, she’s so scared. Her father has been hanging out with his best friend, whose daughter works in Milan and just came back to their hometown, which is near Rome.
“What can we do to help?” my mother asks.
“Nothing, I say. “I just needed to vent my fears, or I’ll develop something psychosomatic, please just listen.”