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Quarantine Day #53

Just over four million cases globally, with 276,000 deaths. In the U.S., 1,327,000 cases and 79,000 deaths. With our national need to be number one, we win the Biggest Number of Deaths Contest, hands down. We got this.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted. Listen, shit is fucked. Every time I went to draft a post (after ten hours working on my laptop) I felt suffocated by isolation and bad news. Hacking my way through a mile of thorns with a butter knife. Easier to lie on the couch and trade nudes with dudes in Chicago, London, and Melbourne.

20.5 million Americans lost their jobs in the month of April. The most since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate shot up to 14.7%, with no quick fix in sight. Decades, the experts say. It’ll take decades to pull ourselves out of this hole.

The federal $349 billion small business loan program emptied in two weeks. Most of it dispersed to suspect “small” outfits (publicly-held hotel chains, etc.) who refused to give it back. A Louisiana evangelical pastor who’d defied state social distancing guidelines to hold massive, in-person services, later kicked off a campaign to get his followers to donate their personal $1,200 stimulus checks to his church—the checks had been delayed in the mail just a moment while Trump had his name stamped across each one.

The pages of the Boston Globe’s obituaries have more than doubled, which reminds me of reading the local gay rags my dads had around the house in the late 80s, and scanning page after page of handsome, mustachioed men who’d died at ages younger than I am now. What a world I came out in. What a world now.

Blame China is the new plan to lead our country out of this mess. In other news, 59% of the nation’s Chinese restaurants have stopped taking debit and credit transactions, a sign they’ve ceased all operations.

One-third of all U.S. deaths are nursing home workers or residents. 50 residents and staff of a facility in the next town over caught the virus. 60 dead bodies were found in trucks outside a Brooklyn funeral home after neighbors complained about the smell. Cruise ships across the globe warped into floating, doctor-less hospital wards, stranded off the coasts of cities that wanted nothing to do with them.

For every 100,000 Americans, 40.9 blacks have died, along with about 17.9 Asians, 17.9 Latinos and 15.8 whites. These numbers make me sad and cynical about the push to reopen, and about whose deaths get to matter. This virus is bent on making life meaner for those with mean-enough lives. 

A writer disguised as a daytime clock-punching marketer, I’m officially sick of the advertising phrase, “In these unprecedented times…”

If I could sum up the current state, I’d put it this way:

Scientist A: We could have a vaccine soon.

Scientist B: The U.S. could be socially distancing into 2022.

Trump: Just sip some bleach.

He’s blocked the CDC from dispensing guidelines that counter his delusional optimism, muted doctors whose level-headed advice ran smack up against his constant, snake-oil quackery, even as two people in the White House tested positive this week. If they can’t avoid it, how can we?

Under the cover of the pandemic, he’s cut environmental protections, kicked 100s of immigrant kids from our border, and dropped charges against a crony who pled guilty in a court of law. He’s such an unrelentingly corrupt, moronic trash-monster that it’s like anyone left with a shred of heart is living this shared, hallucinatory nightmare. We’re crammed into a school bus with no driver at the wheel, barreling towards the edge of a cliff. We’re a rudderless, festering cruise ship in the Bermuda Triangle.

The pandemic reaction has splintered, like everything in this country, along a deep gap between us and them. Us are listening to public health officials, wary of returning to work, and wearing face masks in public.

Them are screaming for life to get back to normal, strapping guns to their belts and protesting, mask-less, at state capitols for their right to believe that the pandemic is a deep state hoax. They think we’re scared pussies. We think they’re fucking nuts and doomed for bleak ends in red-state hospital wards.

We each have our own sources and separate facts to bolster our bulwarks. We share the same contaminated air, sucking down the same COVID, hunkered down in alternate realities.

It’s a struggle to maintain a sunny outlook, is what I’m saying. When you’re stuck at home, alone, 24 hours a day (22 on a good day) and every view onto the outer world is a window onto some separate, profound, unending pain, well, you go put on a smile. I’m saving my energy for the fight to come.

And then I got sick.

Every interaction with the outside world is a calculated risk. Do I go to the grocery store or opt for delivery? Do I hike when I’m mostly sure I can stay 20 feet away from the small town locals? Do I use my building’s laundry room? Do I break down from a shuddering need for physical connection and invite a dude over who’s also been quarantining and bears no symptoms? Somewhere in there, someone got me sick. Let’s be honest—it was the dude.

A sore throat that turned painful to swallow. Chills, then heat, then chills again. Body aches. Pounding head. A fever inching past 100. No respiratory problems, so I was on the fence about its critical, COVID-likely weight.

But it’s impossible to look at symptoms now through any other lens than COVID, so I emailed my GP, who called in a referral to the local testing site. I drove, fuzz-brained, into the next town, pulled my sensible Civic up to a tent in a hospital parking lot and a nurse in full protective gear had me inch down my window, lower my face mask to cover only my mouth, and then stuck a long-ass swab about a foot up my nose, where for ten long seconds she held the burning tip in my sinuses, rubbed it around, then sent me on my way.

Drove home in a fever, passed out on the couch with Agnes. The next day I felt a bit better, so I wasn’t shocked when my test came back that afternoon, marked “negative.” It had felt like the usual flu.

I had this weird, unpleasant experience in the following days as a couple of friends and several coworkers asked, over text, pointed questions about how I’d managed to contract the flu during quarantine. People holed up with partners and families implied that my inability to be completely alone for eight weeks was a moral failure.

(Half of this might be all in my own head. But half of everything we see at any moment of the day is in our own heads.)

What I’m trying to get at is that it reminded me of the moral quandary of safe sex, and the shame we were meant to feel every time we failed at its perfect practice. My default headspace is that everyone secretly hates me and thinks I’m a bad person, so the safe sex game, transplanted to the COVID era, is another thick, fertile patch of thorns for me to play in. The cuts comfort because I’ve long known their depth.

The sweet side effect of my sick-scare is that two friends, a couple in the next town over, took good care of me. One’s a doctor and between the two of them, I had constant texts, phone appointments for my current list of symptoms, and even a delivery from the supermarket. After my test results, I Venmo’d them the total with the memo line, “non-COVID groceries.”

My Big Brothers. Two years ago I’d been perched alone at the edge of an abyss in this town, so this was…something I can’t yet articulate, because saying it aloud will make it disappear. It’s an unfamiliar resource. Because I was raised by wolves, by a man who used me for his own needs, and by a woman who believed that movement, ambition, work for its own sake, performance for approval, were the true indicators of worth. Inaction, reflection, rest—all sins. Sickness—when you’re shut down, confined, and weakened—was a moral failure, worthy of contempt.

I think about the word mother, when we use it in the context of sickness. We want, when weakened, to be mothered. We want—in the middle of a flu, in the eye of a pandemic—to know we’ll be okay. “You are not alone,” my Big Brother texted me the night before my test results. His own life had taught him that at moments of weakness and fear, we need to hear that won’t be abandoned.

I texted the Big Bros to tell them that I loved them. I wasn’t even feverish at the time. During my mom’s death, I learned that saying such words is an act you never regret.

I don’t know how the fuck you’re enduring, but this is what’s getting me through the thorns. These little gleams of light and connection. As the whole world burns down, how else are you going to skate by?

Quarantine Day #20

Worldwide cases stand at 1,289,000. As I write this, US deaths passed 10,000. In New York City, 653 people died on Saturday. In the next town over from me, 23 veterans died at the Holyoke Soldiers Home.

Since widespread testing is still out of reach, some of these numbers should be treated with suspicion.

The CDC, after fighting Trump’s team for days (weeks?), recommended that US citizens wear homemade masks (since even nurses can’t get surgical masks now) when going outside. On TV, he said, “You can wear them if you want. I’m not going to do it.” Later that night, someone in my Facebook feed posted a link to this quote with the caption, “Fingers crossed.”

Yesterday, he again touted an experimental drug that no doctor on the planet will publicly endorse. A few weeks ago, a Phoenix couple found a version of the chemical in a bottle of fish medicine they had at home and did a little self-treatment. The man died, the wife ended up in the hospital. “I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t that the stuff they’re talking about on TV?'” she said.

I’m not saying the full load of idiocy here rests on one man’s shoulders.

At the end of ten hours churning copy on my couch, my mind grows sluggish, good soil for bad thoughts. When the weather’s fine, I hike in the patch of woods near my place, where I can avoid the locals. Sitting beside the pond, listening to the spring frogs and watching the herons fish—it all pulls my sanity back from the swirling drain, but I still feel vaguely ashamed. Adhering to the strictest social distancing requirements (such as “never go outside”), posting about it on social media, and shaming others for breaking these shifting rules is the new “woke.” For the first time since moving here, I’m grateful that I’m not in a bigger city. I’ll suck in the woods’ serenity as long as I can.

This week should be awful for the nation, death-wise. “This will be our Pearl Harbor,” some health official said. Others quickly trounced that analogy. The country has yet to cohere around reality. The last five states without a stay-in-place restriction are all run by Republican governors.

Someone sent me a link to a YouTube compilation of a bunch of “citizen journalists” descending upon their local emergency rooms with video cameras to show their compatriots that there’s no COVID-19 crisis in their podunk towns. The level of…oh, never mind, I won’t waste your time. I wasted plenty, fuming.

Yesterday I turned 49. Hopefully, if I survive all this (of course I’ll survive this, don’t be melodramatic, right?) I can look back with bittersweet nostalgia: my quarantine birthday. What’s weird and sometimes hard about this pandemic lock-down is that it mirrors the dark, solitary, locked-down place I endured for several years. I feel like I only just now clawed my way free. Home, alone, nearly 22 hours a day, with no gym, meetings, or in-person human contact. The future dim at best.

Back then, trying to describe what it felt like to be battling old demons who wore new skins, roiled by constant, generalized, free-floating terror, hiding from the world in my back bunker of a spare bedroom, I’d resort to the metaphor of an astronaut on a cut tether, spinning away through the yawning vacuum of deep, black space. The utter lonesomeness killed me. How easily I spun out of the reach of others, and for how long I hung out there, my tank depleting, blind to all horizons.

This is different. For the first time in my life, the whole world is sharing one experience, hunkered down at home (though stay-at-home is a privilege unavailable to many). Instead of spinning off alone, out of reach of a bustling, functioning earth full of human connection, I’m now just one of millions of folks enduring life in a bunker. I think of how gay men must have felt in the AIDS epidemic, drifting through their own collective dark space—and lovers dropping one by one—while surrounded by a silent, aloof, unaffected world.

But anyone can get this thing. And while HIV is mostly passed through fucks or needles, COVID-19 can pass through the most fleeting of human encounters. “Is this fuck worth death?” I wrote in my last post. A friend told me he had the same thought once, pausing outside a bathhouse in the late 80s. Now, it’s more like, is this carton of milk, this delivery pizza, this brisk walk through a park worth it?

Disconnection is the modern condition. Digital isolation. An epidemic of loneliness. All of this diagnosed long before COVID-19 came and chased us away from what few connections we sustained.

I made a calculated risk and invited one man into my bunker. We grabbed each other and held on like we hadn’t been touched in years. In our hours together, naked and unclothed, I thought, “This is worth it.”

I’m a year shy of 50. My life doesn’t look like I thought it would, back when I was 25, 35, even 45. I have different friends, no partner. I haven’t gathered the external markers of success I thought I should have by now. I’m trying to shake my head, clear my mind of the veils of lives I should have lived. I want to see the life I have. The real one. Willing to fight for a bit of joy, if that’s what I’m meant to have.

Maybe I’m a late bloomer, some geezer slowly coming into his own. Uncertain about a future that’s never looked less sure. Seeing beauty around me, still. Every night, New Yorkers stand at their windows and cheer the first responders, health care workers, delivery drivers and grocery clerks going to work while the rest of us are locked at home. An ovation audible in the streets, a thin path forward through the fog.