April 12, 2020
Dear Adam (and friends) (and strangers),
I write from Baltimore, with weeks’ worth of lessons in the bearable and unbearable kinds of alone. More specifically, I write from my apartment, which it has been nearly a month since I last left, and so this is less a letter from the city and more a letter from inside my own head. On March 10, I took a Lyft to campus for an afternoon faculty meeting, rode the city bus home, and a few hours later received an email from the administration that campus was closed, events were canceled, and classes would be virtual, indefinitely and almost immediately. I had been cautiously optimistic until almost exactly that point; I work for a university that was, early on, hosting a reliable public map of the virus, and I thought that if anyone knew when it was too late to rely on contact tracing, when we had passed the point of no return, it would be my own workplace, which had, as recently as the previous Friday, emailed to say that everything was on as scheduled, though things could change quickly. Something had apparently changed quickly. A belated alarm sounded for me. I stayed home until March 16, when I walked a block to buy extra cat food, and then a block more to stock up on canned and dried goods and, for reasons unclear to me, essential oils, at my tiny and mysterious neighborhood health food store. Since then I have been about as far as my apartment building’s front entryway, to collect mail and packages of groceries once a week and then bring them inside to disinfect. Last Tuesday, enough boxes had piled up that I took out the recycling using the fire escape door, and, in my one exhilarating exception to the rule, had to walk around the block to the front entrance to come back inside.
None of this is the unbearable part. I love my apartment. I am on leave from teaching this semester, and I kept busy in the early part of the year—a research trip, one-and-a-half actual non-working vacations, a few rounds of final edits on my forthcoming book, AWP—with the intention that in March, back from travel, I would hibernate for weeks and work on my next project. In January I bought myself a smart bike and taught myself to like it, anticipating a month when I would become a creature of odd habits and hours, and wouldn’t want to walk to the gym after dark or in the spring rain. What a luxury it will be to go days without leaving home and not miss anything, I thought.
Now I miss so many things. I don’t ever want to own anything again, and I don’t want to deal with a lawn, I told some friends who bought a beautiful house earlier this year and encouraged me to look at things for sale in their neighborhood. I don’t need to learn to drive in Baltimore, I told a relative. I’m a block from Penn Station and half the buses in the city stop on my block. Now I take vitamin D pills and sometimes hover over the fire escape ledge, standing beside the trash can, to try to get some sunlight, and I imagine the luxury of having a backyard. I am vexed by everything I love about the centrality of my location, about the intimacy and busyness of cities. I read in Maryland’s stay-at-home order that I may walk outside as long as I keep six feet away from others, and am baffled because even in the eerie quiet of my quarantine neighborhood, I may not so much as step outside and be more than six feet away from anyone for any notable amount of time: six feet from my front door are the front doors to two other rowhouses carved into apartments; joggers and dogwalkers and delivery people and essential workers waiting for or exiting buses are still, at any given moment, on the block or soon to be; the street itself is a major thoroughfare and still full of car, bus, and truck traffic. The rules are not designed for dense urban neighborhoods, unless that failure is itself by design.
My father is a thirty-minute train ride away, in a leafy suburban subdivision, and I wouldn’t have to cross state lines to get there, but the train is out of the question, of course, and even now that I’ve been quarantined more than a proper two weeks, I can’t see any way of visiting without risk, his being higher than mine, or see asking him to drive an hour each way twice while still teleworking just to bring me there and back so I can visit for a day, which is as long as I could leave my apartment without wrangling all four cats and bringing them with me, a prospect unlikely to make any cats or humans happy. A person with a car and a license might have options, I concede, might be able to drive far enough to take an isolated walk outside, or to wave at her father from a safe distance.
I guess we weren’t that serious about it, so it’s for the best, I told a friend when the casual relationship I’d drifted into earlier this year just as casually evaporated. Now the scolding voice in my head tells me that a person who believed in chasing after things, who didn’t think it was as clear as “people either want to be around you or they don’t” and if you didn’t know which, there was your answer—well, that person might not be alone in her apartment for months. When I turned thirty-five a few years ago, I promised myself I’d let go of the idea that someday I was going to become a different kind of adult, let myself accept that there would be no house or husband or baby or sudden mature renunciation of glitter. It was only the baby I really grieved, but it was a grief I let myself have and move on from, to give myself permission to live a life that wasn’t waiting for my real life to start, to remove the emotional tyranny of a ticking biological clock from all of my intimate relationships, to claim as a choice what would otherwise feel like it had happened to me. I thought it worked. But the loneliness of isolation some days mocks all of that, especially on the days when I allow myself to wonder what the world of After will look like, whether all the joys I promised myself I could still have—travel and shows and community in the form of classrooms and bookstores and coffeeshops and bars, restaurants, beaches, casual flings—will survive this, will exist in recognizable form when we emerge. It is possible to feel stuck with your choices even without wishing you’d made any differently.
Who was everyone’s last real human touch? a friend asked at a Zoom birthday party in late March. I said a name, but once everyone hung up, I thought again, not sure if I remembered correctly. I walked myself through that last real day of human contact, not the faculty meeting where, friendly though my department is, I’m certain I didn’t hug anyone, but earlier, the last day of AWP, full of things that feel like luxuries now. One way to live in the world with anxiety is to get used to pushing it aside when it gets in the way of being alive; this is my best explanation for why I trusted the city and the airlines and the institutions who said it was still safe to travel, and ignored the warnings of friends who said what was coming. I thought quarantine was still an if, and weeks away if so, and I thought if loneliness was coming soon, I would need not to be alone any longer than necessary. So, I went to the conference, and for two days I diligently did readings and panels and events, and then the last day I slept in and stayed in bed for hours after I woke trying to rally myself to go be a good audience member. I finally got out of my room and as far as the lobby, intending a quick lunch, but instead saw a friend at the bar and spent a few hours day-drinking with him, having a meandering conversation about our novels and major life decisions. I feel so settled, I said, believing it. When I realized we’d talked so long the conference was about to shut down, I hustled to the convention center and walked tipsily through the bookfair, buying as many books as I could carry. I ran into a friend whose book I’d bought a few days earlier and he mentioned he’d be reading in Baltimore in a few weeks; we texted to make sure we each had the other’s number, not knowing no one was reading anywhere in a few weeks, not knowing it would soon feel like a miracle to be messaging an emoji to a person standing right in front of your face. I went to a reading where I sat outside on a blanket and a rotation of readers floated from group to group to read us poetry. I dragged some friends to a crowded restaurant where we waited twenty minutes at the bar for a table, and because the table was outside, they gave us blankets to drape around ourselves. Back at the hotel I tried to get everyone to join another group, who planned to go to conference’s final dance party, but I only convinced one person from the dinner group to join the dancing group, and when we all went upstairs, the dance floor was hilariously, heartbreakingly empty. My friend bought a round of beers and we all went back downstairs and people began to peel off, because we were tired, because flights were early, because it was starting to be clear that we were in the before of something terrible, that we were on the wrong side of caution. I can remember who was there; I remember some people were already conscientiously not hugging or touching, that some people were there who I didn’t know well enough to hug. Who was the last person who leaned into me say goodbye? Who was the last person, besides me, to realize the party was over?
When I hear that this could go on for a year, I think it is lack of human touch, human contact, that will break me, and then I think it might actually be grief. I keep waiting for the first feeling I have that is wholly untouched by grief, or that is at least its own fresh grief, not marked by my mother’s death almost three years ago, but it hasn’t happened yet. When I hear the descriptions of the virus, of what it does to people’s breathing, I think of my mother at the beginning of her illness, when she went to the ER with stage four cancer and a liter and a half of fluid in her lungs and the doctor was planning to send her home with a laxative, except that my mother’s friend, a cardiologist at the same hospital, insisted they give her a CAT scan. I think of how we’d fought the week before she went to the ER, when she told me she’d stopped paying her insurance, and I yelled, and she said, The only thing wrong with me is high blood pressure, and the only reason for that is stress, and the main reason I am stressed is money and I said, If there’s something else wrong by the time you know it will be too late. A fight I regret having, but because I did have it with her, I knew that when the CAT scan came back questionable, before I could fully comfort her I had to ask her for her insurance card and step out in the hallway to use everything in my bank account at the time to call in a payment, which is why she was never technically uninsured, which is why she could start chemo right away, which is likely part of why it was four years before she died and not the one year or less that was predicted. I think of her at the end, everything they’d given her to keep the pain at bay, to keep her unnaturally calm while her body’s every instinct told her to panic, also meant she couldn’t hold her head up to cough or vomit, how many times she’d said she didn’t want to die hooked up to tubes, so when they first asked to intubate her, her partner said no. How when I was alone with her later that day she began to choke, suddenly awake and terrified, and I held her hand and pushed the call button and knew we didn’t have that much time, so I ran into the hallway screaming for help, and the nurse, whose son she was trying to marry me off to, came running. I stood in hallway terrified that my mother was going to die, while I was in fact at the hospital by her bedside waiting for my mother to die, just not like that. How I didn’t know until after they’d put the tube in that I’d heard her voice for the last time.
Sometimes in the middle of the day now I find myself sobbing and only realize later why: which bit of news triggered which memory: the descriptions of what the virus does to the body, or the infuriating financial politics of our health care system, or how many of the early faces of the dead are Black women my mother’s age. There is also a kind of survivor’s guilt. My current comfort feels bewildering; I am unaccustomed to being financially able to weather a crisis without having to worry about it. I did not become financially comfortable when I sold a book, or when I became a professor, or when I became a professor at the fanciest of the series of schools I’ve taught at; I became financially comfortable when my mother died and I had no one to take care of but myself. My mother never became financially comfortable not because she didn’t go to all the right schools or do all the right jobs but because there was always someone else to take care of. When I let myself feel comfortable now, it’s not because I forgot anything but because I know what bought and paid for this life. Sometimes grief still comes on the best days, to collect what it is owed.
But there is a quieter grief, one I couldn’t properly identify until Bill Withers died. All that day I listened to “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a song I only hear in my mother’s voice because it was what she would call to sing, to me, and if I didn’t answer, to my voicemail, whenever she felt I’d been out of touch too long. When the virus first hit I thought of my sick mother, of what hell it would have been for her after years of chemo and complications to have to add this to her list of dangers, and of how much time I spent on planes and buses getting to her, or in hospital rooms or lounges with her, and what it would have been like to be unable to go. I had the unbearable thought that it was a good thing she didn’t have to live through this. But last week, listening to Bill Withers, I thought of my mother when she was well, who would have made it maybe two weeks before calling to tell me she was coming to get me or she was coming to stay, but she wasn’t letting me stay in my apartment alone for months. But it’s my apartment! I would have said. It’s my life! I like it! And she would have scoffed at my boundaries and come anyway, knowing there was no way I wouldn’t actually open the door. What I’ve been feeling acutely is the particular absence of the only person in the world who would have refused to leave me alone even when I absolutely wanted to be. Today is Easter, which was my mother’s favorite holiday, and I am not religious, but I believe in rebirth, in coming back from the impossible, because of my mother, because of the same tenacious quality that was as impressive turned on others as it was impossible when turned on you.
When I can step out of my personal grief for long enough, I summon that tenacity in the face of the more collective grief. Weeks ago, after schools closed but before the surge in infections, I fought with my cousin on the family group text. He thought the threat was overstated; I said the disease targets people with asthma and hypertension and diabetes, and we know who, in this country, that will be, and who will have to work, and who lives in cities and apartments, and who takes public transit, and we also know who won’t get prioritized for treatment. I said this plainly and almost glibly because to say it how it feels hurts too much. When I see the actual data on race come in, it is not a surprise, but it is devastating, and also terrifying. When I see who is dying, and I hear the narrative shift to personal responsibility, I lose all faith that we will take this seriously enough for long enough. I know my country, and I am afraid that once it thinks this is a Black and Brown problem, it will not blink at sacrificing gig workers and shipping plant workers and service workers and food workers and city employees to have back the world of money and parties; it will kill them and replace them for as long as it needs to, even once the color of the faces starts to change.
There is an aloneness that precedes the virus in knowing what Black life is worth in this country, one that is in no way offset by how often White people tell you they value your particular life, or chastened by how many roll their eyes at the observation. I am terrified of getting sick because being sick alone means it may be too late when I realize how sick I am; I am terrified of having to go to the hospital alone because everything I know says there’s no point in going to the hospital if I’m not well enough to credential myself. I do not have any particular health risk factors for this virus except that I find doctors stressful and my blood pressure spikes at the beginning of any doctor’s visit; if the doctor is willing to humor me and take it again, my blood pressure is almost always normal and the file says I have anxiety; if the doctor is not, or the visit was upsetting, then the file says my blood pressure is elevated. Mild hypertension. I think of this: that if I got sick, no one would say she is a Professor who just achieved a Peloton milestone and has a refrigerator full of almond milk and fresh vegetables and a fall book tour and she Clorox-wiped the apartment’s front doors every time she went to get the mail. Someone would say hypertension, someone would say comorbidity, someone would read the summarized statistics and say, That one doesn’t count, she was basically dead anyway, because this is the game we are playing with language, one where I and most of the people in my family cannot count as dying of this because we are already not alive.
When I think this, it is not especially good for my blood pressure. I add spite to my reasons to stay alive and well—and not for the first time. I greet my anxiety like an old friend, one who wants me to live a long life and forgives me when I doubt her. I alternate between my peppy smart bike and the despair of Twitter and the grab bag of emotions summoned by the books I’m finally catching up on reading. I donate what I can where I can, work my way through the local tip jar Venmo looking for my bartenders and baristas and my hairdresser. I talk to my father several times a week; he is pleased to learn the stay-at-home order exception for live animals includes his bees, so he can tend to his hives without violating social distancing guidelines, and I am pleased for him, and the bees, and also that I don’t have to go near the bees myself. I order new books from local bookstores before I’ve finished the last batch. I congratulate my students on their milestones. I read a friend’s daughter a book via Zoom and come away with a critical thesis on reforms needed in pixie society.
I am trying to imagine an After that looks better than the Before we came from. I am trying to imagine the first day I can hug someone again. I am trying to imagine beyond that, to the first day I will take touch for granted, to the next time I will go someplace and spend a day among friends again and leave not remembering which of the people I adore I said goodbye to last, not conscious of the significance, not conscious of the danger.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Evans’s contribution will be directed to Maryland Food Bank.