Part of the problem in understanding the covid period, other than the sheer mental fog it wreathed the world in, is that it was a double event: First, a monster arose and then time changed.
The monster spread through peripheral contact, through breathing the breath of others. The monster had no face, but otherwise it was like the monsters in the movies. Nobody needs to make a horror movie about the initial response to covid. It’s all there in “Jaws”: The lurking death nobody wants to believe in, the contest between public health and economics, the debate around messaging (“You yell ‘shark,’ we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July”), the conflict between the expert class and the political class that results in the working class being eaten alive.
Because of the fear of contact, of touch, of connection, the structure of our lives altered. That’s what I mean by time changing. The passage of life moved differently. The stories stopped working — both grand stories, like America and the postwar international order, and small ones in our private lives. There was this weird disruption of minutiae: What did it mean that, for over a year, nobody I knew had a decent haircut? What did it mean that we forgot what it was like to have a cold, that nobody went to an office? It seems strange to say, amidst mass death, but it was nonetheless remarkable that people forgot how to attend parties. There was no gossip. They were all gone, those negligible dramas.
Here’s the stuff I stopped caring about during covid: My children’s grades, the condition of my house, any form of clothing, games of chance, the future of culture. It was as though somebody had stepped on the damper pedal of the world. At first, I drank more, I numbed myself with television, I doomscrolled. But then, slowly — I do not know how — alcohol and television and news stopped working. The beats were all the same, the highs and lows vacuous. The formulas were stale. I’ve come to believe, pathetic as it is, that the point of the alcohol and the television was to facilitate conversation. Without other people, there was no need. What replaced argument was a spectrum of moralities: You took a place and you occupied it. Everyone a tier more relaxed than you was disgusting and everyone a tier less relaxed was crazy.
A rich friend told me that his children were playing in their friends’ houses during the first lockdown. His freedom filled me with a flummoxed rage at how the rich did not believe that the rules apply to them. We had neighbors who stayed inside the entire pandemic, allowing themselves only a solitary walk in the evenings, in masks outside. I thought they were being ridiculous. No doubt my anxious neighbors thought I was irresponsible, no doubt my rich friend thought I was ridiculous — there was no point talking about any of this with anyone. These were not ideas. They were bodily reactions. The public-shamers had the desire to shame in them; the deniers had the desire to deny in them. Both desires toggled easily between questions of hygiene and questions of electoral politics. It was a time of physical horror of other people’s skin and thoughts.
After money, the central division of the experience of the pandemic was phase of life: Covid was an entirely different experience for young people and old people and middle-aged people. I can’t bring myself to speculate what this has done to children. Yet I wonder if some of the eventual studies will reveal a new rootedness, a deeper connection within families. The week I spent watching all the Sharknado movies in a row with my son was one of the best weeks of my life. (They, like “Jaws,” make excellent political allegories; Donald Trump turned down the role of president in “Sharknado 3” to run for the role of president of the United States.)
Time went on, just not timeliness. I lived the same day for 16 months. I woke up, I worked, I exercised, I checked in with my people, I made a big dinner, I watched an old movie, I slept, I woke up. It was far from the worst day to have to live over and over again. I became so much more local in my outlook. In the winter, we went skating on a pond where the neighborhood kids had shoveled off the snow and friends played hockey among the reeds. I’ll probably never be more Canadian than I was at that moment.
But now, in Toronto, a city only just easing its way out of third lockdown, I sense the effects of the sheer repetition. I have become, without a doubt, a weirder version of myself. I always enjoyed crosswords. Suddenly I was subscribing to Games magazine, scouring the Internet for Sondheim’s early New York cryptics. I always enjoyed cooking. Eventually, I was baking Fraisier cakes and figuring out new ways to prepare cactus. I always enjoyed birding. I was spending eight hours in February in garbage dumps looking for owls.
I once imagined that, when the plague was over, there would be some orgiastic reprieve, some furious explosion of pent-up sensuality. But it turns out no orgies are necessary. After lockdown, simply to eat dinner with friends around the same table is sob-inducing. To sit in the park and to watch people laugh with each other is enough. At the end of this, I don’t need some crazy new fleshiness. I want to go to a bar and buy somebody a drink. I want to kiss people on the cheek. I want to hold a baby. I want to be a human being again. I want to breathe the breath of others.
What will we remember about covid? The horror, the fear of death, elders drowning alone, friends standing on empty streets with the sound of sirens in the background, children unable to visit their dying parents, the absences, the emptinesses, the stupidity, the fury, the revelation of just how little our political system cares about the lives of working families. There was succulence too, a forgetfulness, a coziness even, tucked away as we were like animals in crevices as a storm raged. There was time, not timeliness. As a historical period, covid was a pool of stagnant water. But in pools of stagnant water, new life can form. This was not a time for learning, but I learned.
I am ready for new days. I am ready for new stories. After the forced stillness, the desire to live is returning. To live is to be around others now. That’s all it is.