You’ve never asked a lot of the people who pass you on the sidewalk. In fact, you’ve never
asked them for anything at all. But these days, your request (while still silent) is strange and
voyeuristic—you are newly fascinated with each person’s step, every averted eye, and their
seeming insistence to exist only within six feet of you. In public, you trust no one. Everyone
has a knife they may or may not even know they’re holding. You inhale deeply, seconds before
someone passes you and exhale only when the rush of air that follows behind them has hit your
skin and gone. When you inhale again, you fear having done so too quickly. You see their seeds
plant themselves in the soft belly of your throat.
When you were in the second grade, your teacher took you and your classmates to a naval
museum on the coast that was simultaneously too dull and too overstimulating to impact you
in the moment. The crown jewels of the museum were six medieval battleships, lined in
perfect succession against the shoreline. Each ship had an entrance ramp, an exit ramp, and a
tremendous line of visitors snaking between the two. Once inside, most people bumped their
shoulders against everyone else, some extended their hands to help others along the ramps, and
all were having one of three-to-four possible conversations about what they saw immediately
before them in the cabins.
Inside the six ships, one of the male chaperones made sure you saw every one of the massive,
steel cannons; they were of interest to you as a seven-year-old kid, but you more vividly recall
the chaperone ducking to protect his forehead from every horizontal beam above him. He
seemed too large for the space, as though the cabins—which were wide and sweeping for your
small frame—were collapsing inward, against him.
When you, the chaperone, the teacher, and the others released yourselves from the museum
and were walking back to the school bus, you spun on your heels to see the six ships one last
time. You made the decision to turn around less out of genuine interest and more out of an
inexplicable feeling that those ships and the tapeworms of people moving slowly through them
were a sight you’d someday want to remember.
You know of course, that none of what you’ve been feeling these past few weeks is remarkable
or unique to you. This was always the case, even before any mention of a pandemic, but you
are now acutely aware of your shared experience through every emotion and feeling. On
occasion, you lazily entertain the comfort of solidarity, in your sadness, in your isolation, in the
recognition that none of this is as bad for you as it is for the majority of the rest of the
population. Just as often, you consider the possibility that your personal equation for joy, for
pity, and for the perception of self-worth is, indeed, totally fucking automated.
On Tuesday (or Wednesday) night, you realize the streets are so quiet in the evening, you can
now hear the descending scales of airplanes nearing and flying over your bedroom. You live
near the city, so this isn’t an inherently special occurrence, but the unchallenged volume of the
turbines carving through the silence captures your focus.
In your isolation, every flyover becomes an emergency. Whether bound for the nearby casino,
a government highrise, or a target that is less of a target and more of a gravitational
inevitability, you listen for the collision. You make the disaster of every plane crashing a
guarantee, so that when it happens, you are prepared. When the roar simply fades into the
night, you feel honest surprise, relief. You weaponize all sounds created beyond the walls of
your own building. Anything that calls attention to itself is an act of violence.
You are human because you believe you are individually relevant. Because you and everyone
around you expresses this same vanity. It is our Jordans and our wool sweaters and our theories
about god that separate us from the animals. We are deluded, and look how lovely a distraction
we can all be for each other.
Your fingers topple the soap dispenser into the sink for the second time. Later, you start and
abandon a letter to an old lover, remembering that the rules have not changed—what you had
let happen between the two of you (before all of this) still means you still have no right to
speak with her.
In the morning, you spill your coffee and have to wipe down the table, the ceramic handle, the
ring the mug threatens to leave on every surface. As you tear a paper towel from the roll, you
fear the stitchwork of neglect in your heart, your lungs. You wonder which timeline and set of
data you’d like to believe in today.
You eat almost nothing for the first eleven days. On day five, you allow overinflated words like
survival and resiliency flicker behind your eyes, but you do not let yourself dwell in them.
Instead, you drink more water, you do more pushups, you turn your music up loud enough to
prevent any other narrative from entering the room. You once fell in love with a woman who
kept a stack of dollar bills in her purse, for the panhandlers. When you look them in the eyes,
you are telling them that they exist in the world, she told you. That they exist exactly as you see
The only reason you cannot consider yourself godly is because god lives on all floors of the
house across the street. God is putting his finger down his throat in the bathroom above you.
God is wrapping the headlines around her own naked feet. God has both printed the paper
and leveled the tree, and you hope that she is endlessly capable of more, and more.
Go ahead, pity yourself. Explore this pity like an abandoned house. Walk into each room and
sit down—not against the far wall, where you’d see someone coming into the doorway, but in
the center of the hardwood floor. Sit where the table used to be. Where the people used to
gather, where they’d pass condiments and coasters and playing cards to each other. Sit where
you were once so close to someone else, you saw them trace your eyes with their own, where
you shifted your weight toward them. Sit with your back to the doorway and feel the absence
of every life that once passed through there.
On the twelfth day, you cook with volume and butter. You eat until you know you will be
sick, and you continue anyway. Your stomach balloons, hardens. You drink water, but only to
push the rest downward. In every part of this, you feel—more abundantly than anything—
Tent caterpillars make their nests in the forks of tree branches—these nests look like densely
spun spider webs and are defiant if only for the way they are visible from every angle. When
the caterpillar eggs hatch, the young crawl outward from the nest and move along the
branches. If untreated, they can choke out and defoliate an entire apple tree in just two weeks.
Ironically, for now, treatment requires a mixture of warm water and dish soap.
You would have walked her to her car again at this point. Would have thanked her for the
conversation, and for her time, and for the bourbon she insisted you try. You would have
hugged her for a moment less than she might have allowed, would have thanked her
impulsively, again, and would have turned to walk away, debating the validity of your own
cowardice. Even in your own fantasy, you are less of a man than you’d like to be.
On the walk from her car to your own, you would review your interpretation of her distance,
her held eye contact, the way her shoulders angled away from you in conversation. Even before
you hear her car door shut, you would begin stitching the evening into a quilt of missed cues.
Unless, of course, you kissed her.
Bivalve teredo worms, which would bore into and eventually destroy the hulls of wooden
ships, could grow up to three feet in length. To combat these vermiform termites of the sea,
shipbuilders would line the hulls of their vessels with copper, lead, or iron plates. The heavier
metals were successful in barring the teredo, but would cause ships to run aground. The
captain of a beached ship would throw a kedge (anchor) into deeper water, toss the heaviest
cargo overboard, or be towed out by another vessel. If unsuccessful, the ship would have to be
temporarily abandoned—in low tide, it had the potential to tip, thrusting its metal hull into
the air at a strange and defeated angle.
You are not human because of your thumbs, or your mastery of simple tools, or the sense of
community you experience during your weekly volleyball game. You wonder, vainly, if it is
instead a matter of linguistics—if by circulating particular symbols and sounds to others, you
have elevated yourself above the animals. You of course know the animals communicate to
each other as well, but certainly not with the same finely tuned complexity as you. This is
belligerence, you remind yourself. To your father, to yourself, to the woman whose arm once
reached from your shower for her towel: I love you, I love you. The day continues.