The Downward Spiral
I want to go back to the way it was.
After a year of living a shrunken version of my previously carefree and geographically promiscuous life, I am done with the sacrifices and restrictions brought on by COVID. Will we ever return to “normal“? The shallowly optimistic me thinks, yes, of course we will, and soon. Lately, I’ve been fantasizing about a month of eating out in restaurants every night and successive weekends of bar hopping. I remind friends that the Roaring 20s followed the Spanish Flu pandemic. I want to believe that I will flip a switch when the crisis ends and re-inflate my life back to its 2019 size and scope. I willl be going back to the gym. Eating sushi at my favorite Japanese restaurant. Shaking hands with friends and neighbors in the grocery store. Shaking hands with everyone in fact. Hugging. I imagine copious hugs to make up for a year without them. Big bear hugs and bro hugs and maybe even a few awkward hugs. The point is, I’ll be back to normal sometime in 2021. Right?
But the more experience hardened and realistic me worries that the journey back to that carefree state of mind will not be easy. We have gone without things and then grown accustomed to not having them. All of the old patterns have been rearranged on a massive scale—the routes we once travelled with regularity; the casual acquaintances, colleagues, baristas, and dog park friends we once relied upon for emotional support, entertainment, friendship, and sex; the old reliable rituals replaced by new ones. A year is long enough to develop new habits.
No, we won’t be going back to the pre-pandemic world. This is a before-and-after moment. My grandparents’ generation—the Greatest Generation—often described World War II as if it was a liminal moment in history. There was life before and life after. And right now, we are trapped between the two.
I blame Time. Time has melted like that clock in the famous Salvador Dali painting. Everyone is experiencing this. We joke about COVID time. The days appear to evaporate around us, like smoke curling out of a car window. Time itself has not changed, but our perception of it has, because the old moorings are gone, like when you go down to the marina to check on your boat after the hurricane comes through and all you see is an unrecognizable rubble of smashed wood and the occasional cracked fiberglass hull upturned in the sun.
What are we, deep down? Rituals and habits. The circles we run. The people we see every day, the comforting certainty of it all. Change even a few of these factors, and the average American life begins to lose its cohesion.
My house, like yours very likely, is a node in a network. There we are, a speck of metal in that giant circuitboard, all of it wired together, connecting us all to commerce and services and education and entertainment. Connectivity is king. There you are in 2019, in your car, moving. Starbucks Drive Thru, short hop to the entrance ramp to the six-lane, Go Go Go. Stop for gas. To work. A short hop out for lunch, sushi maybe. Back home on the six-lane. How many little trips in week. Home Depot. Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Your daughter's piano recital. Drinks with friends. Kroger. Costco. Publix. You were moving and shopping and gazing and gawking. A dozen times a day, you were taking out the plastic card and inserting it into the card reader. Go Go Go. Move quickly. Keep it light. Pack the day with activities. No time to think.
December 2019, not a care in the world. Life is there in the slipstream. We are living in between home and work. The kids are at school. You are both at work. Everyone is in motion. You are living in your car. You joke about it, a shared joke. Everyone gets it. People will make self-deprecating comments about the fast food bags piling up in the backseat. Go Go Go. "Sorry I missed your text, I was slammed last week." Everyone is slammed, with work, with responsibilities and obligations.
I never feel slammed anymore. I don’t miss that.
It feels different now. I drive by all of the places I would visit without a care. The gym. The restaurants and coffee shops. The little shops in the town square. The ice cream parlor and the pizza shop. The movie theatre. Each of these places feels like a dead zone now, as it has been disconnected from the network. The dead zones are everywhere. The marina after the hurricane. Where the fuck is my boat?
I am partially paralyzed now. No one gets that. Has someone given me a drug to bring on this state? I feel that much paralyzed. There is the list of things that must get done, the list I pick at but never commit too. Is someone trying to prevent me from getting these things done? Who is drinking my energy? Vampire, where art thou?
It’s not fear. I have been paralyzed by fear. I know what that feels like. This is something different. It is a collective ennui, not a personal one. We are breathing it in, all of us. We are holding our collective breath, waiting to exhale.
The old world cannot breath. The old world is dead.
What is limbo but the place of waiting and suffering? A Catholic loophole in the bureaucracy of the afterlife.
You want to be smart, position yourself for what will come next year, but how can you? There is no outsmarting this moment. This moment was brought to you by humanity’s oldest foe. There is only waiting and surviving and trying to stave off the emotional breakdown. Get to the end of the year. Get that vaccine in my arm. In the arms of my family.
My life has a strange new weight to it, the feeling of gravity coalescing inside of my bones, as if I am being dragged down towards the ground (or maybe a hole in the ground). Half a million dead. Choose one of these three cities—Albuquerque, Tucson, or Sacramento—and drop a neutron bomb on it. Kill everyone but leave the buildings standing. Or what about this: fill Giants Stadum to capacity. Gas everyone. Remove the bodies. Repeat five more times. That much death.
Something is breaking underfoot. You can hear it from far off, like the rumbling sound of ice cracking.
America, I see you plainly now.
I see empty office space, restaurant chairs stacked against the wall, classrooms sitting empty, mountains of abandoned physical infrastructure. Ghost cities in our midst. I can feel the current running through your millions of miles of wires, sizzling and smoking at the dead zones. Someone is in the machine clipping wires and rerouting currents.
A million someones.