Since quarantines began, I have baked cream cheese brownies and tahini billionaire bars, a savory onion galette and peanut butter miso cookies that we keep on the counter and pick at every time we need something to do. I have been spending a lot of time in the kitchen, in part because I will otherwise do nothing but obsess over my body’s various inconsistencies, and also because my friend is staying with me until all this is over, so I’m not just piling leftovers into my fridge until they go bad. Seth made salmon a few nights ago, and the night before I made a creamy vegan pasta dish topped with toasted walnuts, all of it quarantine cabinet-friendly. I didn’t boil the eggs long enough to cut in half and arrange attractively atop a vegetarian ramen that didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, but then I made a white bean and squash soup, which was better, and homemade naan I learned cooked better in a dry pan than one slick with oil as I’d done in the past. We had americanos but not the coffee kind and old fashioneds which devolved into whiskey with watered-down twists. We drove across town to a Persian market to buy pomegranate molasses for fesenjoon, and it tasted better this time than the last time we made it at Seth’s apartment in Walnut Creek nearly a year ago. I skipped the basil for a pasta dish and regretted it, and this morning while Seth was busily sending and receiving emails, I baked sour cream and onion biscuits that were unbelievably perfect despite a momentary sticky dough situation which very nearly made me break down crying with butter all over my hands.
I know most people feel this way right now — teetering on the edge of what is either the real deal COVID-19 or whatever manifestation of panic it has induced. I keep thinking about how strange it feels to have such a distinct Before and After, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we are somewhere in between, the After still an inscrutable kind of blankness that becomes increasingly terrifying the longer this middle bit lasts. I don’t know, this feels like the scary part, but it’s the unknowability of the After that makes it scary now, the bleak possibility of a more permanent terror.
My coping mechanisms are, well, nonexistent, but here are the things I’ve been doing, no matter how they’re helping or hindering my ability to cope: eating/thinking about eating; drinking/thinking about drinking; stalking past Bachelor contestants on Instagram; calling my sister; telling my mom not to go to her friends’ houses for cocktail hour; reading something horrifying in the news; washing my hands; wondering about the ethics of ordering various things online; watching Love Is Blind; refreshing Twitter; picking up a book, skimming a paragraph, retaining nothing, putting it down; intermittently groaning; showering; vaguely thinking about death; acutely thinking about nothing but death; listening to different versions of the same two Lisa Hannigan songs over and over again.
I keep finding myself hovering over the real facts of this new reality, unsure, for a moment anyway, if what I’m reading in the news actually affects the world of my apartment — my little plant cuttings in mismatched cups of water, the cold shaded living room of morning that becomes hot squares of light come mid-afternoon — everything arranged in their normal ways like nothing is out of the ordinary.
Even in the Before I felt this way sometimes, suddenly snapping back into myself from wherever I’d been, startled by the realization that I’m real here, in the center of my life and not just vaguely hovering near the edges of it. Now when I return from this place I’ve made up, I am no longer met with a renewed sense of agency like I once was, or even a kind of inarticulable disappointment at finding myself here right where I left me; it’s too scary to look unflinchingly into the middle of this, wherever and whenever that middle may be. It’s scary to accept the full reality of this (and, of course, to a certain extent, irresponsible not to), and I think compartmentalizing it all as happening just beyond reach, in the safe distance of the surreal, is perhaps one of the methods I am using to keep a loose grip on my sanity. It reminds me of being 5 or 8 or 15 or 26, caught up in the familiar thicket of imagined terror rooted in real (however unlikely) possibility; though the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus is higher than that of having a heart attack as a 12-year-old or suddenly becoming deathly allergic to my toothpaste, it feels necessary to treat it with the same skepticism with which I (sometimes — I try) manage my anxiety.
This pandemic is both very scary and very real, and every day I see a headline that makes it even more scary and even more real, and then I must put my phone down (for about 30 seconds before feeling compelled to pick it up again) and close my eyes for a minute, feeling like a child, sure that if I can’t see someone, they can’t see me. I cannot live beneath the full weight of this every minute of the day; I cannot hold its gaze without disintegrating.
So it goes, so it all goes on in a warped version of reality that looks familiar if you squint. So I am squinting, while I am lucky enough to be able to. So tonight I am going to make a slow-roasted citrus salmon with potatoes on the side and salad and maybe my mom’s vodka martinis, or we might just opt for the little mason jars of scotch we’ve taken to drinking nightly. At dinner time, after spending the day reading the news and oscillating between genuine devastation and nihilistic humor as respite from genuine devastation, we’ll just eat and sip our drinks, oscillating between guilt and luck and luck and guilt that we get these little minutes of oblivious pleasure suspended above the wracked real world, and we will indulge in it because we will not and did not and do not know, on whatever day it is in whatever season of dread, what else to do. ♦
Emily Alexander is a writer and poet from Idaho. Her work has been published in Hobart Pulp, Pouch Magazine, and New Ohio Review, among others.