When I was twenty-four, I didn’t know I was having a panic attack. I was checking my pulse all the time and feeling made of balsa wood. I was visiting a friend in the Swiss Alps, and one morning I woke up and looked past the filmy curtains over the balcony, and all I could see was white. I was in a cloud, and I thought to myself, Am I dead?
A little while ago I asked the man I live with if, to exist, virtue needed a lack of virtue for comparison, and he said, “No.” I said, “The concept of virtue feels Christian to me, and I don’t like it.” He said, “It started with the Greeks.” I said, “I feel vulnerable.” Admitting this has added a layer of vulnerability.
A friend writes to say he is jealous I have Lysol. Another friend writes to say, “I don’t want to see pictures of your rocks.” Last fall the man I live with and I bought a house with a serial killer vibe, in the sense that things with layers of dust were tumbled together in corners and the grounds had been abandoned to weeds and fallen trees. The other night I dreamed I wandered into an art gallery, where there was fancy food and cocktails. People urged me to try everything, and I shoveled in hors d’oeuvres as I said to myself, Wash your hands! And, Leave! And, People are too close! But the food was free, and I didn’t leave.
I dreamed our car started driving itself down a street and rammed into a parked car, and we had to travel on a bus to find out what to do next. The man I live with was naked and having a low blood sugar and didn’t know where his testing kit was, and a passenger pointed to the back of the bus, where there were candy dispensers that looked like slot machines you would have to play in hopes of getting the candy to come out, and I kept thinking all the time, Why are people’s heads so close?
We are raking leaves, and cutting down dead trees, and hauling twisted metal and broken bottles to the dump. One night I noticed a small blister on my wrist. More blisters formed and itched. Every time I looked at my skin there were more bubbles and red ribbons. It was like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, lashed by the devil. The poison ivy is invisible because it is everywhere.
A friend called sounding happy. She had been feeling trapped in her life, and now that everyone feels trapped, she said she felt normal. This friend and I thought people generally lied about their feelings. People wanted to believe they felt something or thought they should feel something, but they didn’t really feel it. I felt a sense of affinity with my friend that was thin and scratchy, like a weak radio signal, because we were far apart. The other day on Facebook a friend noted the abundance of kindness flowing around her. People were on their best behavior because it might be their last trot around the course, and they wanted to look good. I thought, If I’m still resentful, does that mean I’m not going to die?
Another friend had broken up with her girlfriend just before the virus. She was woeful, and I told her something to cheer her up I also believe. I said the thing that makes you a human being is the act of loving. Being loved doesn't make you a human being. I didn’t think there were right people and wrong people to love because whether someone can love you back is always a mystery.
"La Notte" is the fourth piece written by Francesco Pacifico and published in n+1 on life in virus time, dispatched from Rome, where he lives. In this installment, he cross cuts walks through the city with commentary on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, the master of cloudy motives and ennui. Masked and socially distant, he feels anxiety as his constant companion. He wants to move around in physical space, but as he encounters friends he comes to feel the weight of social life, alluring in concept but disappointing in fact. Always he feels a pressure to conform or suffer the cost of dissent. Of one encounter, he writes: "The lack of access to all the data from the body odors, the sweat, the impalpable tears from exhaustion, and the spit that emerges in the midst of laughter is giving a strange quality to these encounters. My friend who bought the limes said that we looked like four people each in their own universe. It’s as if our four distinct looks had managed to unglue themselves from the picture of what we constituted as a community. We could only be processed as people apart from one another, moons on different orbits." One of the things that makes the piece daring in this time of urged solidarity is the author’s admission he doesn't want to go back to Before.
A friend died last week. She had cancer that accelerated like flooring the gas pedal. She suffered from physical pain and emotional pain and love pain she would describe in an uncomplaining way. We gave each other back rubs and drank gin. She knew how to get along with people. I don’t know how she figured it out. In the radical present, the past is things you didn’t learn and the future melts in the morning sun. I don’t know why I’m writing. I never know.
I remember a woman I met at a party, who had worked as a go-go dancer in Los Angeles for ten years. Her hair was dark and shaped around her face like a cloche hat. She sat with her back very straight, wearing a dress that zipped down the front from the throat to the hem. She had danced in bars, where, on average, she had earned between $300 and $500 a night, all in cash. She had moved to the States from Poland and was undocumented, so she had not been able to open a bank account and had paid for everything in cash, including tuition to college. She said she had liked dancing, liked the attention and using her body. She said, “I didn’t have to go to a gym. I could eat whatever I wanted.” She would dance for half an hour then take a half-hour break, working for nine hours straight in every shift. Each dancer had the stage to herself for her set. At the bar, she met a man who was married and threw over his life to be with her. In time he bought the go-go bar where she worked. Every so often police would raid the premises, and the man would arrange to have the charges dropped. She was composed and opaque, and I liked imagining her onstage, enjoying her life.
We have been watching season two of My Brilliant Friend, based on the novels of Elena Ferrante that are set in Naples and begin in the 1950s. The story is about two women interrupted by men, and it’s the same story over and over about the freedom of men to beat women up, sell them into marriages, and murder them when they feel like it. The story is dull because it’s true and unrelenting. Even when we could move about freely in public space, there was only one topic, and there was nothing to say about it that was insightful or interesting, although talking about anything else was irrelevant. We think we can see where something is going from where it has been, and we think we know where a thing came from because of the way it turned out. That is the brilliance of the jump cut in film. The virus is not even alive.
I love looking at the faces of the two young women who play Lila and Lenu on the show, so young and oddly hushed in their delivery. Even speaking to each other alone, they have adopted a kind of code speech. I said to the man I live with, “After the age of the virus becomes the age of what that age will be called, one thing will remain.” He said, “What?” I said, “Misogyny.” He said, “It’s good to have something to believe in.” There is no cure for his illness, Type 1 diabetes. There are no treatments, really, other than tight control of blood sugars. He is less fearful of contagion than I am. He has lived most of his life in the atmosphere of disease.
Today we collected stones from the dig where our septic tank was installed. We laid the stones along a ditch at the bottom of the garden to create the illusion of a stream. The father of a friend died yesterday and her mother is sick, too. We do not know if grass will be planted where the septic tank was installed. I once dreamed I cut off my front tooth and thought I could glue it back with saliva. I could not glue it back with saliva. I roasted a chicken for dinner. We have used up the potting soil we found in the garden shed. When my sister was dying, the room I was sleeping in was hot, and l would slip down to the living room, where the air conditioning was better and where from the couch I could see the piano she inherited from our parents. I think of calling her. Her voicemails are saved on my phone. We have always existed in a great pause, and narrative never needed a direction.
The other day I posted an invitation on the local community board, offering free books to anyone who wanted them. I put out two boxes at the end of the driveway with a sign that asked people to wear gloves and take what they wanted. People came, and we spoke at a distance. Even as a young child I loved strangers the way dogs give themselves away, and I think this surprised and maybe hurt my mother. One box of books is gone. A woman brought her kids, who stayed in the car. It was their first outing for a while. I wondered if we could do this, give things away and find what we needed on the sides of roads.
A few days before my sister died, she put glaucoma drops in her eyes, saying, “In case I wake up tomorrow without cancer.” I said to the man I live with, “We need to have living wills and medical power of attorney." He said, "Why, is someone going to die?”