It’s a pandemic. Anything could kill you: a stranger’s cough, a throaty I love you.
On the sidewalk, a latex glove and a bottle of Jameson.
Seattle, the rats are winning.
In Ohio, everyone’s obsessed with Florida. I never visited as a kid, but all I heard was: One day I’ll retire in Florida; One year we’ll have Christmas in Florida; I can’t wait to live in Florida and never shovel snow again.
When I moved to Orlando, the local advice was all about staying alive: cars, gators, hurricanes.
Tree frogs cluster around my porch light and cast a collective shadow nearly my size. Across the street, McMansions sprout in place of trees. A shirtless man stands in the guts of one half-finished and waves at me—the first person to wave in weeks.
I leave, I return. Every time I land, the pilot says: “Welcome to the happiest place on earth.”
Stay-at-home orders descend overnight. One week left in winter quarter; overnight we’re told to begin teaching from home. This is the handwashing phase, where I’m not yet wearing a mask but washing everything obsessively.
This is the phase obsessed with surfaces, before we learn that the virus is primarily airborne. Every surface I touch burns my skin. I wash my phone so many times it stops working. I wash my hands so often they crack and bleed. I walk my dog for hours every day. Sometimes he looks like he’s asking why.
So many woodpeckers, coyotes, rats. Bats skim shuttered storefronts in the restaurant district.
At first every face mask looks surgical. Soon I’m watching YouTube tutorials: How to make a mask from socks.
From twelve years ago, an image surfaces: the surgeon pulling down his mask to speak to me, lying on a gurney. This was how I knew I’d survived.
One week into quarantine and raccoons amble across a four-lane arterial. They stand upright on yellow stripes, surprised by me, an unexpected visitor. I’ve become the stranger.
Things that might kill me now: air, breathing, touch, other people.
My mother taught me to escape alligators by running in a zigzag pattern. Now I zigzag down city sidewalks in the fractured syntax of social distancing.
#TrumpBurialPits is trending.
My students ask me what, exactly, counts as nonfiction and the word dislocates from my brain like a popped joint. Did it actually happen? is a question I pose daily.
Nonfiction: There are six million cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. right now. One hundred eighty thousand people have died. So far this year, police have killed 765 people.
Even the word now becomes difficult to pin down.
On my desk, a birthday card dated January 2020. For my birthday, I gathered with friends around a long wooden table. Today I did Zoom conferences with students wearing a dress over pajamas. By now cashiers have Plexiglas sneeze guards.
By now the numbers are steady, so restaurants are at a quarter capacity. A few ghostly parties of one or two dot the patios.
By now the restaurants are at half capacity and people cluster in groups of six, seven, ten, fifteen. They’re maskless and laughing, eating the distance between them.
By now the numbers are climbing trees.
My neighbor leaves groceries in a bag outside her door. Waits three days for them to disinfect.
My father only talk-to-texts in the middle of the night after a few drinks. Sometimes his texts are mistranslated dreams. In one, he says, “I’m dead,” and then it’s my dream, and I wake with my phone in my hand.
At work, I’m asked to complete a survey to evaluate how high risk I am. “Certain types of cancers” are listed as high risk. Not mine, I suspect. Yes, I tell the survey, I can safely teach on campus. I consider getting a doctor’s note.
When I was in college, I had to quarantine for three days after swallowing radioactive iodine, to kill the cancer that remained in my throat after surgery. If anyone got too close, I might expose them to the radiation that was meant to save me. A lengthy hug might kill a small animal or baby.
As soon as I got home from the hospital, I had a friend drop a bag of Taco Bell on my porch stoop for me. Nobody questioned it—the quarantine, the figure lurking around my door, the need for expertise.
Sometimes it feels as if we are the oldest people to ever live here—as if we must know so much by now.
When my mother was born, we didn’t know where the moon came from. By the time America planted its flag and scooped up some rocks to carry back, she was sixteen. A consensus on lunar theory was reached in 1984, the year I was born.
The scientist on TV calls it a “default theory,” which has unresolved problems. “By and large, it works.” He seems very comfortable with uncertainty, but the documentary is rated TV-14 for “fear.”
I wonder if the flag made space seem less scary—and for whom. Blue and red shreds whipping around on the moon.
The Giant Impact Hypothesis posits that the moon is a child birthed from the earth, made of the same material. Some burning body smashed into ours, leaving the moon as a remnant of the fallout. Moon as debris. Though earth was born spinning, this collision set us spinning faster, gave us our days and nights. We keep spinning, the scientist explains, because of inertia. “There is nothing to stop us out there.”
White privilege: Not getting harassed or shot when I walk down the street in a mask and gloves.
When I moved to Seattle I was told among trees was the safest place. For whom.
Nonfiction: My department chair asks about the title of my seminar, which includes the president’s name. She says unless I change the title, the university will remove my name from the faculty directory, remove all photos of me, remove my email and phone contacts, remove my name from my office door. She says I should warn my family and friends. Drop the president’s name or I disappear.
“You have complete academic freedom, of course,” she says. “I would never tell you what to do.”
Florida breaks records upon records. Ten, then twelve, then fifteen thousand new cases in one day. The governor says we’re doing great.
A tropical depression wakes me from a dream of following my GPS directly into the sea. Did it actually happen?
The moon is so bright, for a moment I think it’s morning. I can see, in the gutless house across the street, a coyote.
My father texts: “Anemones wearing on me.”
In 2020 we learned that the moon is not exactly who we thought—only her surface is the same as earth’s. Inside her, layers of matter we don’t recognize. The scientist says, “We have to reevaluate some things.”
Cell phone cameras record lie after lie, gunshot after gunshot. Cell phone cameras capture racism that’s built into what’s called America, built into the Constitution and the social fabric. A crowd gathers, first in one city, then another. What’s happening has always been happening. What’s new is the camera’s unblinking eye.
Once I paid for a sandwich with a counterfeit twenty and the cashier laughed. The bank took the bill back and gave me crisp, clean money.
I say Black Lives Matter. I say Resist. I say what’s happening is completely fucked up.
White privilege: Debating the health risks of public protest during the pandemic.
My neighbor texts to tell me there’s a cougar in my backyard, eating a raccoon.
By afternoon the neighbor kids are fighting outside, eight-year-old yelling at the five-year-old: “You cannot do that! You cannot say hello to the kitty!”
At work we’re told to name our replacements in case we die. I write down my ex-wife’s name. This way if I die, she’ll know.
Every six months for the last twelve years, I’ve had my blood drawn. This is how the doctor can tell if my endocrine glands are working and if the cancer has returned, if other tests are needed. I tell my doctor I haven’t gotten my blood tests yet because I’m afraid to go to the lab in a pandemic. It’s been nine months. She says she understands. No rush. I let slip another few months.
I don’t believe in God, but find myself thinking, “God will know how much I loved the world.”
I once thought hell was working with my ex-wife. I once thought hell was bumper-to-bumper. I once thought hell was a store full of jeggings. I once thought hell was a county fair—dust and horseshit and pulpy lemon shake-ups. I once thought hell was a bad coffee date.
My father texts: “I left my hands on the train.” A palm frond drops on the roof and the cat becomes a fist beneath the bed.
I don’t know what day it is.
Are you catastrophizing?
Do you question the life choices that led you to this moment?
Do you believe you will die alone?
Are you outraged, terrified, or physically ill?
I go to a protest. I go to another protest. Joggers pant past in pleated masks. A friend texts, “Where R U?” It takes a few texts to realize we’re in the same city, different protests.
Sometimes a protest pauses politely or bottlenecks. We wait in the middle of four lanes of stalled traffic, listen as geese fly past in formation.
Nonfiction: Tahlequah is pregnant again.
The federal government sends in unmarked armed guards and Portland sends in the Wall of Moms.
Thirty years ago I was in Lesbian Avengers. We wheat-pasted, late at night, gooey cans that coated the inside of my backpack. We stopped traffic by stepping into crosswalks holding signs that read SEE LESBIANS! We demanded visibility and recognition. When that didn’t work, we fucked shit up. The lesson then was: disobedience. The lesson then was: fuck and protest.
When my neighbor unpacks her groceries, she finds a ladybug fluttering its wings on a plastic-wrapped peach. She carries the peach outside, watches the ladybug stagger through sudden sunlight into grass.
I remember hearing a friend’s band at the Locks, eating plantains at La Isla on Market. I’m nostalgic for small moments. A time capsule filled with fictions that never really happened that way.
Did you consent to this experience?
Do you feel you need an excuse to quit?
Are you in your pajama bottoms?
Are you turning this moment into a meme?
Hiking the Olympic National Forest with another woman, and a man follows us from the gravel road into the woods. We don’t see him until we’re in too deep. We turn, double back on switchbacks. He walks directly behind me, silently, until I feel his breath and turn to see his empty eyes. I feel his lungs expelling air that leaves a target-centered stain. His hair is blond like mine.
In class I draw distinctions: narrative, lyric, linear, nonlinear. Time, I tell them, has either everything or nothing to do with story. They think I mean it depends on which kind of essay you’re writing, but I just can’t remember.
Things I would like to talk about: dogs, types of candy that mix together well in a bowl, the moon, bodies of water, baby deer, what bird is that.
A gravel road. A pickup truck that rambles out of nowhere. While a white man watches, two women jump into the bed of a speeding truck and rumble out of the forest.
As I’m talking to my mother, the call drops. Later, I see thirteen missed calls, times she tried but got no answer. I thought I was the storyteller.
Driving out of the city, dog in the back seat, I know this is the scene from a nightmare. This is the scene from a movie where a minor character flees the infected city for the woods. She doesn’t know she brings the contagion with her. She is the carrier. Headlights shine the path to disease, mapping its trajectory in vanishing neon.
Doomscrolling begets doomsaying.
person woman man camera TV
Let me be very clear: I don’t see a silver lining.
A student apologizes for missing an assignment—her cousin was shot and the police won’t investigate.
A student apologizes for late work—her mother’s in the hospital with Covid.
A student apologizes—his brother’s been arrested while protesting.
A student apologizes—he’s been living with his parents since they closed the dorms, and they refuse to use his pronouns, his name.
A student apologizes—no excuse, she says, she just can’t think straight.
A student apologizes—“I don’t know if I got the nonfiction part right.”
I used to think: I had cancer in college and still got my work done on time. The difference was that the future seemed so real, just a few classes away. The difference was time, which could still be used to measure things.
I forgive every absence, every late poem, let go my absurd little clutch of As.
A friend once interviewed me about my own death for a nonfiction project. What, precisely, would you do if you learned right now that you had one year to live? “Write,” I said. One month? “Travel.” One week? “Talk with family and friends.” One day? “Just sit. Some place with trees.”
When I was sick, nobody spoke of death. I’d never thought of it in terms of minutes.
I stop by a plant shop to touch things: corkscrew willow, hydrangea, mint. Flamingo watering cans guard the cashier’s hands.
Nonfiction: Weeks after attending a pandemic party, a man lies in an ICU bed with purple hands and feet. The nurse, my friend, asks him if he’d rather risk surgery to lessen the pain or simply wait for all four to fall off. “I thought it was a hoax,” he says.
Through my desk window, I watch a mockingbird try to eat a black racer as case numbers crawl across my TV. It’s almost rush hour. The racer escapes, slithers straight toward an intersection.
My father texts: “Florida seems pretty mad. Take fear.”
Sparrows unspool wire mesh covering a hole in the eaves. More mouths to feed. Music in the dark, silver swoop of morning feeding.
We kneel together on the pavement mid-protest. We go silent for eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t love stars enough, didn’t love trees enough, russet birds, dappled deer.
I take the dog into the woods at the end of a cul-de-sac, past a house with a view of dense trees. I stand in the woods and turn around and wave at the man working on his computer in the window. A different kind of wave. Friendly, but not casual. There’s an understanding that we might not see another face this day.
A robin pulls my attention away, out into the forest where pine needles and moss fall in bright sparks like rain pulling light away from the rim of rusty wheels.
This is how it feels to love the world right now.