As a refuge, as a threat, as a place to live
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In the beginning there was the word, and the word was COVID, numbered and terrifying, sneaking out of bat caves in Asia and into Italy and the Big Apple and the suburbs, blowing up your news feed. The good news was that it only sucked if you were old. But then, life in general sucks if you are old, unless you are rich. Being rich is the cure for many suck-conditions, such as the absence from your life of fresh vegetables and medicine and yachts. Also being unable to pay student loans or fix the rear car bumper you gouged while unloading sheet metal by yourself.
In the beginning we were told that it only sucks if you’re old.
Then we were told it sucks if you get a bad case, high viral load. It sucks if you’ve got asthma. It sucks if you smoke. (Or is it if you don’t smoke?) It sucks if you’re fat. Diabetes: sucks. It sucks if you’ve got blood type A, and possibly other types, too. It sucks if your immune system is too weak. It sucks if your immune system is too strong, because it attacks itself. It sucks if you’re male. Try and sleep.
Sleep: You dream you’re giving birth. You dream you’re in a pit inside a volcano, and it’s filling with lava. You dream of the president: Chaos? he says. I am delivering mercy. Then he crushes out a thousand cigarettes on your skin.
It feels like I got hit by a truck, you say.
The test was negative, says the doctor.
Out of the blue. Eighteen-wheeler. Brushing my teeth. Bam.
I don’t feel fine.
Have you tried cutting out dairy?
What? That makes it worse?
I blow my nose all day if I have ice cream.
Oh. Is yogurt OK?
God, no. Clogs me up. Both ends. Blech.
Ha, doctors are hopeless, say helpful people unsolicited on the Internet. Come on! Dairy? It’s a carbohydrate intolerance. Insulin levels — that’s the real issue. Of course, sugar is straight poison, but you’ve got to avoid all of them: bread and granola and potatoes and corn and wheat and rye and oats and barley and kamut and quinoa and flax and rice, short and long. Also meat. Message me, and I’ll give you the list.
The list of meat?
Grass-fed is OK. And omegas, omegas are good. How much vitamin C you taking?
Late at night the virus laughs. Fools, it says. Stevia and soy milk will not forestall me. I am the reckoning. I am the one who brings the darkness. I am the darkness. I am the vengeance of the trees, of the earth itself.
Must I suffer? you ask. I mean, Rand Paul seems fine.
Your mattress is a bed of coals, stench of postapocalypse, toxic ash of cities burning. The insides of your veins are studded with graffiti and broken glass. Nerves fire randomly, torn wires in a shattered building.
Yes, you must suffer, the virus says. Thought that was obvious.
A temperature? you tell the nurse on the phone. I do not have a temperature. I have all the temperatures.
Two weeks, says the doctor. No, two to three weeks. No, three to six weeks. Two months sometimes, but no longer. It might all be in your head. Do you feel, on some level, you deserve this?
No, I don’t think I deserve this.
You sure? Be honest.
Maybe I deserve this.
Exactly, says the virus.
I broke the world with my consumption and selfishness. Me. It was me. I still haven’t bought a hybrid.
Snapped the world right in half, agrees the virus.
Cool, you say. We understand each other. So, can you, maybe, leave now?
But it’s been three weeks.
Thirty-one days, give or take that first night you had the runs.
That . . . doesn’t seem fair.
True. Hey, Jair Bolsonaro is all better! Ten thousand people at a rally in Brazil. How about that?
My focus is shot, you tell the doctor.
That’s normal with a virus.
I can’t breathe. Well, I can breathe, but I can’t breathe breathe. Wait, maybe I just straight up can’t breathe. No, I can breathe. It’s just here, right at the end of the breath, that I can’t. And if I walk from here to here — you hear that? That panting? That lack of air? So I’m breathing but not really breathing. You know?
Call if it gets worse, says the doctor.
Strangers in a strange land, the two of you stare at each other from over your masks.
Thank you, Doc, you say, for all your efforts in this difficult time.
I don’t feel like I’m much help, actually.
I’m not here to argue.
Your limbs are heavy stones. Now bees. Now burning sludge. Your heart is a pinball in a broken arcade machine; your lungs, a capsized boat slowly sinking, a lone survivor trapped, desperately seeking air.
Despair, the virus sings.
My family loves me.
You got them siiiiiiick.
I am light made flesh finding its way back to light! I’m going to beat you!
The virus chortles, triggering a violent shiver. Gray fog descends, blanketing all illumination and also blocking access to multisyllabic words. Only fear is exposed and clear, and also clear is the doctor’s voice in the message where she is saying yes, the tests now show things are wrong, but we don’t know what to do. You can’t even say multisyllabic correctly, but you’re certain it’s the name of another stage of the disease, a later stage where body parts fall off and/or spontaneously catch fire, but you can’t worry about that now, the multisyllabic stage, because night is coming, and it’s always worse at night, and you’re entering one of those cycles in which your rib cage is inexorably squeezed in a vise.
Someone’s whispering in the hallway right outside. But you don’t have a hallway.
At least I’m not on a ventilator, you say.
True, says the virus. There’s that.
But you don’t just fucking lie there and die. You blink and roll over. Onto the stomach — that’s not too bad. Get up, walk to the bathroom, stand at the sink. Good Lord, your thighs say. When did the distance from the bed to here become twenty-six miles? That pair of pants I stepped over, you see that? Goddamn Everest that was.
Then, to top it off, you brush your teeth without getting hit by a truck. You make it to the kitchen, to the goddamn toaster. You put the bread inside and turn it on. And would you fucking look at that! Toast. You turn to the window. There’s a tree there, with fresh spring leaves.
You’re cursing a lot, you notice, but it feels good.
One day you walk around the yard.
The next day you walk around the yard twice.
The next day five times. Five.
The next day none, because five was a little much. But still.
You’re pushing it too hard, says a concerned voice.
But so what. You’re alive.
The ceremony takes place two weeks later, in a well-ventilated room:
We were under attack by aliens, says the epithelial tissue into the microphone lowered from the ceiling. Seriously, tiny aliens with spikes, and they beat us to our knees. Our knees, friends. But today is Independence Day!
We fought them off together! In the tracheal mountains! In the rectal valleys! Right lung and left lung, brain stem and urinary tract! And now we will rise up and heal the wreckage because: We. Don’t. Quit. We will make a more equitable, more prosperous body. We will have basic nutrition for all organs and a strong defense! We will not give in to conspiracy theories and the forces of darkness!
Cough. Excuse me. Cough. Carry on. I’m gonna have a lie down.
One day a heavy package arrives from Long-Term Consequences. You start to tear it open but then throw it in the trash.
Uh-uh, says the virus. Can’t do that.
Nobody knows, you say. Nobody knows, because they don’t know what’s possible.
That’s not how this works.
Instead of looking at this as healed or not, I’m looking at it as a journey.
That sounds kind of woo-woo, says the virus.
Eat shit, you say.
I’ll be back, says the virus.
I’ll be waiting, you tell it.