The day hitchhiking died

It was one of the first victims of the coronavirus on the island; one, I still hope, of few. I mourned it a little today, in the early evening of the 16th of March, as I walked home through deserted streets. Eerie, as dusk spread across an already cloud-laden sky, strange light filtering down in the would-be total quiet, if it weren’t for the howling wind. Would-be total stillness.
    I have seen these images before; they are not uncommon on winter Sifnos. Around Christmastime, and from late January to early March, before the new season kicks in, when the islanders depart en masse to grab their holidays while they can. It is quiet then, still, in a peaceful way; it is simply the absence of people. But today, it is different. Today, it is not absence that’s causing the streets to be deserted: there is a sense, a tangible sense of people staying away. We are not absent: we are in hiding. The streets are teeming with the gaps of where people should be. But we shouldn’t, not in this new corona-reality. And I am proud of us for staying away; I am proud of my little island for standing together by keeping apart. Even while we have not yet lost anything more serious than comforts, habits, certainty, and the ease of hitching a ride on the street. Even while we have yet to mourn anything that we cannot replace, or recover, or live without. I am proud, and I am hopeful, but I am also frightened, because there is a post-apocalyptic feel to everything around me, and the apocalypse hasn’t even hit us yet.

I went into town to get a couple of things from the pharmacy. On the door, the notice said only two people would be admitted at a time. I pushed it open and peaked inside, but there was no one else, so I walked in. On the floor in front of the counter, two strips of red-and-white danger tape indicated where to stand, and how far apart. I approached, unconsciously stepping over the line. The chemist appeared from the back, face obscured by his mask; I saw the smile in his eyes, but he lingered away from the counter. I followed his gaze to my feet, took a step back.
    ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘The line.’ And then I stepped over it again, less than two minutes later, when he had collected all my pills in a neat pile by the card machine.
    ‘Please,’ he said, ‘the line.’ And I apologised again, and danced away theatrically, performing a part I am untrained for, to give him space to ring in my purchases and place himself at a safe distance, before approaching the counter to punch in my PIN. I am not used to it yet, this new dance of stepping forward and stepping back to give each other space; these new lines, visible or implicit. Not when I’m usually in the habit of draping myself all over that counter and chatting away to whomever’s serving me. And I didn’t even think I was that sociable, before. Before the counter became a boundary, and danger lines appeared everywhere, that we must not cross. Before we became deadly to each other by proximity.

Hitchhiking has been dying for days, I guess. It didn’t happen tonight. Ever since the term “social distancing” came into our lives, and we’ve all been trying to work out how far apart a metre actually is. Ever since we figured out there’s not enough space for safety inside a passenger car, and sharing is no longer caring. It used to stand for kindness, the easy solidarity of island life, that you could set off on foot along any road, and be almost certain that if a car should pass, it would stop. That the driver would nod at the passenger seat, and in you’d get, with thanks. Grateful, but habitually so. That was the life, before. That was the norm. Now, kindness is not stopping to offer a ride; solidarity is refusing it, if offered. Even if you’re tired, and it’s dark, and you’ve a long way to go.
    I didn’t have a long way to go, but two cars slowed down as they passed me. And then, both times, the moment when the new norm sprang up and knocked the old down, and hitchhiking died on the side of the road, and the nod, both times, was more of a shake, a negative, a regret – another move in the new choreography of “stay away”. This is kindness, in the time of the coronavirus. I don’t know about love; I’m not ready to tackle that one yet. When we’re not even allowed to touch our own faces, how will we replace putting our hands on someone else, and pressing our heads together? Where will we find our safety, now that proximity is deadly? How will we draw comfort across the distances?

I walked home through deserted streets, and I mourned it all: hitchhiking, and habitual kindness, and all the simple acts of unthinkingly touching another person, bringing your hands up to cup their face, running your fingers through their hair, brushing a speck of something off their forehead, a kiss on the cheek or on the mouth, arms wrapped around each other, tightly, faces pressed hard against each other to create a small, private pocket of safety, and all those door knobs we used to turn without either guilt or fear, before. I mourned it, all that, and so much more that we have yet to lose, and it left me empty inside, deserted like our streets, and I stared at my hands for a long time after I got home, after I’d scrubbed them clean and disinfected all the items I’d purchased. I sat on the sofa and stared at my clean hands, my useless disinfected hands, those hands that were made for touching and grasping and grabbing and holding and stroking, those hands that are now obsolete, and I let the tears run down my cheeks and onto my knees without making a move to wipe them, and I vowed, when after comes, to touch and grab and grasp and stroke and hold on with all my might, and drape myself all over everything, and not let love be lost in the distances, in the time of the coronavirus.

Author: Daphne Kapsali

Daphne lives in Sifnos, where she writes books and collects firewood to get her through the winter. She is the author of "100 days of solitude" and another seven books, all available from Amazon.