The end of the world

Lockdown, Day 3. Yesterday evening, I broke quarantine. My friend called me, wheezing, barely able to get the words out.
    ‘I’m not well,’ he managed.
    ‘I’m on my way,’ I said, and I ran. Going out to help others in need is a legitimate reason to request an exit pass, code 4 in our lockdown text messaging system. I didn’t bother; I just ran.
    I burst into his house and found him on the sofa, in the darkness, clutching himself and trembling. I sat down in a chair opposite, put my hand on his knee.
    ‘What’s the matter?’ I said.
    ‘I have it,’ he said. ‘I have this thing. My chest hurts. I can’t breathe. I have a fever.’
    His hands were cold and clammy; his forehead cool. I made him surrender the glass thermometer he was almost crushing underneath his armpit: 36.5 C.
    ‘You don’t have a fever,’ I said.
    ‘Then what? What’s happening to me? I can’t breathe.’
    The look he gave me, so deeply helpless, so frightened, my strong, brave friend, one of the proudest arseholes I’ve ever met, broken and pleading: it broke me. It broke my heart. And I broke everything and hugged him. Practically climbed on top of him and held him as tight as I could, stroked his hair, pushed my face into the crook of his neck. My strong, brave friend, who doesn’t generally invite, or accept, such tactile expressions of comfort. Trembling in my arms.
    ‘You’re OK,’ I said. ‘I’m here. You’re OK.’
    ‘I have this thing, and now I’ve given it to you,’ he muttered, his whole body shuddering and sending ripples through mine.
    ‘You don’t have corona,’ I said. ‘You’re having a panic attack.’ Which is just as bad, arguably. It’s the fear that’s killing us, the ostensibly healthy, while, ironically, our pretence at bravery, that insane survival instinct of denial, kills the vulnerable. And feeds the fear some more. How do we break this? We might survive the virus, but who will we be on the other side?

I’ve been very vocal about this from the start; I’ve been on a non-stop rant since it all began. I suppose it is, in part, my own survival instinct that’s driving me to corona-activism, positive action – because the alternative is giving in to the helplessness and the fear, and I know which way that goes. I’m already on antidepressants, and I started taking them at a time when we could still say, with certainty, that it’s not the end of the world. And now, in a sense, it is. So I’ve been obnoxious to the point of openly aggressive when measures are being broken to keep our habits intact, broken out of carelessness or, worse, a completely misjudged, criminal sense of rebellion and an utter lack of understanding that, for once, we truly are all in this together. In the best and the worst possible way. Because, mate, if you end up killing someone’s grandpa because you thought social distancing was optional and quarantine an inconvenience, that’s not just on you: it’s on all of us. If you end up killing your own grandma because facebook told you this was all media hype, you’ve not savvy, you’re doomed. We’re all doomed. So if you bound up to me, as if this were just another, ordinary day, making jokes about the exit pass that you have failed to acquire, and try to give me a kiss in greeting, I will be loudly and unapologetically rude, and tell you to stay the fuck away. And that’s before I report you to whomever can slap a fine on your irresponsible ass. And I don’t give a fuck if you’re offended. I don’t give a fuck why you think you’re an exception. I don’t give a fuck about your human rights and your personal freedoms, or the particular reasons you claim to be uniquely inconvenienced by the measures that are struggling, oh so shakily, to save all of our lives. This is not just another, ordinary day: this is day three of lockdown, and the whole world is in quarantine. If there is any scenario that’s more inconvenient, more drastic than this, I honestly don’t want to know.
    Does this make me a hypocrite? That I broke down and broke the rules and put my arms around a friend who was breaking? There are several issues at play here: ethical and philosophical, practical, and socio-fucking-political, and I just don’t have the brainpower, today, to process them. On another, ordinary day, perhaps – but not today. And then there’s humanity, which might just be our saving grace and, equally, our downfall; and there is love that breaks through the fear and breaks everything down to that moment when you have to decide who you’ll be on the other side, and put your arms around a friend who’s breaking, as the world comes to an end. And if you can’t do that, if we can’t do that: we’re doomed. And there will never be another ordinary day again.

#StayTheFuckHome #ItsNotAboutYou

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.