March 20th, 2020
It’s approaching midnight and this is not how I would have wanted it to happen: sitting by myself on my porch, drinking wine from the bag of a box and chain-smoking cigarettes, despite my persistent cough, despite the rampant respiratory infection that’s spreading, especially here, in New Orleans, one of the upcoming epicenters. Through the screen door I hear my roommate and their girlfriend, bickering about who gets to wear which pair of slippers and which documentary to watch—FDR or Julia Child?—as they both eat goldfish crackers and cuddle on the couch with two cats. I wish I had a person and two dogs. But I guess we all have reasons to feel sorry for ourselves. At least, that’s what my mother told me earlier today when I called her, and as soon as I heard her voice I started sobbing, and then as soon as she heard me sob, she started sobbing. “Please. Stop. Please stop,” she said. “If you cry, I cry.” She told me so many people have it worse than me. Like her friend from church, who’s in the hospital. Like her other friend from church, who’s trapped inside her house with her cruel husband, in the midst of a brutal divorce. “I know, Mom, I know.” But I couldn’t stop.
I have a neighbor named Melvin who is sixty-seven years old. His birthday is October 10th, when I pinned $5 to his shirt. He’s in the process of drinking himself to death: forties in the morning and straight whiskey from the bottle at night. The whites of his eyes have turned yellow and are rimmed with red, and when he walks, he shuffles like he’s in pain, and when he talks, he slurs so bad I can’t understand ninety percent of what he’s saying. But what he’s saying always seems kind. He addresses me as “my love” and chuckles at his own jokes, cueing me to laugh along, and sometimes he brings my trash bin from the street back onto the curb for me, and one time he gave me a small lamp that doesn’t attract moths or mosquitos to use to for my porch.
He has a friend named Sonia, who is sixty years old. Her birthday is February 14th, when I pinned $10 to her shirt. She drinks almost as much as Melvin, but she’s much sharper, much more present and energetic. Her eyes are clear and wide and searching for adventure. She’s in love with Melvin, checks on him multiple times a day, stays the night multiple times a week, but she’s confessed to me on multiple occasions that the love is not reciprocal. Sometimes she comes to my porch to say hello or ask for a cigarette or to play a game of chess, and sometimes she walks by my porch on her way to Ideal gas station and she’ll say, “What’s up, neighbor?” and I’ll say, “What’s up, Sonia? Where you off to?” and she’ll say, “I’m going to get Blue”—that’s what she calls Melvin, Blue—“some chicken and potato chips,” and I’ll say, “Aw, that’s nice of you,” and she’ll say, “He still won’t fuck me though,” and I’ll say, “Well then that’s extra nice of you.” Sometimes I want to tell her, Sonia, I think Melvin’s incapable of fucking anyone anymore, but she must know that and maybe that’s why she loves him, not to get too psychoanalytical or project my own issues. Sometimes Melvin and Sonia listen to music together, Ray Charles or Otis Redding or Sam Cooke or the top hits station on the radio, and Melvin dozes on a chair while Sonia dances. One time I got drunk enough to go over there and dance with Sonia.
I don’t know. Maybe they have it worse than me. Maybe I only think that because they’re older. For them, the same mistakes I make seem more dire, less reversible.
Tonight is the same night the mayor issued a stay-at-home order. I listened to the press conference with my friend, my other neighbor, as I drank wine from a plastic cup, as he drove us around the city, down Marconi to the marina on Lake Pontchartrain, down Lakeshore and then Elysian Fields and then St. Claude to the levee in the Bywater, down Chartres and then Decatur and then Magazine and then Leake to the river bend uptown. We passed UNO campus where we both went to graduate school. We passed the neutral ground where we spotted each other in the crowd during Chewbacchus and he told me he really loved the essay I had submitted to workshop, and I told him that meant a lot coming from him, and he asked what I meant by meant a lot coming from him, and my voice quivered and stammered until he told me I didn’t have to answer. We passed Cooter Brown’s where we drank bloody marys and beers and watched the first half of the Saints game after a long night of drinking Basil Hayden’s and listening to Built to Spill CDs on my boombox while sitting upright on my bed, leaning against the wall, kissing each other, holding hands, but his second round of beers didn’t go down so well, and he squirted puke between his fingers that covered his mouth, and I fetched napkins and told him there was no apology necessary. We passed many places that serve as settings for too many stories and benchmarks to recount, around the whole city, closed and empty, sort of nice and apt to have it all to ourselves, all the more poignant and sad because I’m in love with him, have been in love with him, and he’ll be leaving this city in June, and maybe he’ll be leaving this city before it returns to business as usual and instead leave as it is now: on hold, in hibernation, already stored as memory.
After he parked his car, we stood on the corner to finish smoking our cigarettes. He was edging toward his door and I was edging toward him. He wanted to go home and I wanted to go home with him. I didn’t want the cigarettes to end, and when we took those last drags, I felt a very urgent and visceral need to confirm, to know for certain, that very instant, what we were exactly—together or not? committed or not? an ad hoc immediate household or not?—because ever since the beginning, especially since he found out he would be leaving this city in June, I haven’t known, not for certain, and right then I needed to cling to something definite and reliable.
“Can I come over?”
“How about later?”
This wasn’t the first of these conversations, but this was one of the most painful. Maybe this was just his way of coping, of maintaining normalcy, by going home by himself and grading papers, by going home by himself and writing his novel. Maybe he’s afraid of closeness, wary of it in general, but extra careful considering the circumstances. Or maybe the love is not reciprocal.
I couldn’t stay at home yet. Two hours left until the official shutdown, so I filled my plastic cup with more ice and more wine and a splash of soda, and headed to the bayou where people had been congregating, people who had lost their jobs, their schools, their childcare, their plans for the next two weeks or month or two months or however long, who were just trying to make the best of a bad situation: strolling, picnicking, fishing, floating on kayaks and canoes, sprawling on the grass and gazing at the sky as it changed colors, some of them together, some of them not, some of them six feet apart, some of them not. I was going to meet my friend, my other friend, my on again and off again friend-with-benefits, who texted me sort of out of nowhere to ask if I was busy, if I wanted to sneak a quick hello before we “had to keep ourselves indoors and bathe in Purell indefinitely.” I appreciated his levity, but a big part of me hoped for an ulterior motive. Maybe he was seeking someone, too. Maybe he was trying to secure a guarantee of affection, of physical intimacy, too.
At promptly five o’clock in the evening, the cops arrived. They drove their cars around the bayou and announced through their loudspeakers that everyone had to go home, everyone had to go home unless they were exercising, “exercising is strongly encouraged,” one of the officers drawled, and one of the people who was holding a glass of whiskey in one hand and a lit cigar in the other hand shouted, “Quick! Everyone start doing pushups!” and everyone within earshot laughed. But the sirens kept chirping and the cops kept announcing, and the people glanced back and forth at each other in disbelief that the fun and pretending were really over.
“What are you doing tonight?” I asked my friend.
“Uh...” my friend answered, then laughed. “We’re not supposed to do anything, right? What are you doing?”
“Well, I guess this it.”
“Yeah, I guess this is it.”
We stood and hesitated before we hugged. We stood and lingered after we hugged. I tried to make my eyes plead with him. I tried to make my eyes say please, please, invite me, invite me. But his eyes said I don’t know when I’ll see you again. He walked away.
As I walked home, I watched them disperse: some of them together, some of them not, some of them in pairs, some of them not. I watched one man lift a woman by her waist, swing her in a circle through the air and clutch her in his arms, and yes, my chest swelled and burned with envy. I didn’t understand why both of them refused me. I didn’t understand why both of them wouldn’t choose me. Who wouldn’t want someone to be near right now? Who wouldn’t want someone to touch right now? Who would rather stay at home alone? I anticipated the next two weeks or one month or two months or however long, of quarantine, of isolation, and I swear I could feel every molecule of loneliness gathering and activating within me. I swear I could feel all the loneliness, residual and preemptive, swarming to the surface, electrified, buzzing. I guess I was panicking. I called my mother.
It’s approaching midnight and this is not how I would have wanted it to happen: sitting by myself on my porch, ripping open the box, pulling out the bag, and squeezing more wine into my plastic cup. Sonia crushes a can.
“Oh hi, Sonia. You were so quiet. I didn’t know you were there.”
“Blue’s being a little bitch.”
“I know how that goes.”
“Let me get some of that wine. I ran out of beer.”
“You can have the rest of this.” I hold up the bag. “Plus I have another box.”
Sonia wobbles down the steps, but before she gets to my porch, she says, “Wait a minute, I gotta pee,” and squats and pees on the sidewalk. She doesn’t wash her hands. I reach my hand over the railing to give her the bag but then she asks, “Can I come sit with you?”
And this is a new dilemma of the new world: do I allow this woman, someone I know, the friend of my neighbor, to come sit with me on my porch? Do I risk infecting her? Do I risk infection? Or do I refuse? “Sure,” I say, and she sits with me on my porch. And I know we’re being irresponsible. I know I’m being more irresponsible because she’s more vulnerable, because of her age, because of her race. But maybe, at this moment, she needs company more than protection. Maybe company is protection.
“I’m a little freaked out.”
“Nah, don’t be freaked out. You good, you good.”
I don’t know much about her, but I know she’s been through much more than me. In years and circumstances. She tells me about Katrina. She tells me about eating moldy bread, drinking muddy water. “This is nothing,” she says. “Nothing. People have to stay at home? Come on...” And then I realize that maybe this new normal is not so new for Sonia. Maybe this level of anxiety and uncertainty has been a constant and is therefore muted for Sonia. And then she says, “I just... I just wish Blue would fuck me!”
I laugh so hard I spit. I laugh so hard I spray droplets.
“I’m serious though! All I need is someone special to be with, someone to share”—she flaps her hand at the street and its tire-sized potholes and car-sized ditches, its orange cones and orange fences from a construction project abandoned weeks ago, well before the shutdown, at the expanse beyond the street, indicating the world and its crisis—“this with. All I need is someone to share germs with.” She laughs and coughs, the same cough as mine. Because we’re not sick. We’re smokers.
“Oh Sonia, I hear you, I hear you.”
“You hear me?”
But I’m reminded of the conversation I had with my mother, how I kept sobbing and she kept sobbing and kept asking me why I was sobbing, and how I was too embarrassed to answer her at first, and then she told me not everyone gets to have that, not everyone gets to have that, especially now, now is not the time to feel deprived, to feel owed, and then she told me I have more than most. And she’s right. I have my mother. I have my health. I have my job that lets me work from home. I have my porch. I have a box of wine and a pack of cigarettes and if I need another box of wine and another pack of cigarettes, I just swipe my debit card. So I say to Sonia, “Yeah but maybe that’s greedy? Maybe that’s what this virus is supposed to teach us? To want less? To do without?”
“Look at me,” she says. I look at her. She looks at me like I’m crazy. “I got a lot of love to give. A lot of love. I can’t keep this love to myself. I can’t be alone. We can’t be alone. It’s not greedy. It’s survival.”
And these words sanction me. Even though I realize survival means something different for Sonia. But I love how she loves. I love how she loves without shame, without fear of rejection, regardless of rejection. I love how she loves and the love I feel is a different kind of love, the kind of love that doesn’t demand reciprocation. I believe the ancient Greeks called it agape, and it’s good enough for now, especially for now.
And then she quotes John Lennon, but I’m not sure she realizes she’s quoting John Lennon. And then she quotes Freddie Mercury, but I’m not sure she realizes she’s quoting Freddie Mercury.
And then tears stream down my cheeks. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m really drunk and I’m on my period.” As if I could fool anyone.
“Let’s play chess.”
We set up the chess board on the floor of my porch and sit across from each other. I open another box of wine and she borrows a plastic cup. I light an American Spirit and she lights a Kool.
“Queen on color,” I say, and switch her queen and her king.
“Knight next to rook,” she says, and she switches my knight and my bishop.
We touch the same objects. We make the same moves we always make, take the same risks we always take. We’re choosing to take risks on each other and somehow that makes me feel safe. And grateful.
“You need to practice,” I say, talking the same shit.
“You need to focus on yourself,” she says, with the same rebuttal.
I wallow in the familiarity, the added weight and comfort to these previously mundane interactions. I wallow in the unexpected intimacy.
“Don’t do that. If you do that, I’ll take your queen.”
“If I was scared, I’d go to church.”
I take her queen with my queen and sing “Oh oh here she comes, watch out boys she’ll chew you up!”
She moves her knight and threatens my queen so I retreat and she sings, “She’s gone, she’s gone, oh I, oh I!”
We laugh and cough and cheers plastic cups. We drink from our plastic cups.
We share germs.
The next morning, I will feel hungover and wracked with guilt. Guilt for exposing her, for exposing Melvin. But in two weeks, she and Melvin and I will still be symptom-free, and in one month, she and Melvin and I will still be getting drunk together from separate porches. In two months, I will stop seeing or hearing from my friend, my other neighbor, and will have fallen in love with my friend, my other friend, who will have texted me every day, multiple times a day, throughout the entire quarantine. He and I, the only people to each other that we can see every day, touch every day, will fight, break up, make up, fight, break up, make up, again and again. And the world will change again, turn upside down again. Again and again.
Sonia and I play three games. When we’re done playing, we bump elbows.
Later tonight, at home, I rub the board and every piece with Clorox wipes even though I know the damage, whatever the damage could possibly be, is done.