I think there are more ambulance sirens these days. Our bedroom windows face a busy corner and the blaring interruptions are speeding up. The sound is like a heavy-handed metaphor that we ignore during Netflix binges, explain away with gallows humor during work calls, and wonder whether we notice it more or less during a known pandemic. Are we becoming acclimated to the suffering around us or attuned to it?
My husband has been a sports reporter for his entire adult life. Every day of it. He’s quick and competent and eminently dispassionate. He will not wear team logos and I’ve never seen him cry, but he tells me he did covering the New York City Marathon a few years back. He loves game stories and spreadsheets and baseball so much that even I find myself getting exasperated, because honestly who cares about sports this much? (He does.)
Except there are no sports right now. In their place are an untold number of horror stories to help illustrate the severity of the coronavirus. So instead of covering the early parts of the Mets’ and Yankees’ seasons, he is riding along with the people who pick up dead bodies from overcrowded New York hospitals, or the apartments of people who never made it there, and take them to overcrowded New York funeral homes.
I’m worried and proud. But also, in a selfish, misguided and deeply visceral way, I’m jealous of his ability to confront head-on the monster that controls all our lives — writing about what it really does instead of awkwardly trying to bridge the dissonance between a deadly pandemic and the boredom it induces. I feel like I’m hiding from a boogeyman up here. Weeks of having to imagine carrying the weight of my community’s well-being on my shoulders whenever I go outside is making my back ache for real.
This is an embarrassingly delusional way to feel. A hero fantasy I don’t deserve. It’s a luxury to aspire — even fleetingly — to be out on the frontlines rather than sitting by idle and inessential. But I don’t know what else to do with the feeling that I’m losing a battle I haven’t even begun to fight. This is what it’s like to be healthy in New York right now: real fear and reactionary guilt. Enough prolonged stasis that I’m ping-ponging between suspended desperation without any urgency and succumbing to the comfortable cocoon of staying inside.
For weeks we’ve been dutifully disinfecting our light switches, but yesterday my husband stood in a human body refrigerator with two dozen COVID-19 fatalities and the same notepad he takes to spring training games.
At home, he takes his clothes off outside on the stoop and we don’t laugh even a little at how ridiculous that is because for a moment we’re cosplaying as the kind of people whose careers are a matter of life and death.
That morning I’ll post a mirror selfie on Instagram and by the afternoon I want to scream at everyone tweeting about sourdough starter. I want to scream at myself for frivolity in the face of a pandemic, but I also want to be able to bake bread from scratch.
Well-meaning influencers say it’s OK to stop reading the news for the sake of your mental health. I’m an extrovert prone to suicidal ideation but this makes me want to be a martyr to the media cycle. Already I feel small and useless; I don’t think I could handle the guilt of indulging in any level of blissful ignorance as well. But maybe the voyeurism of perpetual updates and personal essays is its own form of indulgence.
I ask friends if they’ve read The Bad Story in The New York Times today, and every day I’m talking about a different story. I read them in the morning, still in bed, before my husband wakes up next to me. I cry each time, but I don’t tell him that later when I beg him to read them, too. I worry my tears are unfounded given our ability to insulate ourselves in a comfortable apartment (resplendent with outdoor space and even a dedicated office, all of which feels increasingly garish). I worry my fears are just a manifestation of my own masochism. At the same time, I’m afraid we’re not taking this seriously enough.
I want to talk about how scared I am of losing my job but already that seems insensitive in the face of staggering actual unemployment. That I can be reassured, even temporarily, seems grotesque. Monday to Friday feels like playing Russian Roulette with a finger on the trigger for hours at a time. It makes it tough to work. It makes it imperative to work. Op-eds insisting now is not the time to worry about personal productivity make a compelling case that ticks all my intellectual boxes about the emotional drains of our country’s slavish reverence toward capitalism, but I’ve started to regard them with suspicion and derision. They’re siren songs that would lull me into a false sense of righteousness in the face of professional precarity. They’re an insult to the exhausted doctors who are our only hope.
Also: I need them to be true as I struggle to find a footing in a media landscape that suddenly makes no sense to me and seems to only highlight my insecurities.
Last time we went to the grocery store the clerks were wearing full plastic helmets. I said it felt like the beginning of “The Handmaid’s Tale” over and over, but that’s just because I don’t consume a lot of apocalyptic fiction. It feels like we’re living through a singular, exhausting, slow-rolling disaster that dominates every facet of our existence — but also like I’m worried we’ll adapt. That the dehumanizing effects will creep up on us and an inability to see the faces of strangers will start to feel normal.
The helmets served as something of a wake-up call to how much worse New York has gotten over a matter of days and even hours. I said we can’t go back to the store for one whole week. We marked the day in our minds and joke about getting excited for this exotic errand.
In a Zoom session with my therapist I relay these mundane updates and wonder whether we’re even doing any of this right. Who’s to say whether an asymptomatic coronavirus carrier will cough on our shopping basket on the designated day and that person wouldn’t have been there the day before? She tells me it’s true and that the uncertainty is the worst of it. She says maybe it’s silly but she keeps thinking about how at least if it were zombies out there the news would tell us neighborhoods to avoid. You could see them and run from them.
As it is, for all I know, every time I go for a run now it’s toward the virus. I can’t stop going for runs though, because I’m battling a latent eating disorder along with forced sedentary behavior. And despite their saliency and best intentions, the columns against dieting during the pandemic are as bad as the diet memes themselves. They both highlight how all my existing neuroses didn’t disappear to make room for the end of the world.
Now would be a great time to not care how I look, and yet.
I pay my therapist $200 for commiserating with me and it’s money well spent.
I think there are more ambulance sirens these days, but I refuse to let myself articulate that thought. I’m trying to avoid the temptation to sensationalize. The sirens create a constant soundtrack that’s as melodramatic and cinematic as my mind during an anxiety spiral. Instead of leaning into that, I remind myself that I’m prone to overreactions. I have a history of chronic catastrophizing, and opportunities are everywhere lately. That’s probably what this is.
But telling myself that creates a false sense of security. There are more ambulance sirens these days because there’s a viral pandemic ravaging New York and a lot of my neighbors are getting sick or dying.