Welcome to Get Lost, a newsletter by Real Queer America and Love & Estrogen author Samantha Allen. Named after the 1995 Magnetic Fields album, Get Lost explores unsung and undersung places, people, and texts through a personal lens. This sixth entry takes you to … the inside of my apartment. Enter your email below to subscribe!
At some point, it’s going to seem strange that the things we do to pass our time in isolation mostly remind us of a time when we weren’t.
Yesterday, the crossword puzzle asked me to fill in a five-letter slang word for a wild party: a RAGER. I’m too much of an introvert to have been to many of those, but I still remember them. At least, I remember a time when we needed a term for a raucous all-night gathering.
Today, I finished reading My Best Friend’s Exorcism, a delightful little horror book about demonic possession—and yet somehow the most unbelievable part of it is the fact that its lead characters are going to high school everyday.
Over these past two weeks of self-isolation, every film I have viewed, every show I have binged, every song I have played on repeat has been about the not-so-distant past in which people left their homes and did things.
The dissonance was almost funny at first. I would see a concert scene in a TV show and think, “Remember concerts?” and then chuckle a little bit to myself, as though reminiscing about some archaic tradition that we have all long abandoned. Then the mismatch between life and art became more acute: Fictional characters, for the most part, are still able to see their aging parents in person. I’m not sure when I’ll get to do that again. And fictional characters with the kind of health problems that I have might be wary of falling ill, but they typically aren’t afraid of dying after a trip to the supermarket. I’m not sure when I’ll leave the house again. In mid-February, I was out and about, riding the ferry, eating at restaurants, hosting friends, visiting family. I might not do that again for months.
Let’s just say I’m starting to understand why Contagion is currently a top iTunes rental and why there has reportedly been a spike in demand for pandemic-related content. I used to think that watching Contagion would feel too on-the-nose. That escapism was obviously the better choice. But as it becomes clearer that my self-isolation could last for several weeks, maybe months—as the amount of time that I am being asked to spend indoors becomes vaguer and more indefinite—my appetites are changing. No way in hell will I ever watch Contagion because I don’t want to think about death more than I already do, but the appeal is becoming clear: In a sad way, it’s one of the only mainstream films that even acknowledges our current reality as a possible one.
I believe that we’re living through one of those before-and-after events, one of those bright dividing lines in history, that will of course be processed through art, literature, and performance in the same way that the Great Depression or 9/11 or any number of wars have been. But while this is happening—with all of us spread apart, stuck in media res—it can be easy to feel unmoored because there are so few reference points for what we are collectively (and not-so-collectively) experiencing. Post-apocalyptic fiction almost feels like a fantasy because it typically begins after the world has already settled into some new status quo, however hazard-filled it might be. (We are not in the aftermath of some cataclysmic event, but rather in the middle of a world-altering but ultimately surmountable one.) Pandemic fiction, like Contagion, is often focused on the experts who develop treatments and vaccines, less so on the terrified masses.
Which leaves us with almost nothing to make sense of what we’re currently facing: An indeterminate length of time during which most people will survive but thousands will not, during which most of us will still have the means to get food and medicine but too many will not, during which all of our social problems will be exacerbated thanks to the breakneck pace of capitalism that will, we are promised, one day reassert itself—all while normalcy recedes beyond the horizon faster than we can chase it. If this were a movie, it would be a Safdie-esque exercise in anxiety without even the comfort of a discernible plot. It resists easy narrativization in the way that life so often does: Bad things happen with no act structure or underlying logic. They just happen. (If anything, the present reminds me of a post-singularity sci-fi book in which we are all digital intelligences, floating around in the ether—except for the unfortunate fact that we are still tethered to physical bodies that need food, shelter, and immune systems.)
Granted, having the right entertainment to pair with this moment is low on my list of concerns, existentially speaking. I’m in a high-risk group so I’m fearful for my life despite the fact that I’m only in my thirties. My parents are approaching age 70 so I’m especially nervous about their wellbeing. I am more fortunate than many in that my household income is not jeopardized by this pandemic, so my heart goes out to anyone who has no idea how they will pay rent come April. And I am of course dreading the potential collapse of our already fragile health care system as it buckles under the weight of those who need critical care.
But while these problems unfold, there will be hours to fill. The gears of vaccine testing and drug approval grind all too slowly. And while we wait, some of our only distractions from anxiety will be pieces of entertainment set in a universe we no longer recognize as our own. For many with underlying health conditions, myself included, this will not be a brief interruption from a regular routine but potentially a sizable fraction of an entire year spent inside with only screens, pages, and a loved one or two to keep us company. Each day will present us something we have never seen before and it may last for so long that those comforts will start to feel like relics from the past. I am trying to steel myself for that day.
I am thinking often of a monologue from Memento, one of the many movies I have rewatched during self-isolation: “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world's still there.”
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