In isolation, I thought maybe nature was the answer. No other humans, just the organic Earth and everything else that lived on it. If we were the lice, then all those other plants and animals were what? The too-tiny-to-see worms inhabiting our eyelashes? All the microorganisms living on our bodies, unnoticed until something goes wrong and the benign skin bacteria begins to rot the blood?
The metaphor got away from me. It’s useless anyway. Language is for communicating with other humans. The world doesn’t care what we call it.
And so I took long walks at midnight. Sometimes I heard frogs. Sometimes crickets. Sometimes birds whose bodies were fooled by the glow of the city that never died. Sometimes someone else walking the sidewalks, face also masked. Everything went quiet when I passed, ghosting like a dream I couldn’t shake.
In my fourplex, the sounds of my housemates were distant. Practicing drums. Loud and laugh-salted phone conversations. The thud and groans of home exercise or masturbation. There was no passing each other in the front entry. No hellos. The cars drove themselves out in the morning and parked themselves at night. Packages delivered on the front steps walked their way inside.
I was lucky to have this luxury of isolation. I had savings. A job I could do online. When I went to the grocery store, I eyed everyone with suspicion, and they suspected me right back. This would bring us closer, I remember an op-ed claiming. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. People are more compassionate with the suffering they can’t see.
A shaky claim, but I’d bought into it.
But in the grocery store and the post office where other people were unavoidable, all I saw were the eyes and the upper part of the face, eyebrows angled down, foreheads wrinkled in annoyance and fear. Do you know the way an ear moves when a person frowns so deeply their face collapses in on itself? Or how the throat visibly tightens if you’re straining to hold back a scream?
I practiced in the mirror, eliminating all the telltale signs visible around the mask. It is so much safer to be a blank slate, reflecting nothing. With all the masks, how can we know who to hold accountable? By the time the mask is off, it’s too late.
Months passed. The world evolved. Civilization adjusted. Every online meeting I attended, I blanked my camera. My cat became a great conversationalist. Television windowed a world that was and would never be again.
Oh, not even that is the truth, I can tell you now. There was an alternate universe in old photographs, one which never even existed. Or if it existed, it was always an illusion with as much solidity as a soap bubble. The illusion popped and our eyes are stinging and we can choose to keep our eyes closed or wash them out and look around us with a new, pained vision.
I say we because it’s easier than saying I.
Here’s the truth.
We are each in a tiny spaceship, a bubble just large enough for us and the supplies to survive. An attic efficiency in space. Bed. Kitchen. Exercise machine. Entertainment box. Each ship can survive indefinitely, which is good, because each of us is traveling through space for an indefinite time. Like dandelion seeds, we have been blown from Earth and shot out into the vastness of the empty black.
Food and water are effectively infinite. Air, too. Everything is recycled. Nano-machines ever carefully clear the air of the dust made by our flaking skin and shed hair. Something something relativism makes it so we age virtually not at all. And communication between us is equally magical and instantaneous. There are explanations for why it all works, but the science doesn’t matter. Whether we understand how and why we are here, here is where we are. In an enclosed space, each of us alone.
Hello? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, press the red flashing button.
One day we’ll travel beyond the Sun’s encompassing light and it’ll shrink to be just another star. Already, all the planets are invisible except by computer projection. I know your voice is out there. So just press the button to open the link.
All we have is each other.
—September 9, 2020