Illustration: Carolyn Figel

There Are Two Americas Now, the Sick and the Bored

The art of balancing immense grief with a rich indoor life

A month ago, I had plans. I had a calendar filled with events I looked forward to: a friend’s DJ set, a reporting trip to the Pacific Northwest, a dinner party with my cookbook club. I was feeling burned-out from a dating life that seemed to be going nowhere, but energized professionally. While on the shortlist for the kind of New York-style journalism job that rarely occurs out here in Los Angeles, I remember thinking, It’s going to be a career year. Now we’re all stuck inside, and millions are filing for unemployment. And that journalism job has evaporated, too.

It has not been difficult for me to hunker down. As a freelance writer, I’ve worked from home for the majority of the last decade. I am also single and childless, a combination of usually frustrating factors which for the first time ever has placed me in an enviable position in that I don’t have to worry about taking care of anyone else, or God forbid, homeschool them. Other than my new, exclusively two-dimensional social life, the day-to-day fabric of my life today does not look so different from my life last month — or even last year. I continue to live alone in a 600-square-foot studio apartment filled with things that I love, with lots of art on the walls and thriving plants and the cat I adopted in college. I’m always happy to be here. Even now, when I cannot leave.

I’ve had a head start on learning to live with grief this year after a dear friend died of terminal cancer. At the time, I couldn’t imagine the year getting any worse. Now I see her timing as a blessing: As a person at high risk of having severe Covid-19 who lived in the city now at the center of the global pandemic, she didn’t have to die alone, the way so many do now, and was spared an ending even worse than the brutal one she suffered.

My friend Lizzie’s life motto was: Yes! She said yes to everything, and even had the word hung above her mantle in big red block letters. She didn’t want to miss out on anything, wanted to have fun always, and eat at her favorite restaurants all the time. I try to operate this way, too, but lately there’s a disconcerting dissonance, bordering on tone-deafness. We are now living in two Americas, stacked on top of each other, and divided unevenly by an invisible line. While some of us are whiling away the stay-at-home era drafting Tiger King tweets, baking banana bread, and practicing Zoom yoga, others are writing out their wills and struggling to breathe. They are praying — and organizing — for the PPE they need, for the unemployment department to answer the phone on the 500th try, for the baby to sleep, or the kids to play quietly. They are praying for quiet, praying to make it to morning.

After Lizzie died, one of the first things I could think to do was make scones with the overripe blueberries in my refrigerator. When I am depressed or anxious, I lose my appetite completely. Blueberry scones were a project, a distraction to lose myself in, yes, but also an opportunity to make myself take in some calories. Blueberry scones were an act of radical self-care.

Now everyone is baking banana bread. It may have something to do with a nation making use of its spoiling fruit, when money is tight, and fresh produce is precious. But it is also, I suspect, a way to feel productive and in control when so much else has ground to a halt. Making food from scratch has good forward movement, it presents tangible progress. If you’re a good cook, or at least know how to follow a recipe, you start with a mess of unrelated ingredients and end up with something singularly useful and rewarding: a meal. (Yes, banana bread can be a meal.)

I do miss sharing a meal with another person, though. I post photos of my dinners on Instagram — garlicky roasted eggplant, spaghetti alla Norma, poached shrimp with lemon potatoes, celery, and Italian parsley pesto, mushroom and shallot congee with pickled red onions and a jammy soy sauce egg. It is nice to feel connected via our taste buds, even as we stay apart to stay healthy. On Passover, I made matzo brei with smoked salmon and scallions that I’ve learned to regrow in a water glass on my windowsill — another popular quarantine life hack — and watched for others doing the same.

Meanwhile, farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of milk, burying millions of pounds of ripe onions, and smashing millions of unhatched chicken eggs. I read the news and see miles-long lines of cars waiting to pick up groceries from food banks, which are serving many multiples of their usual number of hungry Americans. Some have seen their lives razed in every way, while others have been insulated from that sort of catastrophic upheaval by virtue of health, wealth, and most of all, luck.

And yet, I know that if I do get sick — and the plan for America, until there is a vaccine, is for many more people to get sick, just not all at the same time — I will regret having not enjoyed my life more while I was well enough to do so. I will miss tastes and smells and the distinct pleasure of watching someone act like an idiot in front of a TV camera. My childhood friend Julia Wick, who is recovering from the virus and knew she was sick when she couldn’t taste the soup she’d made herself, told me she wasn’t bored during her first two weeks of doing nothing.

She was too sick to be bored, listless in bed, too out of it to even focus on a TV show. I’m grateful for the idle time and the ways I fill it: tie-dye projects and movie marathons and Zoom dance parties with my friends on Saturday mornings.

I know that if I do get sick, I will regret having not enjoyed my life more while I was well enough to do so.

I’m taking this as an opportunity to finally watch old movies I should already have seen, like Buffalo ’66, and new TV shows I’d be out of the loop of if I didn’t watch immediately, like Tiger King (an idiot in front of a TV camera). Horror movies don’t scare me, so I put on thrillers in the middle of the night when I can’t fall asleep because time has collapsed in on itself. The other night at 2 a.m., I watched The Platform, a gruesome Spanish sci-fi allegory about class and food inequality. Despite the cannibalism, the news these days is grimmer. My only nightmares have been about hugs.

Meanwhile, my Twitter timeline is a cacophony of discordant conversations, comedy, and condolence back-to-back. Half of what I see are jokes about what Carole Baskin did to her husband and what the hell happened to all the yeast, the other half, news of who is sick or grieving or gone.

“I don’t begrudge anyone their jokes or their banana bread. Or even their fancy homes — though maybe don’t post so much about those on Instagram,” Deborah Copaken, a writer in New York, told me. She still had a hacking Covid-19 cough after a solid 18 days of being down with the virus but was on the mend. “Every sign of normalcy is good,” she said.

There was one night when she woke at 2 a.m. unable to breathe, wondering if she’d survive this. Copaken, who has also worked as a war photographer, knows that laughter can be good medicine in a world where there are no real treatments for Covid-19. “Seeing a funny as shit tweet made my day,” she said. “People like Ali Waller saved my sanity during a really rough time.”

Copaken and I have been in touch sporadically since January, connecting over shared grief for our friend Lizzie. So she, too, has gotten a head start in this department.

While I take deep self-conscious breaths and eat almond-lemon cookies for breakfast, scrolling Twitter, and clicking on links that bring yet another dispatch from the sickness, Copaken has been trawling Twitter from the other side. “Black humor is the currency of all war photographers,” she said. “You have to be able to find the humor in the situation, otherwise it is untenable.”

The sick — at least those with milder cases — still want to laugh. Of course they do. Just as those telling jokes about Joe Exotic want to know what it’s like to have the virus because any one of us could be next.

Meanwhile, we’re martyring our medical first responders, as if they aren’t freaking out or frightened of what they’ve gotten themselves into.

My friend Ramona Emerson, a nurse in Seattle, posted a picture to her Instagram story this week of a rather troubling Post-it note she’d found on her boss’s desk: “TALK TO RAMONA ABOUT DEATH.”

“At least it didn’t say ‘Talk to Ramona about HER death,” she joked to me.

“I look at other people’s posts on social media about how bored they are and I’m not angry at all, I totally get it,” said Sandra Choi, a certified resident nurse anesthetist and the older sister of a close friend from my old life in New York. “When it’s my day off, I just enjoy being a lazy bum,” she said. Choi works 13-hour days, four days a week, as part of a special team that opened a makeshift Covid-19 intensive care unit at her Manhattan hospital. When she’s home, she tries not to think about the pandemic and her patients.

“On my days off it feels like a surreal life to me, because I’m like ‘how can I just be here watching The Outsider, drinking my iced latte Nespresso I made for myself, when the last three days I’m trying not to cry at work because everyone’s getting intubated, and I know a lot of the people on our unit are going to die?’” she said. “I love cooking in general because food is comforting and feels normal.” We are all just making the best of a bad situation, building ritual and meaning where we can.

Molly Oswaks is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, CA. Work in: The New York Times, Playboy, Glamour, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Details, etc.

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