4/29/20: Walk in the Plague Year

I took a walk today, a short one, my first one since the pandemic swept in.

It was just around the adjacent neighborhood. Overall it was an ugly evening: a sky of faceless gray clouds welded together without a seam, a perfect gray surface from horizon to horizon. It was the first time since early March that I’d been outside in any way that wasn’t just a transition between two interior spaces.

The neighborhood, too, is ugly. You’ve seen it before. You know the houses, identical except for small variations – inevitably chosen from a contractor-provided list of options – that somehow heighten their sameness, make it more obvious. They stand overlooking their short front lawns, their cramped back lawns: currently lush, green, excessively manicured because homebound owners are paying more attention to them out of boredom or pique. Each block of houses is arranged around an island of central green that’s parceled out into individual backyards. You know this. You’ve seen the small little alleyways of lawn, maybe six or eight feet across, that separate house from house at their sides. You’ve walked down one of these alleys into the yard.

When I enter the neighborhood, I come down into it across a strip of lawn that divides it from my own development. This strip runs alongside the main thoroughfare of this other neighborhood, and it’s studded with dogwood trees. I remember the names of the dogwood trees because they bloom so prettily but smell like shit.

I wasn’t wearing my glasses and so everything and everybody looked irresolute and unfocused. When I saw somebody coming towards me or from behind I moved to the other side of the road. At one point there was a group of people ahead of me, congregating in the street around two parked cars; I turned around and went back the way I came, but some vestigial self-consciousness in me made me feel like I had to pretend it was for some reason other than trepidation; so, I patted my pockets and looked around confusedly like I’d forgotten my keys or something at home.

Unaware that there was a plague on, the neighborhood air contained the same sounds that it always did: kids shouting at each other, dogs barking, garage doors opening and closing, tennis shoes going down the concrete front steps, a front lawn flagpole rattling in the wind, the manicured bushes shaking in the same wind, but lower, the chatter between an old couple as they walker their two big dogs, the occasionally susurrance of a car driving down one of the blocks. In the superficial thrill of being outside, they felt like sounds from another world, just as, when I’m at the store, and seeing other people for the first time in two weeks, each one of them feels lambent and strange, like some overgrown shrine I traveled through the wilds on foot for weeks to find.

What has changed, really, is me. Us, presumably. The shift is unbearably cruel, but faceless as the space between stars, cosmic and unapproachable. The vastness of the human mind is such that it can be wounded vastly. And this wound brooks no counterargument and leaves us – me, anyway – longing in total futility for the time before again. But of course, part of the grievousness of this injury to our reality is that, not only is it different now, but we can see how, even then, it was different than what we let ourselves think it was; lots of us knew on some level how bad the country we were living in was, and how frail and unprepared the entire infrastructure was; and how frail and unprepared our own internal infrastructures were; but we were unable – or unwilling – to meet the truth and understand it. Damage.

Lurking behind every mundane moment, for me, is rage against the damage, this unrelenting angry longing for the time before that refuses to be practical, refuses to be any less acute.

When I turned the corner on my way back, I noticed behind me that somebody was approaching at a walking speed.

In anticipation of her passing me, I crossed back to the far end of the strip of lawn with the dogwood trees, and trudged along. It had rained earlier in the day, but not for long, and the ground was dry enough to resist it; only the utmost grass felt rainsofted beneath my shoes. A few drops were falling as I walked.

On the sidewalk across the street the person, a young woman, passed me. She passed the way I had come a half hour before, moving along the ends of the lawns. I felt an absurd impulse to raise my gloved hand and wave. Absurd because the impulse was purely theatrical, as if by being performatively melancholy and wistful in this extraordinarily fucked up time, I could somehow counteract some crumb of the real grief and absurdity of our existence now.

I didn’t wave. The woman walked on, moving faster than me now as I trudged along in the grass. She was wearing a fitness tank and black tights, with red hair in a ponytail and white unsunned bare arms. Her shoes were white, but my bad eyes lost her face entirely.

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