Theoretically, I’ve been training to lockdown for most of my life. I’m a writer, mostly an introvert, and work pretty productively at home. In the earliest days of this mess my thinking was that if I could just prevent people from coughing out any plaguey particles near me, I could survive—nay, perhaps even thrive—in this time of awfulness.
In practice, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
March 13 was my last time on campus before we transitioned to teaching and researching from home. It wasn’t as though those last days were any kind of pre-pandemic utopia—I’d already been using disinfectant wipes on my lectern all that week, and had side-eyed a colleague who strangled a jumbo bottle of hand sanitiser throughout our hour-long meeting. But however it all felt back then, it certainly wasn’t like this.
On that last day I’d been sitting in my office. Between two of my windows is a panel where I’ve got three postcards stuck. One is of an early 1990s photograph taken by the English artist Gillian Wearing. It’s of a bald man holding a sign reading In this emptiness women are an answer for me. I’d bought two copies from a gallery gift shop a decade-and-change ago. Armed with my fresh purchase, a small ball of Blu Tack and a smirk, I’d walked into the office of a man I was in love with and stuck one of the postcards to his wall.
My copy of the card has been in my office for over a decade but for most of that time it’s been invisible in that way of objects we’re constantly near but no longer quite see. But on that last day on campus, the card caught my eye. I hadn’t been thinking about the man from eleven-ish years ago yet. Thoughts of him would become ever-louder white noise in the days that followed. Instead, that afternoon I was caught on the sign. On how a decade on and it still feels like the most insightful relationship commentary I’ve ever read.
Days into self-isolation, one of artist Michael James Schneider’s images appeared in my Facebook feed. With shiny red letter balloons against a white wall he’d spelled out A global pandemic is not a good excuse to text your ex. It entertained me. Not in any kind of belly laugh way, but it felt gently prescient. As though I was somehow being warned that if I were nursing any notions of a little light COVID-19 fire-play—something that really hadn’t occurred to me at that point—that I’d be wise to refrain. To not become some hideous, balloon-worthy cliché. The next day a colleague emailed about one of his exes having been in contact. I’d send him the Schneider photo. At that stage such emotional shenanigating still felt like someone else’s pandemic predicament.
I’ve lived overseas by myself quite a bit, the longest stretches being three 6-month sabbaticals. Three times when I’ve moved to another country and spent swathes of time on my own. The first time I did it—Massachusetts, 2011—I took an alarming number of baths. I was, in fact, doing most everything from inside the tub. I think, in fact, that I wrote an entire book submerged in water. I’d read an article months after returning home contending that too many baths is a sign of depression. But baths aren’t what I think of when visualising my mental health at that time. My Massachusetts mindset is best encapsulated by me being in the ‘holiday’ aisle of a supermarket and the only thing stopping me from buying the Grow Your Own Pumpkin kit was a fear that I’d end up with one of those giant coach-sized pumpkins and be forced to pose with it for a local newspaper article. No. I at least had the emotional wherewithal to stop before I dabbled in competitive horticulture.
Suffice to say, I’ve learnt a lot about myself during these stints away, most notably about the infrastructure I need in place to minimise the time alone in my head. Normally I’ve got months to plan for a sabbatical. I didn’t get months to plan for a pandemic.
Loneliness isn’t a problem yet: I’m in touch with loved ones daily and I’ve got more than enough work to keep me off the streets seeking out recreational infection. There has however, been copious space for introspection. Too much time and far too much quiet to reflect on the passing of years. Too much time to catalogue one’s fuckery. Too much insideness to wonder if the world were to dry-cough itself into feverish oblivion in the next couple of weeks, what actually matters to me.
It’s been over a decade of no contact with the man I’d bought that postcard for. A decade that’s been eleven-ish years in all the wretched weightiness of every-single-conversation-not-had, every-quip-not-shared, an-entire-two-terms-of-an-Obama-presidency-come-and-gone kind of way, and also a decade in the blink-of-an-eye-sense that sees you triple-checking that yes, incomprehensively the season finale of Six Feet Under really did air fifteen bloody years ago.
And in the midst of having too much time to dwell, I got caught on the idea of what such a chunk of time signifies. Is it some kind of proof that I didn’t cave in? That there was no buckling, no succumbing, no losing hand? At one point I got preoccupied by the idea of an awards ceremony commemorating my ‘efforts’. I caught myself thinking about whether tickertape parades are still a thing because of the environment. Whether they’d ever be a thing again if there’s ever an end to our isolation. About who’d formally congratulate me for all my extreme forbearance. What my trophy might look like.
I presented a slightly saner version of this thinking to a friend. In thorough sincerity she told me that my stubbornness was what she admires most about me. She apparently read the situation as me needing a pep talk; had evidently forgotten that I’m notoriously hostile to pep. I only ever need my loved ones to watch me make my own dubious-quality decisions and pose as completely neutral observers throughout.
Ten-odd years and it does seem like I’ve been stubborn. Feels as though I’ve been stubborn. Except I’m really not that person. Sure, I precisely am the person who let that much time pass. Definitely I’m that person. But I’m also little more than a mouthy marshmallow.
Ten years of no-contact doesn’t tell the story of someone who fell apart for three days when an unspeakably horrible incident unfolded in his city and I didn’t know how he was. Doesn’t tell of someone who can’t hear certain words, songs, book titles and not think of him. Doesn’t tell of someone who has literally—as well as metaphorically—boxed up stuff from that time and won’t be slicing through the packaging tape anytime soon. It certainly doesn’t tell that I’m in fact the person who wrote him dozens of emails in my head but just never typed any of them up.
So last week I wrote him a message.
As soon as I saw those Schneider balloons the concept of a pandemic reunion felt clichéd. As though I’m just falling into the trap of doing what everyone else is likely doing in this strange time of sickness and separation. But what even are the tropes of a pandemic? How can they be clichés when none of us have been here before? At best I can cobble together some vague end-of-the-world nous from having seen Melancholia on screen and on stage; of knowing there’s some kind of role for Aerosmith. And what, somehow I’ve already decided that aching to contact him is unoriginal?
Here I am living under this new world order. Having conversations about where to buy flour. Toilet paper. Over Easter I had to Google the legalities of visiting my parents; had to determine whether I could convince the redneck Southern-cop of my imaginings that I was only visiting them to drop-off groceries.
Even the chance of an unpleasant reply—or, much worse, no reply at all—felt worth me reaching out and letting him know that at a time when CNN shows me mass burials and BBC offers up makeshift morgues, that my thoughts have gone straight to him. In spite of so much time. Maybe because of so much time.
So I wrote the message. I clicked send. And I got his reply a few minutes later.
For good measure he mentioned that postcard. Of course he mentioned that postcard.
I’d later relay these events to a friend. ‘Just to be clear,’ she’d said, ‘is there anyone else on the list who I need to worry about?’ She meant men. Other menfolk from the last few years who she fears might now be further scabs I might want to pick at. A romantic past aptly illustrated by a photo that one ex recently posted on social media: him posing with several semi-automatic weapons sans shirt. ‘No, I think we’re good now.’
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Her eleventh book – Why We Remake: The Politics, Economics and Emotions of Film and TV Remakes – was released earlier this year.