The glass bank door was almost closed when he snaked his foot in the gap. The young man’s heel reopened it and poof, he was gone. I knew what he was doing. Last week it might have been a bit of fun; he might have been a soccer enthusiast or, God forbid, a cross trainer. But now? He doesn’t want to touch anything for fear of virus.
The Brooklyn of Third Avenue echoed an eerie emptiness. We are used to dodging cars and busses in our frenzied commutes, dodging the homeless beggars so as not to say no and have to assuage our guilt. We are the original dodgers, and now we dodge each other, now we dodge ourselves. Now our simple touch has the awful and ugly power to infect. Don’t touch your face.
The virus is beyond our ability to see. It is not an army, not a storm or tsunami. The physical manifestation of our greatest fear now is us. Our droplets, our breath, the neon trail of pathogen. Everything we touch is suspect; we are suspect. We are the source of fear in others, yes. But that pales next to being the source of our own fear.
I didn’t even want any chicken wings, oh, two weeks ago? My learned friend in his Princeton tie, at the bar now shuttered, said, “But look, if I get 20 it’s a very good deal, would you eat a few?” I was queasy and bit hung over, but I said I would as I walked out to bustling Court Street to smoke. The wings came in a woven plastic bowl with paper in it, the way my grandmother served potato chips and pretzels. Man of my word, I had a few, my hands and germs fumbling for a drumstick piece.
It wasn’t until I got home after a dizzy subway ride that I realized I had a fever. It wasn’t until a few hours later that I got an email telling me I had been in the vicinity of someone with the virus. My learned friend has kids, I thought. He’s writing an important book, and on a deadline. Did I infect him?
I am not a stranger to self-loathing. I fancy myself an expert, in fact. But then it was my mental, moral, and emotional failings that left me in dread of myself. Now it is my body. Now I am a host that may be transubstantiated into the new leprosy. Incessant apartment putter, televisual images of empty shelves and angry shoppers. Six feet, they say. Where have I heard that before?
Nobody knows, right? Well, a few do, but most of don’t. Is the virus inside us? Its own struggle for life bubbling and churning within? Dare I see my grandmother? Dip a hand for a chip? Dare I shake my old neighbor Bruno’s hand? Or have good fences come to make good neighbors?
Don’t touch your face. What a thing to say. Don’t infect yourself, don’t infect others, don’t infect. Like Oedipus, we wrought our own demise and that of others. Our bodies can’t be trusted for fear of the invisible. We are anathema, quarantined, a danger. It is a paranoid teenage nightmare of isolation. It is good reason to disdain the bathroom mirror streaked with disinfectant.
And yet. I bought two pouches of tobacco at the fully stocked bodega yesterday, just to be safe. “How you doin, Sal?” I asked as he rang me up. “Well, I’m not dead yet,” he said. I smiled. I don’t think I had in a while. Stepping back out on the street, I rolled a cigarette, watched the few souls running their errands. Everyone careful.
And I felt better. It wasn’t just the joke, although it was the joke; it was knowing that I am more than the infectious plastic of reality. A Cartesian moment of insight. My body may be the wicked means of the transmission of death, but that’s not me, it’s just my body.
Not long after, backyarded with book, I heard church bells. There was no mass on Sunday, no sign of peace. But as the bells pealed their melody it struck me that if I couldn’t go to church, church would come to me, in the same way it has for a thousand years. I touched my face. I know. And I knew that this too will pass.