I wrote this in my journal on April 14, 2020, exactly one year ago today, never intending to share it with anyone.
I almost missed the magnolias this year. My favorite tree: covered in pink satin petals, each flower a miniature upside down ball gown. And then: the slippery sidewalk blanket when the blossoms fall after just a few weeks. When the magnolia trees bloom I know it is time for spring. But this year, time is flat.
I’ve been inside for 27 days now. It feels boring to talk about myself, my loneliness, my despair — who cares. Outside, people die. More than 10,000 deaths in New York so far. The president is pleased; he is handling the crisis well, he tells us. He stands close to the other government officials at his press conferences. He talks about the economy. He is rude to reporters. He says wearing a mask might be a good idea but he will not wear a mask. He implies nurses in New York City are stealing the personal protective equipment they have been lacking since the beginning of the pandemic. He says anything less than 100,000 American deaths will be a success. He is proud; he would like us to be proud too — of our country, sure, but more specifically of him.
Zoe texts me from the hospital in Philly where she delivered babies and prescribed medicine for yeast infections before coronavirus. Now she and her team are training older doctors, surgeons who haven’t delivered babies in a long time, to take over their duties incase the obstetricians all get sick and can’t work.
They cancelled all other surgeries but they can’t stop people having babies, it turns out, she jokes to our group chat.
In early March she comes into contact with a patient who has COVID and is forced to quarantine at home for one week. She texts us every day, irritable. She wants to get back to work. She doesn’t know if she has the virus. The test they gave her makes no sense, she tells us, only shows a positive if you display symptoms when tested but we already know many people are asymptomatic positives. I’m secretly thrilled she’s quarantined. A few weeks later she’s back at work and tells us about all her COVID patients.
I thought they sent you home if you’re exposed, Jane texts.
Ha, Zoe writes back. That was when they were still sending anyone home for anything. It doesn’t matter now, COVID is everywhere. My attending is on a ventilator; he’s probably going to die.
No one writes back for a long time. I text Zoe privately.
Hi babe, I write. I love you. I’m sorry about your attending.
I love you too! We’re all really shaken up.
Yeah, I would imagine. Do you want to talk one night? I don’t sleep anymore. I could FaceTime you whenever.
Maybe...I’m sorry, I just haven’t wanted to FaceTime anyone lately. I don’t know why.
Don’t be sorry! I get it. I love you.
I don’t get it, obviously, but what else is there to say. Zoe tells our group chat that no one at her hospital has been successfully extubated. The media will start reporting on that soon — the extremely low percentage of people who actually survive once they are taken off the ventilators, the machines I have been mistakenly thinking of as lifesavers that are in such high demand and low supply — but when Zoe says it the fact is still new to me. I let myself cry that night, a lot. It hadn’t occurred to me that Zoe could get sick and die. Sleep feels besides the point, so I don’t.
Seven days in a row pass and I do not leave my studio apartment; I tell my therapist that my days are blending together. She looks at me from inside my computer screen; she’s situated in her house in Vermont, I’m in an uncomfortable chair in Yonkers. I don’t remember the last time I slept through the night. I forget when I last showered. I can see my likeness on the screen — I am so sick of video conferencing, I would give anything to not have to look at my face ever again — and this version of me looks nothing like myself. My therapist is concerned, and also pixelated. She wants to know exactly when I last went outside; I don’t remember.
I’ll do better, I promise her, and she laughs. The sound on my computer is delayed so she opens and closes her mouth before the laughter reaches me.
This week I will sleep every night and shower every day, I say. I’ll go for regular walks.
Let’s not be overzealous, she says. Let’s aim for one of those things. Just try to get outside every day. Make that your goal, okay?
I do not go for regular walks. I do not shower every day. I do not sleep. An incomplete list of things I do instead: cook fish, cook pasta, cook stew, cook crispy potatoes. Bake focaccia, bake challah, bake tiny salty chocolate cookies. Make cucumber salad. Scroll through my phone for seven hours, eight hours, twenty hours. Text Zoe. Text Zoe’s wife. Write four servicey pieces about coronavirus for the independent media job I miraculously still have. Call my boyfriend in Portland who is still going to work every day to feed people. Read obituaries. Masturbate. Avoid my landlord. Donate to the Rikers bailout fund. Make a list of everyone I am especially worried about and pray for them even though I do not pray.
I feel angry at everyone who isn’t angry; my mom searches for good news every day and I reject it. She’s hurt, it’s obvious, but all good news feels like a lie right now. Sirens blare outside my window all day and all night. What is good news in the face of all this death? Even if something is objectively positive right now, who am I to use the word good when more than 10,000 people in this state alone are dead. Zoe is alive but someone else’s best friend is not. What about the rest of the country? What about the rest of the world? It did not have to be this way.
Let this radicalize you, my more radical friends write on their social media accounts. Bernie suspends his campaign for president. The public defender I’ve been casually dating FaceTimes me from 13 miles away because we can no longer meet in person; we talk about her work. She tells me her clients in the Bronx continue to get arrested for meaningless crimes; she has gotten them all out of prison this week but her colleague had a client sent to Rikers. She looks like she might start to cry. It’s essentially a death sentence, at this point, she says.
Thank you for your work, I tell her, because I don’t know what else to say, because I am filled with genuine gratitude, because I can’t believe Rikers exists. She smiles at me through the screen, pixelated like my therapist, pixelated like everyone in my life, now. When we hang up I donate more money to the bailout fund and file an article titled Stay Home & Let Go of Loopholes: Community Care During Coronavirus, written as a plea to encourage people to take social distancing guidelines more seriously.
I guess we’re all doing our best.
I read an article in the Washington Post, an oral obituary from a man in Indiana who lost his partner to COVID. “She’s dead, and I’m quarantined,” Tony Sizemore says, on the death of Birdie Shelton. “That’s how the story ends.” I read the entire piece twice. The very least we can do is bear witness. “Anything good I could say about this would be a lie,” reads the headline. Sleep finds me for forty five minutes; I wake up to my phone buzzing, my mom calling to check in. I try to tell her about Birdie, about Zoe, about Rikers, about the sirens, about Trump, about the senselessness of it all, but I’m sobbing too hard and she can’t understand me. You must be lonely, she soothes.
Later that day I go for a small walk around my neighborhood; the magnolias have bloomed while I’ve been indoors. It’s spring. I don’t go outside for three days after that, caught in a loop of scrolling and not sleeping. When I force myself out again, seventy two hours later, I see it must have rained. The magnolia petals are mostly off the trees, mostly littering the ground. The trees won’t burst pale pink again until next year.
We’ll go through three more seasons, and then it will be spring once more. The world will be different; the magnolia blossoms will bloom just the same.
Housekeeping: a new publishing schedule, a zine, a writing class, and a Hoagie
You’ll notice this newsletter is not showing up in your inbox every two weeks as originally promised. That’s because I just don’t have the energy — emotional, creative, physical, etc — to write it twice a month. HEY BABE will now publish once a month. Seeing as everyone wants less email, not more, I imagine this will work out just fine for all of us.
My zine, HOME: A YEAR OF LOVE LETTERS, is available for purchase again! If you were bummed that you didn’t snag a copy back in December, today is your lucky day. To everyone who helped me sell out of 200 copies in less than a week the first time around, THANK YOU. To everyone who pre-ordered a copy from the second printing, I mailed those out earlier this week and you should get your copy within 1-14 days. And to everyone who is reading this thinking, “What are you talking about?” here are the details: In 2019, I wrote an essay about home every two weeks. In 2020, I gathered those essays (all 31,000 words of them) and bundled them into a zine with a brand new introduction and original front and back cover art by my super talented friend Hadley Johns. The first batch sold out so quickly that I decided to order a second round, so if you would like to have a volume of my words that you can hold in your hand, you can make that a reality! Venmo me (@vanessapamela) $20 and your mailing address and I will pop a copy of HOME: A YEAR OF LOVE LETTERS in the mail for you. Unfortunately I cannot ship outside of the USA at this time.
I am teaching a creative writing course for adults this summer! The exact dates have not been finalized and I cannot share the details yet, but I will as soon as I can. In the meanwhile, if you’ve always wanted to learn about writing memoir with me, go ahead and take a peek at the writers on this dreamy syllabus and send me a note if you’d like to be alerted when course description and registration goes live. It will be 100% virtual and will cap at 15 students.
I thought maybe everyone could use a photo of Hoagie, my boyfriend’s five-and-a-half-month-old puppy, lazily licking a piece of grass. I know I sure could. Credit to Chrissie for capturing this magical image. Credit to Hoagie for bringing me big joy during a very joyless time in my life. Here, have a Hoagie: