Like so many quarantines, mine began with a series of sudden subtractions: subways, classes, public spaces, hugs, bookstores, child care; the bodies of friends in my living room; the bodies of strangers brushing against mine on the sidewalk; and finally my own body, as the virus came for me early, insistent but ultimately merciful; shivers and night sweats and muscle aches rippling from my neck to my heels. During those weeks of total isolation with my toddler, I lost my sense of taste and smell, lost everything beyond my doorway — lost the streets of my city, which was rapidly flooding with deeper losses I could only imagine. The wailing sirens made it impossible to forget that the hospitals were filling with patients on ventilators.
The subtractions of our quarantine came on the heels of other ones. I signed divorce papers just a month before the city started shutting down, and as the lockdown’s restrictions drew an increasingly tight perimeter around every household, they cast into sharper relief the ways mine had been gutted. It felt vaguely like being forced to live in a building splintered by a wrecking ball before the rebuilding had begun. Quarantine didn’t just take things away; it revealed — with a harsh, unrelenting clarity — what had already been lost.
Once I realized I would be spending many weeks alone at home with my daughter, I made us a daily schedule with clumsy illustrations: stray water drops next to ‘‘Mama Shower,’’ a cutout octopus next to ‘‘Cleaning/Chores,’’ as if we’d deploy eight arms to wipe the door handles with bleach; a tiger beside our ‘‘Morning Walk,’’ as if the streets of Brooklyn would be full of exotic discoveries. But once I got sick, even the limited life outlined on our rainbow schedule — its cheerful colors radiating compensatory, forced optimism — now seemed naïve in its aspirations, anchored by walks we could no longer take, meals I could no longer taste and activities that required staying vertical longer than I could manage. The cherry blossoms beyond our windows seemed tone-deaf in their extravagance. The sunshine arrived like someone laughing on a hospital ward.
Before I realized I was sick, I refused to believe my own fatigue, falling asleep on the couch while I tried to return work email during naptime. But eventually there was no denying it: the aches running like electric currents through my legs, wearing me out like exercise. When I stood after picking up things my daughter dropped or tossed, the corners of my vision fluttered with dark flecks. The virus claimed my bedroom as its own, salting my sheets with night sweat. When I woke in the darkness, body aching in the gloom, I always checked the news on my phone before I could remember not to.
A few days after I lost my sense of taste and smell, I started seeing articles about this new symptom. That’s how it was: bodies in the news, and the news in our bodies, making us sweat and shiver. It seemed as if losing my sense of taste was a personalized cosmic joke, a nod to the eating disorder I had years earlier. But that’s the fallacy and hubris of any misfortune, however minor — that it was made bespoke, just for us. I knew this was melodrama and tried not to indulge it before naptime. Then I could cry alone in the bathroom if I needed to.
Maybe the pandemic felt to everyone like a heat-seeking missile specifically targeting the particular fragilities of any life — a new business, a restaurant job, a fractured marriage or its dissolution — even as the virus cast its vast, impersonal damage across us all. It created a certain cognitive dissonance to encounter something as surreal and unfamiliar as a global pandemic from inside the deadening familiarity and cloistered banality of our apartment — an extraordinary event experienced from inside a parade of days textured by unceasing ordinariness, the daily loop of domesticity. The teakettle, the oatmeal-crusted bowls in the sink, the toddler scattering her tiny hats and gloves across the floor for the umpteenth time, ‘‘Mama FIX it.’’ The days were endless and also irrelevant: Tuesdays were Wednesdays were Fridays, except sometimes it was raining outside and sometimes it was sunny and sometimes — as a neighbor informed us by text — someone broke into the vestibule of our building to ransack the Amazon packages. The past flooded the empty present, filling the apartment with its ghosts.
I kept remembering the summer I spent recovering from jaw surgery two decades earlier, not just sequestered in my home but in my body; unable to eat or speak because my jaw was wired shut for months, 18 years old and missing the world that was stripped away. I kept remembering the first time I tried to stop drinking — at 27, a decade later — when I essentially put myself in quarantine, taking a week off my bakery job to hole up in my brother’s empty apartment and Not Drink. In my mind, this self-sequestering was a cross between a bad schoolgirl’s being sent to a corner of the classroom and a hero’s striding off to some remote mountaintop to confront her archenemy in one-on-one combat. In reality, it mainly involved eating saltines and foil-wrapped triangles of spreadable cheese for dinner, and realizing — at one point — that it had been a couple of days since I’d been outside, in part because I was afraid I lacked the willpower not to stop at a liquor store. I drank again as soon as I got home.
When I tried to quit again, a few months later, it was not in isolation but by flinging myself into the unexpected community of recovery meetings. Remembering those nights in the midst of the pandemic, I yearned for their physicality: the unfolded origami creases of strangers’ papery palms against my own; the stem of a plastic fork still warm from someone else’s grip as I pronged a vanilla-frosted slice of sober-anniversary cake; the raspy voices and minty gum-breath of chain-smokers offering collective prayers. But after six weeks of studiously avoiding any kind of contact or even proximity with strangers, I also flinched at the idea of that kind of bodily communion; it seemed an impossibly beautiful constellation of perilous exposures.
But while the physical proximity of early sobriety felt impossibly far away, an echo from those days felt eerily close — the surprise of finding unexpected abundance inside a state of loss. When you lose what you rely upon, you start reaching for things you never thought you’d want, or else the things you already had but always took for granted. Early sobriety taught me one version of this strange arithmetic by giving me a way to understand what I was losing — the sweet oblivion of getting drunk — in terms of what it made room for: not just the sweaty palms and earnest confessions of strangers but also a more acute presence in my own life.
At first, of course, not-drinking was hell. It was deprivation and punishment, as if I were trapped in a bare white room while the cinema reels of boozy nostalgia played on the other side of a glass wall: the salty pop of gin-soaked olives, the foam of cold beer on warm summer evenings flickering with fireflies. All that was gone. Only seltzer remained. But if not-drinking was hell, then sobriety was something else. Eventually — not on the first day, or the 20th, but maybe on the 100th, or the 400th — the whole world began to open up. Days weren’t just defined by absence — this is life minus drinking — but by a new kind of plenitude: the rituals of recovery meetings, and the voices of strangers in those rooms, telling stories about loving booze so much they thought their hearts would break from losing it.
This strange, unsettling affinity with strangers was abundance. The call to listen was abundance. But these weren’t the only forms of abundance. The sensory hyperattention of sobriety was overwhelming, like staring at the sun: the acid pang of an orange slice on a cold sore, the ache in the balls of my feet after 12 hours standing beside a giant mixer in the kitchen of the bakery where I worked. The abundance of those days rose from the conspiracy of multiple constraints — the constraints of sobriety alongside the confines of that cramped kitchen and those repetitive labors. Even unbeautiful things came to constitute a strange new lushness, because they felt so ferociously proximate, so searing and undeniable.
A decade later, quarantine was nothing if not searing and undeniable — the broken-record quality of our daily lives insisting on the same rooms, the same people, the same routines. Recovery meetings happened on Zoom now, like so much of the rest of my life, and at a distance couldn’t offer the same bodily surrender. Still, while certain kinds of visceral intimacy were lost, in other ways the meetings felt more intimate than ever. Every square on the screen was a portal into someone’s home, revealing other sober alcoholics leaning against their headboards or curled up under blankets, Bluetooth buds carrying the rest of our voices, cat whiskers swishing suddenly in front of computer cameras. In our thumbnail boxes, we chanted the serenity prayer in an out-of-sync patchwork that was somehow more moving for its raggedness, for the ways it failed to disguise the incompleteness of our medium, the ways it didn’t replace what we’d lost: that room full of body heat and layer cake, plastic forks passed palm to palm. It was a chorus of disembodied voices trying our best, straining or fumbling or sometimes surging toward gratitude; acknowledging all the loss and terror around us without trying to redeem it.
For the first few meetings I attended, I had Zoom set to ‘‘speaker’’ mode because I didn’t know there was a ‘‘gallery’’ alternative that could display everyone’s faces at once. Whoever was speaking loomed large, but whenever someone laughed or murmured in recognition their face would pop briefly to the center of the screen — the technology illuminating, just for a moment, the flashes of resonance that had animated our meetings all along. Sometimes I’d be distracted or horrified by the sight of my own face in the corner — wondering if my expression communicated enough attention, compassion or openhearted presence — but one of the best things about speaker mode was that it let me scroll away from my own face so I didn’t see it at all. Scrolling away from my own face on Zoom became a technological embodiment of what recovery meetings had been inviting me to do for years: get away from myself, flee the quarantine of my own heart.
Even outside these meetings, quarantine was enacting a daily alchemy with the abstract truisms of recovery, making them concrete: One day at a time meant not knowing how long quarantine would last. It meant: Just get through this single stretch of hours. Surrender existed on all scales. It meant giving up on knowing how the pandemic would play out across the world. It meant giving up a definite timeline for when we’d come out of lockdown. It meant letting my daughter pull all the books off the bookshelf without trying to pick them up. One morning I sat cross-legged and tried to read passages from a book of Buddhist meditations — holding on to anything blocks wisdom, I dutifully repeated — while my daughter climbed onto my back, heaving oatmeal breath on my cheek, and pulled the book from my hands. She enacted its truth by ripping one of its pages.
Ten days into our total isolation, once our apartment had filled with bags of recycling, I Googled ‘‘toddler art + old trash.’’ We ended up drawing a road on the back of a cardboard diaper box. When she ripped up one of her picture books, we used the illustrations as decoration, and I copied a quote onto the cardboard from a poem Sylvia Plath had written for her newborn son, a poem I memorized at 24 during the months after my abortion: ‘‘Love, love, I have hung our cave with roses. . . . ’’ Old trash was the new cross-stitch. My daughter scribbled over the lines with marker, and they felt even truer obscured by her scribbles, spackled with her fish stickers.
Every morning I read the same passage in the Big Book, It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness, and thought of other people’s quarantines — people with partners, who curled up with a body each night, or people who’d fled the city, or people who’d fled the city with their partners — and tried to surrender that resentment too. I tried to neutralize it with gratitude. Not gratitude in the dutiful, box-checking, white-knuckled sense of acknowledging everything I had — my health, my daughter, my job — but in a more immediate sense: for the sunlight on my daughter’s overgrown curls, for the specific weight of her head on my shoulder; for my students reading from the pandemic diaries I’d asked them to keep, as we all gathered in our Zoom boxes to listen; for my high school friends on Zoom, how blunt and broken I could be in their company. I was grateful for the taste of peanut butter, the first time it returned — the first time any taste returned. The faint nutty sweetness was like a stranger standing at the end of a long corridor, barely visible but there — more than six feet away, but better than no one at all.
During the thickest, shivery days of my illness — when it was just me and my daughter and a photo-copy of my divorce settlement on a closet shelf, tucked beneath our stash of cloth masks — it was as if her tiny, restless body were living for both of us: tasting for us both, seeking pleasure for us both, radiating energy for us both. She conducted intense, inscrutable projects, using her tiny wok to carry my lucky hawk’s feather — found by the side of the road on a sunny day upstate, in another universe entirely — to her little wooden kitchen, where she stirred it with a little wooden knife. What was she doing? Her eyes gleamed with focus. She wanted to take care of everything. She tried to put a diaper on her wooden zebra. She tried to put a diaper on our Dustbuster. She tried to put a diaper on our tube of Clorox wipes and then tuck it under my comforter. ‘‘Night, night,’’ she said. On Day 8 of our isolation, she glanced toward the window and said plaintively, ‘‘Outside.’’ On Day 9, we spotted a toddler in a puffy orange coat lurching toward her father on a driveway across the street, and my daughter called out: ‘‘Orange baby!’’ Seeing another person felt like spotting a celebrity. When the toddler left, my daughter called out: ‘‘Orange baby come back!’’
When my aching muscles felt like knotted ropes draped across the inside of my body, and I felt incapable of doing much besides lying down, I was grateful for my daughter’s endless appetite for stories. Her desire to read 20 picture books in a row no longer seemed burdensome, as it did during the busy crush of normal life; now it seemed more like a way she was guiding us through the hours. The days were a swirl of body chills and fantasies: the story about the boy and bear traveling through a magical land of berries; the story about the mouse who recited poems to all the other mice spending winter huddled in an old stone wall; the story about the woman who gazed out the window from her sick bed and imagined planting lupines across the hills; the story about the dinosaur who wanted to be a ballerina. It started to seem as if every story were about quarantine. The mice in the old stone wall were in quarantine. The woman in her sickbed was in quarantine. The brontosaurus bumping her head while attempting a jeté was in her own quarantine — trapped in a space that was too confined, a world that was too small. The boy and the bear on the blackberry train were clearly also in quarantine; that’s why they were dreaming of this fantastical land full of strawberry ponies and raspberry fireworks.
At dusk each day, I played Leonard Cohen during bath-time, his scratchy voice crooning about a Manhattan that no longer existed, and might never exist again, where there’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening. My daughter’s tiny palms splashed against the soapy water as the streets below our window erupted into applause for the doctors and nurses at the hospital a few blocks away — and we clapped too, through the suds of her bath, though no one could hear us.
I tried to feed my daughter at least one new thing each day, as a way of telling the days apart. Boiled zucchini, sliced rings of pineapple, raspberries before they fuzzed with tiny white beards of mold. Pasta shaped like bow ties, pasta shaped like wagon wheels. Peanut butter straight from the jar. Sometimes I caught myself gazing at her with jealousy — she could still taste. I missed the taste of chocolate, the taste of apples, the taste of Cheddar cheese, even the taste of the instant coffee I drank when the good coffee ran out. Or certain smells, like the urine tang and compost stink of my daughter’s drooping diapers — I grew to miss even that.
Missing taste became a way of missing everything. I missed the air, missed having moments when I was doing something other than picking tiny wooden teacups off the floor, missed other people — even a single other person, even the bodies of strangers — missed my friend Anna, who lived five blocks away, now a thousand miles, who brought over groceries when I was sick: a bulb of fennel and a carton of mushrooms and pale balls of raw cookie dough, grub worms of knobby turmeric (what do I . . . ?). Late at night, after our kids were asleep, Anna and I would trade voice memos telling the stories of objects in our homes, because the objects in our homes were what we had. She told me about her stack of overdue library books, the orange earrings she’d given birth in. It wasn’t the same as feeling her arm draped over my shoulders, or watching our toddlers gazing up at us, side by side, waiting for us to feed them chunks of apple-cider doughnuts. But it was something that reached into my marrow, her voice traveling across the city blocks, filling up the darkness.
A few years into sobriety, I went to a potluck where no one ate or drank anything. Half of the people who came were alcoholic, or sober addicts, and the other half struggled with binge eating, so the idea was basically: What activity can we gather around that doesn’t involve putting something into our bodies? Everyone brought something to read, and we gathered over flickering candles and listened to one another as if our voices were food. A few days into the quarantine, when two friends organized a group of us to read poems aloud and send the audio files to one another, I thought of that boozeless, foodless potluck, how grace never arrives as we imagine it. I sat by a window overlooking empty streets, as my daughter tried to put a wooden cookie in my mouth, and listened to the disembodied voice of my friend reading William Meredith’s ‘‘Accidents of Birth’’: ‘‘to/meet in a room, alive in our skins,/and the whole galaxy gaping there.’’
What to do with the strange incandescence of those two weeks of total isolation with my daughter — her sweet voice naming all the animals in her bath book as the clapping from the streets rose around us like a hymn? What to do with the eerie, spellbinding video my friend sent of herself dancing in the middle of a deserted street to a speaker blaring ‘‘We Are the World’’ from a shuttered jewelry store? These strange beauties did nothing to supply the ventilators our city lacked, to mitigate the oncoming apex of deaths, to stave off the bankruptcies or the oncoming recession. They were not a vaccine, or an antibody test, or even a useless floating hospital docked in the Hudson River. They did not cure the virus, or redeem the suffering it caused. The sirens kept blaring as I gave my daughter her baths.
It’s easy to subscribe to a fantasy of diminishment as revelation — the notion that wisdom is the inevitable yield of hardship. But sometimes loss just feels like loss, and absence is just absence: the solipsism of pain; the ache of losing touch; the empty streets and bankruptcies, the missing ventilators, the bodies stored in the temporary morgues of moving vans. The trick is how to hold both truths at once — absence-as-presence and absence-as-absence — rather than letting one obscure the other; how to let fragile, unexpected, imperfect consolations exist alongside everything they can’t console.
Holding both at once lets us honor the pleasures and odd discoveries of quarantine without blinding ourselves to everything beyond it. It’s a way of seeing that does not back away from what is happening by pretending people are not dying, and that does not back away from what is happening by pretending people are not loving and being loved alongside this death. Because we are also eating brownies. We are stupefied by the tenderness of a child tucking a tube of Clorox wipes under the covers. We are brought to tears by the sight of a nurse walking home from work in hospital scrubs. Suffering and grace live side by side, as they always have — in the same homes, or else separated by those walls we keep between our bodies now, in service of a solidarity we trust but cannot touch. Grace locks eyes with pain from the other side of the sidewalk, six feet away, and they both keep walking.
Leslie Jamison is the author, most recently, of “Make It Scream, Make It Burn.” She last wrote for the magazine about the relationship between creativity and addiction. Brian Rea is an artist in Los Angeles. His book “Death Wins a Goldfish” was published last year.