love is whatever slows us down in the crisis
Last year it snowed all winter. It snowed big and dramatic, snow like in the movies. It felt the way it did when I first moved to the city, when my classes got cancelled and I walked around with no gloves on because I didn’t own any, marveling at how the landscape changed overnight. It snowed like that again, like it was trying to make up for something, to offer something in the place of everything that was no longer available.
One night, when a big storm had just started, Thomas took a photo of a bus stop near our house. The street and the bus shelter were piled with snow so high that the curb was no longer distinguishable from the road. Stuck in the middle of it like a buoy in the ocean was a tall rectangular screen, which normally shows the bus schedule. Instead, on that snowy night, fixed letters in bright computer-blue simply read “NOTHING STOPS.” Thomas took a photo and sent it to me, and I posted it to instagram without even asking him if I could. It was so heavy-handed and so stupid, hitting the nail on the head so hard that it rang like a bell. Nothing stops.
If there’s anything we’ve learned in the last two years of living through history, it’s this: Nothing stops. I got old while Covid became familiar, but we all did. The third week of March, spring took over New York, yellow crocuses pushing out of the frozen ground, determined faces and braced flabby arms, with no one to see them. I stood in the kitchen, listening to one song again and again. I taught myself to make the dumplings I couldn’t buy, washed my hands until the skin cracked and bled, and assumed the end was coming. Across screens with friends and with family, we talked about what it would be like when this was over, when it was a distant memory. How will kids learn about this in textbooks, we asked one another, thinking of how a chapter cleanly begins and ends. I was on twitter too much. I read people’s stories about getting sick, and their predictions about how future generations would understand this moment in history. Everyone wanted to tell you how they would talk about this when it was over. It was a way to admit that you wanted it to be over, and that you believed it would be soon.
It’s two years now, this month, the end of next month. People are talking about their last normal day again. I want anniversaries to matter, but mostly all they seem to say is that everything just keeps going. I want each year to mean something that the last year did not. I want there to be an end to this; I want there to be a next thing. But there already has been. Each day there’s a next thing. The next thing is the fact that it continues. What happened next is that we are still in it, that the same thing goes on past one year and then past the next one, everything changes and nothing ends. What happens next is that nothing stops.
When I moved to New York, the Strokes were playing shows at Bowery Ballroom and in some places downtown there were still empty lots and piles of trash in the street corners. At night we all went to Don Hill’s and crashed our stupid hearts into one another while hoping we might see Karen O in line for the bathroom. The 9 train rain from the 116th stop where I pretended I knew how to take the subway, and I got lost whenever I tried to go anywhere by myself, because phones didn’t yet have maps in them. Avenue A was all cheap tattoo parlors and vegan restaurants for hippies and the dankest, grimiest diners you had ever seen. On greasy Sunday mornings, my best friend and I would go sit and talk about sex and love in a booth in the window while roaches scurried over our shoes. Nobody had hurt anybody yet; the people I loved were a straight line into the future.
I didn’t think I was living in the old New York, or in some cool version of the city; I thought that I had missed it, the way maybe everyone does when they move here. But I paid for drinks in cash at nameless bars below Union Square, ducked into thrift shops with windows that seemed to not have been cleaned in decades, and bought water bottles at the gas station on Houston that looked just like every other gas station in America. So much of the sky was still empty that I never noticed it at all. All night something good was always open, and somebody always had a cigarette, and weed was smelly and unfashionable, and you could still run into Lou Reed on a Sunday afternoon in the East Village, skinny and wearing sunglasses and looking just as hungover as you were. There were a million places to buy cheap late-night food, and only a few where you could buy a computer. There were parties sometimes in big unmarked cement rooms down in Tribeca, far from the subway; empty blocks in Manhattan yawned with space that nobody seemed to know what to do with yet. Everybody dressed up in glitter and leather and vaseline and nothing and hoped maybe no one would notice that any of this was here, and they didn’t, until they did.
I thought the place was sanitized and overpriced; I thought I was living in a pale echo of something else. I wasn’t wrong. It was, and I was, but I was also living in a moment that was already burning up on contact with the atmosphere. I never cared particularly when one or another place closed— a bar, a restaurant, a store — but it was in the accumulation that I began to notice change, that I had to realize that this was no longer the city in which I had arrived, and that my early signposts were gone.
This process, this way in which nothing stops, is not specific to New York. It is not specific to cities, to good diners that become faceless salad chains, to wild-night bars that become bank branches. Maybe it happens faster here, but it happens everywhere and to everyone. It is not specific to places at all, or even to being young and then getting older. This is the process of history, and of crisis, of disease and of love. We may try sometimes to stand still, but we are standing on a moving walkway.
Nothing stops. People say “the pandemic” in the past tense and I judge them for it; then I do the same thing. I catch myself, and insert the oily little parenthetical about how the pandemic isn’t over. I didn’t mean to use the past tense, I explain, I meant to use the present tense. I know everything is still in the present tense, and I know everything is already moving into the past. We are still in the pandemic; we are likely to still be in it for a space of time that does not have a horizon. But everything about this moment now is different from the one two years ago, or a year ago, a month ago, a few week ago. Nothing ends and nothing lasts either.
At some point in all of this, Vicki and I stopped writing emails. We had started writing them in 2011, arguably the worst year of my life. 2011 was horrible. I was horrible. But I wrote Vicki long emails about it and she wrote emails back and in the emails even the worst things were beautiful. The record mattered more than what it recorded. All through the next ten years we kept writing them. We loved people and they failed us or we failed them; we wanted things and we got them or we didn’t. We were unhappy and didn’t know how to change it, or we were happy and didn’t know what to do with it. We went to parties together and then we went home to our separate rooms in our separate apartments and described the party to each other in emails; the party did not happen until we narrated it back to one another. We got older, I got married, other people we knew got married. People got divorced, bought houses, had babies, got happy, died or moved away. One thing mattered, and then something else did. Sometimes we got sick, and then we got better, or sort of, or mostly, in the way bodies do and don’t recover. We emailed each other about it, the big and the small the same size in gmail paragraphs.
Two years ago, almost exactly, Vicki mentioned Covid in an email and I brushed it off and she didn’t. Hearing her take it seriously was the first time I thought to take it seriously myself. Two weeks later, we were all inside with the doors closed, with no one watching the yellow crocuses bloom. I emailed her and she emailed me back, and then sometime in the next six months, the emails stopped. Maybe there was nothing to say. Maybe something had changed, or maybe nothing had. Maybe the things that had changed could not be twisted in the shape of a party or a poem. Maybe it was just that there were no more parties from which to come home and write emails about what had happened at the party. I had thought the emails would always be a fixture in my life; I had never considered one day we might simply not send them anymore. But I had never considered that there would not be a 9 train, or that that one diner on 77th would close. In all our emails at the beginning of this, we talked about the end of it when there would be parties again. There are parties again, now, but we have stopped talking about them, just like we have stopped talking about the end of this as though there will be one.
A couple weeks ago, people got mad at an article about how a “vibe shift” is coming. Some people complained about the specifics of whatever new vibe was proclaimed — I, too, am no fan of returning to the aesthetics of the early 00s — but mostly people complained, I think, about the idea of a shift at all. I don’t like it when things change, either. I don’t like when I notice that time is passing. I hate how everyone online has to grandly talk about how old and decrepit they are if they are over the age of twenty-three. I hate how there is no longer any concept of the prime of one’s life, just being a child or being as old as dust and dry bones. But I also understand that making stupid and counter-factual statements about being a million years old because you are thirty-four is maybe a way to acknowledge that the passing of time feels at every moment brutal, that nothing ever stops.
There is always a vibe shift coming; there is always the next thing before we’re ready for the next thing, before we had even figured out how to get used to the last one. There is no breathing space between one day and the next, between one year and the next. What we loved is always already over, and we always got here just too late. The bus is pulling away from the curb without you, carrying on into the grim unknown. Some days my own face feels like a used-up piece of technology, one more example of planned obsolescence, young people laughing at me, wow really, you’re still using that?
All anybody wants is for it to stop, just for a day, just for a minute. Everyone hating the idea of a vibe shift was funny, and petty, and stupid, but it also pointed toward that soft longing for things to stay still for just one second. What I want most to give everyone I love is a pause, a break, a single day when nothing happens.
My eighty-one year old neighbor calls Thomas and then calls me. When we text her to ask if everything is ok she texts back “no,” and as I am walking out of the gym into the early morning city I think just one day can’t I just have one day. I’m awake, and I’m out of the house, and it’s fake spring and the weather is beautiful and nothing has happened yet and then there’s this phone call and now I am waiting for her to answer thinking just one day, why not just one fucking day where nothing happens. My heart stops and starts over like a runner at a gunshot. I walk outside, I call back, I wait for the news. Just one day. Just one day where nothing happens. Just one hour where everything stops.
On Instagram, someone posts a picture of people sheltering in a metro in Kyiv. Pairs and groups press together, bundled in their winter clothes. People sit on stairs, lean across one another, huddle into their phones. A kid in a corner holds a pet carrier with one hand and kneels down to its level, looking intently at whatever is inside. All people want is for nothing to happen; all anybody wants is another day of our soft, stupid little lives, to be allowed the vulnerabilities we have built into them. We clutter up our houses with useless objects that mean something to us; we adopt pets who would slow us down in a crisis. All this is a way of ignoring the truth that nothing stops, which is to say it is a form of love.
Love is an opposition to the sign standing up in the snow, proclaiming its blue-white letters in the washed-out night. Love’s arguments are bad and its weapons are faulty. It is always trying to claim that the temporary is permanent. I cannot make anyone any promises, not really. I cannot be certain that I will always be able to protect someone, or provide for them. The ongoing of the world, each next phone call, each next headline, each next atrocity, makes it fundamentally impossible to know that I could keep my word if I gave it. But I give it anyway. I make myself more vulnerable. I weigh myself down so that it is harder and harder to run. Love means I have to make contingency plans. It means I have to worry about what I leave behind. I have allowed something to matter. I have allowed something to depend on me, and I have allowed myself to depend on someone.
People say “forever” to one another because forever is a love word. People say “always” because always is built into the old roads that romance learns, but both words are a lie on their face, and that’s why we like them. Everything washes away; we all know this. We are making a declaration that it is worth it to choose the losing side. I would rather not pick up my phone; I would rather not worry about whether I fed the cats, or if they’re sick, or what I would do if they were, or how to bring them with me if I had to leave. I would rather not have do the more difficult math of considering anyone other than myself, in a world where nothing stops, where there is always something else each next day. But I choose all that anyway; I would rather try and fail to stand still with you than to be fast and sleek without you.
We hope for the soft rooms, the unlit phone, the day without event. We hope we could care for each other when the worst comes. But there’s no way to know that. What we commit to with another person is not repetition but surprise, the phone call, the crisis, the next bad mood, the way we manage it and the way we don’t, who we will be tomorrow, and who we will become in the next version of the world. There is no way to ever plan for the future, and yet love says let’s settle down here in this room and do exactly that. Loving one another is always the process of deluding ourselves into believing in a better world. But what greater project is there, in an unbearable time, in a perpetual future, where nothing stops?
hi, friends. I realize it’s been a little while since the last post. I’m fine and griefbacon is still alive and well, we all just need a break sometimes. I’m figuring out the best cadence for this newsletter that allows me to sustain it as a long-term project. more updates about that very soon, but the basic gist is that posts may be irregular but will usually be between once and twice a week, and there might very occasionally be breaks like this one. I’ve been writing this newsletter for a very long time with some degree of regularity (of which you can see copious proof in the archives if you’d like to check them out, they’re also fun reading) and will continue to do so, but I’m also still trying to figure out how I can balance that with the other work I want to do (I spent the last three weeks writing something I hope all of you will be able to read one day). anyway, thank you for still being here. more, including more subscriber-only content and discussion threads, very soon. xo
Loved this. I agree on the people who refer to "the pandemic" in the past tense, but I also have been thinking about it a lot and have basically concluded that it's not necessarily careless lack of awareness that it is very much *still* a pandemic but that they are referring to that specific first 3-4 months when we privileged New Yorkers didn't go further than the corner of our block and were the most locked down. At least that's what *I* mean when I catch myself referring to it in the past tense and what most of my friends have acknowledged as what they mean.
(That second sentence is like 6 lines long and probably horribly grammatically correct but I have lost the will to write in short, clear sentences.)
Well said, Helena. I am ready to read whenever you are ready to write.