Discover more from Griefbacon
part two: love stories
bodies in the future tense
Several months ago, I started writing a version of this essay. It got extremely long and thorny, several life events occurred and tried to be part of the essay, it got even longer, I kind of lost control of the whole thing, and here we are. I love a maximalist personal narrative, but the draft I have now is certainly too long for a single newsletter, and trying to edit it down and clarify the ideas in it began in the last few weeks to feel a little bit like Penelope staying up late weaving that shroud.
So I’m bringing back something I tried out last summer. I’ll be sending this essay in installments at least once a week for the next month (paid subscribers will get extra installments or maybe you’ll get some writing about unrelated stuff). Hopefully, in a month or so, I’ll send a final version that pulls all the pieces together into some edited and polished coherence. Or maybe I’ll just send you a 10,000 word essay at the end of next month (I probably won’t do that, don’t worry).
This is part two of something about sickness and love stories. Here’s part one if you want to start there, although this part doesn’t in any way require you to have read that part first, and the idea is that each of these should stand on their own. and here’s a link to subscribe, if you haven’t done so yet, and want to make sure you get to read everything from this newsletter, or just want to support this long weird ongoing project.
The internet used to be about love stories. That was the first thing I ever liked about it. If I’m very honest, it’s what still draws me back, even after everything that’s changed, even after I know better.
I am old enough that I still imagine the internet as something that lives inside of a computer, and that computer is crowded with strangers — even the people I know are rendered strangers by the computer— on whom I get to eavesdrop. Inside of the computer is Jimmy Stewart’s backyard in Rear Window, offering sordid little glimpses of everybody else’s private lives. I can still remember a version of this place into which many of us poured out secrets, because nothing in here was real, and if you died in the game, it wouldn’t hurt you in real life at all.
Even as social media modernized, monetized, and pushed forward into the 2010s, vestiges of this anonymized, permissive quality still clung to its edges. Less than a decade ago, everybody would still post their love stories in real time. Online, I could watch new relationships blossom and old ones fall apart. I could follow along with crushes and grudges and hook-ups and longings as they resolved and fractured. Strangers narrated their hearts to strangers. There was no reason in the world to make these stories public, to profitlessly make tabloids of ourselves, but here we were, babbling into the void about love. Private emotion offered itself into the public again and again. Confession was the currency of living online. Love was abundant and low value, and this website was free.
By the time Covid first showed up in New York City in March of 2020, public online romance was out of fashion. Social media had largely closed down into smooth defensive surfaces, and real-time love stories were cringe. We were smarter, and the internet was not as kind as it had once seemed. This was not where you went to escape from the real world, nor was it the quiet corner at the party where you could pull somebody over to whisper a secret to them. This was the world; this was the party. The internet was no longer an elsewhere, if it ever really had been. Putting your heart wetly online felt gauche and incautious.
But for a little while in 2020, the sudden arrival of an unknown virus brought back a way of being online that felt retro in its sentimentality. People started getting sick, and some version of that old, sappy style of posting reappeared. Here were small stories, with no organized meaning, told over and over again by the people living them, full of unvarnished personal details with no distancing commentary. In the first wave of the virus here, with few tools and less information, people who got sick, and people whose loved ones got sick, shared their individual experiences in the immediate. Perhaps we hoped that these anecdotes might provide a roadmap in the absence of any other available ones; I know that for months this was how I knew what was happening and what I could do about it. There were official government and journalistic reports on the virus, but most of the information that I or anyone else got about safety, fear, transmission, warnings, and likelihoods came through first-person narrative threads on twitter, posted by people who had had the virus or knew someone who had.
These stories were about getting sick, not falling in love, and were devastating rather than titillating. There was none of the low-stakes frivolity of eavesdropping on other people’s crushes, hookups, and romances. Love is always fun from the outside even when it’s horrible on the inside, but none of this was fun. The first-person Covid confessions that filled up social media in those days— worries, symptoms, precautions, isolation, hospitals, doctors, families, recovery or the fear that recovery would never arrive—were harrowing and sad. But the stories were immediate, and tender, and small, too personal for the spaces in they were displayed. In this way, they were like the love stories that had crowded an earlier and more naive version of the internet.
The early Covid posts also resembled early internet love stories because the two shared so many themes. Sickness returned again and again to family, friendship, and romance, to making decisions, sharing space, and finding out what weight the people we love can hold, and who they become in a crisis, the consequences of our bodies’ collisions with other bodies and what results when we try to draw those collisions out into the shape of a life. People didn’t mean to talk about this stuff, but when they talked about getting sick, they almost always ended up including some of this, too, love and bodies and communities, bedrooms and bedsheets and loneliness. Whenever I went online to try to get a better idea of what symptoms I should watch for or whether I should bleach my groceries, I ended up reading somebody’s love story.
People talked about bodies and about closeness and isolation, about promises and bargains, about who shows up to take care of whom, and who doesn’t, what we expect and what actually happens. I read about motherhood and fatherhood, and how to care for children in a time of crisis. I read about rooms and doors, about sweat and sleep, about lungs and fevers and smell and taste. I read about way that accepting the things we cannot change ceases to be workable advice when those things are ravages to the bodies of the people we love. People held up their fragile membranes to the light, saying look how this stays together, look how it fell apart. People did their best to translate their experiences into systems and rituals. People told love stories.
There is the love story that takes place on Instagram, and the love story that takes place in a hospital. And then there is the one that takes place on a couch in a room, where day after day my husband and I tried to come up with plans based on what little information we had. How sick did we think we would get, would we isolate from each other and how could we even do that in this tiny apartment? What help would we need, how would we know if it was an emergency? The stories we told in the future tense—here’s what we will do, here’s how we will try to protect ourselves—were also love stories, first-person speculative narratives about each other’s bodies.
For two years, we had sat up in the top-floor front unit of our apartment building with the sunlight coming in heavy across the spring mornings and the winters dragging down early and grim across the afternoons, waiting out the beginning of a decade that had stopped almost as soon as it had begun, and told each other love stories. Here is what I am afraid of, here is what we will do. Here is what I expect, here is what I can offer. In the soft, itchy space of our five-hundred square foot apartment, we watched the sky change across the day and tracked the light on the water towers and the movement of neighbors in their apartments. We vacuumed the rug, we cleaned crumbs off the floor and dust off the radiators. We made pasta and cakes and salads and frozen dumplings and grilled cheese sandwiches and tacos and roast chickens. We opened the windows to spring and sealed them against January. We put up Christmas lights and took them down again, changed the sheets on the bed, did the dishes, sorted the laundry into bags, wrung out the hand wash in the sink and hung it to dry in the windows. Under all of this, for months that become years, the same baseline played: What will we do when it happens?
thanks for reading. this is the second installment of a sort of serialized essay thing on sickness and love stories and how the two intersect and intertwine. if you want to read all the upcoming parts of the series (or if you want access to the full archive of this newsletter, including the most recent subscriber-only posts, or if you enjoyed this and want to support the project), you can become a paying subscriber here. subscriptions come with lots of fun extras, including weekly conversation pits, as well as extra, weirder essays just for paid subscribers. anyway, see you back here next week, and thanks for reading. xo