Followed by a magician for fifteen feet. He holds a small, plastic “v” in his hands, which he rotates in his hands—I don’t understand even the suggestion of the trick. What’s his angle? Think we’re going to be Just For Laughs–gagged. There’s a camera set up on a tripod by the barrier. He’s not wearing a mask. We keep walking but he won’t leave us alone. What kind of reaction is he hoping to get from two people wearing masks?
The streets are packed. There’s a long line to get into the haunted house—one of several. Above this one a Frankenstein smiles as he considers eating a Whopper. I’m a sucker for all of these false facades—the Rainforest Cafe, the casino’s castle, the Wizard Mini-Putt—but I’m not really sure what it means to be so swayed by them. What the consequences are—I am only momentarily awed. I spend no money.
I tell a friend it feels fucking surreal. Another comes over the next night and I expect there to be a gap in the conversation long enough to describe the feeling, but it never comes. The pandemic and its long silences has made us talk over each other. On ever more urgent topics. It’s hard to imagine exiling myself again—but then I think of the anxiety, think of why I went out there in the first place. Who I brought there. What I was hoping to build and what I failed to. What held me there and why I couldn’t seem to leave. It’s all so confusing. Why couldn’t I be who I wanted to be? Why did I retreat so far into—wherever we went.
The I Ching keeps mentioning “inferior” influences and I think it must mean in myself. Everything inferior. But I wonder what else it could be.
On the Hornblower we stand with our backs to the churning water, away from the unbearable waves. Soaked everywhere but through the pink garbage bags they ask us to put on before boarding. The decks of American Maid of the Mist VII are packed—it’s just like the meme, a wall-to-wall upper deck in blue ponchos waving at us across the river. “COVID-19 is real!” I yell, immediately ashamed of myself. I don’t know if anyone heard me, certainly not the Americans waving at us cheerfully from the other side. Long before then there was a couple in front of us in line, one wearing an Arizona Cardinals sweater, and I wondered aloud if they were really Canadian. “Really?” I say, “The Arizona Cardinals?” Just as in Atwood’s Surfacing, I see Americans everywhere. But I’m my own American, in more ways than one. I like all of the photos as we take them, but at home I hate every one in which I appear.
Reviewing my Amazon “Saved for Later” section reveals growing anxieties which seem ironic now in this time of genuine disruption. These include “bug out” boxes for “disaster survivors” (added in the wake of the Pickering Nuclear Emergency Warning); two “tactical” pens—pens which double as weapons, knives, compasses, something I would never purchase even at the more reasonable price of $16 (compared to the better reviewed pen, also saved for later, at $90) because of the existential line that would be crossed, but instead betray a fascination with the inventive anxiety which drives the desire for hidden weapons always at hand; water purification straws, dry milk powder, a scythe blade (currently unavailable), as well as the books of poetry and theory that regularly gather in my checkout cart only to be placed, with hesitation but no small amount of relief, back on their digital shelves.
More recent items reveal the actual concerns (so far) of what has been anxious and challenging but, so far, weirdly tame, isolation. A silicon donut mold (three-pack) steadily rising in price to meet the market demand of millions of households spending all day in front of the oven. A micro-SD card for the video game system that I think I have already given both enough money and time. Cabinet locks to keep my suddenly stir-crazy cats out of the cupboard (but why are they so expensive?). A converter to allow HDMI to plug into an old A/V television (definitely a luxury).
My anxieties, which were all about flight, collapse, disaster, haven’t exactly been assauged. It feels just as likely, to me, that the world will end inventively in some kind of climate-related catastrophe, and not one that is particularly far away. Perhaps a little less likely only because of the current pause of (non-essential) industry, and a perhaps-growing awareness of human vulnerability and social possibility. But something else has been revealed, that I do feel less anxious about. I spent a lot of time thinking about fleeing the city because, in all likelihood, I would have had to—not due to an unforseen, sudden disaster, but to the slower disaster of capitalism and commodity trading which has turned housing in Toronto into a luxury item. Fleeing the city both in the wake of violence and also to anywhere that would have me—where I could imagine putting down roots, building a life that otherwise seemed perpetually precarious. And in that sense I feel relief, hope for falling prices, crashed markets, Airbnb speculators losing their shirts and flooding the market with cheap rentals, condos, properties. It’s one of a number of things that I hope COVID-19—the uncertainty but also the possibility riding on its heels—turns around.
We are practicing social distancing—keeping to ourselves in a house seventy kilometres from the city. In the morning we take the dog across the field and into the forest, where there is still snow and ice which softens during the day and freezes up again at night. Then we enter our days, working respectively in the living room and dining room; the two rooms are really the same large room, divided only by a short barrier about four feet tall. We drink coffee together in the morning—she takes cream and I, milk. Often we will eat the same breakfast, but not always. Today, for instance, I ate a packet of Quaker Instant Oatmeal diluted with regular quick oats and she did not eat until the early afternoon, a single egg on an English muffin. Typically we will eat lunch and dinner together, although because today her first meal would more properly be described as lunch I ate my lunch separately, even though in the end I ate the same thing. Our last English muffin, the last of the bread that we brought up here from the city.
I think because the situation—locally and globally—is so uncertain, I have been finding it difficult to concentrate. This began long before the pandemic, and the social isolation, had been called, as I followed the course of the disease as it made its way through China, South Korea, to Italy, here. For weeks, anticipating this decampment, for weeks, wondering about the state of the world. I returned from a trip to Boston only two weeks ago, where I passed through two international airports and washed my hands constantly. Before leaving I regretted not pulling out of the conference—but it was too late to do so. A few days after returning I developed chest pains. A muscle soreness that I imagined might have been the coronavirus operating on me relatively asymptomatically—but now I think it was just anxiety, since after arriving here it largely disappeared. It is a relief to not have to worry about my neighbours (have I infected them? will they infect me?) or the people I pass on the street.
We are lucky to be able to escape in this way—I am aware of the privilege that makes this possible. I feel embarrassed, ashamed, that this is available to me. It is not available to everyone. I have spent the past decade distancing myself from the privilege that is not really mine and never was. Except in situations like this. I worry that it has done something to me, returning here and leaving the city behind. I worry that I will again inhabit a kind of selfishness, that I will become colder and more closed off. In other words I worry about a form of quarantine that is far from physical. Even as we perch together on what feels like the edge of the world.