I am at my first indoor social event since March 2020. My date/quarantine buddy goes to the toilets. I stand next to the bleachers in this space in Westfield Center that’s done up like a pretend gym hosting a pretend prom, watching people dance and figuring out how I feel being by myself in a place that isn’t my apartment. I decide I’m content, alone among strangers.
A woman in a pink wig turns to me. “I have too many jello shots,” she tells me, raising her voice over Boy George. “Would you like one?” It’s not that I’ve spoken to zero strangers in the last year-plus, but it’s been rare, and I was never exceptionally good at this even when things were ok. I say yes to the jello shot. “It’s really stuck in there,” she tells me. “You need to loosen it up with your tongue or a finger.”
This is a lot of information for me. I run a finger around the edge of the jello shot, trying and failing to remember what that finger might have touched in the previous 30-odd minutes, and then tip the entire thing into my mouth. While I chew it, my brain starts to try to figure everything out. Is this the start of a conversation? Are we talking? What is the expectation? What do I actually want?
My body decides my exit, because I am now holding an object that needs to be disposed of. I’ve spent so long in my apartment, where there are no surprise objects of uncertainty, so obviously the best thing is to go throw it away right now. I cross the space to the recycling bins, deposit the plastic cup and its lid, and stop. Holy shit, the compulsion I had to deal with this stray object. It feels like an irresistible force, so much that it overrode the “what do I even do here” social anxiety. I come back to myself by the trash cans, empty-handed, wondering exactly how abrupt I was without meaning to be.
I walk down Telegraph in Temescal here in Oakland, heading to BART. I am not wearing a mask, which is safe but still feels so novel. A man walks toward me. He’s ten-odd years older than I am and has that casual feeling of belonging about him that always makes me think people were born here. He gives me a nod and a small smile. I nod back at him – I like the nod – and to my surprise, I break out into a really big smile. It surprises him too, and he grins back.
It’s been so long since all of my face was visible in public on the regular. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to give that small, easy, “Hey, hope your day’s good” kind of expression at people I don’t know. I’m visibly female in public, so smiling, particularly at men I don’t know, isn’t a simple order of operations. But this felt good, like a ray of sun emerging through clouds. I think we made each other’s day better, and I like that so much.
The same afternoon, I wait for BART at MacArthur. I left a little early to walk to the station that’s a bit further from me so I can get to the Richmond train without a transfer, and there’s a train delay, so I have almost 20 minutes to wait. I write in my journal and enjoy the breeze from the highway. Warm; silty; nice only because I like cities and density.
A man sits next to me, another one of us in a row, all of us at least four feet apart. He waves at me, and I reluctantly take off my headphones. “I like your toenail color,” he says. He’s right to: it’s really good, a glittery magenta I bought from an Instagram ad. “Thanks so much,” I reply. He’s managed to comment on something fairly intimate without making it weird. Not all men (hashtag) have this skill. I leave my headphones off one ear for a minute to see if this is going anywhere, hoping it doesn’t. He gets up for his train a couple minutes later, and it’s clear that will be that.
It’s very strange being visible in public again. Everything was a private matter for so long, in the way of wealthy Georgian ladies and the gowns worn only in the house. Now there are public clothes again, and I’m not sure how to manage that yet. This is a reminder: I do reflect light, I am composed of solid matter, I do leave the house, and I will have to budget energy to deal with interactions I can’t predict.
The train arrives and overshoots the platform by an entire car. We all look at each other, quizzical eyebrows over striped masks, Raiders masks, solid-colored masks, surgical masks, wondering what tf is going on, what’s with this conductor, is the train going to back up or nah? It’s a moment of togetherness after so much being apart, united by irritation and disapproval. It feels like home.
Another day, I’m taking BART toward downtown to meet a friend for patio dinner. I get into the first car and see that no one else is there. Private transportation. I take a couple dorky selfies to commemorate it. When we stop at the next station, the conductor comes out from behind his door to wake someone up. I wasn’t alone after all; a woman was slouched across one of the bench seats, and he’s come out to tell her this is her stop. She groggily collects her stuff and walks off the train.
We pause to do a transfer, long enough that she walks onto the other train, stays there for a minute, walks back out and across the platform to my train to get something she left, and then emerges onto the platform again only to watch the train on the other side pull out.
I’d forgotten these little moments of triumph and despair. The bus you didn’t catch, the train leaving in front of you, the joys and sorrows of parking, lines for restaurants. We used to see each other so much more.
I get my hair cut for the first time in seventeen months. I have curly hair and am not extremely particular, so this could’ve been a great era for punky, choppy bobs and the like, the best of home haircuts and nothing to lose, but I opted for the inverse of something a messageboard I once belonged to would say whenever anyone was going through a hard breakup: notice your hair. Your hair is growing, and you are healing. You don’t notice it daily, but one day your bangs will be in your eyes, or some layer will be where it’s not supposed to be. And that day, remind yourself: time is passing, and you’re healing.
I used my quarantine hair as a reminder that I was justified in feeling so awful. It brushed my shoulders at the start of things; it nearly reached the bottom of my shoulder blades by the end (or “end,” let’s be real here). Why does it feel like my brain’s on fire? Why do I feel like some desperate captive thing? Ah right, my hair is six inches longer than the last time I really felt good. Of course. I used the length to remember exactly what was going on; I used my gradually expanding undercut to reclaim a little bit of control.
It’s really good to see my stylist (Brittany at Pirate Salon, highly recommended). She’s smart and kind and funny, and she interprets my vague directions (“less? more curly? to roughly this length? I don’t know?”) into real things that grow out really well. We frantically catch up on almost a year and a half of living: where’d you go, how’d you do, how are your primary relationships, what are your resolutions now that we know a somewhat different way of being?
What is it to condense more than a year of lovely quarterly interactions into an hour? We did it, and it was good. It’s intense. And welcome. And feels like healing. We stand before each other when we’re done, both reading for hug-friendly cues. “I don’t mind if you don’t–” I start. “It’s fine if–” she says. And we hug, and it’s just fucking fabulous.
After, since I’m already in the Mission, I decide to treat myself to fancy lady food. There aren’t any free tables at Tartine Manufactory, so instead I get it to go and wander to a nearby park. I try for one gate at first; it’s locked, and as I double back to try the other side, I pass the man who had been yelling into his cell phone as I approached. He’s in his 60s and gives a vibe of having been here for a while, which I love. As we pass each other, he says, still irritated at the world, “Yeah, I wouldn’t go that way either.” He proceeds to go the way I came from.
As I settle in on my bench, figuring out how exactly one eats soup and bread with butter on a bench during a moderate breeze, he comes in with a couple similarly aged friends, and they shoot the shit in the gazebo behind me. My favorite is when one of them says that he’s having neighbor problems with someone upstairs. “The other meth heads I know are all mellow, but not this guy,” he says. Another older guy with a beer in a paper bag sits one bench down from me. I’m drinking root beer from a brown bottle and hope I don’t attract attention that could be inconvenient for him.
It all feels very exposed, me with my fancy bread, drinking cold corn soup from a plastic container, wrangling an elaborate banana tart topped with chocolate shavings, entranced by people around me yet hoping I don’t have any surprise conversations because I’m just not ready for that. I prefer not to be weird at strangers. A lot of them don’t deserve it.
I go to Death Guild. I had never gone before; it’s easy to mean to go to something for years but never make it because it happens on a Monday, because it’s in the city, because I’m tired, because because because. This quarantine has given me so many months to marinate in all these rationalizations that can take over your life if you let them. You can rationalize yourself straight to your fucking grave leaving all these things undone. I don’t believe in silver linings, but I am choosing to make use of the perspective that came from more than a year of one big because that eliminated all possibilities. I vowed to go to a goth night almost as soon as I could. I waited a couple of weeks just to see how the world would work once we did things again, but shortly after that? OUT.
Everyone is startlingly beautiful. I sort of remember how to talk to bartenders and not be a nuisance. I work to remember how to watch people without staring. There are incredibly involved ensembles, corsets and long coats and headpieces, often worn by people I immediately name queen/lord of the underworld or other honorary titles, but there are also people in denim jackets and fairly ordinary clothes. There are people who have clearly been pining for this in a way I understand across the last year and are emerging with LOOKS, and they are FANTASTIC. And also people trying something new and behaving themselves.
I dance until my left knee hurts. I dance on top of a go-go platform. I dance on stage. I dance upstairs and downstairs. I remember how bodies can work. I’m grateful for my lighter hair, this thing that actually moves again rather than being a thick, long fall tethering me to this timeline.
A couple times, while moving between rooms or sipping a beer and watching people (people!), I think that rare thought: I am happy in a thorough and uncomplicated way right now. This is what that feels like. That thing I don’t feel very often, where my brain is neither in the past nor the future, but only holding tight to the present, and the present is excellent. I spent many nights in quarantine dancing in my living room, including to the online version of Death Guild, my lights off and my galaxy projector going, dodging cats as I tried to inhabit my whole body and not just the part that participates in a Zoom call. It was good and important, and it got me by sometimes.
This is better – as good as I hoped it would be, in fact. How often do we get to long for something and then get precisely what we hoped for?
I dance until the last song is done and then emerge onto the street, grateful for the night air on my sweaty neck. We get a car home, pulling up in front of my apartment building after three. I think “this is what it’s like to be young,” but really, I wasn’t often young in quite this way. I think I’m going to be older in this way instead. Next time, I could stay out for two fewer hours, have two fewer drinks, and generally not borrow happiness and energy from tomorrow in order to have a good night. But for a first outing after all this confinement?
The next day, I sip water, find a couple mystery bruises, and have zero regrets.
I am at the optometrist, another medical or medical-adjacent thing where half my face is covered. The tech adds a piece of tape to the nosepiece of my mask so I don’t fog up the peripheral vision test machine. The optometrist looks at my retinal scans and finds my old friend: the little grey dot of histoplasmosis that exists in my right eye, a forever souvenir of growing up in the midwest. If it were in the lung (as happened to a friend of mine), it’d be Ohio Valley Disease. Instead, it lives next to my optic nerve, and it’s called presumed ocular histoplasmosis.
“We call it presumed now,” Dr. Kim says, “because we can’t really diagnose it conclusively.”
“Without an autopsy,” I say.
I kinda love talking to optometrists.
“There’s a local version called Valley Fever,” he says as he scrolls around the newest portraits of the inside of my eyes, looking for other shadows and spots. “It’s caused by coccidioides, though, but it can cause a similar thing in the eye. It’s normal if you train in California, but if you do a rotation in another part of the country and get a chance to recognize it, you look like a genius because people from other places don’t know about it.”
I think about my childhood training in hypervigilance and the finer points of reading other people’s passive aggression and the strange, unwanted skillset it gives me in my work as a software engineer, but that’s too much to explain through a mask to someone I’ve just met.
After, I walk around the glasses showroom, putting likely pairs into a box so they can be sterilized after I try them on. The woman who runs that part of the shop is my favorite kind of person for this work: sharply opinionated and precise. “No,” she says immediately after I try the first two pairs on. “Too old. Too serious.” We agree on the one truly acceptable pair. She has me take my mask off to actually see myself, which would have been unnerving if I hadn’t been trying this out a little elsewhere. “See?” she says. “Those are the ones.”
I stare at myself in the purple-and-red frames I’ll be adding to my collection, my suddenly exposed face in someone else’s space, and appreciate the small risk she took in order to do the work well.
I sift through CDC bulletins and news from the Bay Area and the world. I read about variants and possible future booster shots. I consider the risks to myself (fairly insignificant) and the risks I pose to others (controllable if I keep on with my current habits of mask-wearing and caution in enclosed spaces). I ask myself what I get from reentering the world and try to balance being a person again with functioning in a way I consider moral.
I begin to tentatively make plans.