Ending Social Distancing: A Story
“I’m convinced it’s tech,” Luca says, leaning his chair onto its back two legs. “The whole cabal. Gates. Zuckerberg. Google… Disney! I mean, have you seen how the whole pandemic aligned to the release of Disney Plus?”
“Tell me you’re kidding,” Shira says. She looks from Luca to the front door, then expectantly she turns to Ferdinand.
Ferdinand pushes his long black curls from his face before speaking. “You think they killed all these people just to get a bunch of subscribers?”
Luca tilts his head and smirks. “You really think all these people died, and are dying, just from Covid-19?”
“Oh, so you think that’s part of the conspiracy too?” Shira says. “That the deaths are inflated?”
“Have you looked at how the deaths are even counted?” Luca asks. “The death certificates? Which gets back to incentives.”
“So what,” Shira says, “You’re one of those ‘no worse than the flu’ people?”
Luca shrugs. “Honestly I probably wouldn’t be here right now if I thought differently.”
Each one of the three looks to the floor, pensive; apart though together.
The carpeting in Luca’s apartment is beige green, with large amoebic brown spots in places, threadbare in others. Ferdinand notes the lighter green circle surrounding the base of the flimsy foldable plywood table table that they are sitting around. He remembers the table that used to be here, a heavy glass table with a round base. The glass table was here the last time Ferdinand was, and he can only assume it broke in the interim.
Broken, like so much during this time. And replaced by a utilitarian Amazon replacement that does the job but loses the spirit; the appeal; the life present in the aesthetic.
Shira meanwhile is considering the smell of Luca’s apartment. Once invariably clean, to the point of her poking fun at Luca for his OCD, his apartment now smells like a potpourri of mildew, old eggs, stale bread, with undertones of the oily vegetal smell of various body fluids. She looks to Luca’s dirt-shaded feet and wonders when he last bathed.
Then she considers her own body, her own despair-ravaged schedule, and wonders what her and Ferdinand’s apartment would smell like to an outsider. Picturing her own apartment makes her deeply relieved that they are, at least, not there. Finally, not there.
There is a knock at the door. Ferdinand escapes him dim revery, not far from that of Shira’s, and after a head-tilt signal from Luca he walks to the door. Luca and Shira look on with anxious anticipation.
“Who’s there?” Ferdinand says through the door, placing his hand on the chain lock.
“It’s Jeremy,” the voice on the other side says. Ferdinand smiles, undoes the chain lock, and opens the door just enough to let Jeremy in. He scans the hallway briefly, empty but for Covid-19 warning posters, before closing the door and replacing the chain lock.
Jeremy is a short man with a large pot belly and deep bags under his eyes, and the ring of long blonde hair around his otherwise bald head gives him the look of a friar. He lifts his elbow up toward Ferdinand in greeting, but Ferdinand laughs and embraces the man.
“Yeah I think we’re past the elbow greeting now,” Luca says, also chuckling while rising to embrace Jeremy next. “It’s good to see you bud.”
“Amazing to see you,” Jeremy says, holding Luca close. “And feel you.” He pulls back from Luca with a bit of concern in his face. “Sorry if that’s weird.”
Luca smiles wide and shrugs. “Weird but I get it.”
Shira hugs him next. When she let’s go she says, “Before you say how good it feels to feel me, I have to say Jeremy, you look like shit.”
“Yeah,” Jeremy shrugs, looking down and kicking at the carpet. “I kinda stopped trying. But I wasn’t gonna say anything about feeling you, but, yeah, you have no idea.”
“I do,” Luca says, returning to his seat and leaning back again. “Before I got here today, it’s been, well, since this all started since I touched another human.” He sighs. “You have no idea what I’d give to get laid.”
“Soon enough,” Ferdinand says to him.
Shira turns to Ferdinance. “Where is Emil?” She whispers.
Ferdinand checks his watch. “Should be here soon,” he says to her.
Jeremy sits down on the couch, a mustard colored couch with stuffing erupting through a tear in the arm, as from a wound, and then looks to the coffee table where a drawer is dangling from one hinge. He looks up at Luca curiously, who shrugs, then looks back toward Ferdinand and Shira.
“The two of you have it easy,” he says. “You’ve got each other. I mean, I’m curious to hear why…”
“Not so easy,” Ferdinand interrupts.
“Oh c’mon. You have no idea what it’s like to be…”
“Nine weeks,” Shira says. Everyone looks at her.
“You’re counting?” Ferdinand asks in a low voice.
“Don’t tell me,” Luca says, returning all four feet of his chair to the floor.
Shira nods at Ferdinand and then turns to Luca. “Nine weeks and two days since we’ve had sex.”
“What the hell,” Jeremy says. “Why?”
Shira turns to Ferdinand, who grimaces and looks back down at the carpet under the table – at the inverse shadow of things no longer in place.
“We used to have these dance parties,” Ferdinand mumbles.
“I remember that,” Jeremy says. “Back when everyone was putting on happy faces for social media. Before…”
“See, tech,” Luca says.
“We were trying,” says Ferdinand. “Trying to hold on to what we had. But it just got harder and harder. Like it did for everybody, I guess.”
“Still is,” Jeremy says.
“Yeah. And with two of us, well, we needed too much from each other. Put it on one another as our lives were, well… you know, same as everyone. But putting all those emotional needs on one person, and one person who’s always there… well, the happy faces… the dancing… it got hard. We were resentful when we tried, and resentful when we didn’t. And one night we forced it. The dancing. The sex. And afterward…”
“That was the night?” Shira asks. Ferdinand nods gently, avoiding eye contact. She looks to Jeremy and Luca and says, “I cried all night. He went and slept on the couch. I was depressed. Am, depressed.” She looks back at Ferdinand. “I had just lost my job. And was spending my days listening to his Zoom calls, hiding from the camera while he carried on like everything was normal. Great, even.”
There is a knock on the door.
“And I broke,” Shira finishes. “We needed space… but…”
Ferdinand stands up, walks to the door, and asks who it is while reaching for the chain lock.
“It’s Lorna,” a small voice says. Ferdinand lets her in, and the gaunt spindly young woman goes around the room giving feeble hugs to everyone.
“This is so weird,” she says. “I feel like I’m in a sketchy drug deal. Like that scene from Trainspotting of some shit. I mean, look at this place.” She dramatically looks around the dark apartment while Luca glares at her and grinds his teeth.
“This is Luca’s apartment,” Ferdinand says. “He was kind enough to host. Luca, Lorna. Lorna, my good friend Luca.”
“Shit,” Lorna says. “I’m sorry.” She sits down opposite Jeremy on the couch, carefully keeping her arm away from the open fabric wound. “I guess, it’s just been so long since I’ve seen people. Like, in person.” She smiles appreciatively. “Well thanks Luca, despite my quarantine manners.”
“Meh,” Luca says. “I get it.”
“And thanks for organizing, Ferdinand,” Lorna says. “So what’s going on?”
Ferdinand and Shira look at each other sadly, but neither does anything but look.
“I think we’re just waiting, for now,” Luca says. “And we were just talking about big tech orchestrating this whole covid reaction thing.”
“We were?” Jeremy asks.
“Didn’t you just say how everyone was using social media?”
“Shit, this again?” Ferdinand asks with a small grin on his face, his relief at the change in topic obvious. “Luca is into the conspiracy theories.”
“Oh yeah,” Lorna says. “Like how tech is using all this to finally track everyone. The antibody tags, the CATs, monitoring all our movements and actions. I believe it.”
“But tech was already tracking us pretty damn well before all this,” Ferdinand says. “So not sure I buy all the death in exchange for that.”
“That’s assuming the death figures…” Luca says.
“Oh c’mon,” Ferdinand says.
“Cuz your conspiracy theory of choice is better?” Shira asks him.
“At least it makes sense.”
“Let’s hear it,” Jeremy says.
“Well, just that it’s China’s bid for world domination,” Ferdinand says. “Between taking down the US, which used our freedoms against us, and making sure Donald Trump, who was waging economic war against them, didn’t get reelected…”
“I blame the Democrats for that one,” Jeremy interjects. “Politicizing this thing to their own ends. And it fucking worked is the worst part. And now they can take all of our liberties away.”
“But since they won,” Shira says, “shouldn’t they give our liberties back now?”
“You don’t get it,” Jeremy says. “Universal basic income and universal healthcare are gonna work a lot better with a population of healthy people. Not to mention their voter base…”
‘Huh,” Lorna says. “And I heard the same for why China released it on their soil. Plausible deniability along with dealing with their aging population. Maybe they were all in cahoots, China and the Dems.”
“Not to mention it stopped the Hong Kong protests,” Jeremy says.
“And tech is controlled by liberals,” Luca says.
“Did you hear how they’re gonna start using this to take away everyone’s guns?” Jeremy asks.
“Well,” Ferdinand says, “wouldn’t that make some sense? You know, given…”
Another knock on the door interrupts him. “It’s Emil, let me in.”
A collective holding of breaths descends on the suddenly crowded room. Ferdinand opens the door and lets him in.
Emil is tall but hunched, pale with puckered cheeks and a bluish tinge to his skin. “Gimme a minute,” he says in greeting, and walks past the silent watching group to the bathroom beyond the kitchen.
Just as Ferdinand replaces the chain on the door there’s another knock. “Who’s there?” he asks.
“It’s me,” a gruff voice says from the other side. Ferdinand undoes the chain and opens the door just enough for the large man to enter. After replacing the lock he turns and hugs the man like a long lost friend; like a soldier returning from an extended tour of duty; like a dead man risen.
“Erik,” Ferdinand whispers from within the embrace. “God damn I’ve missed you.”
“Ferd…” Erik mumbles but can’t finish. Though a head taller than Ferdinand he collapses in Ferdinand’s arms. His face twists in grief before his body begins convulsing in sobs. No words are exchanged, only the sounds of anguish.
“This is like watching my dad cry,” Jeremy whispers to Luca, and wipes a welling tear from his own eye.
Erik and Ferdinand hold one another for well over a minute, until finally the room-filling violent sobs of the grown man come to a sniffling end. Only then does Erik sheepishly and self-consciously greet everyone else in the room.
Erik sits down at the last chair around the plywood dining table, and whispers, “Chinese manufacturing at its finest.”
A violent cough, deep and dry, erupts from the bathroom. Everyone in the room looks that direction but no one says anything.
“Is Alec coming?” Erik eventually asks Ferdinand.
“I assume so. Said he was. And he’s absolutely losing it.”
“Aren’t we all?” Jeremy asks. “Isn’t that why we’re here?” Lorna and Luca nod.
Another violent coughing fit sounds from the bathroom. Everyone in the room pauses and listens as the coughs come unabated. The coughing is finally interrupted – first by retching and the sound of splashing, the unmistakable sound of vomiting into a toilet; and then by another knock on the door that rescues the attention of the room.
“Gotta be Alec,” Ferdinand says, walking to the door. After confirming, he unlatches the chain lock, lets him in the apartment, and hugs the terrified looking man.
“I haven’t touched a human in so long,” Alec says softly, his voice cracking. Jeremy and Luca smirk at one another in acknowledgement. “And seeing all of you. And just people, all in one room, I just don’t…”
Another retch and splash from the bathroom, followed by more uncontrolled heaving coughs.
Alec looks toward the bathroom in horror, his facing turning pallid. “Is that… him?”
“Yeah,” Ferdinand whispers.
“He sounds… miserable,” Alec says.
“He is,” Ferdinand says. “Though if you ask Luca…”
“I didn’t say Covid didn’t exist,” Luca interrupts.
“You know I used to think it didn’t,” Lorna says. “It took what happened to those states that reopened, and now the antibody stuff, and life coming back, to convince me.”
“But look how well those states are doing now,” Luca says.
“After how many dead?” Ferdinand asks.
Luca shrugs. “Supposedly. And at least they got to get their hair cut.” He grins but no one else joins.
More heaving and splashing sounds come from the bathroom, and are joined by vocal groans now, and murmurings of “Oh God.”
Alec steps backwards towards the door. “Maybe this was a bad idea,” he says.
“Aren’t you done being alone?” Jeremy asks Alec, who is shaking his head and has his hands pressed against the door behind him.
“I… I…” Alec stammers, and then sits down with his back against the door.
A toilet flushes, a sink runs, and the bathroom door opens as all look on. Emil walks out. He paces heavily and deliberately toward the living room, while suppressing his coughs with the inside of his elbow.
Lorna stands up. “Shit, I’m not so sure now either. He looks like a dead man walking.”
Emil looks up at her, his eyes drooping and moist like those from a zombie movie. “Seriously,” he says, voice sounding dry and raw. “You guys may not want to do this.”
Luca sits up straight. “I’m ready,” he says. “Done being alone, done not getting laid. Shit, done not working. And you guys all know that lots of people are asymptomatic. Emil just got a bad case.”
“I don’t know,” Lorna says. “And what about the people with the antibodies that don’t take,” she adds, and takes a step towards the door where Alec is sitting, holding on to his knees.
“One in ten,” Jeremy says. “Chances are it works. And we’re all young, healthy… we’ll make it through. I mean, doesn’t seem that much worse than the flu if you ask me.”
“This is way fucking worse than the fucking flu,” Emil says with a flash of lightning in his otherwise dead eyes.
Ferdinand reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bright red lollipop. “In or out, last chance, but decide quickly.” He tosses the lollipop to Emil who isn’t quick enough to catch it and lets it fall to the floor.
Erik stands and walks over to pick up the lollipop. “I’ve made my decision,” he says, crinkling the wrapper off the lollipop. “I can’t be alone anymore. Can’t live like this. I’ve started looking way too longingly at my balcony… at the other way out.” He hands the lollipop to Emil.
“And don’t forget why we’re here in the first place,” Luca says, standing. “The lockdowns. The draconian rules on top of rules. All our civil liberties removed. And for what? For some old people to survive?”
“And then Winnie,” Shira says, her voice catching. “Winnie killing herself. She was my trigger.”
“She was the fourth person I knew,” Jeremy says. “Not even including the two killed in murder suicides.”
“I’m up to seven,” Lorna whispers, walking back to the couch with her head hanging. “One of them in that Waco situation.”
“You knew someone in Carson?” Jeremy asks, eyes wide. Lorna nods.
Erik reaches up and takes the red lollipop out of Emil’s mouth. “I need to get out, before I lose it too,” he whispers, and puts the lollipop in his own mouth.
“People weren’t made to live like this,” Luca says, and walks towards Emil once he’s back to sucking the lollipop. “And this is the only way out, the only way back to normal.” He takes the lollipop from Emil’s mouth and begins sucking it. “And me, once I get the antibodies, I’ll get evicted… but I think I’m ready to find a new place anyway. Even if I have to start paying rent again.”
“I agree, it’s about time for a new spot,” Ferdinand says with a smirk, walking over to Luca as he gives the lollipop back to Emil. Ferdinand takes his turn, and then puts the red lollipop back in Emil’s mouth himself for a wheeze-filled suck before handing it to Shira. Ferdinand and Shira exchange a knowing, but wordless, look, before Shira puts the lollipop into her mouth.
Alec stands up from the door, his tears flowing, and walks towards the group around Emil. As Emil sucks the lollipop his coughs erupt again, vacant whooping coughs that make Emil cringe in pain.
Alec cringes with him. “I just need to see my mom,” he says, waiting for Emil’s coughing to subside before taking the lollipop. “She needs me, and there’s only one way I’ll be allowed…” he sticks the lollipop into his mouth, sniffling back his tears.
There is a violent pounding at the door. Everyone in the room startles and looks towards it..
“Who?” Luca whispers to Ferdinand. Ferdinand shrugs.
Three more pounds, and then an amplified voice: “Open the door immediately. We have reports of an illegal gathering.”
Lorna runs to Emil. “Give me the lollipop, quick.” Jeremy is close behind her.
“The door is coming down in three if it’s not opened immediately,” the voice booms from outside.
Luca yells towards the door: “We are asserting our rights as citizens. This is not China. We have a right to peaceful assembly.”
There is a slamming against the door, and it splinters in the middle.
“Fuck!” Jeremy yells, and tries to grab the lollipop from Lorna’s mouth but she spins away from him.
“Officers,” Ferdinand yells to the door. “We have a very sick patient in here. You do not want to enter. I repeat, Coronavirus patient inside this door, you do not want to enter.”
While Jeremy is still tussling for the lollipop, Emil’s coughing fit starts up again. Jeremy quickly pivots in panic and kneels beneath Emil. He pushes away Emil’s arm that he’s using to cover his coughs, and pulls Emil’s convulsing head towards his own. Jeremy opens his mouth and inhales deeply.
The door splinters into pieces and three police officers enter. Each is covered from head to toe, from full body armor to thick gloves to what look like military-grade gas masks. “Everybody face down on the ground!” one yells, his gun raised.
Everyone in the apartment immediately drops prone to the ground. Jeremy stays next to Emil and puts his arm around Emil’s body that’s still writhing in coughs, while keeping his face directly in the line of fire.
“God damn it,” one of the officers says. “Looks like we’re too late.”
The third presses a button near where his ear would be, under the protective head covering. “Send in the quarantine van,” he says. “Too late this time.”
“At least no guns,” the first officer says, while all three pull out nylon handcuffs.
“Shit, let’s make this quick,” the third one says, handcuffing Erik. “New call coming in.”
“Quarantine van?” Alec says in the direction of Luca and Ferdinand.
“Yep,” the officer answers instead, cuffing Alec. “Two weeks, alone in a cell. You thought you were unhappy before. Just wait.”
Ferdinand and Shira look at one another from their prone positions on the ground. Her face is flat, expressionless. Ferdinand cringes, and sighs. They each consider loneliness, and isolation.
Luca smiles widely while another officer tightens the cuffs around his hands behind him.
“See you in a couple weeks, guys,” he says. “Can’t wait.”
“I love you.”