Who knows what angst flourishes within the body? Beneath the ribs, the aching cage of bones. At home, I corner myself into discontent. Declutter everything until everything vanishes. Reorganize my domestic puzzle. Disinfect surfaces and stare at mirrors. Who knows what fear lurks outside the door? A nudge sends our collective sanity over the edge, flailing. All spring, I wander in and out of rooms that I wreck only to tidy later. Sweep debris under area rugs. This tug inside the mind as anxiety spreads like a brushfire. The frenzied atmosphere as we fracture our daily schedules bit by bit, moment by moment. Until there’s nothing left but the pregnant pause that I use to write this paragraph. Nothing left but a knife that slices through wrists and reality.
In February, I routinely drown doubts with the contents of a Mardi Gras drinking glass. Such smugness in the way I buy cocktails for transparent friends, all with a wink and a smile. Such hubris. There, in the groundwork leading to another hangover. Tiny deities float on the surface like ice cubes, melting into nothing. We haven’t yet mastered how to sanitize our hands on the hour. How to keep them cautiously in our pockets. It’s February, and my fingers know nothing but lust, instinctually touching everything. ATM buttons, bus seats, door handles. Still reaching across tables to shake hands. Who knows what sickness spreads through the public? In other towns, other nations, populations shrouded by the white sheets of hospital beds. Passengers on cruise ships stranded in harbors. Close to home yet oceans away. What does it mean? Ambiguity? Immunity? I notice the narrowing of space between me and hard luck. It’s February, and I spend my freedom like lottery winnings, squander a down payment on a certain future.
Slowly, then suddenly, we lock down all doors like a prison. Spring flowers flourish while we huddle inside, unable to appreciate their rebirth. My favorite season, now a stolen prize. Birds collide with windows over and over but continue to chase their reflections. I put on clothes. I take them off. Each weekday becomes a Monday. Each Monday becomes hell. Another manic form of panic. I wear what I christen as my apocalypse hoodie to take out the garbage and grab the mail. I hang it on a nail near the door and then wash my hands obsessively. So often that the water starts to make things dry. My skin, my humor. I put on my apocalypse hoodie, then take it off. Hold my breath as long as possible whenever I venture outside. But inside, I’m defenseless. Mouth agape and prone to infection.
Two weeks before civilization shelters-in-place, I meet dozens of friendly strangers who I’ll never see again. At the gym, hardware store, and neighborhood bar. Head nods and synthetic salutations. Who knows what urges flourish in my mind or between my thighs? A shift in the brain towards an overcast tomorrow. Nobody knows what the body craves in times like these until we realize we can’t have it. Knows where our thoughts and attention might wander. Savor the dulcet moments between breaths, between days that we tighten around us like bondage ropes. How we tie ourselves up again and set out into the world, holding everything in that wants to fall out. The sickness that craves tight spaces, seeks bodies adjacent to other bodies. The deadliness of each inhalation is nearly imperceptible, yet something we all sense.
The internet tells the truth and we have no choice but to pretend it’s fiction. All propaganda and pomade-slick intentions, data distorted by its misleading context. The weather fluctuates like the stock market. Feral animals overrun vacation towns and rest stops, searching for the scraps that tourists would normally leave behind. Before travel restrictions. Before mask mandates. Social media tells us lies and we have no choice but to believe them. Political doubletalk tries to convince us nothing can go wrong. Tries to convince us there’s nothing to see here, nothing we’d recognize as a threat until it climbs inside us.
Apple trees blossom near the transit station. Their blooms still fall apart in early April, scattering on the asphalt. By now, I’ve abandoned the myth of spring. Periodically checking the deadbolt and wrapping my vulnerability in fleece blankets. Scan the news and skip breakfast with a nervous stomach. It’s a comforting form of uneasiness, one without morning commutes or office gossip. I stuff fear in the back of closets with my winter clothes. Linger too long in the scalding hot shower, wide-eyed, gazing at the ceiling. Who knew chaos could be so cozy? Disaster movies play on a continuous loop in my dreams, zombie attacks and extinction events braiding themselves in my subconscious until I cease sleeping altogether. I’d say I’m not right, but we all know I’m wrong. Cleaning to kill a virus that only exists outside these walls, or inside my mind.
Lilacs flourish around the perimeter of the city park even if I’m not there to appreciate them. Rooted adjacent to the monkey bars and picnic tables. Emitting a scent that I’d savor if I wasn’t in the midst of a sequestered season. Any other summer, I’d be writing love poems to the petulant sky. I’d be sweating off the cabin fever from my skin and glistening below the temperamental sun. Listening to pop music psalms and daydreaming while on impromptu vacations. Any other summer and I’d be outside exploring things other than fear, my hopes as untouched as lettuce in my refrigerator. Fresh and healthy but destined to spoil from neglect.
Sickness takes to the body like water to a basement. Seeps in deliberately until it’s too late to avoid extensive damage. When I was twelve, I wandered off the shore into Lake Michigan and let the world flow around me. That familiar drop in the stomach between something we recognize and something we cannot understand. The balance between surface tension and motion sickness. Still, we careen into others’ lives inside liquor stores or at gas stations. Our whorish fingertips and their proximity fetish with the unfamiliar. Inventory everything that we touch on any given day, or what may touch us, and we’d produce a catalog of dangers that once seemed benign. Illness quietly collects in our crevices and nooks. The bait conceals the obvious hazard of the hook.
Nobody is resisting, yet everything feels like resistance. A police station burns to the ground, becomes a pile of rubble by dawn, a symbol of scorched truth. The marginalized die and keep dying, beneath the knees and nightsticks of the corrupt, beneath the heels of those holding them down. I have nothing to say that doesn’t sound black. That doesn’t sound antiestablishment and countercultural. The social justice poem I wrote today seems like a remix of one I penned four years ago. I just carbon copy my pain so you can witness it without me sending it to you directly. Some see isolated incidents while I see a common thread, frayed. One by one, down they fall. Blood soaks both t-shirts and concrete. People say their names in memoriam, and again after the next tragedy, but never early enough to rescue them.
During the quarantine, I can’t stay calm. Can’t keep my shit together while things fall apart. All night long, I flinch at noises in the hallway. Sirens down the street. Figure out that I’ve prepped for every worst-case scenario except this one. Hurricanes, uprisings, aliens, zombies. Monsters and mobs. Stacks of canned tuna in the pantry and ample ammo in the basement. For every catastrophe, I imagine a hundred endgames, each one grimmer than the previous – but none of which I’m completely ready for. A friend claims that he’s stockpiling toilet paper and latex gloves in case things go south. Uses his hazard pay to buy sacks of potatoes and first aid kits. We’re all married to the gospel of desperation in a time when every nightmare conjures fever, when people reflexively interrogate each other after every cough. We keep the frantic truth under our tongues, to have and hold, for richer and poorer. Nowadays, and in health.
Whatever hatred escalates in our hearts also escalates in the streets. In buildings, broken and overrun with rodents and junkies. Whatever tension escalates in the neighborhood, escalates the crowds. Escalates resentment, all rage-red along cracked sidewalks. In July, there are no disinfectant wipes. By August, they are shipped in bulk and on my doorstep along with a litany of impulse buys. Our common sense unravels all summer, gradually, the loose strings collected underneath us in a pile. Who knows what unrest buds along the boulevards of the backhanded? Or underneath the pressed kneecap of a rogue policeman? We assume our neighbors have wicked intentions, but they could be pure. Could be innocent. Darkness escalates in the hearts of those forgotten by society, those who march one by one on state capitals just for their message to be ignored.
Lord knows what falsehoods sprout like noxious weeds in the back of his throat. In his voice box. In his breath. Critics track and measure the depth of his lies. The collective turmoil undoes us in every usual way. By day, I walk the local trails to forget about the pandemonium. Note the crabapples and bluestem, inventory the litter that disposable people leave behind as evidence of their trashy existence. How chaos thrives, even though I’m not thriving within it. A few blocks over, people protest for justice with no results, become emptied of faith. It’s the perfect season to feign optimism. To half-believe the voided promises of politicians as they pander for votes and power. The thing that people shout for always seemingly out of reach.
The allergies we overcame by May come back right before autumn. Our voices lost down the well and our heads stuffed with cotton like teddy bears. All summer we were plagued by bouts of situational vertigo, then nothing. As if we were dropped off into open spaces blindfolded, with no directions or notion of how to return home. Something vast yet utterly unmappable. Echoes accompany me to the mailbox, haunt my shower songs. Tentatively greet strangers in the street when I wasn’t expecting to see anybody, my eyes blinking warnings in morse code. We’re all falling apart, so might as well savor the downfall. Tiny apocalypses spread like rumors. Our burning is deliberate, but comforting, and of indeterminate origin.
It’s late August and wasps have invaded the siding near the garage. We spray and the pavement becomes littered with husks of insects flat on their backs. We sweep up their corpses, toss them in the trash to hide the evidence of genocide. The detritus we leave behind in our wake, a world smushed by our carbon footprint, collapsed like the wasteful boxes yielded by our online orders. Another month left undone and reality begins to crumble. Another year and we’ll no longer recall our routines – endless rush hours, mundane errands, and the name of the coworker who never cleans up their spills by the coffeemaker. We are at home, yet our spirits haunt the elevators of emptied buildings with silence.
What can bloom when the soil of the mind has been poisoned? In my journal, I write that question on a blank page after weeks of writer’s block, unsure whether it’s literature or gibberish. Raw and vulnerable from witnessing the carnage. The air around us does nothing but get inhaled. It becomes a conduit, channeling toxicity into our bloodstreams. Nothing to do with health, but everything with sickness. Each microbe lurking in public places suddenly within us in a flash. Who knew what dangers loitered nearby, waiting, casing the unsuspecting houses of our bodies just to burglarize our well being? Ready to rob us of the misplaced grins that we used to hide beneath our masks. The reporters inform us of a variant brewing in some foreign location. We sigh, knowing contagion will eventually find its way, making its inevitable odyssey to our bodies. We’ll be a destination it’s never visited, yet somehow it will know its way around with intimate familiarity.
Adrian S. Potter writes poetry and prose in Minnesota. He is the author of the poetry collection Everything Wrong Feels Right and the prose chapbook The Alter Ego Handbook. Some publication credits include North American Review, Obsidian, Jet Fuel Review, and Kansas City Voices. Visit him online at adrianspotter.com.
Image: “Back Door” by Susan diRende