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My Stupid Quarantine Body | The New Yorker

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I spent the entire month of April being sober, pretty much by accident. Some of this can be chalked up to how I’m a very social drinker who, like the rest of the world, has been abruptly deprived of the “social” part, but it’s also a function of a strange new watchfulness that is a feature of my quarantine personality. What if the shit hits the fan?, my mind whispered. Can you really flee with a hangover? Drinking no longer felt like a beloved activity that I was setting aside for the good of my health but an imprudent liability in the face of a looming societal breakdown.

My relationship with food has also shifted a lot over the past several weeks. In the first days of quarantine, I baked compulsively, along with seemingly every other adult with an Instagram account. Putting sugar, fat, and carbs together in a pleasing way was something that I could do, a chemical reaction that I could control. But, after a while, baking no longer felt soothing. I made cookies and donated them to food banks, and I gave some to my neighbors. That felt good, but not even I, a certified pie obsessive, could bake my way out of being depressed. I started selling drawings on Instagram to benefit the food banks instead.

I also stopped eating lunch. The same tense whisper that warned me off whiskey also instructed me to further curtail my food intake. I took to having a spoonful of peanut butter and a small orange at around three in the afternoon, and then eating a “sensible” dinner. Feeling constantly hungry felt like an appropriate physical response to this weird, slow emergency. Seeking satiety, comfort, and numbness felt somehow morally wrong. I won’t dress it up as an act of solidarity with the many, many people who don’t have enough food right now, but I will say that on some level staying hungry felt like practice for if/when we join their ranks.

Was there a vanity angle to all this? Of course there was. In normal times, I put on weight easily and lose it only by the most harsh and stringent of methods. Despite my new regimen, my clothes seem to fit about as well as they always have, which is to say, not very. I haven’t stepped on a scale, because I find that I don’t want to quantify anything about the pandemic. Keeping close track of these times feels like I’m making these times real, instead of a weird floating pause that will be over, eventually, won’t it? Also, the batteries in our scale are dead. I started making a point of doing some kind of exercise thing every day—a bike ride, a YouTube workout, even fucking yoga. But did I think that somehow, at forty-two, I’d be able to hone my body into a weapon? I grossly underestimated the circumstances necessary to pull a Sarah Connor. Maybe if I were quarantined in a facility for the criminally insane with nothing to do but pullups and nothing to eat but my own rage, I’d have sick abs by now. But, alas, I’m just in Brooklyn.

Gravity seems to have grown stronger during the pandemic, pulling at my face and every other saggable thing on my body. My mouth is so used to being compressed into a tight angry line that I’m afraid it might be stuck this way. I have more and weirder gray hairs. The awareness of my body is only heightened when I go out into the world. On trips to the grocery store or bike rides, I’m acutely conscious of how much space I take up, and how clumsily I move through that space. Wearing a mask, I can’t even deploy my well-worn apologetic grin. I wear a mask because we should all really be wearing a mask, but, on a semiotic level, I don’t know if it reads as “responsible citizen trying to protect you from my mouth rain” or “scared, entitled, white woman.” I don’t know how to make a case for my presence in this world at all.

How do you keep up an emergency mind-set for weeks on end? I feel myself shifting into a headspace that regards quarantine as the new normal, with an array of implications. For one, I need to get my emotional shit together: my ups and downs, my not-always-suppressed tantrums. I don’t know how much of a pass I can continue to give myself as far as my feelings go. My before-self, before the pandemic, valued her sense of cheerful nihilism—a kind of hedonistic fuck-it vibe that saw me through difficult spots, when I could access it. The tense, watchful person that replaced her is so quick to anger, so quick to cry, so agitated, and so sad. She’s not doing me any favors, she’s not getting any good work done, she’s a pill of a mother and wife, and she’s not even making me thinner.

Last weekend, we visited with friends, taking all the new-normal precautions: they sat on their stoop, we were on the sidewalk, everybody wore masks. The wife offered me a drink, and I said yes. The warm expansive feeling that spread through my body as the vodka hit my bloodstream felt lovely, I won’t lie. (The morning-after heavy sads that are a feature of my middle-age drinking experience felt less great.) The next day, ravenous at noon, I went ahead and ate. It’s hardly a return to my old self, but it served to illustrate that abstemious behavior is sometimes nothing more than a form of superstition. If we’re in this for the long haul—and it seems pretty clear that we are—maybe keeping myself in good health and spirits is a better use of my time than a half-assed hunger strike against a virus. So, for now, I’ll eat lunch, I’ll have a drink on occasion, and I will share what I have as much as I can. And I will absolutely, under no circumstances, do a pullup.



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