Planets should never zoom towards you.
I don’t smoke, but I’m gasping for a cigarette. A moment of supreme grounding in my body, a slip of control over my own mortality, an excuse to stand outside and stare at nothing. The sweet scent of mastering fire and flaunting death. I recall long nights on patios in South London watching friends roll cigarettes for each other, a small act of care, of community, clusters of bodies sheltering the strands of tobacco from the cold wind, warm lights trembling in gloved hands.
I hunt in the dusty corners of the garage for a bottle of bubbles to stand outside and blow. It is not the same.
I return to this cobbled together assemblage of memories again and again. It’s warm in the suburban Texas sunshine.
Why the cigarettes, something I took for granted on all too many evenings, something I don’t even use myself. Touch, being able to pass a material object on to one another, to huddle together, to breathe and be nearer than six feet apart, to not fear an exhale. A keen nostalgia for an existence that did not mark each of us as a biohazardous timebomb. I can feel the warmth of my best friend’s arm slipped into mine as I watch her slowly puff one of the straights she saves for special occasions, like asking for a light from a handsome man.
A realm of control over danger, that people could make choices to partake, to be near. Exposure marked by a scent and no subtlety. Agency. I miss agency. Wandering in and out of pubs, across dance floors, sharing a beer with my best friend without fear.
The horrors of epidemic, specifically that of the Yellow Fever, were ingrained in me as a child. The girls’ school I attended was shepherded by nuns who gave their lives to care for those dying from the fever as it ravaged Memphis, Tennessee in 1878. “The Sisters of St. Mary’s,” better known to us as the tale of “Constance and her Companions,” was a resounding, seemingly omnipresent narrative, drilled into me over the course of my ten years at school. Of the many things St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls taught me, I am especially grateful for a constant reminder of the cost of martyrdom, of community, of collective survival at the cost of the individual.
At the same time, I feel wary of the tale now. Heroism is rendered necessary by the failures of the political, by classism, by capitalism. The rich survive, getting care and testing (the professional basketball teams that got immediately tested, the daughters of politicians, even as our doctors and nurses go without). Those deemed essential are branded heroes in lieu of providing the financial and material support they need. Grocery store clerks, pharmacists, gas station workers, delivery people, truck drivers, many of whom cannot afford to miss a paycheck and do not have the luxury of isolating while still being employed, report to work without adequate protective equipment, let alone hazard pay. It is easier to celebrate their heroism than to conceive of them as being thrust onto the front lines on our behalf, to see them as valorous superhumans coming to our rescue rather than traumatized fellow people.
I find an intense solidarity with the past. With the joy pioneer girl-turned-author Laura Ingalls Wilder felt finding an orange in her stocking at Christmas, the preciousness of a scoop of sugar during life on the prairie. My friend clears her bar cart to start a Victory Garden in her living room and reports via video chat on her lemon tree and herbs. The tedium of the Spanish Flu in 1918, which led to people bursting out their doors at news of victory in the war, only to instigate a second and even more deadly wave of the epidemic, makes sense now.
I think back to an exhibition at the Pink Palace, the local science and history museum of my childhood. Trips to the gargantuan pink mansion-turned-museum were usually filled with staring at weird Civil War dioramas featuring amputations of gangrenous legs, taxidermied wildlife vignettes, an bellowing animatronic dinosaur that still worked at the time, and, what I found the most terrifying of all, the Planetarium. I remember trembling as my dad ushered me from the dark room filled with awkwardly reclined seats to a hard wooden bench in the hallway by the gift shop, confused that I was not enchanted at the wonders of the universe.
Planets should never zoom towards you.
Of all the horrors of the Pink Palace, the Planetarium was the pinnacle until Virus, a virus themed exhibition in the upstairs galleries when I was about ten. The exhibit asked us to walk through an enclosed hallway, maybe 10 feet long, 3 feet wide, dark, with eerie videos of Plague Doctors walking amongst us on the walls. I remember scurrying through, feeling relieved to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. There was great effort in this exhibition to render the doctor scary, an apparition portending death even as it tried to ward it off. I wonder if PPE will now become the stuff of nightmares, of scary exhibitions some 400 years down the line. I wonder why those attempting to live and help have been marked over time as the stuff of horror, a personification of the disease itself.
“Ring around the rosies, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” the contemporary American rendition of “Ring-a-ring o’ roses,” eerily echoed in the hallway in the haunting voices of small children.
I never understood why kids would make songs about disease. I get it now. It’s ridiculous and terrifying, a way of owning our own mortality. The arbitrariness of death is silly.
“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
Nearly twenty years after the museum terrified me with the spectre of the Plague Doctor, I’ve become obsessed with Squishable.com’s friendly little “Mini Squishable Plague Doctor,” designed by one Rachel S.. The cold lines of plague dress rendered fluffy meet the cravable tactility of a plushie. It is the antithesis of the sterile reality of life at the moment, in which touching has become taboo.
It captures in its fluffiness what I’ve struggled to put into words through all this. Intimacy is vulnerability, not only in the emotional sense but in a physical sense. The cute, warm figure straddles the line between reassuring charm and a dark reminder of mortality.
I order one as a Pandemic Present for myself. It’s a stupid way to spend money, especially when my income has utterly dried up. I’m still thrilled. Behold, I can cuddle that which fears the plague! I will squish death itself! I feel a rush of power, coupled with a desire to snuggle the heck out of it and wiggle its adorable little arms. I’m grateful for the reminder: softness has a danger to it, now more than ever.
I think of all the first kisses I’ve had without a second thought, on walks back from pubs, in Trafalgar Square after a date in a comic book shop that had me squealing with nerd joy at every turn, my very first kiss behind a strip mall after a strawberry milkshake and a viewing of Happy Feet.
Kissing someone new on the lips is an act of trust now in a way I never conceived before. And verboten. Utterly verboten. So much so that I can’t stand to use the word “forbidden,” which bubbles along the tongue with bouncing b’s and d’s. The harshness of “verboten,” the warm roundness of the o in the middle, the cold clip of the t are the only things that can capture it.
I text with someone I’ve had a crush on for a decade, feeling a new immediacy in communication and an earnestness that comes from not knowing what the future holds. He’s had a crush on me since I was in braces, he admits. This is devotion itself; I was the epitome of braces-laden dork at 19 and insisted on wearing bright blue rubber bands. We talk about first kisses. We dance around the idea of our own. He’s 6’2”, while I’m a mere 5’6”. He is perfect “looking up and kissing height,” I tell him. These digital streams of letters, whizzing from our fingertips across the US and into each other’s hands, is as close as we can get for the moment. He’s 1728 miles away, a mere few hours by plane, but months away if the statistics are any indication. We mark the texts with the iPhone’s superscripted “♥” comments. It feels small and intimate and futile. I bite my lip and day dream. I recall how much danger lies between now and then, how many will likely die. I’m overcome with guilt that I’m sitting here like a schoolgirl, grinning at someone wanting to kiss me so much. That the ordinary still exists in extraordinary times.
I’ve never imagined distance as time so profoundly. In my years in the UK, I found it laughable how aghast Brits would be at a trip of more than two hours. I spent my childhood summers in the US nestled in the back of minivans on the way to visit my grandmothers, a tiny cooler of juice boxes at my feet, bracing myself for twelve hours of car time measured in Sesame Street and Mister Rogers episodes (representing one hour and a half hour respectively). “We’ll be there in seven Sesame Streets and one Mister Rogers,” my mom said, peeking around the front seat, trying to assuage me as I swung my little feet against the plastic box filled with crayons that I can’t seem to reach on the van floor.
“We’ll be there in all the seasons of the Vampire Diaries, last year’s Love Island, all the James Bonds (at least Connery through Brosnan), 17 loaves of baked bread, 33 loads of laundry, 27 phone calls to your mum, 14 PPE related shipping scandals, 3 variations on homemade masks, 1 general strike and essential worker uprising, and 5 boxes of wine,” I want to tell you. Just some numbers. Any numbers. Anything concrete that would see us through the wibbley wobbly timey wimeyness of time.
Someone ring Doctor Who. At least she might be able to tell us the beginning and the end, save us from ourselves, from the endless calculations needed to survive. Who needs Daleks? It seems we are perfectly capable of exterminating ourselves through sheer willfulness.
The numbers I do have are so grounded in the present: how many mass graves US prisoners are digging, how many protestors showed up on state capitol steps in protest of government controlling their bodies through enforced social distancing (the irony utterly lost on the MAGA hatted crowds), the number of deaths, how many pairs of clean underpants do I have, the recommended number of feet we maintain between each other in the grocery store, how many hours will my sister’s history homework take this week, the projected pandemic peak for each place that holds someone I love, when did I last wash my hair, the number of medical staff infected as they contend with shortages in protective gear, how long can we make the milk in the house last. The numbers shift each day, and I lose myself in their ephemerality, drowning in maths big and small, global and personal. It is exhausting.
In the wake of this dizzying onslaught of numbers, people make things to feel in control, to make money, to find a laugh, creating a space for their attention that can fit in their hands, or at the very least on a screen. Masks out of handkerchiefs. PPE out of bee tending suits. Sourdough loaves and cupcakes (no wonder you can’t get flour anywhere in America; half our population has turned into Mary Berry).
One of my favorites are the t-shirts riffing on the middle class’s inundation of bulk buy stores during the start of the pandemic. The myriad products announce in bold letters: PANIC AT THE COSTCO. A pun on the 2000’s pop rock band Panic! At the Disco’s name seems oddly fitting. Most abandon Panic! at the Disco’s emphatic midway “!” This is a less enthused panic, a panic apparently not for those Millennials who would swear by that “!,” who overplayed Panic! At the Disco’s deliciously biting first album A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out as they peeled off their black nail polish and doodled “P!ATD” on their arms with black ballpoint pen. A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out: an album title that shifts now as I type it.
I mourn the loss of the “!” in these goods. Sans “!,” it stops being a panic one can dance to, revel in. Stockpiling milk and feminine hygiene products and the notorious toilet roll and peanut butter and crisps is not “!” worthy, not sexy, not joyful, not particularly intense because everything right now is already particularly intense. It isn’t a blissful chaos deserving of that emphatic “!” but a statement of cold fact, no superfluous but charming punctuation required. There-is-panic-and-it-is-happening-at-the-Costco.
Drum kit heads, tshirts, magnets—the pop cultural pun proliferates in online shops like the virus, popping up on all sorts of weird items as people look towards mass appeal and making a quick buck in the crisis. There is no loyalty to a particular piece of punctuation as vendors try to appeal to the GenX and Boomers who have joined Millennials in the Costco queues, who will recognize the name, the cleverness, but not sweat the details. But unlike the largely lost “!” in the riffs, COVID-19 fails to dilute, to soften, to gentle itself in moments of generational difference.
But the panic (“panic!”?) is clearly relative, which causes fresh rounds of panic to emerge. Our relationships shift as we navigate this together, love and frustration and fear going hand-in-hand-in-hand. My friends bemoan their parents and grandparents not complying with social distancing; one’s notoriously anti-social but has become an absolute social butterfly during social distancing. It takes a tearful phone call to convince him to stay put. One friend pursues her new relationship via video calls and small parcels of favorite ice creams and books left outside each other’s flats. My friend in Pakistan speaks of her difficulty reaching her parents’ home to quarantine, feeling like she was smuggling herself across borders as she crossed checkpoint after checkpoint. My friend in London plans a Zoom birthday party for herself, replete with dress code; I’m thrilled that I’ll actually be able to attend her celebration this year even though I’m in the US. My single mom friend in South Carolina struggles to stay sane with her four-year-old son attached to her at the hip, no reprieve in sight. They paint their nails glorious colors and play dinosaurs. I am tired for her.
I was hoping to have something profound to say. I have very little. In Riet Timmerman’s writing, I found a deep respect for boredom, for honoring the unproductive as productive in its own right. In Louise Ashcroft’s, the sweet complexity of existing in this moment, the preciousness of wandering. In their works, I found a permission to write what I needed to write, to ground myself as I saw fit, to meander and dodge and ramble.
And so I found myself wandering in my head, sneaking off in small moments to type this between science lessons and baking bread and televisits with my doctor. This is what I give you. Just lots of little tangents, skirting the edges of terror and joy. And permission. Should you not be in a place to give it to yourself, be tired, be angry, be blissful, be relieved, be afraid. Make cupcakes. Buy a Mini Squishable Plague Doctor. Text the person you’ve adored from afar. Write stupid things, make beautiful things, have lots of feelings about the punctuation of mid 2000’s pop rock bands’ names.
I itch for the acrid smell of smoke, that companionable arm interlinked in mine, the refrain of “roll me one?” as we watch deft fingers pluck filters from packets and neatly craft rollies to be shared amongst friends. Hands sheltering wavering lights from the breeze, puffs drifting across the evening air as we sip our pints. Closeness, togetherness, wrapped in the twin buzzes of passing traffic and heady lagers.
I don’t smoke, but goddamn do I ever want a cigarette.
Aubree Penney (b. 1990, US) is an independent curator whose work addresses power dynamics in art display, including accessibility and ties between colonial tendencies and mimetic expectations of form and content relationships. In hopes of minimizing the spread of COVID-19, her most recent project has evolved into an online form at https://exhibits.haverford.edu/alarmingspecificity/. She holds an MFA with a distinction in Curating from Goldsmiths College, University of London and a BA from Haverford College in English and Religion.