For A Moment, I Thought Things Were About To Get Better
Have you felt the phantom hope of the new year? Or, maybe more precisely, did you feel it, past tense, if only for a moment?
This phantom hope was the opposite of a phantom pain. It was a false pleasure, a trick of endorphins. Sometime around late December, I started to let myself believe that things were about to change. I felt like a wide, slow turn had begun. In the manner of a plane banking at ten degrees before a final descent out of an endless holding pattern, it seemed possible that the world was poised to be on its way again.
How could it not be? We were soon to have a new president — if not an ideal one, at least not a ruinous one. Vaccines were coming — sputteringly but promisingly. The shortest day of the year was behind us. On Christmas Eve, the temperature neared sixty degrees in my city. Everyone was still masked, but I spotted a few people in shorts.
On New Year’s Day, I attended the Zoom wedding of a friend. Unsure what to wear to such an event, I opened my closet that morning and searched, for the first time in nearly a year, for something “nice” — or at least something that might, from the waist up, convey proper respect for the occasion. Once I got past the slouchy sweaters and leggings I kept within easiest reach, the closet became a time capsule. What was this foreign habiliment? Who had worn these clingy dresses, these starched white shirts begging to be ruined by sweat stains, these mistress-of-the-universe blazers, these cigarette pants that only looked decent in three-inch heels? Why did I have the same Everlane silk blouse in five different colors? And what could possibly be in these dry cleaner bags? Nothing I’d missed enough to go looking for.
For the wedding, I chose a floral print top I’d forgotten I’d ever owned. I paired it with jeans that had been crumpled on the floor next to my other jeans. I began to put on some “good” makeup, only to realize the foundation had coagulated in the jar, dispensing little more than a syrupy pus. Glad for the excuse not to continue, I smeared on my standard tinted moisturizer and took my place in the Zoom congregation. Half-dressed, half-made up, half-acquainted with the betrothing couple (the groom was an old and dear friend; I’d never met the bride), the bisected nature of the experience seemed fitting, even necessary. The battery of social gathering, long dead, was now regaining its charge. I may have only been partially there, but I was hardly absent.
Soon, the Zoom congregation had bloomed into more than one hundred tiny boxes. A few wedding guests appeared to be in their pajamas. Others wore coats and ties, hoodies, party dresses, bulky coats as they walked outdoors holding their phones to their faces. We clicked around our screens, peering at each other and also at the camera’s view of the chapel, where ushers in masks stood at the ends of barely-filled pews. The bride, when she finally appeared on screen, wore a long blue dress. Her two teenaged daughters stood on one side of the chancel, my friend’s two young daughters on the other. Everyone offered remarks about how grateful they were for this new family. Each little speech was perfect in its own way. My friend choked up as he spoke, and this unexpectedly made me choke up. In the chat box, the Zoom attendees sent their congratulations and indicated with emojis that they were crying. Not that anyone was watching us but ourselves. It was only after the ceremony, when the newlyweds returned to the chapel and ducked their faces into the computer, that the full dimensions of this monstrous miracle could be felt. Oh my god! the couple said. Look how many people are here! Can you believe it? Can you see them all? This is actually great. What a thing! Who would have thought?
Who would have thought? Barely ten months ago, no one would have thought. Right around this time last year, I was in an airport terminal in Portland, puking from what was either the stomach flu or food poisoning picked up during a work trip. The trip involved gathering in large groups in the conference rooms of an Oregon coast hotel as king tides and thirty-foot waves crashed on the shores outside. I’d been told something about a tsunami warning, not so much the real thing but a warning of a warning. At the lobby check-in desk, a notice to use caution while walking on the beach sat on the counter next to a notice about the hours of the continental breakfast. A tsunami?, I’d thought. In Oregon? I puzzled at the thought of it as I walked along the beach outside my room. I went to bed feeling slightly nervous about it, but my worry was long forgotten by the time I woke up in the middle of the night vomiting. I never want to travel again, I thought as I sat at the Delta gate that afternoon, dry heaving into an empty Cinnabon bag. I’d taken at least twenty flights over the last twelve months.
Since that trip, I haven’t been on a plane. Or worn one of those Everlane blouses. Who would have thought?
Less than a week after the Zoom wedding, I sat at my laptop watching the cult followers of a madman wage a violent insurrection against what remained of our democracy. On this, you’d be a fool to ask “who would have thought?” We all should have known. By then, the phantom hope for a new era had pixelated back into the chronic flaring pain of the last year. That morning, I’d gone to the doctor for a routine physical (what an act of optimism to seek preventative care) and asked about the timeline for receiving the cornoavirus vaccine. The answer, which was delivered with a mix of exasperation and resignation, essentially amounted to “fuck if we know.”
I realized then that I’d been harboring an absurd fantasy. I’d been entertaining the hazy idea that I’d get points for showing up, that my doctor would say “the vaccine rollout is craaaazy, but, hey, since you’re here . . . !” Then I’d get a jab of the needle and a wink of an eye. Then I’d skip out of the office, throwing my mask up in the air like Mary Tyler Moore tossing up her hat. Then my life would be back where it belonged.
Like I said, it’s a fantasy. I would never cut the vaccine line. Nor would I trust a doctor who’d let me do such a thing. Given that I’m relatively young and healthy and do work that’s about as essential as, well, writing blog posts on Medium, I’m about as low a priority for a vaccine as you can get, which is as it should be.
But part of the mystery of phantom hope is the way it floats to the surface even as you keep tamping it down. Hell lurks around every corner, but you can also find not-unwelcome surprise. Who would have thought scientists would make a vaccine so fast that we couldn’t even figure out how to distribute it on time? Who would have thought a bride and groom would be toasted by a hundred tiny faces in boxes on a screen and find it actually great? Who would have thought that, a year after I longed to never again set foot in an airport, I’d be mentally begging my doctor for a magic injection that would let me fly again?
These are not silver linings any of us would have ever chosen, but their small consolations insulate us nonetheless. May they get us through the winter, after which anything is possible. Hopefully.