Tim Murphy is a veteran journalist and novelist who has been covering the U.S. HIV/AIDS epidemic since 1994.
My magic hour used to be 5 p.m. My Happy Time. As someone who’s worked at home going on 15 years now, I’ve long been able to get through the grueling isolation of “the remote lifestyle” with the comforting knowledge that, come 5 p.m., more or less, I would be out the door and on New York City transit, my cute little bag packed, on the way to the gym and then on to some dinner, play, movie, or meeting with friends, at which time all my crazy inner frustrations, obsessions, and mind-loops of the day could be unburdened and dispelled. Honestly, there have been days when I felt an almost physical kind of relief wash over me as I made IRL conversation—speaking, listening, and laughing in a kind of ritual communing. Was I really looking into the eyes of another sentient, flesh-and-blood being instead of at the dull glow of a screen? Why ... yes!
But for the past 10 days, I’ve been sick. Not so-sick-you-have-to-crawl-to-the-bathroom sick, but sick enough—with severe congestion, a persistent dry cough, knock-out fatigue, and an intermittent low-grade fever—that I haven’t ventured out more than downstairs to the grocery to buy essentials or for brief, foggy-brained forays to CVS to pick up my HIV and other meds—terrified to cough in public, even into the crook of my arm, like a good citizen amid a public health emergency.
For all I know, I have the new coronavirus—after all, my boyfriend and I flew to London for a few days in mid-February, then when we got back, he got sick (though not as badly as I), then I did. But apparently it’s almost impossible to be tested for COVID-19 in New York City anyway, due to low testing capacity and confusion around who should be tested—and my own doctor has told me to stay home unless my fever shoots up or I experience shortness of breath.
So that’s basically what I’ve been doing. I haven’t gotten on the train in 11 days. I’ve only set foot in a restaurant twice, desperate to break up the monotony of eating at home and to gaze upon other human beings as though they’re some kind of exotic species. Nonetheless, I felt so guilty that I warned the server to wash their hands after handling my check and taking my plates away.
I’ve gone into a kind of deep isolation that, frankly, was more intolerable a few days ago when I wasn’t used to it—but that, by this point, I’ve come to find almost weirdly soothing in its routines. When you’re so busy boiling ginger and garlic together, taking your temperature every four hours, and peeling carrots for your 400th chicken soup, who needs a social life?
The fact that I am able to work from home has been a huge solace, and I am thinking a lot about people who really should be staying home but feel pressured to go to work because they get paid by the hour. I just heard about someone who has a 102-degree fever but said that no way was he self-quarantining because he needs to get his rent paid. (I suggested to his friends that they do a public-health mitzvah and agree to chip in to help him make the rent.) And don’t even ask me how I feel about Republicans, who blocked an emergency paid sick-leave bill in Congress until the 11th hour—or whether I hope that botching the COVID crisis will bring about Trump’s final undoing in November.
This mass-scale disruption of life-as-usual that we’re all living through is, well, disruptive, but it’s also made me think a lot about other disruptions, in the big, historical sense of things. I’ve thought about the millions who died from the global flu pandemic of 1918—and of all those ladies who maybe were glad they could stay home and didn’t have to put on their corsets, four layers of skirts, giant hats, and the other ridiculous things people wore on a daily basis back then.
I’ve thought about people amid wartime and instability, like in Iraq, Syria, and Central America, unable to leave the house—perhaps until they had to carry their children across borders on foot to escape death.
And I’ve also thought a lot about all the people who were stuck in the apartment with AIDS in New York City (and elsewhere) back in the bad old days, far sicker and more miserable than I am now, with no text threads or Facebook to give them an easy lifeline to the outside world (and one that didn’t require the energy of talking on the phone).
It may sound morbid that I’ve been thinking about such stuff, but I see it differently: Plenty of people out there have had it worse, so maybe I should take this episode in my life as a chance to practice patience, grace under pressure, even gratitude. If I actually had a “Keep Calm and Get Out Your Neti Pot” T-shirt, mug, or fridge magnet, I’d be putting it to use! (Actually, I think neti pots are disgusting. Won’t go there.)
I moved into this apartment last summer and maxed out my credit card “making it nice”—clean white walls, dozens of plants, art, a great mattress, good cookware, the whole bit. Other than a screen, it’s all I have to look at 24/7 these days, so I’m damn glad I put the time into it back when I had the energy. If I had to look at unpacked boxes and bare walls all day, that might put me over the edge.
And speaking of Facebook, it’s been a balm. And I say that as someone who feels, at least half the time, that it’s destroying civilization. It’s made me realize, much faster and more broadly than I would otherwise, that nearly everyone I know who possibly can work from home is also doing so. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably be crazy with FOMO, convinced that everyone was at the world’s greatest rave, doing top-rate organic magic mushrooms by a sparkling tropical seaside, with Lizzo and Liz Warren as headliners.
Also, can I just say, it’s a relief to have zero sex drive. It makes you realize that sex can be wildly fulfilling from time to time, but that we probably wouldn’t even bother having sex if the need to have it weren’t always nagging away at us. You can’t miss something you don’t feel. That may sound tragic. I prefer to see it as a silver lining.
Another one of those linings: I don’t feel guilty about watching as much TV as possible. I binged that entire new four-part Hulu documentary on Hillary Clinton in one night. (I guess I’m not exactly the escapist type.) Mostly I marveled at how someone more than 20 years older than I am got by for so many years on so little sleep without being sick all the time.
I also started that new Amazon show Hunters, about a diverse gang of loveable kooks trying to root out Nazis in 1970s New York City. It’s just about as preposterous as it sounds, and, I’m sorry, it’s hard to see Al Pacino as an old Jewish man. He’s an old Italian man. A subtle difference, but not an insignificant one when you’re playing a Nazi hunter.
I’ve almost gotten past the point of, upon waking, hoping I’ll feel better than I did the day before, because I never really do. It’s more like a dull gray flatline. To keep from going totally nuts, I go out for the same short walk every day, terrified that someone will hear me cough and then yell at me for sharing the sidewalk. I always come back slightly worn out but grateful that I climbed the stairs without shortness of breath, triumphant in my big public appearance for the day.
I don’t really know how or when this is going to end—for me, or for civilization. Will we ever come together again in massive groups and, to quote Cher Horowitz in Clueless, party with the Haiti-ans? Meanwhile, I’m clinging to the weird routines I’ve developed in only 11 days (5 p.m.? Time for more boiled ginger!).
And I’m trying to use the experience as practice at staying in the moment ... even when the moment goes on and on and on.
[Editor's Note: Murphy originally wrote this article two weeks before published it. He's happy to report that he's feeling much better since then—but still, like everyone else, stuck in the house.]