To the Moon and Back – Imagining Life after Lockdown
I once heard that hardly any of the guys who went to the moon are still married to the same wives they had before they headed into outer space. I also once heard that prostitution increased dramatically after the Great Depression as women struggled for ways to support themselves. I have experienced neither of these events.
But I have lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Life changed in its wake. Intimacy was no longer as casual. There was a pause before passion. Relationships now had to be renegotiated. Sobering discussions of sexual history and protection had to be accommodated in the romance of courtship.
Inasmuch as I have lived through Big History – which was basically South Africa in the 1990s – I never thought that I would see history in the making quite in the way I have with the global spread of Covid-19. Never did I anticipate how a pandemic could change not only the big things, but also the smallest of things.
I might never go to the moon or become a prostitute, but living through this pandemic feels just as unimaginable. There are so many perceptible and imperceptible changes. In the face of enduring uncertainty, we continue to adapt to the profundity and triviality of change.
What makes Covid-19 different is that it strikes at the core of what it means to be a human being – interconnectedness. It is the separation it causes between families, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers. The separation between us and our cherished spaces and worlds.
Back to the future
I am writing this six months into the future. The curve has been flattened, the lockdown lifted. There is still no vaccine.
I have the rare privilege of working from my favourite coffee shop. Before the coronavirus (let’s call it BC), walking into any coffee shop was done without much thought, effort or money. What a simple pleasure. A treasured space between home and work, where the constant buzz and smell of caffeine gave me the last push I needed to finish an assignment. It was the inexplicable energy created in spaces shared with others that made the words eluding me accessible.
BC, Friday night dinners with my cousins at our favourite restaurant were a ritual, an anchor and a comfort. We laughed, gossiped and lingered over our meals. Glasses clinking at the table next to us. Laughter erupting two tables away between what could be young bankers. A happy birthday chorus rises from another table. It’s amazing how on any given night this was the place a bunch of strangers chose as a setting to their lives. Spaces are meaningless until we gather. We created unreplicable chemistry. One night never quite like the next.
Inasmuch as we loved the vibe and chaos of our Friday nights, there were times I wished we had the place to ourselves – especially when I lacked the energy to shout over the cacophony of voice. On those nights I wished the crowd would disappear. I wanted exclusivity. I dreamt about hiring the entire restaurant just for me and my cousins. I used to think that that would be the ultimate experience. Distance from others would be the sign that we had made it – like the velvet rope that separates the very important from the not.
BC, Friday nights did not include masks and sanitisers. Back then I could pinch my cousin’s cheek and rest my head on her shoulder. I could eat from her plate using her fork. Back then any of us could cough or sneeze without feeling guilty.
Life after the coronavirus (let’s call it AC) comes with the relief of no longer being confined to my home – but it’s no longer the carefree life it once was. Not only are we dealing with dashed hopes and dreams – weddings cancelled and jobs lost – but we have to accept how the mundanities of our lives have also changed.
Exclusivity – that’s what I used to long for. I have it now. Only it’s not being exercised voluntarily. This exclusivity is a precautionary measure imposed by others. AC, we can no longer spontaneously show up at the coffee shop like we did a thousand times before. Now I have to call two weeks in advance. There’s a form I have to fill out before my reservation can be approved. I have to answer questions.
“Have you been sick in the last six months? What previous illnesses have you had in the course of your life? Is there reason to believe that your immune system may be compromised? Have you previously been tested for Covid-19? Have you had Covid-19?” Once approved, an email confirming my reservation is sent from the coffee shop where I am now writing.
Under the new AC rules, only five patrons at a time can enter the coffee shop for a maximum of two hours. Outside, pressed against the glass, are those who are waiting in line for their turn.
So here I am for the first time AC, anticipating my first cup of a double soy cappuccino. Missing the emotional resonance and aliveness of shared spaces BC, but I still showed up. I showed up not only for the coffee but for human communion, no matter how limited. I showed up to hear voices other than my own. But a simple coffee outing is no longer simple – it is an overpriced, regimented, clinical and lonely experience. The happy chatter that used to fuel me has gone.
What joy is to be found in this exclusivity? About to sink into despair, a waiter comes up to me with a bottle of sanitiser. He smiles and generously sprays my hands. He does not do it only out of duty, but also out of kindness and consideration – at least, that’s what I need to believe.
I once heard that hardly any of the guys who landed on the moon are married to the same people they were married to before they went there. The last couple of months feel like we have all gone to the moon – that’s how surreal life has become.
As we slowly make our way back, I should have known that history would leave a lasting mark– it always does.