The discomfort of apartness

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There are so many things that a global health crisis brings to a standstill. The paths of aeroplanes, lighting up the sky above an airport suburb. The hum of restaurants after 5pm. Concerts, plays, stand-up, cabaret, opera. The clinking of glasses. The weird and unwelcome intimacy of hearing your coworker flush a toilet.

Neighbours through their apartment windows (Getty Images/Maria Voronovich)

We live in strange, uncanny times. Cruise ships have become Flying Dutchmans and hand sanitiser the stuff of ambrosia. Pandemic fictions have become a source of comfort and familiarity. Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera has been lovingly parodied in countless tweets and by SBS Comedy.

But I keep going back to a short story, by Carmen Maria Machado in her book Her Body and Other Parties, called ‘Inventory’. In its simplest terms, the story is a narrator’s list of her lovers loved: boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbours, strangers. From this inventory emerges, bit by bit, the story that has made the list necessary: an epidemic is ravaging the world’s population. There is no vaccine, but as a woman from the narrator’s community tells her as they are lying in bed together, ‘the fucking thing is only passing through physical contact... If people would just stay apart—’.

Machado’s story is from 2017, long before the current pandemic turned our old lives into the stuff of history. What goes unsaid by the narrator is that in times of crisis, the balm of physical contact is both a precious commodity and a source of intimate danger. Over the last few weeks, affection and social proximity have become something approximate to the top tier of the food pyramid: consumption to be restricted; consider what you could do without. If you live alone, if you are able-bodied and have no dependents, much of the reigning health advice is easy to follow — but some things are hard, as well.

Though my phone rings every night, and my dad has gotten WhatsApp for the first time in his life, I find myself missing hugs, and making lists of things that feel obsolete: one-night stands, wakes, the communal pressure of group exercise, the sense of companionship in watching a movie side-by-side, picnic rugs. I buy locally and donate to homeless support services; my friends and I Skype each other while watching the same documentary on Netflix.

Still, my days are dulled by a feeling of what I can best describe as discomfort, a word whose sense becomes more revealing when broken into OED-sized pieces. Dis- implies reversal or negation; com- is a Latin prefix which can mean ‘together with, in combination or union’; and fort is a word meaning strength. In short, the ache I am feeling is that of absence. I did not know, until it vanished, how much mental and spiritual fortitude I derived from the pleasure of physical closeness.

 

'In the meantime, I tell my friends through the screen that I love them, more often that I used to. I look out for small kindnesses.'

 

At the very least, I am not alone here. My phone rings every night, from friends who are finishing twelve-hour shifts because they work jobs that are keeping the country together, and from friends who have lost their jobs and now have nothing and no one to wake up for, no need to sleep, and no reason to go out. Many of them have told me they are reaching out through social media to ex-lovers, hungry to know who else is lonely too. The other day I met up with a friend in Princes Park, ostensibly for the purpose of ‘personal exercise’; upon sight of each other, we exchanged a single, illicit hug, not sure if doing so was irresponsible or simply human.

In Machado’s dystopia, the prospects for the community who cannot stay apart are grim. By the story’s end the narrator is truly alone, not just suffering from the discomfort of apartness. In Australia, at least, we are faring better: in April, the Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy revealed that the government’s coronavirus modelling indicated our social distancing measures are flattening the curve, though we may not see an end to them for a long time. And there’s no evidence to suggest that a vaccine is beyond the scope of pharmaceutical firms and health institutions, but it might take a year, or more, for any of us to see it.

In the meantime, I tell my friends through the screen that I love them, more often that I used to. I look out for small kindnesses. I take heart when I see people stepping around each other in the supermarket, or lines of people spaced 1.5 metres apart to keep the local coffee shops afloat. I smile at strangers, more to remind myself what smiling feels like than for any other reason. I keep count of how many days I can go without touch.

I am preparing myself for a year of apartness; a year of labouring to stay connected in unconventional ways; a year of learning to be content with absence for the sake of a healthier future. I looked up the etymology of ‘together’ while writing this. The prefix to- sometimes has a sense of motion to it, as in ‘towards’; gether is from an Old English root word that means fellowship, or union. If apartness feels like deprivation, I tell myself, at least it is a deprivation that I have in common with others. The more we stay apart, the stronger, and more direct, the path to togetherness will be.

 

 

Georgia WhiteGeorgia White is a writer, tutor, and PhD student from Melbourne who has written previously for Boshemia Mag, the Oxford Review of Books and Queen Mob's Tea House. She researches nineteenth-century supernatural and Gothic fictions and tweets sporadically at @georgiamonsters.

Main image: Neighbours through their apartment windows (Getty Images/Maria Voronovich)

Topic tags: Georgia White, Carmen Maria Machardo, Her Body and Other Parties, social distancing, isolation, COVID-19

 

 

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Existing comments

You sound very lonely. I find it not so lonely as I live with my wife and actuallyexperience what you say you are missing........ touching.....intimacy....through, staying together on what each one is doing, what each one is reading, etc. This time has placed us both in more contact with each other and created more " togetherness" !! I like it.I think my wife misses her swims, her shopping, her coffee friends more than I do. But, as a time I believe we will remember, it has said, " stop, think what our lives, have been, how wonderful life is , and soon, hopefully , it will be better and you and I will have come through it it." I do feel sad because others must be doing it harder then us. Keep smiling....you will make it. God bless.
Peter | 28 April 2020


“foxes have their holes….” Christians could profitably derive from this essay, on the loss that is felt upon being expelled from community, some notion of what it might have meant to the Word to become flesh. When the Word was made flesh, the Word was made to become flesh, compelled to leave the unbounded, reciprocally communal warmth that is the Trinity, to become cramped in exile inside a carapace hostage to unfriendly nature, unreliable acquaintances, associates and allies (but reliable enemies), entrusting to no one because an unglorified human, however well-meaning, has not the essence to understand and reciprocate, much like an old widow who has to live as if she can talk meaningfully to her cats, because the peers who could be her emotional equals are unavailable. For three decades, the Trinity was (but was not) the place where the Word could have laid its head.
roy chen yee | 29 April 2020


In this time of COVID-19 we are all looking for contact and affection. Normal things keep happening. A friend died in Melbourne recently, not connected with COVID-19. I understand the need for social distancing and am glad we have one of the lowest death rates from this virus in the world. It's good to have friends and family to connect with but I am finding out that many normal contacts were casual and the friendship will not last the way you thought it would, while, if you give certain people a chance, they're capable of real, deep friendship. I see COVID-19 as a time of discovery. You can discover who you are and your own inherent value: extremely useful in these days when many of our values are second hand or more and we often don't know who we are. It's strange, solitary confinement in some situations can drive you insane, whilst some religious hermits seek it out and find themselves. Literature, great literature, can teach us something but it depends what gels with you. I think, when the COVID-19 bans come off different people will come out of it differently.
Edward Fido | 29 April 2020


'Lock-down' is a new and, hopefully, relatively short term experience for most of us. For asylum-seekers and 'irregular arrivals', it is their life, with no hope of reprieve.
Ginger Meggs | 29 April 2020


I am feeling is that of absence. I did not know, until it vanished, how much mental and spiritual fortitude I derived from the pleasure of physical closeness ? Maybe too much of something makes us constantly look for 'soft things'? Some practice 'potential', and seek to be strengthened by absence and not abundance. Then will the humble cottage of the poor be preferred to the gilded palace. Then will steadfast patience be of more avail than all worldly power. We can (here) take the example of some/one in prison, there for no fault, for a crime they did not commit. Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer the list goes on. Whether we realise it or not. We are all doing time here. To understand Justice, must we first endure what Injustice is? Possibly. Humility, the 'remaining sentiment' finally liberated from slavery to Pride. Yeap. The Psychomachia ("Battle for the Soul"), an epic poem written by Prudentius . You may like to read it, Georgia, if you haven't already. A bit strong at times. A masterpiece, even so.
AO | 30 April 2020


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