My Covid Love Affair
By Michael Hickins
We meet thanks to a global disaster, a catastrophe taking orders of magnitude. We find each other around a coffee on the Canal St. Martin, a shared cigarette lighter, a coupling of despair and hope – that something better may arise.
We come in my place. We stay in my place. No reason not to. My job is gone; the need for idealists has dissipated with the plague, because although I live in a country where idealism can be a profession, demand for idealism has been disrupted. I’ve gone from professional faith healer to my profession of faith: my faith in humankind is being tested.
He, a teacher, no longer has a place to teach. Children need not learn during times of humanitarian crisis, no more than citizens are due civil liberties nor immigrants their basic human rights. Never waste a good crisis, says Jerome, sad savant of economics. A simple country boy from near Pau, a small prefecture close to the border of Spain –could have been anything he wanted, and he wanted to become a school teacher. It speaks highly of our civilization that this should come as a surprise, that a young man who could become anything chooses to become a teacher.
The first week we are together, I marvel at his intellect (when I’m not marveling at the beauty of the birthmark over his one green eye – the other is blue), while he rides me, cowgirl-style.
The second week, I marvel at the beauty of his soul (when I’m not marveling at the exquisite odor of his inner sanctum). He uses my nose for a vibrating clitoral massage implement. “This is the longest I’ve been with anybody,” he says.
The third week, I marvel at the longing inside my belly, the ache I feel for him. He has left Paris for the small commune of Nay, I kid you not, in the vicinity of Pau, where his elderly, retired parents own a small house and a vegetable garden.
He plans to quarantine with them for as long as it takes. He will forage for them at essential shops, will take in the mail for them, scrub the floors, drive them to their doctors’ appointments, help them organize the world like the lights in a poem by Wallace Stevens.
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea
Jerome and I have the Internet, the chat boxes, the text machines, the synchronous and asynchronous means of modern communication, the digital walls that divide us into ones and zeros, nothings and heroes, the dots and dashes of the modern era.
The Internet is a modern telegraph. Joseph Reuters made a fortune selling market information by means of carrier pigeon. He was smart enough to see the future, and was one of the first to use the telegraph for modern commercial purposes. Today, the sixteen-wheelers of the information superhighway are the banks, the brokers, the cryptocurrency manipulators, the practitioners of the dark arts of cyber extortion, cyber ransom, cyber racketeering.
And to this jibber-jabber telegraph, to this staccato Mephistopheles of epistolary endeavors, we entrust our love letters, the outpourings of our analog souls, as if spiritual beings could generate ghosts in the machine, as if the digital gears of the gods would grind more gently on our behalf.
But our hourly tick-tack texts, our brushed aluminum promises of eternal love, our daily FaceCrush sessions, our HeadTrip assignations, our TenderBox exchanges – become banal as the topless billboard advertisements for lingerie on the Grand Boulevards.
“Let’s stop,” he suggests.
“Yes,” I agree. “Let’s take a break from this breakless, breathless bacchanalia of banter.”
We put a stop to the solipsistic soap opera that we had ginned up for ourselves. Jerome has his parents to care for, and I had – well, I have all of Paris to heal.
I pretend that I am at peace with the idea that we will afford each other the space in which to miss and rediscover one another at some later, more propitious time for love to prosper.
My nightfall footsteps echo across boulevard Jean Jaures, named for the Socialist revolutionary who led the first modern French Socialist party, where it crosses boulevard Barbès–Rochechouart, named for Armand Barbès, also a revolutionary and the very first rebel without a cause.
I am alone this evening. I have a vinyl pizza delivery sack slung across my back, but instead of pizza, I’m carrying meals from one of the Christian charities. There is no shortage of takers, and the charity doesn’t care who takes the meals, or of what religion they partake, or of what faith they profess, or in which precinct they piss, nor in what language they swear.
There are dozens of us across Paris; I am proud to be of their number, and they remind me that humans are also capable of great generosity.
The newly homeless elbow their way past the laconic, urbane homeless, the experienced urban homeless, the homeless by choice, the homeless by fortune, the homeless vagrants from Syria, Eritrea, and other loci of human loco governments, the foci of populist vindictiveness and popular rage, these homeless poor with dirty fingernails and greasy over-combed hair, of shiny faces, of blackened teeth and grimy shirt collars and frayed cuffs, of ill-fitting winter coats and leather boots held together with duct tape.
I cross the median where the newly unemployed refine their skill at pétanque, a new meridian for this ancient game of balls, of judgment, and of skill, a sport that needs no feats of strength, but only endurance, for the pastis hits you hard under the noonday sun; the playing surface is mottled with spots where heavy metal balls have thudded to the ground and ground the dust under their crisscross alien designs.
A menace looms in the afterglow of the evening’s last metro, a light brown walking stick in his hand, a false smile on his face. I am no dupe, and I also practice la boxe anglaise, which is to say, I box. I know
how to defend myself.
To be an idealist, a humanist, to work for the common good, to work diligently at fraying the rope that
capitalism hands us to hasten our own demise – these things do not mean one is oblivious or helpless or unaware of the realities of life. Cut-purses are nothing new. I bend at the knees as the man approaches, tip-tapping his stick menacingly into the palm of his left hand. I grab a handful of dirt and shuffle it into his eyes. I duck away from his blindly swinging stick, I stick my leg out, I stick him in the face as he falls, I kick him in the ribs, I kick the man when he’s down, there’s no other way to it, I kick the stick out of his hand, out of his reach, he’s out of his depth, he’s near death, he suffers from diphtheria, of acute diverticulitis, of dietary impurities, of lack of dignity and lack of a social security card.
I help him to his feet. He stares at me balefully.
“How do you know I won’t try to gouge out your eyes with my thumbs?” he says.
I don’t bother answering.
“I don’t have any of these fucking meals left, but I’ll be back tomorrow,” I say.
“I’ll be dead tomorrow. My baby will be dead tomorrow.”
“What’s her name?”
“It’s a boy. Vladimir. I thought if I named him after a despot, he would have good luck.”
“He still might,” I say. “If he lives long enough.”
“What a fucking country,” he says. “Why did I bother coming here, only to die in the streets like an animal?”
“Animals die in the forest,” I say. “Humans usually die in the street, and only humans have the stomach to stomach it.”
“What the hell do you know of it?” he asks.
We sit on a bench and observe the moonlit terrain where tomorrow and every day old men hack each other’s hopes to pieces with heavy metal balls with checkerboard patterns etched into their silver.
“I see people die every day,” I say. “I see them dying even when they don’t know they’re dying.”
“Boy, you really feel yourself, don’t you. Well don’t romanticize your life too much, you’re not very far from the gutter of guttural subsistence yourself.”
I don’t tell him I belong to the cultured and educated elite, and that despite my attempt at class suicide, they won’t let me die without a fight. I’d have to do the French thing and find a way to off myself without help of a firearm.
There is no Second Amendment in France, no second chance, not a second wasted on thought, you don’t get seconds, there is no second place, only first loser.
It is a Saturday afternoon in June and I am at another weekend demonstration. Nothing will change, nothing will be accomplished, and the people’s evolutionary aims are diffuse and divergent and difficult to obtain. So and so must resign. Such and such a decree must be rescinded.
We are protesting budget cuts at public hospitals, layoffs of nurses, reductions in the pay of nurses, reductions in medical reimbursements. The President has said it is the end of the providential state, and he has said the providential state will care for everyone.
The guttural protest chants are led by a pair of women straight out of the Mabinogi. The power of their urgent rhyming utterances delivered in combat cadence is unmatched. I understand why the Celts revered their female warriors. Nothing grabs you more powerfully than the urging of womenfolk.
Nothing substantive is ever obtained from street protests, except the ferocious expression of our remaining freedom, our obstinate insistence to be heard, or at least to be seen and gassed, to be acknowledged by television cameras, our images distorted by the words of the reporters.
Our COVID masks partially protect us from the tear gas canisters fired by bazooka-wielding riot police, but nothing shields us from the distortions of the capitalist-owned media who call us rioters, or nihilists, or terrorists. Yes, we are the terrorists, while the machinery of government is used to grind us down like Chinese students at Tiananmen Square.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
They chase a few of us down a narrow street, screaming, “bastards, motherfuckers, motherfucking bastards.” They swing their inflexible batons and kick our ribs with their steel-toed boots, and I am cut by the glass from the headlights of muted cars parked by the side of the road.
Jerome returns to Paris in the summer, when the bloom is off the rose, when the quarantine is over, over and over and over and over. He tells me it’s over.
“I’ve never been involved with anyone for more than three weeks,” he says.
“Technically, we’ve only been together for two,” I say.
“Don’t argue with me, don’t you see it’s pointless. Don’t you know I hate it when you debate me, you constantly debate me, everything is a debate with you, you always have to contradict everything I say, the littlest thing, it’s like you’re looking for an excuse to debate me.”
I remember the moment we met, he and I. I remember the world as it was then, full of promise and the promise of disaster like a storm at sea. We think we want a revolution!
Nothing seems more predictable than prosperity and the end of history. We yearn for novelty, for the vicissitudes of outrageous fortune, for the jab of existential spontaneity, the spouting fountain of precarity. And then it comes and it is more unforgiving than we expected.
Suddenly we want nothing more than to scurry back down the rabbit hole of our previously prosperous existence, back to the comfort of awaiting the outcome we expect, but which we have lost in the foxhole of life’s unpredictable banditry.
But as my darling, departing Jerome says, never waste a good crisis.
To the barricades, my friends!
Michael Hickins is author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, The What Do You Know Contest, Blomqvist, I Lived in France and So Can You, and In a Different Light, a novel Hickins has just completed.