So the first thing to go is commerce, the manic to and fro of getting and spending. Travel stops, shops close, restaurants empty, sports cancel themselves like the overhyped silliness they always were, office buildings sealed and mute as the pyramids. So much so quickly revealed to be unnecessary. An invisible bug whispering in a billion ears that the emperor has no clothes.
The next to go is art, a luxury no longer affordable. No more gathering in darkened theaters or light-washed galleries, no orchestras or dance troupes, no need for fashion or fancy meals. We had no idea how decadent we were. Paging through Vanity Fair or Bazaar becomes, overnight, a blackly comic archaeology of vanished preoccupations. We can stream music and movies, even Broadway plays, but the spaces that let the artists know, in the moment, how they’re making us feel are all closed. The utter solitude of the painter or the writer turns out to be communicable, contracted by their witnesses. Even reading has become grave; nothing too silly, nothing about normal life.
I read that during the Blitz in London at the start of the Second World War, life went on, for the most part, as it always had. People crowded into hotels and nightclubs and pubs that emptied only when the bombs were falling nearby. The nightspots with the strongest walls or the deepest basements were the most popular. When the sirens sounded, throngs crowded rooftops to watch the chaotically magnificent mingling of moonlight and searchlights and roaring aircraft. People fell into bed with one another with newfound abandon, sexed up by the prospect of sudden death, and gathered for proper tea the next afternoon because it was, after all, England, and it was Spring.*
Here, this Spring, the last thing to go is love. But romantic love of the unhoused, non-marital kind is its own sort of luxury, and social distancing the right thing to do. Can one still date?, asks a girl in a column. Maybe. But where to go? And what on earth to talk about, if not the bug, and social distancing? Brainless partying still has its adolescent appeal; the millennials think they’re immortal, and the greedy grownups haven’t had the sense to close the beaches yet.
Familial love endures, of course. The kids are all coming home, from their schools and all the foreign countries their sweet optimism had taken them. They’re annoyed to have the steady continuity they’ve known all their lives so rudely interrupted, but they don’t want to be trapped away from what they, against all odds, still think of as home, and they’re worried about us old people, whom the bug kills more of, and chide us for not thinking of ourselves as “elderly.” A wrecked economy and shuttered schools could keep them at home indefinitely, like the old days of their childhoods. It could be a very long Spring Break.
So the nuclear families, and the broader, chosen families, those made up not of blood relations, but of kin in the oldest sense — these endure and, it turns out, grow stronger. The distancing is merely physical, not social, much less spiritual. Business acquaintances, trapped in their cities, send emails describing their new lives. Cousins who long ago disappeared into Mexico check in to see how we’re doing. Old friends who haven’t been heard from in years pop up on our text chains.
And the dearest friends, the friends who would be siblings or lovers if they weren’t friends, never left, and are there, and begin to sing like some plucky showbiz chorus, softly at first, and then louder, and in harmony, on that huge, emptying stage.
*See The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson (2020).