Two Years in New York (Michael Mohr's "fictional memoir" chapter 13)
Fictional memoir about NYC during Covid
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**This is a chapter from a completed “fictional memoir” about my time in NYC during the Pandemic. Enjoy.
Here is chapter 1:
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The pandemic—now simply referred to as COVID—had been around for a month by this point. But it seemed like six months. There was a psychological transformation which took place in many people’s minds. Mine for certain. A devolution, if you will. Time seemed to simultaneously slow down and yet speed up, a day feeling like both five minutes and a week. A slow, vibrating, gelatinous sensation overtook me, as if my body were experiencing—or maybe more so my mind—a mild case of Myesthenia Gravis, my corpus stunned, the muscles weakening. I was irritated and sluggish, determined but scared. We all were, I think.
Life had fallen into a new predictable, strange new routine. I’d get up around seven-thirty, eight am. Drink Irish Breakfast tea. Read. Shower. The usual. Then I’d “go” to an AA meeting, which really meant logging into 12-step meetings online via the platform Zoom. Almost instantaneously, AA had responded to everything closing down—including old, moldy church basements where our meetings most often took place—by continuing these sacred, precious meetings using Zoom.
It was, for those of us in the recovery community, a godsend. We were luckier than “the normies,” the average “normal” non-alcoholics out there. We had this spiritual, built-in community which was now incredibly easily accessible. Before COVID (people had started to call it The Before Times, or Pre-Pandemic) you had to get dressed and look presentable and walk to the subway and take a train and then get off and walk and physically find a seat at the meeting, etc. Now it was all very basic and easy and simple: You logged into the meeting, with or without your camera on, and you attended. Period. The only problem those early months were “Zoom bombers,” people who snuck into the meetings and tried to hijack the groups by saying horribly bizarre, offensive things. (Like dropping the “N-Word” over and over and over, shouting it, laughing maliciously.) Over time we learned how to make it harder for bombers to get in. We adjusted.
After a meeting I’d generally write. My writer friend, Betty, who lived in Berkeley, and who I’d known since 2016—she had an agent and a brilliant memoir, though at the time it was not yet published—had challenged me to write a rough draft of a new novel in one month. Always a prolific pumper of prose, I’d taken the bet. Book editing work had already more or less died; people were cutting down on expenses, buying groceries and toilet paper in bulk. Millions lost their jobs due to mass commercial closures. The economy was in peril. Thankfully I still collected the rent from my tenants in the El Cerrito house, and I had some savings left and my family. Again, I was privileged. This vacuum gave me the time to write fulltime.
I decided to try my hand at writing a first draft of the second book in my nascent literary trilogy about my sordid, anarchic twenties. I fell into a literary routine: After Zoom I’d sit down and work. First I’d reread the previous day’s chapter (I wrote a new chapter each day), and then I’d write the next chapter after having made some edits to the previous one. After a few hours of work, I’d fire the chapter off to Betty. She’d read it within a few hours and send feedback. I’d rework the suggested changes (almost always solid advice) and then be done for the day.
This kept me busy and focused on a project. For the first time in my life, I felt like a serious, “professional” writer. Nothing else got in the way. I worked. It was like Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, working in Paris in the twenties.
Finally, after writing—usually around one, two pm by this point—I’d snag my jacket (unless it was warm enough outside) and I’d hit the street. I’d most often walk down 130th to Lenox Avenue and then stroll down Lenox the twenty blocks to the top of Central Park, Cathedral Parkway at 110th Street, where the Harlem Meer was, a little lake-like manmade body of water. Green grass surrounded the Meer, with green benches all around it for people to sit. The walk along Lenox was sketchy by now, everyone seeming enthralled by their own solipsistic rage and frustration.
There were homeless everywhere. Clusters of men gathered like clumps of cancer. Most people—but not all—wore masks, usually the simple (and freely handed out) blue hospital ones with thin white strings which made your ears ache after a few hours. The streets were pretty empty, too, except for those raging people and the never-ceasing sound of police sirens and paramedics. By now the police seemed to be less visible. Often as I walked down to the Meer, if I were around at the current time, I’d hear the people banging pots and pans together loudly, out of apartment windows, and the thrush of hollering in unison, celebrating the essential medical workers who were increasingly working absurd hours and putting their lives on the line to help and were essentially fighting a war which to a large degree we were all slowing starting to realize was unwinnable. COVID was like a 2020 viral Vietnam.
When I heard the clashing and clanging of pots and pans and the singing and yelling I had an adrenaline rush; I was proud of Harlem, New York City, America. At least many people understood. Not everyone was cold and numb. Yet I did feel less and less safe, more and more white and privileged, more and more aware of the looks of young black men, eyeing me brutally as I passed, seeing them out of my terrified peripherals. By now I tried to avoid being out at night at all. The whole experience seemed fictitious and alien, as if this were all a movie being filmed by Quentin Tarantino. We were all unwitting actors in a play which was oh so real and deadly and harsh.
At the Meer I’d often walk around the water a few times. It took maybe fifteen, twenty minutes to do a full circle. It was park-like around the lake. People lounged in groups on the green mown grass, laughing and gesturing. (As if life were normal!) Some walked like I did. Some were alone; some were in twos and threes. Some played stereos too loud, tense, anxious hip-hop which put me on edge. It brought back that hyper-urban, oil-and-gasoline stench of Uptown Manhattan. After an hour or two I’d usually walk back along either Lenox or 5th. When I took 5th I’d walk either around or through Marcus Garvey Park on the way home. There I was—picture me—white and scared and wearing my red REI puff jacket and tight blue jeans and brown Keen hiking boots, sweaty, taking pulls of a water bottle, my light blue hospital face mask on, my head on a bobble, eyes searching everything around me like some nervous, worried rat.
I listened to music and books using my Apple ear pods sometimes while walking round the Meer and/or walking home, even though this generally increased my fear due to less full attention and awareness. Music or a podcast or an Audible book. For the past few weeks I’d been reading voraciously. I’d always been a big reader (and never a TV watcher) but now, with all the time I had and the desire to mentally escape (which I also did through writing), my hungry reading was nearly absurd.
I plowed through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Then a collection of Tolstoy’s shorter works. I reread The Catcher in the Rye. I read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. (One of my all-time favorite 19th century Russian authors.) I read The Essential Kierkegaard. I read Emma Cline’s The Girls. Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter. Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World. Zadie Smith’s brilliant essay collection Feel Free. I read The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe, a novel I’d wanted to read for a decade. I had time. I had mental energy, almost a lust. I read physical books. Audio books. I plowed through New Yorker Magazines like they were water on a hot dry day. I couldn’t get enough.
One day, as I was walking back home, along Lenox, thinking about how I hadn’t taken a subway train in a month (they were becoming increasingly dangerous now, being overtaken by unstable homeless; people being shoved onto tracks; and they were vectors of COVID spread), and thinking about whether I’d do another InstaCart order of food (a new but helpful option given the sketchy nature of being with others inside grocery stores), seeing the crazy long lines of masked, impatient people waiting one in front of the other outside to get into the grocery stores and markets—they were now requiring masks and only letting in a certain number of people at a time, to try to control the spread of the virus—Sophia called me.
We hadn’t talked in two weeks, ever since that uncomfortable conversation at lunch after carrying her gigantic painting up Amsterdam to that apartment on the 35th floor. We’d texted briefly a few times, but it’d been superficial. I still didn’t know what to think about her, about what’d happened in Florence with Chad, about the concept of an “us.”
“Hey,” I said, seeing my breath come out of my mouth on this cold mid-April afternoon.
“What are you doing?” She said, and I immediately missed her incredibly. She laughed, gently. Her laugh. It lifted my spirits. I worried about definition, what we “were,” but at the same time I grasped that, underneath it all, it really didn’t matter. I just wanted to know her. Be close to her somehow, in whatever form that took. I missed our two, three-hour-long conversations. I missed her broad, artistic perspective on life and people and experience. I missed her lucid, unusual intelligence. I missed discussing art and writing and literature. I even missed our complex, confusing little pseudo-sexual, friendship-based-but-more-than-that dance, the tango we’d been dancing together since that first meeting in the basement in Stuyvesant Town.
“Just walking back to the apartment after trudging round the Harlem Meer. Gorgeous day out. Cold though. What’re you doing?”
She sighed. “Just sitting alone in my apartment. Bored. I tried to convince myself to paint but it just isn’t happening. I think I might grab some canvasses and go down to the Hudson River later and try to paint outside.”
I pictured her in her little cramped studio, surrounded by painted and empty and half-filled massive canvasses, her big bed in the center of the space, the shelf of thick classic books, the window exposing north of 66th, the Upper West Side, her tiny, rust-stained bathroom, her incredibly teeny classic NYC-style kitchen which barely fit one human being. Her red door. That night, before she left for Europe. Her kissing me as I left, how I danced along the red carpet after, heading back to the elevator. And now I envisioned her standing alone by the rushing Hudson River, that paint-spattered oversized long white T-shirt she wore when she worked, brush in delicate right hand, painting alone, being observed by random New Yorkers.
“That’s a great idea. Have you been getting outside much?”
She sighed again, long and slow. “No. I stay inside for like days. Seriously. Days. I feel depressed. Like, when is this fucking thing going to end? It’s been a whole month and there’s no end in sight it seems.”
She was right, of course. One month—four weeks—had felt endless. I’d made an effort to go outside at least once every day, to walk, be outside. I needed it. Like a dog who requires walking once a day. For my sanity. And I had Lucius. He helped. He was safe and warm and unconditional and comforting. But I was technically single. Sophia had Chad. And me. Sort of.
“Yeah. I know. It’s rough. For all of us. Hey—at least we’re safe and alone and we have AA and we have each other and we have our art. I’ve been writing every day; I’m working on a new novel.”
“That’s incredible, Michael! I’m happy for you. I haven’t been painting enough. Hardly at all. I’m just tired. Emotionally drained. Depressed, I guess it’s called, haha. I lay in bed some days like half the day. I stay locked in my tiny apartment. I’m afraid to go outside. People scare me. This whole fucking Pandemic is terrifying. I feel like fucking Raskolnikov or The Underground Man in Notes from Underground. Or like Van goddamn Gogh when he lived in solitude in Arles.”
“Ha! Great literary references to Dostoevsky. I get it. Loneliness. Solitude. Being single. Living in our stupid little Manhattan boxes with four walls. The emptiness of the streets, the emptiness of how everything feels right now.”
But, I also thought: Why aren’t WE together, Sophia? We could wrap our arms round each other. We could save one another. I love you, I love you, I love you. I want you. I NEED you.
We went on bantering like this for a while. Telling each other of our experiences living alone during the new COVID phenomenon. She wished she had an animal like Lucius. Lucius had been keeping me safe and warm and was good company. He was three-and-a-half and still hyper. He craved attention. I pet him; held him; took naps with him on my chest; brushed his long black-and-white hair. He kneaded my arms and chest with his sharp claws. His gold eyes fixed on mine and he sometimes seemed to see into my soul. He was a beating heart, a wild feline who seemed to understand what was happening in some unusual, intuitive, protector sort of way. He’d done the same thing in 2018, after Adinah and I broke up and I kept him and the house.
Adinah, his mother, was gone. Poof; just like that. It was just me and him. I’d pace the house crying, and then fall into the old foldable chair Adinah had let me keep (her grandfather’s); Lucius wouldn’t hesitate a moment, he’d jump onto my lap, climb onto my chest, and lick my tears away. Literally. He knew. He understood. He loved me unconditionally. And vice versa. This was the miracle of animals. They did not judge you like humans; they weren’t manipulative; they weren’t sarcastic or jealous. They were just soft and loving and warm and kind. Unconditional, flawless love. He was my little four-legged “son.” Sophia did not have this privilege.
Eventually, after about two hours of catching each other up on the past two weeks of COVID Insanity, we bumped into the toxic topic we’d been avoiding: “Us.”
“So what do you think?” I asked. “About you and me?”
She hesitated, then cleared her throat. “Well you know I care about you a lot. Like, a lot.”
“I know. Ditto.”
“Right. Well. I dunno. Chad and I have done this weird sort of back and forth thing the past month. Ever since he flew out to Italy. We’re not back together, exactly, but we’re not not back together. Does that make sense?”
I laughed. “Not really? Sort of?”
She laughed. I could picture her throwing her head back, chucking her long blond hair off her shoulder. “Yeah. It’s hard to explain. We connect so strongly as artists, me and Chad. And I feel comfortable just being around him in a strange way. We’re not sleeping together at the moment. But we might later. I think he has a profound inability to love anyone, honestly. And he doesn’t feel super excited about sex. Sometimes I wonder if he’s gay. If he’s, like, you know, repressing his sexuality. But on the flip side he makes me feel…somehow safe. Maybe it’s because of that, the fact that he seems in many ways cold and distant. Like he can’t connect fully with me. As I’ve said before, he’s so much like my father. It’s odd. Psychological. Deeply intuitive. Wow,” she said, chuckling. “It’s so weird how we can be completely self-aware of something about ourselves, and yet still be powerless to change it. Like alcoholism.”
Or abusive relationships, I thought.
My stomach clenched when she said all this about Chad. Yet I know I was being childish, selfish, immature, myopic. Again I was a hypocrite. I knew as well as anybody that you can’t change people. That we are who we are. I couldn’t change myself. I was so similar to my own mother it made me want to vomit sometimes. The sexism and womanizing were a reaction to my mom, always seeking a “replacement” for the maternal love I always felt lacking. Like my mom I could be mean, cruel, controlling, jealous, petty. I gossiped like her, played games like her, could be histrionic like her. I was just as self-conscious and insecure, and worried about what strangers thought of me. I struggled over other people’s perceptions of me. Which of course is as dangerous as a knife being thrust into your own chest by your own weak hand. The only difference between Sophia and I and our respective parents, I figured, was that we’d hit bottom and gotten sober, found recovery, therapy, meditation, a community, etc. We were at least trying to change, attempting, however feebly, to push back against our own nasty instincts.
But then there was Chad.
“Don’t you feel that special feeling when you and I kiss, Sophia?” I tried to remove the edgy, irritated tone from my voice. “Don’t you feel the obvious chemistry?” Don’t you see, I wanted to add, that I’m the younger, more attractive, more talented and more driven artist compared to the independently wealthy, in-his-sixties dinosaur Chad?
She was silent a beat and then said, “Yes…I mean…yeah…yeah I totally do feel all that around you. I just don’t know if the timing is right. Or if we’re, like, supposed to actually date…or like…me and Chad are not supposed to. I know I said all those things about Chad, about him being a narcissist and an asshole incapable of empathy and of loving anyone other than himself…but there’s just that cracked, wounded, broken something between us. Maybe I’m totally codependent and fucked-up. I mean I’m like this intense artist, this painter, right? Look at my childhood. Maybe I’m making a huge mistake. But, if I am, I still want to make it. I have to make it. Who knows what the future holds, Michael. But right now, I think I want to see what happens with Chad.”
She had a point here. We have to make our own mistakes. And how did I “know” that she and I dating wasn’t a mistake? Had dating Adinah for four and a half years been a mistake? In the overall: No. It had been worth it. Exhausting at times, for sure. Draining. But we had many profound experiences. We grew together and apart. We changed, for better and for worse. Doesn’t every experience in life change you in some way, even if incrementally?
I took a minute wherein I did not respond. An awkward moment on a first date where neither of you say a word and you both just sort of look down or away. Embarrassed, insecure, uncertain. Then I said something that is so classically me: “So…to clarify…just to be straight here…you just want to be friends? Me and you?”
I heard her take a breath in and slowly blow it back out. I longed in that moment to kiss her so badly. I was lonely, as so many people were during this bizarre, intangible historic moment we were living through. Where was Adinah?, I wondered. Where was she living? Did she have roommates? Did she sometimes think of me? Did she wonder where I was? I thought of that meeting with her in the Berkeley Marina after eight months, in September, 2018, walking around for three hours, crying, catching each other up on our newly separate lives, showing her videos of Lucius, laughing painfully, hugging, and then my sitting on that boulder by the water after she left, seeing the crystal blue bay and the bridges and Marin and San Francisco across the expanse of liquid blue and whispering, Goodbye, Adinah.
And now I was back to the old familiar loneliness which I’d carried like a Christ with his cross my whole life. I knew I wasn’t unique. Alcoholics were often like this. As were serious, driven artists. Writers, in particular, tended to be solitary, extroverted introverts who both loved and despised society and other human beings and who always wanted something for nothing (or for very little). We were generally a selfish lot, though also kind and big-hearted when it suited us.
And yet I also of course had my own profound and unique nature. The “Michael” that was me. We were all made up that way. I wanted people to love me; no, I wanted them to prove that they loved me. But then, if and when they did, I pushed back because I was afraid of their love. It was exhausting, a childish push/pull which often ended up in both people losing. In the end I was alone. Too intense. Too solitary. Too comfortable being on my own. I’d always loved the solitary things: Surfing; hiking; writing; long silent drives to unknown destinations; thumbing across America. For so much of my life I hadn’t liked or even trusted myself. But I’d understood myself. And that—in a world so full of confusion, contradictions and chaos—had been all I required.
“Is that cool?” Sophia said, bursting me out of my momentary but deep reverie. “I mean, I’m not saying we can’t ever try dating…but for now…I think being friends is best.”
A relief I hadn’t expected surged up; my shoulders seemed to literally relax. A weight seemed to lift off of me. I realized in that moment that that’s what I’d actually wanted all along. To be friends. Why not? Historically I’d had lots of platonic women friends. Before high school and during there’d only been a few, but in my twenties for whatever reason my life had seemed to in many ways revolve around women. Sexual relationships; romantic relationships; platonic friends. Women women women. I found women much more interesting than men in most ways—smarter (intellectually equal to men but when you factored in Emotional Intelligence as well, women dominated); more mature (less to prove); more sensitive; more self-aware; more willing to be vulnerable. These traits described myself, even in my lurid early twenties when, mostly, and especially around men and groups in general, I still wore The Mask of hardcore rebel punk rocker. (Often women, though, could also see through his façade.)
Smiling—realizing I had somehow unconsciously walked back to Lenox Ave during our lengthy conversation and was at 116th—I said,
“Yeah. I get it. You’re right, Sophia. Let’s be friends. I mean, we already are friends. I love you. As, you know, a human being.”
“I care so much about you, Michael. I’m glad you understand.”
“We’re on the same page. We’re fellow artists; fellow sober people; fellow New Yorkers. Especially right now, during all this apocalyptic anarchy, we need to support one another.”
She sighed in relief, sounding happy for the first time in months. “Thanks. Good. I’m glad that’s settled.”
We paused a moment. “Alright. I better get going.” It was dusk somehow. Around six pm. We’d been on the phone over three hours. Typical. I talked a long time to anyone who I genuinely connected with. But especially with her. I had friends like her in California, Oregon, New York. People I could just pick up the phone and call. “I want to get home before it gets dark.”
“Totally. Be careful over there in Harlem.”
“Love ya, Soph.”
“Love you, too, Fellow Artist, lol.”
“Have a good night,” I said.
“Go outside at some point. Take a walk. Stroll along the river. Paint. Whatever. Exercise and being outside are huge right now. For your mental health.”
“Yeah. I will. I know. You’re right.”
“Ok. Talk later.”
It was deep dusk and I still stood around at 116th and Lenox. There was a big grocery mart there. Stupidly, I decided last second to go in—there was no line—and buy some groceries. I’d have to carry the bags the fifteen blocks back to my apartment, including up four flights of stairs. But I didn’t have much at home and I didn’t want to deal with it tomorrow. There would be another twenty, thirty minutes of dim light.
What could possibly go wrong?
Thank you for sharing your experience in New York during the early stages of the government's response to the "pandemic." Many of our lives became limited to an exercise routine and remote work. For others, they devoured all the medical literature they could find (and comprehend) to understand what was reportedly plaguing the world. I recall feeling isolated in mid-April 2020 due to having a completely different view from friends & family on the transpiring "COVID" situation. I used InstaCart on more than one occasion and glimpsed the pile of pizza boxes on my neighbor's front porch. The "pandemic" was great for Big Business but not so much for the mom-and-pop stores: that in and of itself became a pandemic of small business closures.
Clear and evocative. I'm a native New Yorker; I know how hard it is to describe such a distinctly sentient experience in a way that feels satisfying, or at least to me.
I'm curious as to why you've chosen "fictional memoir" rather than the usual 'autofiction.'
I've toyed with the idea myself with my memoirs in the name of "protecting the guilty," but they're guilty as fuck, so it makes no sense for my quest for bare-naked authenticity. I'm kinda perverted about that: If something feels remotely taboo or embarrassing, I force myself to spend more time peeling the layers on it.
I also have the Chinese curse of having led "an interesting life" that is so unusual for an American that I feel autofictioning it will weaken the unusualness that I've been gifted or saddled with, depending on your perspective, or how well therapy is working for me recently.
I am considering autofic to expand on particular sequences from my life that would come after the memoirs, as you seem to be doing with this. And now I feel overwhelmed by all the writing ahead, so I'll crawl under the covers till it goes away.