A quick story

I dreamed I was at a family gathering. We were indoors, in the New Jersey suburbs, in the den of the house where my cousin lives. This is the cousin who was hospitalized in March, and both of her daughters were there: the one who first contracted the virus at a business conference in Colorado, and her younger sister, who has never been tested, and has never gotten sick. Hilary was with me. Other family members were there, too, but their faces were diffuse; for the purposes of the dream-narrative, they were treated by my unconscious as bystanders. Food covered the kitchen table. People were eating and talking. I remember thinking it was a little stuffy.

A bug on the wall of the kitchen tipped the party straight into chaos. The insect was big and caramel-brown, and it scurried fast. This was the sort of bug that you hate to look at too close, so you squint, and hold your breath, and try not to have your primal fears awakened by the feelers, and the tendrils, and the compound eyes. We all ran into the den. But the younger sister wasn’t afraid of the insect. She leaned over and picked it up. I was happy she did: I didn’t think that squashing it with a shoe was a good idea. She’d bring it over to the window and set it free.

Instead she carried it to the middle of the den and let it go. In a blur of bug-wings, it flew directly at the opposite wall, hovered, dove, and began running fast across the carpeted floor. It was at that moment that I realized I’d broken my glasses. The lens was shattered and one of the arms was bent. I didn’t want Hilary to see. She’d insist on going into Manhattan to get it fixed. I couldn’t run that risk — not with a virus on the loose.

I woke to a very nice day and began working. I had something to write in the morning, and another thing to write in the afternoon, and some additional work arriving in the evening. I tried to set aside dreams and fears. Before the day had gotten any traction, our buzzer rang. Hilary leaned out the window and saw a group of policemen in our small front yard. They’d opened the gate and poured themselves in. At first she thought we must have parked the car in an illegal spot. But they didn’t want us to go outside. They wanted to get inside.

From behind his mask, the biggest policeman shouted up to us. A truck, he said, had backed into one of the wires and torn it from a supporting pole. It either needed to be re-attached, or he’d have to snip it altogether and leave us without cable service. They’d need to get access to the far unit on the second floor of our building. From the window, I could see the dangling wire. It looked more like a great untied shoelace than a public hazard.

The usual occupants of the apartment on the second floor haven’t been around in weeks. They fled Jersey City during the early days of the crisis, and they haven’t even been back to pick up their mail. We’re the longest-tenured residents of this building, and by accident and attrition, we’ve come into possession of the master keychain. Hilary found it, put on her mask, and went straight downstairs. I followed after her.

The policemen were already inside. Our neighbor on the first floor let them in, and immediately fled back to the safety of his flat. We’ve all heard about the prevalence of coronavirus in the city police force, and although the main man was masked, that didn’t make me feel any better. His presence felt less like an affront than a scientific impossibility — just something that didn’t compute, and shouldn’t, couldn’t be, a rip in the fabric of expectation. Nobody but the residents have crossed our threshold since March ended. Have I unfit myself for visitors? If a friend were to come over, would it seem just as incongruous?

He could see we weren’t too happy. Through his mask, he told us that he wouldn’t come in any further if we didn’t want him to, but then he’d have to cut the wire. This felt like a bit of a backhanded threat, but by usual police standards, it wasn’t all that aggressive. We opened the second floor for him. One of his partners followed. I became conscious of their breaths, filtered through their masks, but still joining the rest of the air in our small stairwell. The equilibrium of microbes that we’d all carefully cultivated over the past few months was disturbed. What a ridiculous thing to be concerned about!, what an absurd thought to have, how inevitable it was, given everything that we’ve been through, that we’d be so preoccupied with the invisible.

Back upstairs in our flat, we graded ourselves on our crisis performance and found it wanting. Yes, we’d solved the problem and kept the cable on, but our alienated reaction to a stranger in the house alarmed us. For years, I was the guy who didn’t even want a front door; come on in, world, say hello, stay awhile, play a few games, touch all the surfaces. Now here I was with a mask on, my expression unreadable, bothered by the imposition of another masked face belonging to someone who was here to help. If we’d been bare-faced and able to gauge the intent behind our expressions, perhaps we would have acquitted ourselves better. Probably not, though. I’ve learned to fear my neighbor. For my own sake, and for the sake of the stranger, I need to unlearn that as soon as I can.