Journal of a Plague Year: Anna Rubenstein

The Ghost Ship fire happened a few years after I graduated from high school and moved away from San Francisco, having realized that, with the city being pressure-washed by capital the way that it was, living there was going to be a constant source of grief and rage to anyone invested in ideas like community, culture, and the right of working-class people to lead dignified lives. Of course, the fire was not what I was envisioning—not then, anyway, though I’ve since offended a few friends by refusing to attend their shows in the packed basements of DIY venues that I’m sure were very vibrant and fun but my god, building codes exist for a reason, call me when you play somewhere licensed.

The Ghost Ship fire happened a few years after I moved away from San Francisco, but the Bay Area is a small place, especially among the people who have roots there, and the degrees of separation were slight. Friends of friends, acquaintances’ siblings. Kids from my high school were killed. The week after, a friend posted a picture from my high school, taken in the grimy second-floor bathroom I’d used and dawdled in a thousand times. TELL YOUR FRIENDS YOU LOVE THEM, someone had Sharpied urgently across the mirror. I think about it all the time.

Jack Cragwall had this lovely idea to create a place for the departmental community to share their reflections about life in quarantine, and, once we’d set it up, warm and gracious as ever, he solicited a submission from me. I flinched and left the question hanging. I’m self-conscious, I haven’t worked here very long, I’m not an English major and never claimed to be, and anything I might say about the moment would feel so awkwardly provisional when no one knows what might happen next, politically, personally, medically, and yet feel repetitive when everyone’s experience is similar and everyone’s days are the same. Not so much weeks where decades happen as weeks that just feel like decades.

But I am trying to default to being painfully earnest, especially as my social skills atrophy to the point where I don’t have much choice. Hence, this, with the disjointed quality of someone whose cognition has suffered from too much screen time and not enough books. Again, I was never cut out to be an English major, but I like culture as much as the next guy. If I read more literature, I might have more useful frames of reference for this moment, as I’m sure you’ll find in submissions to this series that were written by people who actually read. Long, gut-wrenching evocations of a very specific feeling, sometimes with trajectory or catharsis, sometimes without.

As it is, best I can do is The Thing. I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies in quarantine; my friends and I have a little club. (I’m a big proponent of the idea that large Zoom-based social gatherings, much more than in-person ones, require a certain amount of structure to function well. I’d recommend movie or book clubs, PowerPoint parties, or Codenames.) The Thing is a landmark of the genre for a reason: the score is amazing, the gore setpieces are disgusting triumphs of practical-effects engineering. But it’s the tension between, we know now, as we settle into our own hunkered winter of wondering what’s hiding in the bodies of the people around us, that’s much too evocative. “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired,” Kurt Russell mutters blearily into a tape recorder, hunched over a bottle of whiskey. But he gets his catharsis and his agency too, when his comrade’s head finally detaches itself from his body, sprouts legs, and scurries away like a monstrous spider, and Kurt Russell gets to chase after it with a flamethrower. I have watched him do it again and again and felt a vicious stab of envy.

We are arriving at a winter with all of the terror and nothing to blow up. We all knew, I think, that there would be terror this winter. There was terror in the spring, when this was all novel and our old lives were still tauntingly visible behind us; there was terror in the summer, mostly when the Humvees pulled up. But this is here now, and it does not feel provisional to say that we are scared, that we know people will suffer greatly from both disease and despair. I am trying to carve out what agency I can and make the sacrifices I can afford. Options are limited, though they won’t be always. Tell people you love them. I wish you all well.

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