Hope, Fear, and the Stories We Can Tell Each Other

I have a deep-clutching fear of coming out of quarantine.

I’m an introvert, if this past year has taught me anything. I like my time alone; I like my quiet. I love the long days of nothing, even as it coaxes me into anxiety-rich isolation. I do so much more writing when I have nothing planned, nothing to look forward to but my work and the pleasure of my pen on the page, the way the words bloom beneath my hand. In this solitude, my characters lean in, whispering about their next adventures, the next thing I should–no, must–write. 

But as restrictions let up and we all emerge back into the light, that strange space of creative isolation is falling away. I have to field party invitations and coffee dates, and even as I ache for human contact and hugs and all the things I’ve missed, I find myself shying from it as well. 

It started with the vaccine, a room full of people brimming with nervous energy. My husband made bad jokes to the volunteers, laughing as he asked staff about the “lizard-like side effects” and his new desire to buy Windows products. In New Orleans, even a medical emergency is an excuse for a party, and trippy jazz music played loud over the speakers. 

“How are you feeling?” the attendants asked. 

“I have no idea,” I said, wondering if this was the way my body always felt, buzzing and jumping and skittish. Perhaps I had forgotten how to behave in public, how to remember to just be me. Was I the only one? Everyone in the hall looked so beautiful and so strange. One woman had blue hair. She looked like every young woman I’ve ever seen. 

I’m fully vaccinated now, trying to step lightly back into the world. I watch my husband jump back into game clubs and friendships, forming new ones with an ease I envy. I feel rusty when I talk. I can’t remember who my friends are until I see their Twitter handles rolling through my feed. We plan a party, my husband and I, but I don’t know who to invite. Who’s left in the city after the retreat from the storm? Who’s rooted enough to return? 

The other night, we went to a bar and sat outside. At the table next to us, a birthday girl wore a puffy dress and a safety pin bursting with dollar bills (a New Orleans birthday tradition). Everyone looked beautiful, and I smiled at strangers and joked awkwardly with a woman who asked to borrow the ashtray on our table. I fumbled for words to talk to strangers, from my drink order to the response when a stylish lady complimented my hair. Small talk is excruciating; I’ve forgotten how to do it. I want to ask the kind of questions I read in books, what it means to be human, what androids feel when they fall in love. I want to discuss magics and philosophies and politics. I don’t remember what normal people talk about in normal situations. 

When we return home, I felt intoxicated by not only the too-strong drinks (bartenders in this city make sure you get your money’s worth) but the presence of others, a weird energy that has me buzzing and excited and thoroughly nervous. 

All the while, my stories slip around me, too slick to grab onto. I grasp for a plot on a novel and give up in chapter two. I write the first paragraphs of a short story, then lay aside my pen. The return to humanity is too distracting. My imaginary elves and wizards and dragons can’t compete with the reality unfurling around me. Maybe that says something about the inherent magic in all of us, in the power of the stories we can tell each other, not just tell ourselves. 

I can’t be the only one with this potent mix of hopes and fears. What do you look forward to, this side of the plague? What do you fear? And what has you grappling back and forth, unsure which instinct to trust?

Coming back into the world is scary and daunting, and I’m afraid of all the changes it will bring, but there’s something enchanting about it, too, something absolutely magical.