Observation No. 1 The living room smells like Feet
After spending six months at far-off coordinates you return to the place you used to live. You had thought you were leaving for just nine days, to take a group of students to Belize for their spring break study abroad, so they could ooh-and-aah over the little geckos darting around the bathrooms. After an afternoon of hiking ruins, an email came. The university closed. Students panicked. You changed your return flight to Fort Lauderdale. You’d wait there, at your partner’s home, until your city started to feel better.
The living room smells like feet. Like your old feet. Your left foot is what we expect in a foot. It looks like your mother’s feet. Different from the right foot, on which the pointer toe is longer than the thumb toe and has middle toe energy. Father has two feet like this. Disarranged toe feet. You have birth defects tied to tobacco usage during pregnancy feet. You prefer to imagine there was a compromise between your parents. You give her one foot and I’ll give her one foot and we’ll both carry her. That your mismatched feet are a result of choice and love and not fate or science or whatever.
The fridge has jars of herbs bobbing in water, wilting over pots and pans. The door holds bottles of beer, minced garlic, fish sauce, pop, mustard, and fire cider. A dim chilled jungle. Modest leftovers draped in aluminum foil. The roommate has been here The Whole Time. She wasn’t one who abandoned New York when New York had to abandon her. But those aren’t her feet you smell. You sniff. Are they?
Observation No. 2 It used to be Winter here and elsewhere
Upstairs, in the bedroom, the sheets have been changed. Someone has lived in the bed. A wine stained ceramic cup sits on the edge of an unassuming desk. There’s a fork in it. The closet holds two heavy coats, boots, and a stack of sweaters. The summer clothes are probably in a cardboard box under the bed. They will stay there. Indoors the weather is consistent. There won’t be much need to dress for what brushes against the other side of the doors and windows.
There’s a black dresser covered in pictures, incense, candles, and crystals. Relics of someone who tried to believe, in something. The top dresser drawer still holds the very important things. The birth certificate, social security card, flashlight, bags of loose tea, and stash of weed will all scoot over a bit, to make room for the incoming collection of face masks.
The teas smell of spice and earth and the tea shop they came from. The brick tea shop that must be boarded up by now, no longer a place to which one could return. The passport with the picture of a someone who had never lived in a pandemic, and was buoyant enough to think she might someday run out of room for new stamps, goes in the back corner of the drawer before it is pushed shut.
Observation No. 3 Two weeks is more than a dozen Days
I get an ottoman for these feet and an armchair for this butt. More of my favorite pens and essential oils. Fuzzy new slippers. I open the window often to check on the outside. Someone who is a dot on my phone delivers jalapeño kettle chips and bags and bags of sanitary napkins. Someone else who is an emoji of a bike brings me Korean fried chicken. Might-not-even-be-real-people live parts of my life for me, while I sit and smoke and wonder.
I ignore the calls verifying I understand the conditions of my quarantine. I understand. They want me to stay in my room. For fourteen days. I am a queer, black, Midwestern Thoreau, minus the epiphanies, bland food, and forest. Plus the internet. Thor-WHOA. My coworker tells me Thoreau’s mother did his laundry and cooking. That’s what made his time in Walden possible. Self-reliant my ass.
When I go to take a shower it takes some fussing and minutes to remember how the damn thing works. The rack is stocked with scrubs and soaps I don’t recognize. I wash for a long time and remember when my mom told me if I scrubbed hard enough I could be a white girl. The next day I went to second grade sore, but happy, convinced my forearms were getting lighter and the rest of me would follow suit.
I don’t wash like that anymore. Before the Changing of Everything, I was closer to thirty; now I near forty. Each month of the pandemic a year scribbled across my forehead. The medicine cabinet is lined with the skin cleansers and astringents and moisturizers that I have stayed loyal to since high school. But it’s a new dawn. It’s time to replace them with night creams and serums—or do I mean anti-serums? Time to learn about being an adult in this world. Time to stop sniffing scented markers. Time to stop using a bright orange Home Depot bucket as a chair, nightstand, and table. Time to only use the bucket, as it was intended to be used, for calf and foot-soaks.
Someone else picks out the tomatoes I have for dinner but I chop them up myself. Seeds ooze across wood. There are still some things I can do.
Observation No. 4 It really is objectively and undeniably Heartbreaking that that tea shop closed
Sheena thought she’d be able to return to her tea shop, sniff dried fragrant dust and trot some home. Maybe not for all of eternity, but for whatever ‘the foreseeable future’ meant then. She thought she’d visit Vermont in May to paint a hideous mural that everyone would be too New England-indifferent to ever complain about. Go on a solo trip to Santiago in July just because. And in November be a bride who’d actually scarf down her meal instead of getting caught up in perpetual small talk with absolute losers who shouldn’t have been invited in the first place. She had thought so many things, but never that months would turn into this.
A friend used to preface plans with, “if the sun comes up tomorrow.” An exaggerated drama and beauty in speaking in the conditional like that. Would we all speak this way, if we were paying attention?
If the sun comes up tomorrow, Sheena is going to sit around and slowly sip tea so that it lasts the rest of her quarantine. The internet confirms that she will need to find somewhere new to buy tea. There must still be places. Sheena sits on her green armchair and narrowly avoids spilling hot tea on it. And herself.
Observation No. 5 It is a rare thing to be completely Alone
A fly lands on the armchair. Samson. I tell Samson to sit elsewhere while I gulp a blur of ginger ale, lime seltzer, fresh lemon, and mint. Samson doesn’t social distance or wear a mask or respect boundaries or know my name. He buzzes around me, follows me to the bathroom, tickles my leg, lands on my ring. He moves too quickly. I try to splat his little black grey-winged body. I am too slow, so he leaves no streak of mush or brown on a paper towel. He escapes death. Samson buzzes and lands and flies and circles around and around and around until I am dizzy.
Samson lands in the glass that once housed the something sweet I sipped. With a speed typically reserved for chasing ice cream trucks, I cover the glass with a book that whoever lived in the bed must have forgotten. It’s a book about improvisation. Maybe they left it for me on purpose.
Samson is trapped in the glass. The glass offers enough space for him to use his body to its full potential. And there is plenty residue from the something sweet drink to provide him whatever nutrients he needs to die soon. I have a new roommate.
With purpose, grace, and increasing speed, Sampson flies the perimeter of the glass. He propels his grey- hair clear-winged self against the book with such confidence that I fear he will gain the strength to send it flying off of the glass. Does Sampson want out? Can flies want things? Or do their bodies just move based on something that is neither desire nor will? Program or habit.
Why don’t you take Samson outside and set him free? The friends and partner ask by phone. Good point, I say. Set him free so I can quarantine in solitude like Thoreau. I still can’t believe his mom did his laundry. Thoreau’s mom would probably let him have a pet fly. Samson’s mom might also live somewhere here. That could have been her in the kitchen. Maybe she will fly here and see her son, held without bail. There aren’t bars on his glass. But I could draw some. (But I don’t.)
I tell Samson that he is never going to fly beyond the enclosures of the glass again. This is to see if he will rest for a bit, or continue to overexert himself, spiraling near the top of the glass, perhaps using up more of his life so that he’ll have to live less of it. I think of inmates in prisons and immigration detention centers. How far do I live from one? Is Samson related to the flies there? Samson pauses for a second and then continues to fly around in circles, at some point circling in an eight.
What a piece of work is Samson, how lacking in reason. If I were trapped in a glass covered by a hand or a book or a spinning planet, surely I would rest. Surely I would not waste my energy. Surely I would not exercise and train and move so much. Surely I would stop going through the rote actions that signal meaningful participation in life and instead do the kinds of things wise people do. Surely I would nap.
Observation No. 7 God should, but probably does not, wear a Mask
Some don’t believe there is a virus killing people around our planet. Some understand that gods are more vulnerable than anyone in charge of everything should be.
If I’m not ashamed, why would I hide?
What’s a mask gonna protect me from, that a gun can’t?
Do you think God wears a mask? Then why would I?
Growing up believing in Santa Claus and God sets you up to suppose that people are more invested in your behavior than they ever will be. No one is keeping tally of your sins. Still, you wear masks and despise yourself for understanding, envying even, the many who don’t: people protected by a greater force.
Observation No. 7 No one is going to save Anyone
No one intervenes to save Samson’s life, which just keeps going. How many have been killed by the virus or at the hands of police during his lifetime? It would be nice to know how old he was, for sure. A Google search for HOW TO TELL HOW OLD A FLY IS yields too much to read. Better to forget wanting to know Samson’s age. A body sits hunched over, unsure what to ask the internet next.
Observation No. 7 Finding the right moisturizer is not one of the things Sheena can do
Now that Sheena is a few steps away from becoming a middle-aged black woman, her approach to skin care must change. If she takes the right steps now, she can have skin that looks like it is in its 30s until she is 100. She searches the internet for beauty secrets, for the BEST moisturizer in the world. But she doesn’t want Twenty Moisturizers Quarantined Black Women Who Generally Don’t Think Much About Their Skin Must Try or We Spent a Decade Testing Moisturizers So You Don’t Have To. Sheena wants The One Moisturizer That Will Soothe Your Skin and Spirit Until You Enter Advanced Age, If You Live That Long, but it looks like for now Clean & Clear must suffice. Who will ever touch Sheena’s skin again, anyway?
Observation No. 4 It seems increasingly probable that this Fly will outlive me
When I wake up Samson is still going at it. I wonder how long he will live. How long has he already lived? He can’t know a life before Covid. He will not know a life after Covid. Will I? Surely he must die today, from exhaustion, age, isolation, and environmental factors. Being someone’s property is not sustainable.
I think of carrying him downstairs and outside, as the friends and partner suggested. I imagine slipping down the chairs, dropping the jar, and accidentally freeing him. Within seconds, full of want from his time in seclusion, he might mate with the fly in the kitchen, whether that fly is his parent or not. I don’t want this to happen in the house I am trapped in. I leave him in the jar. He starts taking longer breaks. He must be 1000 years old in fly years. Would this make him my elder? Or does he need to be 1000 years old in human years to be older than I am? It’s not easy to know how math and the world work. Especially when the world is broken.
I pay attention to him not because he is entertaining or handsome but because my WiFi signal is weak. I call Optimum to correct this. Horace promises to help. What an unfortunate name.
Horace’s voice bounces in my ear and drags me on a pursuit of impossible things. Where is she? How is her voice with me but the rest of her at a place where we would never grow accustomed to seeing the moon at the same time? Her voice carries chunks of British and South Asian and Caribbean accents. I can’t tell whether I am listening carefully because I am not listening carefully. How do I know she is not in Houston? Or in the glass with Samson? Will she fix the Wi-Fi?
If Horace resolves my internet issue, will I set Samson free? If not, is she a murderer? That would be manslaughter. Flyslaughter. I don’t ask Horace what she keeps in her important drawer. Her things don’t snitch. Material things can’t talk. Lots of things can’t talk. Samson can’t talk. Or else I can’t listen. I always forget which of those it is.
Horace is not socially distancing, she is sharing a chair with at least twelve other people who are wearing headsets and sitting on her lap. I hear them. After twenty minutes she says my situation will require a Wi- Fi extender. She goes to order it for me but returns to say the system is down. I will have to go to my local Optimum store at 11020 Flatlands Avenue. A one hour walk away.
Horace, there is a pandemic, I am in quarantine, I can’t walk to my ‘local’ Optimum store, I want to say to this stranger, at work, in a pandemic. Indifferent to her inability to resolve my problem or greatly enhance my quarantine experience, she ends the call. What sort of life does this job allow her to live? Does her apartment have flies? Who does her laundry? Has she read Walden? How many times would I have to call back to reach her again and get some answers?
Observation No. 201 The tea shop isn’t the only Thing that’s gone
School years and buffets and grandparents and warm embraces. Taking too many things to the fitting room to see if anything makes you look pretty and stopping to have a drink at a bar before you meet a friend because the outside chill wants to kill you. Hand holding and free grocery store samples. Places to be that are not chairs or floors or couches or stairs in your house. People who are not little movie squares playing on your screen. People who are not modes of transportation for invisible wet balls of sick.
Observation No. 1 Writing about the killings of black People isn’t very decameronesque
That’s the sort of thing that could be written at any period in history.
Observation No. 13 Camerones are Shrimp
To decameron is to deshrimp. To be viewed in large fonts. We want to deshrimp and become giants who take up pages. Covid isn’t the black plague. It’s post-racial. Postcameron. Postshrimp. Postvein. Covid isn’t the black plague. It’s colorblind, color-indifferent. Covid is more like the ambulance red plague.
Observation No. 14 After my quarantine ends I go outside and when I come home Samson is dead
In case you were wondering what happened to him. He died and I washed him down the sink. I haven’t reported his death and would prefer if you didn’t, either. He lived over four days in that glass, at least.
Observation No. 12 It is not always possible to listen to Others and think for yourself
You used to go to Target and think people were stupid for wearing masks because your news said that masks only helped in medical situations and hadn’t been proven to help regular people in regular indoor spaces. Now you go to Target and want to hide if people aren’t wearing masks because your news says there is significant proof that masks reduce the spread of this virus. Masks are hands over cups that keep the virus in. What would the virus do if it knew it was never going to get out?
Observation No. 13 Target has really nice things but it’s a Shame they don’t have more tea
At Target, Sheena sees one of those things you put icing in and squeeze across a cake. She remembers bringing one into the bathroom to use to try to pee standing up. Facing the toilet bowl felt like a job for someone else. Fourth grade Sheena wants to sit down, look at the door. Not a splash of yellow. She doesn’t use it but forgets to return it to the kitchen. Later her mom finds it on the sink, by the toilet. What were you doing with this? Nothing. Her mother looks away and Sheena knows her mother knows everything there is to know about her. Her mother does not put a book over the glass Sheena lives in. She just frowns a little and walks away. Sheena is her bright brown black daughter who tried to give herself a penis so that she could pee on things with precision, but then chickened out. Sheena’s mother throws the icing thing away, maybe because she doesn’t make cake much these days, or maybe for reasons related to hygiene, or maybe so her daughter will stop trying to use kitchen tools to become a boy.
Observation No. 9 It’s okay to Laugh
As long as you recognize that feeling any sort of joy when the world is suffering makes you an out of touch and insensitive asshole.
Laci Mosley, a comedian you wish would run for president and make America laugh again, says she knows we don’t want to vote for Joe Biden. He’s not Elizabeth Warren. Once Biden said that if a person seems to be of threat to you, you should shoot for their leg, not their heart or head. You should shoot to slow them down, to stop them. Not to end them. Laci says voting for Trump is like taking a shot to the heart. We don’t want to be stuck in glasses surrounded by damp, smelly, rotting bits of flesh. We don’t have the help we need to clean up that sort of mess. Voting for Joe is taking a shot to the leg. It may still slow us down. But we might just survive. Leg 2020.
Observation No. 14 Of course Targets in New York City don’t sell Guns
When I hear about James Blakes’ kids being in the car while he is shot I want to scream and buy guns and a bike and ride around shooting people. Unmasked. I want to make things worse. I don’t. But, I decide that if I do ever buy a gun, I will store it in my drawer of important things.
Those kids probably have his feet.
Who was the first black person killed by U.S. police during my lifetime? The internet makes this a thing we can know. When I am 44 days old, NYPD kill Eleanor Bumpers. A black, disabled woman who lives in public housing. I change Sampson’s name to Eleanor and wish I had done this before he died. I practice writing Eleanor Bumpers in cursive and block letters. I say her name in the mirror. I think, if I had bright brown black kids, I’d keep them in a cup that wasn’t glass. So no one would see them or forget to shoot for the leg or forget to say hello or forget to be human or forget they were human, too.
Observation No. 15 We won’t have Thanksgiving this Year
In first grade you write your first book about your favorite holiday. You pick Thanksgiving. You try to draw your grandparents standing next to a turkey but can’t figure out how to make their hair white. Mrs. Andrews shows you how to color in the rest of the page so their hair stands out. Her white hand steadies your black one. You watch whiteness distinguish itself, by becoming surrounded by color. Over a decade later you read Zora Neale Hurston, who feels “most colored when [she is] thrown against a sharp white background.” This resonates so hard you convince yourself that Zora Neale Hurston is also from Ohio and also loves Thanksgiving.
After George Floyd is murdered you see how many days you can go without interacting with white people. Digital segregation. Could separate be equal on Zoom? Others march and demand justice. You google tea shops. Again. You don’t build an impressive streak. Not talking to white people brings some, but not enough, serenity. You try to count the number of white people who are probably relieved they don’t have to interact with you or say I can’t imagine how you feel. You bet you know at least seven. Maybe eight.
You wonder about Benjamin Crump’s resume. What it means to be the go-to-lawyer for families of black people who have been murdered or harmed by the police. You hear James Blake’s mother calling everyone’s auntie’s hairdresser’s bank teller’s cousin-in-law until someone had Trayvon Martin’s mom’s number. Girl, who’s your guy? Send him up here.
Observation No. 16 Time is a Joke
Not a thoughtful or funny one, though. The past is a place to revisit. Right now is a thing to hold. The future a thing beyond reach. It’s the future that is a spinning, buffering arrow on a too bright screen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sheena Daree Miller was born in Ohio and now splits her time between Brooklyn and South Florida. Her words have appeared in The Rumpus and Ms. magazine. She also dabbles in stand-up comedy and doodling, and is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at The New School. Sheena works in faculty development at The New School and manages Brooklyn Public Library’s Black Heritage Center.