I Can't Concentrate On Anything Anymore

The chronic isolation of the pandemic never hits harder than during a solo night in.

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A pandemic night in begins when I feel my wheels grease silently to a halt. This isn’t a painful slowdown, something coloured with resignation. It’s more desultory than that, an elevated detachment that causes me to look at my day, shrug, and say, I guess that’s it.

I live alone, which depending on who you speak to is a very good or a very bad thing during a pandemic. Generally I like it, though when I tell people about the quiet isolation of my evenings they speak about themselves. The pandemic has weighed them down, they say, and getting by is now all that can be mustered. Sometimes I agree, though only a little, since the process of investing in an opinion feels like a lot of effort these days. Plus, the ample vacancies of my pandemic evenings haven’t been excavated in an attempt to “be kind to myself.” They just are.

While I can never predict the time that my night will begin, the first step is always the same. I kick the oversized Oka scatter cushions out from under my feet and splay myself across my favourite blue sofa, the longer one, the one that faces the television. From there I half-watch something while scanning GrubHub and Postmates and DoorDash. Sometimes I close all these apps and go to the fridge to heat up the thing I know I should eat. Other times I acquiesce to the need to feel something and order a burger. Something sticky, excessive, anesthetizing.

Wine makes me “relaxed,” though I use quotation marks because I wasn’t unrelaxed before. I guess I am now just a little drunk.

Once I’ve eaten, time spins itself out. My “Continue Watching” tab on Netflix is now an abandoned sea of documentaries and period dramas cleft open for five minutes before I set them adrift. The reason why is always the same and always new: why this, why now. Sometimes I make an addition to that list, on other occasions I wander into a book purchased on a day I felt particularly optimistic. After 12 pages or so I give up, slipping in a crumpled CVS receipt to mark the point of my resignation. These markers always become dislodged, usually when I fall asleep with the book somewhere near my head, but it doesn’t matter. I will need to re-read these pages if I want to understand what happened. Their contents have not entered my brain, not really.

I drink inconsequentially and without commitment in this time. Usually a smidge of white wine in a small tumbler. It makes me “relaxed,” though I use quotation marks because I wasn’t unrelaxed before. I guess I am now just a little drunk. In this time I refresh my work email, wondering if I’ll find a crisis that I can solve. I rarely do. The only emails I get after 5 p.m. now are from news outlets and I just delete them. I’ve already seen the news on Instagram.

Social media is where I spend most of my hours in the smudge of sunset that follows work. On my bed, on the sofa, in the bath. I watch and wait for something to appear, something that I ought to know. Nothing ever does, and so I slip through tangents like this:

[Opens Instagram] Wow, look at all Cardi B’s tattoos! Is that — yes, it says Offset. Those roses are kind of like the tattoo Cheryl Cole got across her butt. [Opens Cheryl’s Instagram] I wonder what her baby with Liam Payne looks like now. [Opens Liam’s Instagram] Does the baby speak with a Geordie accent still? I wonder what accent Archie will grow up with. [Googles “Harry and Meghan”] God, Kate Middleton’s hair is glossy. Sh*t I need to text the receptionist about that hair appointment. [Opens iMessage] Wait, I didn’t see that alert, why did he say that? [Opens text chain] I’ll wait an hour before I reply. I wonder if he’s viewed my Instagram story. [Opens Instagram] He hasn’t viewed it. But wait, why did that person view it? [Opens Instagram page] Oh, they’re freelance now. [Opens link in bio] I’ve read this story a hundred times. [Opens Instagram again].

And so it continues. This is my life now and maybe it is yours too. I honestly don’t hate it, though I don’t think it behooves me to analyse it. Not because it would be too depressing, but because that would break it. I realized this when I read that big New York Times feature on how America is “embracing numbness as an antidote for the overload of digital capitalism,” and that started long before the pandemic. We “want to get rid of everything… so we won’t have anything to lose,” and “there is no enthusiasm for desire in this culture, only the wish that we could give it up.” Crikey, I thought. How dramatic!

In truth, I don’t really feel like I’m embracing anything, and neither do I feel like I'm giving anything up. My life now is like a verbless sentence. The chaos of the pandemic is outside my front door, and inside it I am like a duck gliding lazily across a mill pond. I know change will eventually come, which makes my current predicament less of a minimalist cavity and more like a dash or a hyphen, something transitory that has no meaning unless it’s placed between two coordinates; where we once were and where we will be when the pandemic is over.

As my breathing slows and I feel myself floating again, I hold tightly to, well, absolutely nothing.

So as I begin to close down my apartment for the night, it’s in a drift rather than a paddle. I plump the cushions on my sofa, I place my phone on charge, I turn off the lamps in each corner of my living room while my electric toothbrush whirs in the background. I listen to music for the 10 minutes it takes to complete these chores, not via a speaker, but through my headphones, so I can hear all my favourite bits over the sound of my own footsteps. These are the small optimizations I have made to my life in the last year. Sometimes I dance because it makes me happy, though when I catch sight of myself in the mirror I frown at the knowledge that despite being safe and COVID-free, the loneliness of 2020 has aged me more than a normal year. Then I laugh and feel foolish for thinking that this matters.

Once the lights are off, the cushions are upright, the wine-smudged glasses are lined up in the dishwasher, I walk the 4 meters from the center of my lounge into my bedroom. I swallow my tablets, I climb into bed, and I play the audio of an article about an obscure segment of British history that, for reasons entirely unknown, is the only thing I am able to concentrate on. I know that when sleep comes it will be deep and easy. This is the upside of this existence, one that is comfortingly and mercifully dull. It's crushingly low stakes, and on the whole I feel rather lucky for it, so as my breathing slows and I feel myself floating again, I hold tightly to, well, absolutely nothing. Tomorrow I will wake up and do it all again, and that is fine. Just fine.