Like most anxious people, incidents of minor humiliation tend to haunt me persistently through the years. They float, unbidden, to the surface of my consciousness as I try to fall asleep, or perhaps in the middle of a professional meeting, so that I freeze briefly in a moment of existential agony, rictus grin wavering while I try to recover. These are not the profound experiences of belittlement that wounded me seriously and changed the course of my personality and life (those are never very far from my mind and exist as background noise always). The ones that arise without warning are the trifling kind, and are only so acutely chilling because they raise the possibility that everywhere you go, at all times, people are perceiving you as a comical buffoon to be pitied.
The one that keeps coming back to me now is a brief interaction I had in June. Lockdown was beginning to ease very slightly, but the general fear and distrust of other bodies was still acute. I had moved into a new flat a few weeks before, and came upon my upstairs neighbour for the first time on the porch one afternoon as I was bursting out of the front door. As ever, I instinctively tried to disguise my nerves about meeting someone new with vaguely manic effusiveness – shouting: “Hello, we haven’t met yet. I’m Megan!” He said hello and told me his name, and as the reflexes of decorum kicked in, without thinking I thrust my hand out to shake his. The moment seemed to last a long, long time. My arm quivered in the air between the two of us; he glanced at it and back at me, the fool whose body had not learned, even three months into a pandemic, not to touch people at will.
[see also: Delusions of failure]
The moment sticks with me not just because of the strangely unsettling feeling of not having a handshake returned, but because I feared my neighbour would forever regard me as a careless, perhaps even dangerous, idiot. “Here she comes,” I imagined him thinking every time he saw me on the stairs, “Typhoid Mary herself, the insistent spreader of pestilence, the reckless germ disseminator.” It wasn’t fair, I kept thinking. I should be able to explain this to him, let him know I hadn’t touched anyone except my mother – once, briefly – since lockdown began; that I wasn’t a renegade handshaker; that it was only a stray physical compulsion which had made me do what I’d done. But I couldn’t make my case to the man because I don’t know him. I had to walk away and live with the memory of us both looking down together at my suspended gesture of politeness, him with disdainful confusion and me with horror.
When the first lockdown eased in June and July, and a social life was possible, occasionally I would bring a date back to my place to talk and make out and listen to Steely Dan until dawn, too buzzed on the novelty of intimacy and park prosecco to think about whether I was being an annoying, noisy neighbour. While it was allowed, I was barely home at all. But since we returned to solitary confinement in early November, I exist in a near-constant state of neighbour-awareness. I am unhealthily obsessed with what my neighbours think of me, despite being fully aware that the answer is most likely “nothing at all”.
In ordinary life I am mostly out, being perceived by other people, and those interactions are then often represented online for anyone who cares to see them. Now, there is nothing about me to perceive. I can still post on Instagram, but there’s not much happening, except exhaustively documented dinners and a pre-emptive Christmas tree. I’m doing just fine, really, but there’s no life to me, no dynamism. I do a bit of work, I pedal half-heartedly on the exercise bike, I watch a truly insane amount of television, I read 99p Kindle thrillers, and none of it adds up to what feels like a person worth representing anywhere. This lack of an otherwise perceivable existence is part of why I am so concerned with how the neighbour might see me. There’s nobody else around to do so.
The neighbour is witness to the aural evidence of my sordid lockdown routines: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills first thing every day while I exercise; The Simpsons on at 5pm while I chop vegetables; the podcast about serial killers playing in the shower through a waterproof speaker so I never have to be alone with my thoughts, even for ten minutes. One night a week getting drunk and giddy with the friend I have bubbled with, the next day’s episodes of teen melodrama played in unending succession as I recline in my hungover indulgence of ennui.
Part of my paranoia about the neighbours thinking I might be crazy or pathetic based on what they can hear through my door is about the shame of depression. I am not depressed, but years and years ago when I was, back in Dublin, my routines followed much the same pattern as those during lockdown. Very little changed between day and night, day to day, season to season. I was always blaring something to drown out thoughts and make existence bearable. Nowadays, this is an interim boredom coping strategy, but back then it was all I could imagine doing with my life. Once, when I was 20 or so, a man who lived downstairs came up, concerned, having heard noise that alarmed him the night before. I was confused, until I realised he meant that he could hear me when I cried, which I sometimes did even as I slept.
That was a different life, thankfully long over. In the intervening decade, I built a life I was happy in, one I didn’t usually feel ashamed of, one even to be proud of sometimes. That life doesn’t exist right now. But it will come back – there will be different noises to those ringing out on a loop at the moment; and there will, too, be the silence of the home left empty when I go out into the world again.
This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump