Human connection in isolation, and other oxymorons

It began, as it is seldom wont to do, with a virtual Seder. The harmonies alone on “Ma Nishtana” are cause for panic.

A full-on Zoom family reunion invitation follows shortly thereafter. “Oy gevalt,” I immediately mutter, as thoughts of the cacophony of Jews talking over one another ping-pong through my brain, a brain slowly turning into overnight oats after weeks of isolation. Not even a week earlier a friend asks to play Chips and Guac on Houseparty. I have neither chips nor guac, “These hardly feel like essential items,” I tell her, as she laughs and tells me to download the app – Houseparty – her laugh, once familiar, now pointedly patronizing. “Okay, fine,” I lie, before returning to my Survivor: Pearl Islands binge, now craving a fix from my avocado delivery guy, Davo (at $2.50/per ‘cado, you really can’t beat that). Another friend asks me if I attended Carry Nation’s Sweet Carry High, a virtual DJ set, while we talk over the phone, me scrolling through the Instagram story of a nearly naked Adonis-adjacent gay man telling me that “Today’s power yoga starts at noon.” I decline every invite (except the Seder – that’s non-negotiable, says my mother).

I’m getting friends who I’ve met up with only once or twice asking if I want to get Zoom coffee or do a FaceTime Happy Hour. Thanks, I don’t. I tell those that aren’t in my immediate friend group that you won’t see me again until this is over. They laugh ‘cause they think I’m joking. I’m like those headshots in the regional theater productions I saw growing up, where the older actors would have photos taken 20-30 years ago still attempting to pass. That’ll be me, minus the harmonies on “The Farmer and Cowman”. Henceforth, I’ll exist only in archival form.

I don’t like the length of my bangs, my pores are dire, my nose is misshapen – more misshapen than pre-pandemic, I’m just sure of it. These are new insecurities, brought on by spending hours forced to look at myself. Life has always been a single camera shot, and now, with IRL pivoting to virtual, the two-camera setup is allowing me to see myself in the monitor, a sight I never signed up to see. I’ve not yet gotten Botox and suddenly I’m wondering if it could be done by blowing out the glass within the keyhole in my door. This is where I’m at, a constant melee to attain some sense of beauty.

My skincare routine has grown into its own cinematic universe. I’m scrubbing, plucking, preening, tweezing, obsessing over the way I look. And for whom? Maybe it’s about finding some sense of management within a system growing steadily more chaotic by the day. And sure, there are much bigger things going on, but those I can’t control. My Baby Foot Exfoliant Foot Peel? That, I can and will control. I will have baby’s feet once more!

It’s not that I’m not missing human connection. I’m just not sure that anything less than IRL can satiate me. We’re connected, but I’m not connecting. This rings especially odd considering how much of a role virtual communication played in my early life, in both building my understanding and bridging my access to a world much greater than the one I then knew. I remember those early digital connections as a sanctuary to the hollow ones I often felt growing up gay before gay was trending. Tumblr. LiveJournal. MySpace. AOL chats. These were fully realized worlds to me, ones that felt like a reprieve from the ennui of daily life.

I dial up my friend Nita, one half of Carry Nation, whose invite I had declined just a week earlier. I express my disinterest in removing the communal experience from the club experience. “It’s just not the same,” I complain. Much wiser than me, he counters with perspective.

“For so many of us, the club is so much more than just a place to get fucked up and hook up, but rather a spiritual journey and exercise in community healing,” he tells me. “So it’s beautiful that we’re managing to find strength and moments of peace within this crisis. And sure, it’s a little awkward at first, but you settle into what is comfortable for you. And the simple knowledge that we are having a shared experience is really what makes this special.”

I think then about my therapy sessions, the one other invite I hadn’t yet declined. At the beginning of our second virtual session, I express my discomfort with this new format, listing all of the ways this can never suffice for me. Me, me, me, me, me. “Let’s try a phone call next time, then,” he suggests. It never occurred to me that this was an option. Surely this would prove an even more dissonant form of communication. A week later, I’m pacing back and forth on a call with him, all thoughts of my beauty or lack thereof dissipate, and I’m present once more. In the blinders of my eyelids I’m back in his office, that bizarrely large rainforest painting hanging just a tad lopsided above his head. Like before, I won’t say anything, but I do wonder how many other patients notice this. Not suddenly but gradually, my imagination took hold and my stringent default toward dissolution faded.

I think of pandemics past, from AIDS to the Black Death, and the mental isolation that must have blanketed them all, and how different now is. How so many of us still have meaningful ways to stay connected to our loved ones, to resume some semblance of life as usual, to seek joy. I look in the mirror, the labor of my moisturizers and serums evident to no one, but especially not to me. I login to Carry Nation’s latest virtual DJ set. I’m immediately overcome with my own self-defeating judgement. I’m ready for it to end, but I stop myself and close my eyes, I listen to the music, the syncopated house beats awakening something dormant in me. I’m not there, but for the first time it dawns on me, the feeling. And suddenly I’m sure, still not there, but sure for the first time that I’ll get there.

Evan Ross Katz is a writer/editor/podcaster whose work can be found in a slew of better online and print publications. He is the host of the weekly podcast ‘SHUT UP EVAN’.

END OF STORY