Distancing #24: Immunity


It’s more a season than a moment. Last summer, out of school for the first time since I learned to read, I found myself working at a cheesesteak joint in Williamsburg, trying to scrape together a future. These were not the plans I had for myself. I wanted to write and had gone, twice, to school for it. But I was broke, and jobless, and my family couldn’t help. There was no incoming generational wealth or waiting inheritance or fallback trust fund. (When my father died a few years ago, my grandmother and I used his savings to get up to date on the phone bill.) Two degrees hadn’t brought me into the writerly bourgeoisie, nor had I been elected to run in the circles of its littler, more pitiable version, that middling class that’s always toiling comfortably, eyes on their prize, unaware that the act of looking longingly at high-rise apartments requires turning your nose up too.

So I took a restaurant job instead. I don’t say this to complain; I just mean that, a year ago, I was coming to terms with my class as feeling and not just fact; I felt it spiritually, as a pointed cosmic silence that had begun at my birth. The soundtrack behind me was missing, I was only just realizing, even as it seemed to rage around the Williamsburg constituency I served. They were always looking toward their purpose (an overpriced sandwich) and through the person serving it. My station—in the restaurant, in the neighborhood’s socioeconomic order—was a blackened steel grill, where I’d strike sizzling slabs of beef with a blunt metal spatula, the grill’s surface screaming under each chop. I spent nights drumming out this death-metal clangor, breaking a once-living being into a million fragments until they were ready to be slathered in cheese sauce, swaddled in a bun and sold for $15. When I wasn’t glued to the grill, I walked circles around the kitchen, participating in lackeyhood’s repetitive tasks: fulfilling orders, restocking fridges, carrying out the mind-numbing exercise of making French fries, which involves lifting and dropping baskets like dumbbells into a broiling sea of lard until the potato strips achieve a lifeless golden glow. 

Around midnight, I would collect my tips and meet Joseph at the corner store, the one with the cheap tallboys. The man behind the counter would flirt with Joseph and sometimes sell us pre-rolls. Under the heat of the moon, we’d sit a few hours on an abandoned stoop where, over weeks and weeks, we built an altar of our trash—a tiny cigarette-butt shrine, an empty-can ark of the covenant. Maybe we were casting a spell, meant to attract the attention of deities with more masterful plans for our lives. More likely, this shrine was a memorial to lives we feared would be forgotten by an indifferent universe. I was feeling stood up by spirits, ghosted by gods. So Joseph and I sat alone on the stoop, smoking cigarettes and drinking from brown bags until we ran out of words, and when it was time to go we laid our charred American Spirits down on the asphalt stairwell and, headphones on, I’d press play on my seasonal rotation of sad songs and bike home. 

That summer, my playlist started with “Bags.” It was the chorus that got me:

Can you see me? I’m waiting for the right time
I can’t read you but if you want the pleasure’s all mine.
Can you see me, using everything to hold back?
I guess this could be worse, walking out the door with your bags.

If you listen to “Bags” on repeat, as I did back then over the circular legwork of pedaling, or as I do now while pacing between rooms in my apartment, it’s easy to get lost in the feeling and miss the point. Clairo is spiraling around a crush, going from the brink of making her move to deciding it’s best to savor the friendship. The song takes the long view of the love story; it too is a season of moments, a thoughtful return, day after day, to the same painful wondering: does she like me back? Is she even able to like me back? But there’s a tension between Clairo’s spiraling and the way the guitars and drums plunge forward, never getting stuck in her lyrics. They push on into a hopeful, repeating guitar solo that eventually fades out, and the song finishes quietly. This contrast is part of what makes “Bags” such a great biking song—the way a girl seems to be staying in place, pedaling around her unseenness, but still undeniably being driven somewhere.

Listeners didn’t meet her there until summer’s end, when the rest of the album came out, with a title we used to be able to read as pure metaphor. (Will we ever again relish the total artistic symbolism of medical terms, without having to consider their gross realities?) Immunity is a coming-out story, which implies necessary heartbreak but also the same kind of hope we’re holding onto now: that by getting hurt, just a little, we’ll become resistant, unbothered. Placed in context, “Bags” reveals itself not as a recounting of lovesickness but as the formation of its antibodies. The most beautiful lines, the ones I focus on now, sitting by the window to remind myself what the sun feels like, are about restraint: using everything to hold back is, in fact, an emotional exercise, a flexing of heartstrings that ultimately grants a kind of inner strength. 

An important note: Clairo doesn’t find love with this girl. She told Genius in an interview that she did eventually break down, swept up by insurmountable desire, and made her move—she admitted her feelings and they weren’t reciprocated. But in “Bags,” in life, it’s not the success of the move that matters; it’s the resolve behind it. Returning over and over to a painful place—a crush’s couch, a restaurant you hate, a stoop that reminds you of your loneliness, a bedroom you haven’t left in two months—can feel like getting stuck. “Bags” is a reminder that no moment is as stagnant as we might think, that there will always come a time when restraint is no longer the answer. 

It certainly would have felt like wishful thinking to me then, biking home on early mornings to sleep for a few hours before the cycle repeated, that there would be a moment to break from it. But it was also true that I was silently growing stronger, getting ready to break the cycle on my own; that I was pedaling forward, every mundane ritual part of my own survival; that even leaving a litter pyramid for someone to walk by and wonder about was an act of creation. 

Soon summer will return. Because the powers that be are uncaring, reckless, and interested only in preserving the flow of national funds, it will likely come in limited form. We will still have to try to hold back: a virus, each other’s demises. This is fraught and disheartening, but also an opportunity to hone our demands of the future and nurse our potential energy—so that one day, and there will always come a day, when the world reopens, it can become kinetic, and we can translate our newfound strength to more fruitful projects like loving, or being loved, like writing, like voting and organizing. Like making sure none of us ever feels stuck again, and we never have to hold back either. 

— Trey Strange
Brooklyn, day 66

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