Seattle is the first U.S. epicenter. In early March, when there are just five hundred known cases of coronavirus in the whole country, I fly home from a conference to a city in suspended animation. My Lyft from the airport takes half its usual time, even at rush hour, because rush hour is no longer a thing. Microsoft and Amazon sent everyone to work from home, the driver says, taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the streets. I worked at Amazon for over a decade and, well, let’s just say employee health never seemed like a priority. Amazon sending workers home tells me we’re in an apocalypse.
The lady before you wanted to spray Lysol in my car, the Lyft driver says. I laugh but I’m also wondering if that lady is smarter than me. The next day I order glittery, pear-scented hand sanitizer from Bath & Body Works because it’s all I can find online. I hadn’t planned to face this thing coated in tween armor, but we don’t always choose our weapons. I buy a lot of brown foods—lentils, rice—and then settle down to do the nothing I’ve been told will save my city.
We aren’t yet in official lockdown. But Seattleites are an introverted, data-crunching people, and by the time our governor tells us to stay at home we’ve been there for weeks. At first there is an almost festive sense of shared mission. #WeGotThisSeattle is all over Twitter. We’re going to crush this thing by just staying still, away from each other. I’m on board, though I can’t buy the idea that it’s all some hygge staycation with sourdough and family story hour and hoop-and-stick games in the yard. Sure, I can fake cozy for a few days. But I know soon I’ll be pining for what’s been lost, and that what’s been lost will feel like everything.
I was already a champion teenage piner when I first heard the Go-Betweens on college radio in the late ’80s. They were a co-ed, two-frontman band from Brisbane, and critics often attached the word wonderful to them for being young and exuberant and smart and a bit gawky. There was something friendly about the Go-Betweens, especially compared to their slick contemporaries. In a 1988 interview with NME, co-frontman Grant McLennan claimed that “the Go-Betweens write about love better than anyone else in the world.” But they also wrote about spring downpours and Aussie cattle farms and sisters who lived in the back of a feminist bookstore. At eighteen, with one boy in my bed and usually at least two more on the back burner, it was the mixtape-friendly love stuff that interested me most. So 16 Lovers Lane, the band’s sixth album,was an end-to-end swoon for me. Sometimes described as an indie Aussie Rumours, it chronicles two intra-band romances: the demise of arch, dramatic Robert Forster’s with drummer Lindy Morrison, and the concurrent liftoff of wide-eyed McLennan’s with violinist/oboist Amanda Brown. (A band with an oboe! See: wonderful.) Warm and wistful but never quite twee, it’s made for yearning, whether forward or into the past.
I’ve been listening to 16LL for thirty years, which is why it comes into especially heavy rotation within days of locking down; I’m already missing the ordinary world so much that I can only stand to listen to music I’ve known for decades, too long to trigger nostalgia for any one person or thing. As always, it makes me wistful for the concept of flirting, romance, sex, but I’m living in such a weird blend of panic and passivity that I can’t contemplate that stuff anyway. My body is only for holding a hot restlessness close to fury. Seattle is still national news; people are falling sick all around me, but invisibly. I don’t hear sirens. Neighborhood sidewalks are dotted with cheerful chalk art: butterflies, rainbows, chin-up quotes in bubble letters. I never see an artist at work; it’s like the drawings just osmose from the concrete. On a walk one day, I’m listening to 16LL’s sunny, flamenco-accented “Streets of Your Town” when I meet a sidewalk quote about tough times only making us stronger. “Oh, go fuck yourself,”I mutter out loud, and it feels good. Every day I make my way through the streets of your town, McLennan lilts as I walk on, before the unsettling murmured bridge:
They shut it down
They closed it down
They shut it down
They pulled it down
The next day I read online that we’re building a field hospital on a community soccer field five miles from my home. From the photo it looks flimsy and small, like a reception tent. The phrase “field hospital” makes me think of cots and gaslight, Clara Barton applying tourniquets and carrying tin basins full of water. I feel pulled to see it for myself, and finally it dawns on me that I can get in the car and do that. I half-expect to be confronted as I park and cross the open half of the field to the security fence, but the only other person on my side is a man running sprints to the white lines. Up close I see that it’s not a wedding tent but a steel hangar, plumbed and electrified, what I would call a Real Building. A second is going up next to it. I watch the crew at work and for a wild moment consider asking for a job. Not operating the crane, no, but surely there’s something I can hammer or lug around?
Finally I walk to the circle at center field and stand in it as though I’ll either be beamed up or presented with an earthly mission, and when that fails to happen I lie down on my back in the grass and put my earbuds in. I think of 16LL as a record about big emotions, but I have started to notice a lot of forbearance in these songs, too—waiting for things to feel better or just different, not out of laziness but because there’s simply no action left to take. I’m ten feet underwater / standing in a sunken canoe, Forster sings in “Love Is a Sign.” Looking up at the waterlilies / they’re green and violet blue / Still the sun it finds / a way to light me. He’s speaking to a lover who is distant in all ways. They’re writing letters that fail to bridge the gap. I wish you had a big house / and that your work would start to sell, he tells her.
This is where I floundered as a young woman in love: the everydayness, the parts where there was nothing in particular to be done. That’s why I stacked boys up like pinballs. I didn’t trust that anyone could witness me at rest, out of seduction mode, and not be disillusioned. I’d like to think I’m wiser now in love (others might disagree), but the lockdown makes it clear that I am not at all comfortable with stillness as an action, and the Go-Betweens provide gentle consolation without shame. Sometimes we don’t come through / sometimes we just get by, McLennan croons when I take a spill from running too hard on a deserted trail and burst into furious tears. I’m angry, I’m wise,Forster says when a friend tells me her son is downstairs taking his AP Physics exam and I’m jealous that I don’t have an AP exam to take, too.
I go on for weeks like this, spiky with spare energy that finally burns itself down to a low heat, or maybe I’m the one burnt down. One afternoon a month past peak, I pass another ballfield on my run and find five teenage boys playing jazz for a handful of sunbathers. For a hot second I wonder if they could use a manager three times their age, someone to buy the beer and nag them about sunscreen. Then I look around at the people just lying in the grass and once again I drop to my back in the middle of a field, knowing this time there’s no mission coming my way, nothing to do but stare up and wait. I’m angry, I’m wise, I think.
— Kristi Coulter
Seattle, day 81