Hourglass

You’ve now been home for six months.

Zoom sucks, weekends are endless, and you’re only happy when you’re going to bed.

It was bad timing, probably, to finish your novel early this spring. For three years you were so consumed with writing it that you barely even noticed the real world. You were living inside a fictional universe of your own creation, joyously writing away all your nights and weekends.

But now you’ve reemerged in the midst of a pandemic, where disease and isolation are the only backdrop as you wait for the slow wheel of publishing to decide if your manuscript—your very living soul as a Word document—will become a real book or die an unceremonious death like the last one.

You never chose for this dream of being a writer to course through your blood the way it does. If you could have chosen what to want this much, perhaps you would have picked an activity that doesn’t require you to push your whole heart off a ledge every few years and watch in extra slow motion to see if it’s going to shatter.

A psychic in California once told you that your anxiety about this is a holdover from a past life, when you were a famous yet controversial writer who couldn’t afford to eat if your books weren’t well-received.

Is that why you find it impossible to write anything new these days? Or is it because hundreds of thousands of people are dying and we’re all prisoners in our own homes?

Or is it because of the uncomfortable desk chair in your home office?

You decide it’s the desk chair, it’s gotta be the desk chair, so you use the stimulus check that you accidentally threw away and had to dig out of the garbage to buy one that’s more padded.

But no amount of padding, it turns out, can compete with the desperation you feel to escape your desk and computer screen after long days providing teletherapy from home.

So you buy a lounge chair for your porch, and a notebook. You vow to write a new novel by hand while watching the squirrels.

Instead, you spend your first week in the lounge chair checking to see if they’ve found the body of the Glee star who drowned in a lake.

You first watched Glee on a plane ride home from India nine years ago. It was such a joyful contrast to the poverty you’d just witnessed that it has remained a go-to source of pleasure ever since.

When the first star died tragically, you swallowed it and kept watching. When it happened a second time, you swallowed it again. How many deaths of how many stars does it take to transform guilty pleasure joy into unwatchable darkness? When they find her body a week later, you know the answer is three. You get up from the lounge chair and don’t sit in it again. You were fooling yourself to think you could write there, anyway.

For weeks you do nothing but scroll in awe at all the people who have hobbies that are not writing. At the home-improvers, the DIYers, the sourdough-bakers. You watch your husband happily play chess against himself at the dining room table for the hundredth night in a row. You lean against the doorway and softly ask, “What’s it like to have a hobby that doesn’t break your heart?”

More days blur together and you turn 34. You’ve never cared much about age, were never one to flinch at 30, but something feels different this year and a voice in your head whispers, “You are 34, and you have accomplished nothing.” You know this voice is lying, but the stillness of the world allows it to seep into the cracks of your consciousness and make you believe that it’s true.

You pay off your student loans, mostly just to feel good about something again. (Your bank account is in surprisingly good shape compared to everything else in your life, since you don’t buy things anymore.)

Instead, the moment ends up feeling arbitrary—a number on your screen that was once very large is now a zero. Debt is oddly invisible for the space it takes up. You screen shot the milestone anyway, in case you one day retain your ability to feel things.

You finally manage to get out of town one weekend, and while you’re gone an in-land hurricane decimates your state. You get home and your power stays out for three days.

You cancel your clients. You read a book you hate by candlelight. You throw away everything in your refrigerator.

You can’t do the power outage and the pandemic, you just can’t, sorry, so you say fuck it to the pandemic and eat inside a Longhorn Steakhouse. You cry over the bread basket as the waitress does a double-take and your husband sighs and says, “I was just hoping we could have a nice time.”

You’re tired of crying so much. It’s drying out your contact lenses. You call your doctor and get prescribed a pill to make you happier, but all it does is make it impossible to sleep.

On day five, when you’re so sleep deprived you can’t sit up straight, it occurs to you that you can just stop taking this pill. The very thought makes you happier than you’ve been in months, and the irony of this is not lost on you.

When you finally sleep again, you dream you’re in elementary school and high school and college and adulthood all at once. You’re surrounded by everyone you’ve ever known, and everybody is celebrating and standing close together. The pandemic is over, and also, it never even existed for anyone but you. Everyone else was here all along, waiting for you to return.

You are also waiting for yourself to return, you think when you wake up. But it can never look the way it does in your dreams. If you are to return, it must be to this new world—the one where many of the things you once loved are indefinitely out of reach.

But not everything.

You open the notebook you bought when you thought you were going to handwrite a novel while watching the squirrels. You realize you did actually write in it. Somehow, between updates about the Glee star, you managed to fill most pages with a new story.

Some of it is funny. Some of it’s useless. Some of it was clearly written by a depressed person. But it’s enough of a lifeline that it carries you back to your padded desk chair and computer screen, and you start to type.

And now you’re writing again. Two hours a night, if you can, because it’s the only thing keeping you grounded in this new life. You do it even though you’ve come to hate your chair and computer. Even though you’re afraid of what the world will look like when you look up again. Even though a few years from now, you know you will have to take whatever it is you have written and push it off a very tall ledge.

You do it anyway, because you have to.

It’s the only thing left to do.

Julia Signaure