The only sound is the snickering of candles we’ve arranged on the edge of the sink and the closed toilet seat, their flames flickering gold on our forehead sweat. Is the occasional swoosh of the shallow water that we swirl with our bath-puckered hands, just to sense movement. Is the steady tide of lungs, inhaling and exhaling the thick steam and incense smoke. It’s as if we’re cocooned in this small apartment bathroom and in the smooth edges of its bathtub, smaller still. I start thinking about how four square walls can be a jail cell or can be a cozy nest, depending on context.
In October, just a week and a half after I first met Lauren, I started a Masters program in Urban Sustainability — a discipline that marries environmental concerns with those of social justice — at a university on the west side of Los Angeles. It’s a low-residency program, meaning that most of it takes place online during the evening hours. But at the beginning and middle of every semester, all of the student cohorts assemble for a full-time, in-person residency on campus — a jam-packed week of class discussions, interactive workshops, group projects, lectures, and panels, with lunch and snack breaks squished paper-thin between the learning blocks.
We spend a lot of time talking about…heavy shit. About all the ways that capitalism conspires against collective good and the good of the earth, how it eats us from the inside like illness. About the imbalances of power and privilege that spread perniciously as virus through our infrastructure and our economy. About the systemic nature of just about every societal problem, plus every true solution. (Everything is connected. This is beautiful and also hard.)
When you look, you can’t stop looking. You start to see the sickness everywhere, including within yourself and your own behaviors. You, too, purchase mass-made socks off the internet, even though you’ve just done a whole presentation about the hidden costs of fast fashion and you recognize the traumas to both human and earth that were integral to each pair’s sourcing, production, and transport. You sometimes do your grocery shopping at Whole Foods because you like their rosemary-flavored almond flour crackers and their sugar snap peas, even though you know that the company and its parent company are capital-B Bad. You’re addicted to consumption, just like everybody else, and when you use an online carbon calculator to compute your carbon footprint, you discover that your choice to opt out of meat and dairy for a vegan diet doesn’t make up for your international flights and your frequent drives back and forth across Los Angeles to spend time with your girlfriend.
These things are sort of your fault, but they are mostly the fault of the system you’re in; still, their weight can feel smothering. You watch the NASA videos of the polar ice caps melting, you see the stories about the bush fires burning millions of acres of land to bits, and you feel stifled by being in a human body. To be awake and aware is to sometimes feel suffocated by it all.
The sun shimmers her hazel eyes to amber. It drenches our notebooks. A thick slab of it slaps itself across her worn black jeans. The sun through the window is its own sort of sacred, because of the way it spills through a selective frame, the way it gifts our small internal spaces with its sweet, focused heat.
Outside, the birds play call-and-response with the off-and-on whirring: lawn mowers, leaf blowers, unidentifiable electric tools, a helicopter bellowing somewhere above. Every machine still grinds in motion, as if there’s not a pandemic happening. But in the small nook of her bedroom, we’re quiet and still: her in the plush embrace of the green velvet chair, me seated on the floor below her with a pillow wedged my back, my chin the same height as both her knees and the window sill.
This is the same little alcove from which she’d often text me photos during our first few weeks of dating, giving me glimpses into her moments of solitary reflection. Now, we settle in here together every morning, drinking our French pressed coffee from tiny porcelain mugs as we take turns pulling tarot cards for the day — a tender new ritual to swaddle our first waking hours with softness. The smallness of the space nuzzles us from all sides. Nestles us.
Just after I met Lauren in October, just after I started the grad program, I got gaslit by a roommate who manipulated me into moving out with two weeks’ notice. She wanted to offer the room to her friend, so she insisted we’d previously agreed I’d leave on November 1st. (We hadn’t.) In half-hour breaks during my 12-hour days at school, I guzzled cans of La Croix while maniacally searching the internet — Facebook, Craigslist, everywhere — for a new place I could move to in 14 days, 13 days, 10, nine…and the worst part was not the inconvenient stress so much as the confusing manipulation. But I found a new spot. I moved. I recovered.
In November, two days before Thanksgiving, I came down with what I presume was the flu. It was the sickest I’d been in years, feverish for two days, in and out of sleep for infinite hours while splayed sideways on the bed like a marooned fish. I missed Thanksgiving and instead, shriveled alone under the covers, scrolled through every last stranger’s Instagram Stories featuring baked sweet potatoes with perfectly browned marshmallows and family game nights and dining tables lined with laughter, and cried. I made it to my family a day late, sleepy and stuffy, but standing. I recovered.
In December, I rear-ended someone for the first time in my life. I was distracted and tired, a mere few minutes from home. It was the sort of accident that almost happens all the time, but doesn’t, and this time, when it did, it took minutes to accept its reality. The Jeep-style wheel on the back of the other driver’s car crunched the whole front hood of mine, like a piece of printer paper crushed by a fist. For seven weeks while it was in the body shop, I lived carless in a city that all but necessitates a car. But I eventually got it back, recovered and shiny as new.
And. One night in January, Lauren and I were making ourselves a bath. We wanted to relax after 48 hours that involved her own flat tire and expensive car repair, plus my bloody mishap with a kitchen knife that stole half of the tip of my left index finger. The lights were off in the bathroom. The candles were lit. We were filling the tub, already undressed, when a subtle dripping sound behind us erupted into a roar. The flexible pipe connected to the back of the toilet had torn itself from the wall, which now spouted water, and as Lauren forced it back in, both of us shrieking, it split from the toilet instead. The thing gushed as it writhed around like an agitated snake and rapidly drowned the tile floor. The torrent surged around us, into her bedroom and out to the hall. It was as if we were being drowned in a tsunami of our own making, hopeless to stop it. And I could not stop laughing. The whole thing was so absurd, the timing so exquisitely horrendous, that I could not stop laughing. Eventually, somehow, through maniacal hysteria and the blinding force of the gushing, my hand found the knob to shut off the valve. And we looked around ourselves, everything soaked, and we looked at each other, shocked and soggy, and I kept laughing, and I kept laughing, and when I stifled the laughter, I started laughing again. Because it was a truly exquisite mess. A magnificent metaphor, perfectly executed by life.
Later that month, during my second and most recent grad school residency, I scribbled a phrase in the margins of my notebook, circled it with messy asterisks, and dog-eared the page: “FALLING IN LOVE AT THE END OF THE WORLD.” Because it can feel like that, when much of your attention is devoted to contemplating the climate crisis and all the ways that humanity is both entirely capable and ludicrously incapable of tackling it. Because it can feel like that, when life seems to dole out one ripple of micro-crisis after another: uprooting, illness, collision, explosion.
The absurdity of it: falling in love as the world ends. I wrote it down to remind myself to dig into the absurdity of it. That we can grin at each other giddily as it all swirls and shatters. Like we’re tending to one delicate rose that’s blooming, unfathomably, in the eye of the storm.
We are all accustomed — acclimated, even — to a different kind of pressure: the pressure to choose, to perform, to produce. The pressure to remain in perpetual movement, pushing us from all directions. There is a different, disorienting pressure in forced stillness: how four walls can become claustrophobic when you’re not allowed to leave them, how the skull can suddenly seem far too small to hold the massive clamoring of solitary thoughts, how the expansive nothingness of time spent at home alone can begin, antithetically, to close in on you. Fear and grief can narrow one’s vision, too.
But life has always held us captive, is the thing. We do time here only temporarily, and there is so much — perhaps more than we can bear to consciously recognize on a regular basis — that we can’t control.
Maybe we must learn to let limitations be soft, warm, and honeyed. Maybe constraint can be a kind of snug embrace — a cocoon within which we disassemble and remake ourselves. There are kinds of growth that can only happen in large-scale stillness, which renders micro-movements more perceptible.
In this captivity, I submit the final papers for my first semester of grad school. In this captivity, I pick my journal up again and remember how the muted scratch of pencil on paper can transport me home to myself. In this captivity, I start recalling my dreams and recording them and discovering myself through them.
In this captivity, Lauren and I have our first real fight and reconciliation. We make a life-changing batch of vegan chilaquiles; I perfect my creamy cashew cheese sauce for a baked chickpea pasta, while she invents a crusted tofu recipe I can’t stop craving. I beat her at Sequence, and she beats me at Scrabble, and we complete a 1,000-piece puzzle, and we start working our way through a chalkboard list of movies we want to watch. We melt wax on the stove to make cinnamon-scented candles with rose petals crushed on top. We celebrate an anniversary.
We take walks. I’ve started to crave walks more than runs. She asks me how quarantine is changing my experience of spring, and I have to think on it: would I have spotted that wild chamomile on the edge of the sidewalk and toted it home to transplant into a pot? Would the birdsong have sounded so joyously loud? Would the pink skies have seemed so necessary?
In this captivity, I develop a new hobby. I begin scavenging for flowers around the neighborhood and arranging them in miniature bouquets, which we place in tiny jars and glasses to disperse all around the apartment. Plucked pink hibiscus blossoms, sprigs of bougainvillea, morning glories painted purple like bruises, lanky green weeds with froths of yellow petals at the tips — they bloom forth from their small containers, stretching their necks towards the window’s sun.