I SPENT LAST WEEK with a technicolor ax in my chest, struck into me by some young woman for whom I felt some murmuring of affection. That’s how it goes with me and love these days, I open the door just a crack, just a tiny sliver between the darkness and the light, and then I collapse into my bed wounded and try to stagger back out into the cold sane air of February.
Such authority, she had, this youth. There are so many people talking to you all the time, but when one of their voices pierces the noise and cuts to the core of you, you sit up, take notice. I felt as if I was lost in the yellowed pages of some old Jules Verne novel, reveling in the core of the earth’s brilliant radiating rainbow heat. One of my friends — a Finn, of course — was swift in his assessment.
“Just shut up,” he says. “You’re in love.”
“Remember how Peter the Great chopped his window to Europe? How he founded Saint Petersburg? She chopped a window to my heart. She’s got Ingrian workers draining the swamps!”
“You know too much about history,” the Finn says. “Shut up and enjoy it.”
My Finnish friend is wise. We have wonderful conversations. A café is closing down in town and we even have a scheme to open up a karaoke bar for Finnish tourists. We’re going to call it “General Mannerheim’s Karaoke Bar,” and there will be a little portrait of the Finnish hero general smiling and waving on the sign, and it will in no time be full of moose from the north.
“What the world really needs right now,” he says, “is another Finnish karaoke bar.”
Maybe he’s right, I think. We need more impossible love dreams and nonsensical fantasies. We need young women who speak with authority and Finns singing old pop songs. As I write this, all of China is under quarantine and reports of new infections rise every hour. The death count rises and there are conspiracy theories spreading. There is no way this virus made the transition from bat soup or snake tartare to the human population so quickly, some hypothesize. It must be a biological weapon. Look at the over-the-top response of the Chinese authorities. They must know something. This is how the decade dawns, feeling like the end of days. People are stockpiling food and masks. A man sneezes in the café, and I get up to move. Later, I load up on Vitamin C, just in case. Even my 12-year-old daughter can smell the doom.
“The 2020s are just a few weeks old,” she says, “and they already suck.”
“What do you mean?”
“There was almost a war with Iran. There’s the coronavirus. Is there any good news?”
To be honest, I had hardly noticed this distinct apocalyptic flavor until recently. It all seemed par for the course, business as usual. Haven’t we lived through pandemics before? I must knock on wood though because I’m sure we aren’t too many contagious tourists away from some Stephen King-like scenario, where people are collapsing in the streets and there is a man ringing a bell encouraging people to bring out their dead. This could all happen. It’s happened before.
It happened a hundred years ago. They called it the 1918 flu pandemic but it stretched on for years. It killed numerous family members, among them my father’s grandmother. She was 26 when she drew her final breath. The date was February 12, 1920. Exactly a hundred years ago. I know a little about my great grandmother. I know that she was college educated — rare for the time — a musician, and she also wrote poetry. There is a love poem she wrote to her husband that has been handed down. I have also inherited a poetry anthology of hers where she wrote notes about her favorites in the margins of the pages. “This,” she scrawled in pencil about the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson during some literature class, “is the best thing he ever wrote.”
Reading her notes, I have to forgive myself for worrying more about my heart these days, or dreaming up some crackpot schemes with my Finnish friends. It seems better than getting caught up in the terror of the end of the world, even if it is coming to an end.
Even if this is the apocalypse, what could any of this have been worth if it wasn’t lived with fire and fervor?