“Love is contraband in hell.”
~Assata Shakur 

 

In 2015, Manhattan real estate heir Robert Durst was arrested in New Orleans following the finale of HBO’s The Jinx, which appeared to show him confessing to a series of murders. Police found him with a plane ticket to Cuba, a prosthetic mask, an unregistered firearm, and five ounces of marijuana. He was 71 years old. Before extradition to Los Angeles, where he allegedly committed his most recent murder, Durst had to be processed on gun and drug charges. This meant a celebrity trial here in New Orleans, practically a celebrity murder trial. Sierra suggested we sit in on the court dates since neither of us had jobs. We donned our best business attire and joined the press pool with real journalists from Slate and The New York Times. We exchanged pleasantries with Dick DeGuerin, Durst’s Texas attorney in the ten-gallon hat.  

In person, Durst looked emaciated. You could make out the knots in his skull. He barely moved and never faced us, but I could feel myself in the peripherals of his icy gaze. I could never understand how somebody gets to that point. Not only killing multiple people, as Durst likely has, but doubling down and lawyering up. Buying a mask and fleeing to Cuba. I feel no kinship to that impulse. I’d turn myself in and beg for the death penalty. Three lives gone— three universes. Each one a consciousness as valid as your own, snuffed out for your self-preservation. You who were given everything and gave back nothing. Your mother is rationalizing the actions of a serial killer. You’ve turned her into a lunatic.

That’s how guilty I’ve felt all day, but it isn’t tied to any object or event. Today marks one month since the last time I made deliberate physical contact with another person. My body, hardwired for human interaction, is sending out every distress signal it has. Chief among them is guilt, even though I’m doing the right thing, minimizing my chance of contracting and spreading the virus. My mind feels clogged and feverish, but my temperature is normal. My skin feels hot, and my body is saturated with sharp pain. My creativity has checked out, so progress on my next album is stalled. Justin came over last week and packed a bowl that he didn’t finish. I thought smoking might help me focus enough to record, so I sterilized the back of the pipe with my lighter and took a small hit. Instead, the high sharpened my dysphoria into paralysis. 

The last person I touched, one month ago today, held my hand while letting me down gently. It was just dumb fun… I should have accounted for how sensitive you are… You have many admirable traits… We’ll find the right container for us, but romance isn’t it. Even then, we were breaking social distance guidelines, coming to terms with a night we shared when coronavirus was still just a phenomenon in another country across the globe. To me the timing felt like fate, but she’s happy to be alone. If she were here tonight, she might tell me how the human body can’t always distinguish between the need for food and the need for touch. She read an article about it. 

A few months after the Robert Durst trials, I broke up with my long-term partner, and I learned firsthand the different masks that loneliness can wear. My therapist said it would be unfair to my next partner if I started a new relationship before getting over the last one. So, I stayed single. I didn’t go on a date or so much as kiss or hold hands with anyone for six months. I still wasn’t working, so I barely left my room. My solitude made me paranoid. At one point, two firefighters came to my door to give me a pamphlet about home fire safety. I was convinced my therapist had put me on suicide watch and sent them to check on me. The one firefighter’s hand trembled as I took the pamphlet from him. They must have thought I had a dead body stashed under the floorboards. 

I don’t know when I got over that relationship, but my therapist’s prediction proved true. I was unfair to a few people. I haven’t had a monogamous partner since, which was fine until COVID-19 split humankind into couples and blistering neurotics. I’m working full time now bottling hand sanitizer, and it’s the only social interaction I have. I’m a model employee, eager for managerial approval. It makes me feel less like a criminal.

I couldn’t have guessed that after years of carefully managing distance and intimacy, I’d be thrust back to hell by a pandemic. I’ve felt like a child, obsessing over love in the middle of a global purge, but isn’t that why Anne Frank’s diary is so gripping? Boys from school are more important to her than hiding from the Nazis, and she’s too young to know she’s supposed to hide it. Yesterday, I biked to work under the Claiborne bridge and it smelled like death. A man sneezed, and I swerved as far from him as possible, only to see another man lying on a mattress, hopefully asleep. Even in these surroundings, I’ve been blaming my misery on the last person I touched, the one who skirted social distancing to let me down gently. I wanted to reach out to her tonight, but I thought better of it. I invited Justin over, but he was too busy to see me. He said he was writing a song about Munchausen syndrome inspired by Lou Reed’s “Street Hassel.” I told him that I’ve been listening to Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It hasn’t inspired any writing. But I can make myself cry to “Maps” at the exact moment that Karen O starts crying in the video.

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