Translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood
Stay at home, I repeat, stay at home, maintain Intimate Distance
. First, a metre and a half, then two metres, eventually three or more. For years now I’d been hearing almost nothing else. I could bear it no longer.
I slipped into my orange-coloured hazmat suit and left the house, rustling gently as I moved. The material was meant to serve as an effective barrier against a broad range of viruses, its seams, welded by ultrasound, providing impermeable protection. I donned a silicone face mask. The perfect attire for my first real-life tinder date.
So much time had passed since we last saw each other live that it felt as if it had been in another life. We first met at a bricks-and-mortar school and the mutual attraction has still not faded. A fourteen-day pandemic break turned into an endless vacation. We never met in a classroom again. The only way we could see our teachers was on screen. Tuition, clubs, hobbies, mass – everything from home, online, digitally. I studied geometry, geography and German on the computer, and it was online that I was initiated into the secrets of virology, our new compulsory subject.
Online, we got to know each other better by baiduing, lenovoing, huaweiing, xiaomiing and, those of us who could afford it, by elonmusking. We were out of even virtual contact for months, when the pandemic caused power outages, before being able to reconnect, with great difficulty, and becoming inseparable for a long time. We grew up chatting online, reading to each other chapters from our favourite electronic books, gaming, watching old TV boxsets, falling out and making up again. Recently he talked me into taking my T-shirt off for him, having long wanted to see me naked and begging me until I agreed, on condition that he stayed fully clothed. He kept his word. And blushed more than I did. My love for him grew even greater.
Our relationship has helped me get over the death of my parents. After the virus went through its third, terrifying mutation, my parents joined a penitential sect. They regarded the pandemic as a punishment from God and thought the Redeemer’s second coming was imminent. They surfed social media and took part in agonizing rituals. Then they set out on a pilgrimage that was supposed to last thirty-three days, but they were wiped out within hours. Carpenters made them coffins out of soft wood to allow their bodies to decompose as rapidly as possible. Back then people were still laid to rest individually. Later there were only mass graves. Cemeteries stretched away into the distance as far as the eye could see, a fierce wind sweeping along the straight lines of graves bereft of flowers. Places of equality, every difference completely obliterated. This was the sight that made me decide to become a doctor.
His mother and father abandoned him as soon as he got infected. The numbers of Covid victims continued to grow. We are experiencing the darkest hour in our country’s history, the young prime minister announced minutes before he suffocated during a live stream.
Being left alone has brought us together. With him I didn’t feel lonely, imprisoned though I was between my four walls. We would reach out to each other, our quivering fingertips touching the monitor.
My vocabulary expanded by leaps and bounds: death rate, fatality rate, herd immunity. I’ve listened to contradictory advice. Drink water. No, drink vodka. A tablespoon of vinegar in the morning, two in the evening. Overeat. Fast. Go to a warm place. No, go to a cold place first.
For a while, ghost flights kept criss-crossing the skies as airlines tried to hold on to their expensive flight slots, but the skies soon cleared. By some estimates, a third of the population perished. Those who were not careful enough succumbed to a nasty fever, some in their sleep, others while out walking. Streets were deserted, only now and then would an autonomous vehicle pass by, sirens blaring, as it distributed long-life food supplies. Almost every day brought some new and urgent problem for me to grapple with: missing supplies, online purchases of equipment, shortages of tools.
Adulterated antivirals were worth their weight in gold. Patients were happy to sign over their apartments for a place in an intensive care unit. Dealers exploited people’s willingness to commit the most heinous acts in return for ventilators.
To survive we had to stay totally isolated and clean. That’s probably why young people became so fascinated by filth. Otherwise the first e-election wouldn’t have been won by an unstable fanatic who dubbed the virus a Jewish invention, and the infected wouldn’t have been driven to Roma settlements where people were rumoured to eat bat soup.
We kept telling each other that we had to hold out, that we mustn’t give up, come what may. And then, for the first time in nine years, snow fell again. Gradually, all four seasons returned. Air quality reached levels similar to those of a century ago. The average temperature fell by three degrees Celsius.
Nevertheless, the government kept ignoring the rights of infected senior citizens, who could only dream of having their demands met. Robots refused to take anyone over the age of seventy onboard an ambulance. Masses of medical migrants were trapped in camps on their countries’ borders.
We both explored online scientists’ groups that were in a race against time to perfect a vaccine. We observed, to the point of total exhaustion, the shifting shapes of the virus – round, oval, oblong – with its spiral symmetry and terrifying club-shaped spikes, under microscopes on the net.
Survivors started to mobilize and contemplate what should be done with a world that was starting to recover. We all knew there was no going back to the kind of life we’d lived before, but different people had different and sometimes contradictory ideas. We helped to link up with each other brilliant minds, teams of scientists, supercomputers and artificial intelligence. We relished the re-emergence of culture, having witnessed the collapse of the creative industries. Sitting at our tablets, we pretended we were together in the theatre, watching with bated breath as actors rehearsed plays in their own homes and then performed them together on virtual stages. We took part in online political rallies, exhibitions and concerts, visiting the world’s galleries with our fingers on the screen and zooming into paintings of old, as well as new masters. We wandered around scanned art monuments and historical cities. We engaged in passionate discussions and polemics, thinking aloud, writing with passion, and being overcome by doubt time and again. All this frenzied activity only served to strengthen the bond between us: we no longer bothered to turn off our computers, staying connected 24/7. I went to sleep with his voice in my head and woke up to the sound of the song he was playing at home. Our closeness overcame the distance between us.
Nevertheless, I found the thought of meeting him again in person overwhelming. I wandered around looted shops with their now-defunct brands. The stench of the powerful disinfectant that had been sprayed over everything penetrated the filter. Open spaces and buildings were now overgrown with luxuriant greenery. Here and there a doctor wearing a bird mask flitted past. I stopped by the castle wall to look at the lists of the sick and the missing, as well as tributes to selfless doctors and nurses, then hurried on. We’d arranged to meet outside our school, like in the old days.
Trees and moss were growing out of the dilapidated building's brickwork, a fox dashed out of the wide-open gate, and storks were feeding their young in their nests on the chimney stacks. I had long wondered what I would say to him when I finally saw him again. I had never waited for anything so impatiently and with such trepidation, my heart pounding and my stomach in knots.
He, too, came in a hazmat suit, a yellow one, his face covered by the familiar thick nanofibre mask, the kind that used to fetch astronomical prices on the black market. We gazed at each other through our visors, warily overcoming the Intimate Distance
and rustling gently. We exchanged not a word. How strange to find oneself in such close proximity to another human being! As we looked at each other, we simultaneously burst out into the kind of strange laughter that emanates from beneath protective masks. Then our fingers interlocked and we pressed our hands together. I had forgotten what it felt like: it’s like running a fever. The blood pounded in my temples, beads of perspiration formed on my forehead, and I held my breath so hard that my neck grew stiff.