• Joseph Kolb

Our Growing Space

Updated: May 5

The neighbors still play the radio from their cars in the evening. It travels in through our windows on the warming spring breeze, taunting us to step outside. I leave them open until they die, until night comes, until the passenger door shuts. James commented recently that the less and less they leave their apartment, the easier it is to forget that everything is happening all around this.

I replied, “Every day that passes, the future normal just melts and melts away.”

“Yeah…”

“I just have to focus on that future. Six months from now, when we’re all--”

“Six months?” They laughed. “Clearly, you have not been on Twitter.”

Like 2019, I’ve sworn off Instagram for Lent. Over the last few years, I’ve cycled through Twitter handles ( currently in an off period), and have weaned myself off Facebook. Still, even when I’m not reading newsletters like everyone else the news drips down through the ceiling.

A week ago, our freezer stopped working. The mechanic still came, mask-clad ordering I open all the doors for him, turning his outreached arm and hand into a stop every time I stepped too close, before kindly explaining our controller was broken. I lent him a pair of latex gloves after his broke. When they delivered the new refrigerator and removed the old one, a dozen or so baby cockroaches nervously skittered in the new absence. I pulled out the vacuum and sprayed the floor with Raid. Yesterday, the tail-end of our chimney collapsed, and fragments of bricked rain down through the alley.


And from the rooftop, you can see helicopters flying back and forth in a perfect line, so my roommate tells me. At night, we have a mostly undisturbed view of the Empire State raging madly in red. James showed me a clip taken from the street, a white line of light rotating in a bender around the spire. I think of the Dark Knight. You can escape the world, in moments. But eventually, it creeps back in.

Once you start to listen, it’s hard to stop -- the scope of the city revealing itself in soundwaves. Several weeks ago, Hayley sent a screenshot to our group chat. In Google Maps, her little blue dot apartment was circled, along with Elmhurst Hospital. They are less than five minutes away from each other in Queens. “The helicopters and sirens are non-stop,” she messaged. Now in Brooklyn, we hear them throughout the day too.

I sent my parents and some friends an NYT photo essay of New York during the 1918 Spanish Flu. The essay featured contemporary bulletins, informing people of the symptoms. At drinking fountains, people still shared a community cup, believing the water would wash it clean after each use. I was shocked to read that, in 1918, there was no radio. Everything was conducted over the telephone. Staying in touch with relatives, getting news updates, and public announcements like subway delays and strikes. Still, even the operators felt the strain, with a third of the young women that made up the switchboard workforce affected by the outbreak.

Today will be three weeks of shelter-at-home for me. Sometimes I’ve been overcome for an hour or so with stabbing pain in the heart. The tightness of the chest when I breathe. Coronavirus, or anxiety? I consult The Cut for an answer, but still find myself awake at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about where so many people are out in the world, sort of like the computer powering off and your warped reflection in the black surface catching you off guard.

It scares me how easily I can adapt to digital life. I spend too much time thinking about the spaces that we exist in and question their worth too much. Our lives can be so separate while still so intertwined, becoming increasingly digital. Apple tells me I spend about nine hours a day staring at a screen. What choice is there? At first, this made me feel guilty. But more than ever, the internet is providing not only an outlet but a way to foster my relationships with people I can’t see in person, and couldn’t see often before this pandemic.

My parents and I have started playing games of Settlers of Catan over Google Meet and Zoom. My dad’s laptop faces the board for me, while my mom’s faces the two of them. I try to FaceTime my friends more often: Danielle in Los Angeles, Amrit in Montreal. I joined a birthday party for my cousin’s 18th over Zoom. Since moving to New York I haven’t been able to attend most of my relatives’ birthdays or events. Facetiming my grandparents: another first. I spoke with great-aunt over the phone, for the first time in years. The call was an accident, as we were texting, but I was glad for it. She has been sewing masks day and night, almost two hundred. After our call, she sent me one in the mail. “Let’s do that again soon,” she wrote.

The more days I spend inside, the smaller the world seems to become. That is, the physical distance between myself and everyone else in the world becomes more and more apparent. But I’m grateful that we can become closer. Despite this, because of this, throughout this.


©2020 by Joseph R. Kolb