The Way We Learn About Love
A Commentary on COVID-19, Love, Loss,
and the Positive and Negative Changes of Our Time
by Nicholas D’Antonio
The first virus hit early 2020.
The second one emerged in the fall of 2035 and I am sure I will never forget those seasons. My grandfather caught it twice, he survived the first time. Lately, it had been on my mind to a point of obsession. It was always like this the month or so preceding his death anniversary. At least it had been this way the past two years. I did not expect the third year to be any different.
Three years ago I was a senior in high school —on the way out— a voice in my head would always say. At the time I was sad to leave the comfortable, small-town life that I was born in and accustomed to. I loved stepping outside on Friday nights, listening to the stadium speakers echo classmates names. I loved the random burst of screams echoing up from the loudspeakers, the wind traveling with the sound of voices up to my street. I missed walking around town with a friend or two, doing nothing, looking for nothing. Only companionship. I missed the nights we stayed up until the day playing video games or getting relentlessly high. Things were simple but things were well back then. Those few years ago seem an eon away now.
Nostalgia burdened my breathing, but at the same time there was excitement for the new adventure ahead, enrolling in a Division I university far from here. However, being the sentimental bastard that I am, I could sense within myself that I would continue to grieve putting this small town aside, possibly forever. And on one autumn Friday in October of that year, my own grandfather had ceased to exist, and that fact would end up becoming a relentless demon in my mind for the years to follow. I had loved two worlds and lost both at almost the same time. Looking back, I did not prepare well enough for that. I stopped hearing the loudspeakers, only Mom’s tears.
After his death, I thought I might start forgetting things about him, about the memories we created and shared. The dreadful feeling became overpowering, to the point of me asking questions about him to everyone in the family all day, every day. Trauma-induced anxiety tended to make compulsory aspects of my O.C.D. flare up. It calmed down six months later, then fired up again at the first anniversary of his death. I’m better now, I can often control the obsessing. The questions just stay on repeat in my head.
“Ian,” Taylor dug her elbow into my ribs, “What are you dreaming about over there? The professor has made an obvious glance at you one or twice and you don’t even seem to notice.”
I pulled myself out of the cloud that I was nestled in and saw the look of concern on Tay’s face. That pretty, pretty face. Slender and toned. Her skin was still dark, burnt by the sun this summer. Her eyes still seemed to have their own source of luminosity; those vivid blues could shine a light all the way through me. We have had four or five classes together and became friends because of it.
“Thanks,” was all I managed. I turned my face back to the instructor, and this appeased her.
Tay and I exited the lecture hall and walked up and down the “campus built on a hill” until we parted ways at our separate dorms. It was a normal routine just like any other Tuesday/Thursday afternoon.
Except on this particular day the obsessions wouldn’t stop. I can’t even recall a word Tay spoke on the fifteen-minute trek back to our residence hall. Even worse, I think she could tell something was off too. She had that odd look about her when we split. The kind of look where the eyes of the other make you conscious of your own eccentric behavior.
Great, I thought, there goes another friend. Why can’t I be anywhere but my own head?
I climbed the stairwell to the third floor where my room was. I got lucky in the way people do sometimes—I had a whole room to myself. As it was located at the end of the hallway, I didn’t have to worry about people passing by. I usually kept the door closed.
I opened the mini-fridge underneath the window sill against the back wall. I cracked a beer open, reached for the book I was currently invested in, and propped myself up on the self-made double-bed. I made it out of the bunk beds that were provided when I got here. I drew in a deep breath and fumbled through the pages to where my bookmark sat. I was right in the middle of The Stranger by Albert Camus, an excerpt from it was used in one of my English classes this semester, and I thought about it enough that I was encouraged to buy.
After only a few pages I set the beer aside, adjusted the double-stacked pillows, and drifted towards the view outside the window. It wasn’t great, it consisted of the dark, asphalt shingles on the adjacent building’s roof. Some trees could be seen in the corner of the window and on a clear day the sun would provide light to the room. There was a gentle wind and red, orange, and yellow leaves swirled in the air around trees just starting to grow their coat of green. I heard the conversation of students walking, I heard laughter elsewhere, I heard someone on a bike whizz by.
It’s autumn, I thought, I miss you Gramps. I felt a tear start its salty descent down the valleys of my cheek and the sting of it startled me. Maybe I could not stop thinking of his death because the world lost such a rare and great man and I am one of the few who know it.
I still remember a lot three years later. He was the son or grandson of an immigrant who sailed from across European seas. He was a bricklayer or carpenter or something like that and he truly was one who worked so his kids could have better. And they did. My dad spent six years educating his way to two degrees. After that he entered his starting job at a publishing firm, which was well-paid compared to most at his entry-level position. And then THAT along with, what he said was “Gramps work ethic instilled in his DNA”, gifted him an incredible and fulfilling career. A prestigious role at some finance company. It paid well enough to send me halfway across the country to a top-notch, East Coast school.
I came to realize that Gramps enjoyed being the “martyr”, the blue-collar guy working tirelessly for his family. He soaked that role up like a sponge, clung to it. It gave him meaning. Just like my dad found meaning by playing his role as a boss, or as a proud father, sending his son off to college to achieve even greater things, to accomplish more than he had, which was more than his own father and so on and so on.
The fear, the dilemma, resides in the truth- I am still unsure of my role. I do not feel inspired to walk in any sort of direction or way.
Six o’clock rolled around and I had an hour until my evening class (with Tay), and I also had nine beers in me. New record before evening class. With that hour to spare I was bored, drunk, left with no alcohol, and no time to get more. I got on my phone and started parading all the social media sites, messaging gorgeous girls here and there. Never know what can come out of that.
Nothing did this time, but around six-thirty I put the phone aside to get ready again. I put my clothes back on, brushed my teeth and hair, and then threw my face mask on. I stopped and stared at it in the mirror for a moment. Life is weird and I feel most people forget this way of living wasn’t normal before. I’m worried that people my age, and even more so those a few years younger forget. I was a child when the virus hit but I still remember things before that. I remember when you could hug in public, stand close together, whisper in friends’ ears.
And talking was not some sort of abstract concept reserved for the most personal conversations. Speaking, orally communicating, that is. After the first virus people stopped getting together, period. We all tried for a year or two, and then everyone became comfortable staying inside all day, leaving their domains only for school and work, the sole remaining social functions. Now professors lectured, but behind linen cloth, and students did not open their mouths; answers were given through text. Bosses ran meetings but employees did not vocalize opinions. Maybe that’s why Dad became a boss, he was always a talker. He loves having “conversation hour” at home.
Even since the couple of years the virus had been properly handled, people wanted mask mandates to remain in place. Masks hid half the face when worn properly, therefore half the expression, and half the concern over saying or expressing anything at all.
I left for class and Taylor was waiting right outside the door. Even now, during the regulated social distance of ten feet apart, I could see the abundant beautiful features that made up her face… and her body. My attraction to her always felt interrupted by the distance. We continued on.
“You ever heard of a concept called parks? Recall anything about them?” she asked, (aloud even, instead of the common practice of texting), as we turned the corner for the science building.
I thought on it a moment, “Yeah, my grandpa used to mention them every once in a while, whenever he went on one of his rants.”
I stared past her into the abyss of memory and let out an odd laughing sound, like a giggle that was trying to escape. She ignored it.
“What did he have to say about them,” she inquired. One of Taylor’s most distinguishable traits that I could make out so far was her ceaseless curiosity.
“Well,” I tried to recall all he ever said about the subject, wondering if it might impress her for some reason, “I’ll say this, he would describe them in a way that is nothing like we describe them today.”
Her brow rose. Got her. Got her interest, finally.
We reached the top of the last hill there before one descended down the pavement path to the science building. As we reached the peak, a couple passing from the other way brushed shoulders with us and appeared far more startled than they should’ve for a light shoulder bump. Things like that used to happen all the time.
It was the talking. The talking OUT LOUD that had stunned them. Friends didn’t do that. If you had something to say, you sent them a text. If they didn’t pay any attention to their phone then you had to elbow them once or twice until they got the hint, but you never spoke. Honestly, you never had to elbow a friend either, everyone was always looking at their phones anyways. It was the digital heart of our existence.
That was another reason I liked Tay. The law required us to wear masks in public but made no such rule about talking behind them. However, a societal norm did develop that you should not talk anyways. Like masturbating in the restroom on a commercial airflight, it wasn’t illegal but it was frowned upon. She came from an odd family in an odd part of the country, and she openly admitted that she saw no harm in public conversation. In fact she always said she believed there were more health benefits to talking than there were health issues.
“There is no hard science that shows talking behind a mask can increase the spread of the virus,” she would preach, “in fact, talking is GOOD for you because…”
And then she would start up with her reasons and I would stop with my listening. But not long after our first encounter, I realized that if I wanted to continue having conversations with Taylor, it would have to be done by voice. By voice and in public.
I am still getting used to the stares from others. I mind it, but not as much as I mind the loneliness I felt before meeting her.
“You never really answered,” she said.
She said it with a slight curl in her lips, the preview of a smirk, but a gesture one had to really notice. It made her full lips all the plumper, and their pinkish gloss set against her tan skin was immaculate. That hint of a smirk always enveloped me, and I think she knew that. It was sexy in a way.
“I know, sorry. You can already tell how often my mind wanders, probably.”
I looked around the classroom and felt the full weight of the awkward stares from my peers. Everyone was texting, except us. Everyone sat ten feet apart, except us. Some of the conservatives of this generation considered it as disrespectful as throwing your feet up on the chair in front of you in the lecture hall, even when no one sat in it. Which we did. Why wouldn’t I put my feet on the unoccupied seat in front of me? My generation is strange.
I drew myself back into the moment, a rarity anymore.
“What about the whole parks topic? Didn’t know you needed more. Parks. Okay. Well, Gramps always told me they were the most energetic and serene of places. A place of community and gathering. Social gathering. Never once called them ‘a waste of usable space’ or an ‘insect-ridden, dirt-ridden, disease playground’ like so many people say today. Nobody hated them back in the day. I know that may sound out there, but my Gramps was no freak in his time. He was ‘one of the guys’, as he’d say.”
She absorbed it for a moment, “It’s crazy how different our thinking can be, even when it’s only two generations apart. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone describe a park like that. Then again, my grandparents weren’t alive to tell me about park-places.”
Most grandparents were not alive anymore. Ironically, as technology advanced, life expectancy declined. The new and exciting technology made us all want to rush our boring grandparents out the door. As a result, almost nobody had a grandparent remaining by the time of their birth. Technology had no use for their pace.
“Yeah, I was in a rare situation. Even more rare when you consider I had all four of my grandparents at the time of my birth, and the last remaining one alive passed only a few years ago.”
Shock-factor stained her face. Mind, blown. If she wasn’t wearing a mask, I’m sure I would’ve seen her mouth drop open. The lecture started, and she finally shut up.
That didn’t last very long though. The lecture was only forty-five minutes in length (rarely any activity is performed for more than an hour at a time today, due to attention-span issues common in people my age) and after that Tay resumed her investigation. She questioned me all the way back to the dorms.
“What else did he say,” her eyes wide, “any other potentially crazy stuff?”
I sighed. It was uncomfortable for me to talk about these things. No one else ever did. No one else ever talked, but I had her full attention and I devoured it, loved it.
“Jesus Tay, how personal should I get from here,” I pleaded.
“As much as you can allow. I have not carried on a conversation like this in quite some time. I want to explore.”
So, we explored.
“He said crazy things. He told me there will a million reasons to be at a park. Parents would watch their kids compete in cross-country races. He told me people would go for walks on days when ‘you had nothing particular to do’. You’d just walk around on these dirt pathways called trails and look at the stuff around you.”
At this point we were back at my dorm room, slouching in the bean bags chairs. It was nice, being just the two of us. No one came by.
“Look at stuff? What stuff? Buildings? Paintings? Texts?”
I shook my head in rebuttal, “No. No, that’s just it. NO buildings, NO texts. Only masses of trees, bushes, flowers. The clouds, yes that’s plural, you would lay in the grass and stare up at them, on days that were deemed ‘cloudy days’. Supposedly, you even looked at other people as you passed by them. It was a social norm to even vocalize the statements ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’ or even ‘How’s it going’. They would give some sort of automated response back, although I can’t remember it word for word, but it was a custom.”
At first, she was silent, and then all she could muster up was, “Shit, wow.” She was hearing of things unheard. She took a hard swig of her second beer and it turned me on.
“Another,” I suggested. She nodded and I threw her the last one in my fridge.
We cracked open our third one, simultaneously. I sank further into my bean bag chair, and behind the closed door of that lonesome room I could feel a connection to her. It was the most human experience I had felt yet. The night was young and ripe and cool for conversation.
“They played volleyball outside back then. They had hills for the sake of hills- people just liked to climb up and down them.”
“What else?” She took another sip.
“I just remember throughout all of my life when he brought up the park, he would describe sounds. Children laughing, metal baseball bats zinging, voices all talking, so much at once that the phenomenon was labeled as ‘crowd noise’. It made things harder to hear.”
“That doesn’t sound fun. That all sounds creepy,” she remarked.
I gulped down more of my beer, then spoke, “Yeah I thought so too at first, but then as he spoke I would usually look up from my phone and see the most innocent smile on his face and the brightest gleam in his eyes. He looked younger while he would talk about it. He explained it as a simpler time, where it took less to feel more.”
The room sat in silence for a second, which now seemed like the abnormal thing between us even though it was the standard of our modern times. I was in a state of shock, surprised at the sudden clarity I had in remembering him. Fresh tears swelled under my eyelids; I clamped my eyes shut to hold them down.
Sip. “Yeah, I guess he was a bit crazy. He even told me about a time he took a girl there, in the dark after allotted hours, and had sex with her! He said it was a ‘cosmic experience under the stars’. He never was shy about that!”
Taylor could have found my statement offensive, but we both rolled in laughter on the floor, and ended up laying there together. When the laughter died out, Taylor asked, “Ian, my only thing is, you hear that term from an old fart sometimes- ‘simpler times’ and when I hear that I think, but what was simpler? Everyone’s train of thought? I mean the masses of society had deep-rooted psychological issues. Racism, sexism, agism. Homophobes went around killing men in love and religious teachers went around chastising anyone with a different opinion. How was the world any better back then?”
I shook my head in disagreement, not with her views but with her understanding of my “old fart” of a Grandpa. We both took another sip and somehow, I began stoking her hair. I saw her eyes up close, far closer than the standard ten-foot distance. I had no idea that eyes could be beautiful like that, there was a soft and serene aesthetic to them.
“Oh, make no mistake about it, Gramps knew his generation had major problems. He acknowledged all the things you just mentioned. He said each generation has evolved in their thought processes except in one way.”
“And what way is that,” she blinked.
“I remember him telling me that nobody seems to learn that violence does not end violence. Hate does not drive out hate. Adding more darkness to a room cannot create more light in that room. He said our mistake was that we thought phones and technology and distance could fix things, but it doesn’t.”
I looked up at her and saw tears on her face, as I felt them on my own. It was a shared moment that I had not experienced with anyone in my life, at least not since my years as a toddler.
“It’s the way we all learn to love. If we could be taught from the start to think differently about the matter, that’s the way we fix things. Instead, we run into our digital holes and fill the void with consumption. That’s the way we learn to love and it’s a miserable loop of existence’. That was his answer. That’s what he would say.”
It got quiet in the abnormal way again. The only sound to fill the room was the sniffles from our noses.
“That personal enough?” I chuckled and I cried.
Her smile was gentle, “Your memory of him is incredible. For the first time in my life, I find myself wanting grandparents.”
That was an odd thought in today’s world, indeed. I would be lying if I said it was one I didn’t understand. Her comment ignited a train of thoughts in me that made me want to continue in this personal tone. Except this time, it was out of some innate desire to satisfy myself, not her. Part of me thought it was cliché to call it ‘courage’ when a person shared their feelings. Part of me felt, however, that it did take courage to be open and honest, thankful, upset, or even blunt. Part of me itched and clawed and said: ‘to share any raw thought is open hunting season but it is also genuine’. Part of me thought no one valued vulnerability, especially in men, of generations before and now.
I stopped the train, and I stopped stroking her hair, “Tay, you might not get it, but I need to thank you. It has been almost three years since his death to the day. He mattered to me. He was impactful. I didn’t think about it before, but I think you asking me questions about him has allowed his voice to speak through me. I think- I think I needed that. I don’t know why; grief is weird and doesn’t make sense.”
She was startled, and then in one blink that soft smile took back over. She appeared to get it.
“Hey, I’m just glad I can help. It’s what being curious is good for. I knew you could talk. I knew you weren’t crazy like the rest,” her smile widened.
I still felt a lingering terror, “You sure we aren’t the crazy ones?”
“Is it crazy to want something real?”
I kissed her, and that felt real. She kissed me back and that felt unreal. It was soft and it was slow. I could’ve drifted off into some romantic slumber. We both pulled back. A little shock but even more excitement, hot excitement. Then the abnormal silence, tensed. I had to make a move.
I sat up, “We’re out of beer. I’m about to run down to the liquor store for more, would you want to stay a little longer?” I hoped for more than just ‘a little’ and she knew that, but I knew she hoped for more too.
She sank farther back into the beanbag chair and stretched her arms and legs to their fullest extent and her entire body trembled and shook along with it. She yawned. Her athletic tank-top and gym shorts pulled tight against her skin, exposing the gracious outline of her full body.
“Sure. You get the beer; I will order the Chinese. We can eat and talk and watch movies just like they used to.”
She thought about something and the smile went from bright to blinding, “And when you get back let’s GPS the location of your Grandpa’s infamous park. I want to go and see if it’s still there or if there’s one of those commemorative plaques that document its existence maybe.”
“I’d love that,” I said, knowing that our campus was built upon the very grounds he used to speak so fondly of.
“Good. After I order the food, I am taking a nap. Science is exhausting. I’ll see you soon.”
She fell asleep before she could order the food, with a smile on her face—a sign of a content soul if you ask me.
I sped along to the liquor store thinking about how breath-taking it would be to visit the old park grounds in its own times. In today’s landscape, all infrastructure is a university building or homeless shelter. No state possessed or even built parks anymore, even the national ones that once existed under federal protection. With the extinct middle-class, all the rich and wealthy needed was an education and all the poor needed was a home. That’s the way society decided it. I just happened to be one of the fortunate ones.
Bless that old man. It all started with him. I could hear his voice ringing within my own heart, and it skipped a beat or two as I recollected all the things he once spoke to me. Again, I was left with the conclusion that the world had lost a prophet in the making three years ago. I see what he saw, and that is possibly why my grief is unending. I exist in a world where anything organic is unholy. Where any spatial, physical, or verbal connection is reduced to its smallest degree of possibility.
The bell chimed as I swung open the door to the liquor store. My thoughts reverted to Taylor. I was having trouble processing what she meant to me. Never had I expressed my pain so openly with another. I was not sure what to make of it or her- I did not know if she was an angel, or a lover, or just a quirky outcast. Later I skimmed one of those ancient things called a “dictionary” to find the correct way to describe. After finding a definition that made sense to me, I had to relook at the word for it. I had never seen it before, friend. ~