These Dreadful Days

If it feels like the vibe shifted to existential despair, you’re not alone. But it won’t always be this way.

A painting of a swooning woman being caught by a group of people
The Effect of Melodrama, by Louis-Léopold Boilly, exhibited at the Lambinet Museum in Versailles, France (Leemage / Corbis / Getty)

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“We probably didn’t get COVID in there,” I said to my two doctor friends, grimacing as we put on our masks to board the elevator after a party for parents of kids attending my daughter’s school, where we’d been maskless. Most people I know are vaccinated, and many of them had Omicron in December, when seemingly everyone in New York City got Omicron. But here’s the thing: That wasn’t the first time someone’s made a dark joke about the worry over getting COVID; it’s become the go-to joke at every gathering. Low-level fear seems to have permeated everything these days, like the music you hear in elevators or in airport lounges. It’s the hum of dread, the lullaby of anxiety.

Dread doesn’t feel like anything else. It has a clarity to it, a briskness. There is no uncertainty in dread. It’s been 762 days since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and finally the vibe has shifted from the abject panic and disbelief of March 2020 to the ubiquitous dread of April 2022.

Late-pandemic dread is nothing new. In the 14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote in The Decameron about the feelings of Florentines during the bubonic plague: “These things and many others like them, or even worse, caused all sorts of fears and fantasies in those who remained alive, almost all of whom took one utterly cruel precaution, namely, to avoid the sick and their belongings, fleeing far away from them, for in doing so they all thought they could preserve their own health.” A sense of hesitation hung over society then, and it has returned for many people now, despite the expectation that vaccinated and healthy, young(ish) people under the age of 65 can resume normal activities, taking some precautions but behaving largely like we did before nearly 1 million Americans died of COVID.

Remember this time last year? We were told we’d get a hot vax summer. The streets would be filled with half-naked people dancing with one another. It would be like Woodstock. We’d call it the roaring 2020s. After all, history is filled with such things. The 1918 flu pandemic was followed by a decade of parties and opulence. Surely, the coronavirus panic would fade into a decade of boom, or at least a summer of it.

Instead, we got Delta, then Omicron. And Russia invaded Ukraine. Stories out of Bucha read like something out of the wars of Boccaccio’s time: “One man was missing a large chunk of his skull; another body was so badly burned only his head and half of his torso remained, the whites of his eyes subsumed by charred flesh. One person appeared to have been beheaded.” Turn on the television and you’re confronted by images of murdered people’s bodies lying in the streets, mass graves filled with corpses in plastic bags. We watch in horror as the young president of Ukraine begs for help. Last week I saw a story about a Ukrainian mother writing the phone numbers of her and her husband on the back of their toddler. “My hands were deeply shaking and that’s why it’s so horribly written,” the mother told NPR. As a mother myself, that photo is indelible in the hippocampus.

This dread … I recognize it. I wish I could say I didn’t.

I was 21 years old and living uptown when, at 8:45 a.m. on a cloudless day in September 2001, the first plane hit the North Tower. I had just walked my black-and-white cocker spaniel. My stepfather called me. “Something’s happened,” he said. I turned on CNN. Soon my city was enveloped in smoke and sirens. Soon the bridges and tunnels were closed and the streets were silent. There were no cars on any of the avenues or streets. People walked home covered in ash like living ghosts. You could smell that mixture of flesh and asbestos and jet fuel, which lingered for weeks. Outside of my local hospital were flyers with pictures of people who’d gone to work and never come home. My next AA meeting was filled with stories of people stuck on the high floors who didn’t make it out.

After the towers fell, the air had an odd feeling, a texture. There was a sense that because this attack had worked so well, it was only a matter of time before another attack was launched. In October 2001, I flew past the smoking embers of the towers on my way to Chicago. The flight attendant and I grimaced at each other. She said something about the smoke and the smell. I can’t remember how the words fit together, but the effect was chilling. I was so freaked out by the experience that I took an Amtrak train home from Chicago. I wasn’t even anxious, exactly; I was just certain that more destruction was coming. In the months that followed, President George W. Bush launched a Homeland Security Advisory System that was color-coded and told us just how much to worry each day. The highest alert was red and the lowest was green. In New York City, the system was a screaming orange for months.

Around that time, I started to find myself filled with a kind of belief that none of this would end well. I would sit on the subway and obsess about the noises; every rattle could be something. If you see something, say something, the advice went. So we were all primed for hypervigilance. And the rest of the world acted that way too. The American people were just continually on edge, convinced that 9/11 was a harbinger and not an aberration.

Right now, that same dread is in the air. We’ve gone through something scary, something horrific. I feel that same grim conviction that perhaps the coronavirus is just the beginning of something more awful still. What if there’s always another new mutation? What if the sirens never stop screaming and the boosters never stop coming and we never stop worrying about hospitalization numbers? Or what if we simply shift back into normal life and the transition is slow, like with most things? What if things are always shifting?

This dread will be replaced by something else, eclipsed by some other feeling. The spring of our discontent will lead to the summer of something else. But what? By 2003, I was married and pregnant with my first child. We learned to live with dread, and then slowly, it slipped away. Sure, there were seismic problems with American life, but there were also first-birthday parties and ice cream and movies and fireworks and all the joyful minutiae that make up a life. We learned to live with dread, and then it went away, or at least it seemed to. Green shoots will alway emerge, even after the darkest days. Even when the darkest days last for years. You just have to wait for the season to turn.