The nomenclature was so strange at first, and then it was everywhere: in our stories, our questions, our arguments, our dreams. In California, where I live, I wake with a racing heart one morning because in the nightmare I was trying to buy cloth, for a mask, but the other shoppers wouldn’t distance. How do they say it where you are? I type online to friends in other places, and the responses pile on. Distanciamento social, Brazil. Distanciation sociale, France. To meters avstand, Norway—two meters distance.
From Mexico City comes a picture of the new cartoon superhero, Susana Distancia, grinning from a sort of isolation bubble inside of which she holds both arms straight out to the sides, marking the no-approach zone. A Delhi friend passes on a comic’s line about wanting to meet this famous new guy, Soshal Distan Singh. A friend in Boston insists the phrasing has been wrong from the start, that what the coronavirus began forcing upon the world isn’t “social” distancing at all. Anybody fortunate enough to have access to a screen and an internet connection has rushed toward others, wildly, inventively, using live chat and video conferencing to talk, plan, teach, cook, drink, work, dance, sing, weep, exercise, pray, listen, mourn. This distancing is physical, my Boston friend observes. We can connect. We are connecting. We just can’t … touch.
We can’t throw ourselves into shoulder-to-shoulder rescue work with strangers, the way we would if we were digging someone out of earthquake rubble. We can’t funnel into houses of worship or yell together at ballparks.