Safer at Home




A POLICE HELICOPTER throws blades of light into our living room. We’re distracting ourselves from the pandemic by watching the finale of a British crime show. On the TV, the police officer gets completely freaked out — shaking and tearful as he calls for backup — because he’s just realized one of the characters has a gun. Suddenly, I’m really emotional. It feels so far away — a world where people are that unused to violence, where despair and anger don’t turn lethal in seconds. (Every time we watch one of these shows my wife, who, unlike me, is from the United States, will say: “Why doesn’t he just shoot them?” before realizing, “Oh, that’s right — cops don’t carry guns over there.”)

When the episode ends, I see the notification from the crime app on my phone. Someone has fatally shot himself in the park at 8th and Mesa. That’s the little park across from the Italian deli where, weeks ago, what now seems like a lifetime ago, Dori and I picnicked with the dog. I read in the comments that everyone’s assuming it was a mental health crisis triggered by the lockdown. The victim was only 17. Just days ago, the L.A. County sheriff, buckling to pressure from gun rights groups and the federal government, announced that gun stores would be staying open during the crisis after all. Selling guns and ammo is, it seems, essential to keeping us safe.

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I first started to feel concerned on March 11. Worries about the coronavirus were still largely being dismissed here in Los Angeles at that point. People rolled their eyes at the hoarders, the hypochondriacs, the panicking masses. That week I shook hands with our vet, the lady at our local antique store, the director of the new homeless shelter. At the supermarket I loaded up a cart, telling myself it was worth indulging my anxiety a little, just to get some peace of mind. At the checkout — another week, another gossip rag promising a JonBenét Ramsey revelation — I texted a friend back in Europe: “Stocking up on groceries for the apocalypse, plus soap and disinfectant. Prone to hysteria, never far from a freakout … maybe I really am becoming an American.”

Ten days later, I’m on the phone to the consular helpline in the Netherlands asking: Should I stay or should I go?

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In 2016, I fell in love with an American woman while on vacation in Los Angeles. Britain — my home for six years — voted to leave the EU just before we met, leaving my future there as a Dutch national uncertain. Suddenly the New World shone with fresh promise. An American woman was soon to be president; an American woman was giving me her spare key and kissing my forehead like I already belonged. It felt like a homecoming. I’d orbited the US for years; most of the key players in my life had been Americans. But in November Trump was elected, and it became a different, more fraught story.

A year later, Dori proposed that I miss my return flight, and we got married. By that point, the love — between me and her, between me and this country — was already shot through with fear. What if they change the rules on us? What if I’m deemed not fit for admission? In a big red binder, we nervously hoarded evidence of our love — pictures from our travels, receipts from the Flower Market — to build our case. Almost instantly immigrants were facing longer wait times and stricter procedures. I ended up in green-card limbo for more than a year, unable to leave the country. (I was granted the travel authorization known as “advance parole,” but our immigration attorney strongly advised me against using it.) The land of the free had effectively become my jailer.

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It’s been a strange time to learn to be an American, getting to know the country while simultaneously watching it collapse into authoritarianism. Every day brings a new low — and often the discovery that it’s the latest in a long line of lows, that the Trump administration is merely perfecting cruelties that people had already been rehearsing for a long time.

We keep reminding ourselves that there is so much to life here beyond America the Institution, America the Monolith — all those things that first drew me here: the easy warmth and emotionality, the grit and creative energy that felt like welcome antidotes to the stiff, staid Old World. And there are our friends, all the brilliant and brave thinkers in this country, all the pockets of joyful resistance (queer bookstores, gentle old hippies teaching meditation in the desert, activist choirs), all the beauty and specificity — school buses, steel bridges, stale diner coffee — making this feel like home.

And so the question became how to protect ourselves, how to sit tight and wait for the Trump era to pass. I think of all the calamities we tried to brace ourselves for, developing habits halfway between precaution and superstition. Shoes by the bed in case of an earthquake. Living in California, the possibility of natural disaster is always present in your mind. Phone scrubbed of social-media apps before passing through customs, in case of power abuse. Every time I enter the country, I’m acutely aware of the terrible power held by US border agents, who were granted virtually limitless authority in the wake of 9/11 — their ability to hold you in a lawyer-less in-between, their track record of harassing writers, their guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to foreigners. I’ve heard enough firsthand accounts to feel cold fear whenever I cross the border, to do everything in my power to prevent that from happening to me.

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On Friday, we decide to self-isolate. I can work anywhere; Dori, who is a court stenographer, can’t, but by the following week her industry has all but ground to a halt. Being able to stay at home makes us fortunate. It is a privilege, just as the nice apartment we’re able to afford is a privilege, the separate office from which I’m writing this.

All the same, I realize we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by our tidy little life. The pandemic exposes and amplifies everything that’s fucked up about the US: the broken health-care system, the utter lack of a social safety net, the malice and negligence of this administration rippling out across the country. We are none of us protected.

As I scroll through the statistics about ICU beds and ventilator shortages, I imagine myself dying alone, rasping for air, in a foreign country. And I think of Dori, older than I am, more at risk. When we got married, we made a commitment to each other — for better or for worse, in sickness and in health — and we decided, for the foreseeable future, to commit to America. But now I wonder if we put ourselves in danger.

It’s not the first time I’m asking myself this question. Here so many things feel like a potential death sentence: riding my bike down Sunset Boulevard, smog burning in the back of my throat as I dodge SUVs with snarling grilles, jacked-up trucks with wheels huge as millstones — vehicles that look designed for murder. After six months of eating in this country, hot waves of acid reflux begin to flood my mouth with every meal. My doctor ends up prescribing three different kinds of medication to help repair the burned lining of my esophagus. “The same thing happened to my husband,” he tells me, “when he moved here from Spain.” After a year of eating in this country, my cholesterol is higher than that of my wheezy, sedentary, middle-aged European friends.

At first, I was amused by the way so many things that were normal, casual parts of everyday life in the other places I’ve lived — riding a bike, a vegetarian diet — were now political statements, an identity. I relished my own smug sense of national exceptionalism, seeing new bike lanes emerge around the city and joking, “If L.A. tries really, really hard, it might just grow up to be Holland!” I often had the strange sense of being a messenger from the future. I’d share my memories of universal health care and breathable air and have people look at me like I was talking about planting flowers on the moon.

During my second summer here, I go to a writing retreat where someone in one of the other workshops gets expelled from the program for making white supremacist threats. The rest of the week there is an armed sheriff patrolling the lush, idyllic campus amid the ponderosa pines, in case the guy comes back to shoot the place up.

Our workshop group is all women — there’s a Cahuilla poet writing about California’s Native history, two queer Latinx women writing about their pockets of Los Angeles, a memoirist with roots in Texas and Prague. It’s an unprecedented kind of sanctuary for me, sitting around a horseshoe table in a log cabin reflecting on the stories we want to tell. But every time I see movement flitting among the trees outside, I feel sick with fear. When the program photographer stops by one morning to take our group shot, the sight of the door opening gives me such a fright I see stars.

To calm myself down I try to liken it to something from a fairy tale, Snow White being stalked by the Huntsman. I reduce the threat to something cartoonish, almost cozy. (Chris Burden: “It’s as American as apple pie — the fear of getting shot.”) I tell myself all the usual things, about how risk avoidance never led to a good story, about art and sacrifice. But at the same time a plea begins to run through my head, small and primal. Please don’t let this country kill me.

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Now that voice is screaming, loud as gunfire, all through my body. Also, there’s a familiar, thudding sadness: the crushing sense that this country’s too far gone, that I came here too late. Too late for anything resembling peace.

Just two weeks before the pandemic, we moved from L.A. proper to a sweet little seaside town that felt like exactly the place we’d been looking for all along. Only a week ago, I’d been getting to know the woman working at the antique store and her tuxedo cat — waving “bye Donna, bye Mr. Boots!” like I was Rory fucking Gilmore. Meanwhile, in Italy, army trucks were rolling into Bergamo to collect the dead bodies, even as all of us here were oblivious to the chaos to come.

The process of learning about this country has been the process of learning that any bliss is a stolen bliss, deluded, perched on the brink of disaster. At first, that precarity seemed romantic, brave — my first summer here, seeing all those T-shirts saying, “I’ll sink with California” — but that was when I still thought we were headed for a Hillary presidency. When I thought of the United States as troubled but trying its best. When its arc still seemed to bend toward justice.

During the first few days of lockdown, I swipe through my camera roll, taking inventory of all the freedoms we enjoyed until recently. It’s an exercise in sentimental reproach: “We didn’t know how lucky we were.” Driving with the top down, flying our kite by the Korean Bell of Friendship, walking the labyrinth at Bronson Canyon.

But the truth is, I knew exactly how lucky we were. Even then I felt anxious and uneasy. I remember messaging a friend months ago saying, “I feel this constant, coursing panic, I’ve never felt like this before, what could it be?” (Half of the outings I find documented in these pictures were attempts to somehow calm myself down.) At that point, I still thought the problem was personal: the passing frictions of married life, or my relationship with the city. The United States excels at making people believe that its systemic failures are their individual shortcomings.

In my journal, I tried to describe the sensation: gray-black, like pins and needles, a Velcro glove rubbing against my raw heart. I resolved to be mindful if nothing else, to at least listen to my body sounding the alarm even as I stayed locked in place.

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Once, Dori made a disparaging remark about the United States and I said to her, “But only this place could have made you.” At the time I was referring, rather romantically, to her fuck-all-y’all defiance, her technicolor-dreamcoat outfits. A kind of rugged individuality: driving cross-country in a beat-up car. The spaciousness of mind that I associated with — attributed to — the spaciousness of the land.

There’s that, but there’s also fear. Fear of calling in sick, fear of dropping the ball, fear of the ever-present threat of destitution. In the country I come from, the state catches you if you fall. Sure, in Holland too neoliberalism has chipped away at that security over the years, but the stakes are so different. No one there has to worry about medical bankruptcy.

Americans eat and drink and tip in abundance, like people who have so much to give, so much to waste. With the same generosity, they give so much of themselves over to this greedy country that takes and takes and takes and then slams the door on them at the first sign of need. I’m sorry, your new insurance doesn’t kick in until next month, that’ll be $35,000 for your hospital bill. I’m sorry, you don’t have coverage, please go die quietly in your own home.

I’ve begun to recognize the pall of that fear veiling my friends, draining them like a Dementor. A weariness I used to think was just middle age, or the pressure to conform. My friend the musician who told me — his voice chipper but his shoulders hunched like an old man’s — that he was “finding his creative challenges in the corporate world these days.” My friend the dual citizen who tried to settle back in the United States for a while, had a successful media career, but would vomit in his car after shifts from stress.

I think back to the American friends I had in Europe as a teenager, people I mistook for signposts to the promised land — not stopping to reflect on the fact that they’d long ago left the place themselves.

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Along with the legitimate fears of the pandemic come the fever dreams of the American imagination. Lines at gun stores wrap around the block as the country prepares for the imminent collapse of the social fabric, the looting gangs that will apparently soon be roving the streets.

In the last few years, I’ve often felt like I was rapid-cycling through this country’s cultural neuroses — as if I were myself America in miniature. As a relatively recent arrival, your first instinct is to believe what the place tells you about itself. If Americans are to be believed, Americans are greedy, selfish, ready to stab you in the back as soon as the going gets tough. When I see the viral picture of the crowds outside the gun store in Culver City — a place I used to pass every day, a place I’ve photographed for friends back in Europe, probably accompanied by a scathing caption (“lol, ’merica”) — I have a full-blown panic attack.

A German friend gently sets me straight. She reminds me not to take my cues from disaster movies. She sends me studies showing that in times of crisis people are, if anything, more likely to come to each other’s aid. In rational Northern Europe, I spent an entire James Dean adolescence defending my right to Feel Things. Now I find myself craving the cool balm of facts.

Days later, an American friend forwards a video that her boss has sent her of grocery stores being looted in Britain. “It’s already happening over there,” he writes, “so stop worrying about your credit-card bills and get ready!” I recognize the images in the video immediately: it’s footage from the riots that took place in London … nine years ago.

American paranoia, American self-loathing — when I can, I try to be a voice of generosity, of reason. If the outsider’s task is to hold up a mirror, part of that is to smooth back America Hysteria’s hair and say: It’s not as bad as you think. You’ll turn out just fine.

But at the same time, I’m exhausted by the disregard for facts, the lack of curiosity, the infighting. Trump’s America strikes me as a place where — understandably — no one feels looked after, but so much of the fear and anger are misdirected. On social media, for about a week it seems like everyone’s united in panic. But before long people are back to the same finger-pointing, the same bad-faith hot takes, the same eagerness to feel wronged. Welcome to America: the bad news is that we’re all fucked, but the good news is that we can all be victims. It’s the worst, most short-sighted interpretation of what freedom is: the freedom to assume the worst about each other. It makes me long for Europe’s calm, for the soporific anchormen of my youth instead of the amped-up voices on CNN — for a public discourse that isn’t all about courting attention and controversy.

There’s a word the Dutch use a lot that translates roughly to “goodwill,” wanting someone else to have good things. That word is gunfactor, from the verb gunnen — to grant someone something, to feel that their fortune is deserved. But as I look at the picture of the gun store, the irony of how that word sounds to an American ear is not lost on me. Gun factor. Every man for himself.

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On March 19, the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, issues a “shelter in place” order — or, as he calls it, “safer at home.” (The joke circulating on Twitter is that Garcetti — much criticized for his management of the homelessness crisis — doesn’t want the word “shelter” anywhere near his name.)

That afternoon, rather than social distancing, the women in the building next door have people over for a prayer circle. From our living room I hear a chorus of voices rising up from their kitchen, where they’re all crammed in together: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

I’m surprised by my anger, the tidal swell of it. I spent years defending America against the rash generalizations of my European friends, their laughter about its guns and its God. But that was when I too was still an observer. Now, my compassion abruptly sours into hostility: my neighbors’ refusal to believe in science could kill us. Literally.

Of course, I know it’s more complicated. In the US economy, the question of who “takes the lockdown seriously” is a matter of who can afford to take it seriously. So many people don’t have that choice. For so many people, life here is already brutal and precarious as it is. Can I blame them for looking for comfort where they know they can find it?

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Meanwhile, worried messages start coming in from the Dutch and German writers whose work I translate: “Are you okay over there? Europe’s having a rough time of it, but the US really seems to be headed for disaster.” Their updates are so different from those of my American friends: no one’s worried about making rent or getting evicted. (Berlin managed to distribute €500 million to artists and freelancers within days of launching a brand-new emergency grant program.) Several of them ask the same question: “Are you sure you need to live in the US?”

Amid a global pandemic, the idea of fleeing to safety is, of course, something of an illusion. The Dutch government, too, came under fire for its slow and shambolic response, for naïvely peddling ideas of “herd immunity.” But there’s still a world of difference between lack of understanding and deliberate malice. Watching Trump’s daily press briefings — with their gaslighting, victim-blaming, and encouragement of medical malpractice — I feel hungry for leadership and reassurance, for level-headed speeches from the Dutch king.

I recall Masha Gessen consulting a lawyer about how to stay safe in Putin’s Russia, and finally being told: “The answer to your question is at the airport.” Are we getting to that point here? I think of Morrissey: “America is not the world.” And Sarah Kendzior: “If Trump fears he will have to make a personal sacrifice, he will sacrifice the world instead.”

I haven’t lived in the country of my birth since I was a teenager — through the years, I’ve often boasted of my lack of affinity with it. And yet I find myself calling the consular helpline, like a kid calling mommy from a sleepover: “Could you come get me? This isn’t fun anymore.”

Maybe I would be “safer at home.”

But there’s Dori, for whom “home” still means this country, despite her growing alarm, her roaring doubts. And us getting on a plane also means putting ourselves at risk, means flying home to my immuno-compromised mom. I think of my mother, the times she’s visited with us here, how each time I worry the border agents will give her shit. Suddenly, my loving America seems profoundly irresponsible. America the eternal adolescent, stomping its shitkicker boots just because it can.

In photo features, I see New York’s streets empty, Los Angeles’s freeways empty, apocalyptic. I imagine never passing through those places again — I imagine things ending here.

What shocks me is that, for a moment, I feel relief.

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At night, I lie in bed staring at the avocado tree outside our bedroom window. Just a month ago, when we went to look at this apartment, that tree seemed like a good omen, a sign of bounty and safety. I look at our dog, our houseplants, markers of permanence that we acquired when my position in this country was still uncertain. Back then, it seemed like that would help — that, as long as we surrounded ourselves with the trappings of home, the powers-that-be would have no choice but to let me stay.

Three years ago, we worried about being allowed to stay. Now we worry about being able to leave. Now we lie awake in the trap we built for ourselves with our magical thinking.

I lie there and think about the German-Jewish poet Hilde Domin, who spent decades in exile. When she returned to her parental home in Cologne, her parents were long dead, and the almond tree out front that she loved as a child had disappeared.

I think of all the trees I’ve left behind; I think about beginning again somewhere else. Leaving now might make it difficult — legally, bureaucratically — to live here again. I think about all the things I love about this country, about our life here. What would Hilde Domin do?

In a way, we’ve come full circle from when we started this journey. Then, as now, we have no certainty but tenderness.

I bury my nose in Dori’s hair and whisper, “We just need to survive this.”

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Emma Rault is a writer and literary translator from German and Dutch. LitHub voted her translation of Rudolph Herzog’s Ghosts of Berlin one of the best books of 2019.

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Featured image: “Loyalsock Volunteer Fire Co COVID-19 warning sign” by Brinacor is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.o.

Banner image: “DSCF2278” by Studio Incendo is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

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