Suddenly I’m a Tri-Sensual
I spent the first year after the sudden disappearance of my senses of taste and smell telling myself, as one does after the breakup of any long-term committed relationship, “They’ll come back.” But, after a considerable amount of time spent googling long-term COVID symptoms, I’m adjusting to the fact that nobody really knows much about this particular aftereffect. The chances for reconciliation don’t look good. It may well be time for me to move on.
We broke up, my senses and I, somewhat dramatically on Christmas Eve, 2019. I was getting ready to go to a party marking a bittersweet milestone. Close friends of 20+ years had sold their apartment, a landmark in my New York history, and had invited me to their last traditional holiday dinner party. I was debating between tie or no-tie to commemorate the event when I suddenly realized I needed to lie down.
Which I did, and then spent the next six weeks wondering what the hell had happened. At first, I thought it was the flu. Finally, after a miserable week of quasi-coma, temperature spikes to 101º every afternoon, shortness of breath and an inability to taste or smell, I called my doctor. He told me that it was good I had opted for the flu shot, but on the less cheery side of things, he was seeing the start of something far more serious and no one seemed to know what it was.
By the time COVID took its official bow near the end of February, New York had started to shut down. Everyone on the street was looking rather stylishly sinister in face masks. A significant portion of the people in my building seemed to have started working from second residences, and for the next year I lived in a building that was about 50% occupied (see “COVID House Party”, below). I hunkered down, took the dog around the block twice a day and reduced my grocery shopping to a weekly Tuesday visit to take advantage of the old-person discount. And, with few exceptions (e.g., starting to experiment with masklessness), it’s still my new post-separation life: a need for afternoon naps, along with intermittent shortness of breath, and, yes, not being able to taste or smell.
Time sorta heals everything. It took the passage of the seasons for me to start to accept my new status as a tri-sensual. I had to work through the Denial-Anger-Bargaining-Depression-Acceptance stages of the grieving process, somewhat complicated by the “They’ll be back” voice I kept hearing in the back of my mind. But I’m now deep into Acceptance, and, looking back now on what I’m acknowledging as my new life, there are some “It’s not the worst thing in the world” observations:
- First and foremost, I’m still alive. And even though most of my wardrobe is standard-issue Manhattan black, I’m not in Chekhovian mourning for my life. Every day now begins with a sense of gratitude for simply waking up.
- Since eating is no longer a pleasure, my weight is no longer a problem. I seem to reach satiety quickly. My wonderful neighborhood Chinese restaurant, a fixture in the thirty years of my NYC life, was an early COVID casualty. I was never able to resist their sesame noodles, always accompanied by an order of General Tso’s chicken, just a fattening phone call away. I knew the menu by heart, and it was just about my only delivery source (other than my favorite thin-crust pizza restaurant, which has also disappeared). Temptation(s) removed.
- An occasional ice-cream sugar high is fun, and it provides a change of temperature. Cold is more interesting because it’s, well, cold, and hot anything for the same reason.
- Other than a noticeable ability to pick up a pheromone across a multi-fragranced room, I never had a particularly keen sense of smell. So, I didn’t immediately notice its absence. For the first few months, I still had a cough and some congestion, and I was more aware of how I couldn’t seem to taste anything than the absence of odors. Then, in late March, I suddenly was aware of a burning smell as I entered our floor’s communal hallway after our late-night patrol. I thought perhaps someone had forgotten and left something in the oven too long, but I couldn’t locate the source. Then it was gone. I’m aware of acrid odors from time to time, usually in the building’s hall or the elevator, never outside. They last for a minute or two and then dissipate. It’s a bit like being haunted — or perhaps it’s a replacement sense, an olfactory version of seeing dead people?
- I appreciate texture in a new way. Jell-O is now a semi-erotic experience for my tongue — no taste but delightfully slippery, and I like the neon-colors. I enjoy it with whipped cream (again, some texture, no taste). As if to confirm that things have changed, I recently threw out most of my spices and thought, “How about using up the cinnamon for some color? I tasted nothing, but found the color combo pleasing util a sudden shift in my sinuses and some eye-misting made me realize I had dusted my dessert with about two tablespoons of chili powder— in retrospect, possibly one of the dangers in having an alphabetized spice rack from back in the day when I used seasoning.
- Decibel level is another new-found friend. I’ve discovered the joys of celery stalks stuffed with crunchy peanut butter — lots of satisfying noise, protein and not a whole lot of carbs.
- I have an unexpected connection to both Proust and his madeleine. Now, when I try a favorite food, just to see what happens, it’s a trip down memory lane ——my aunt’s meringues, my mother’s curries, the first time I drank coffee (and since coffee is now just a hot caffeine fix, my morning Starbucks Venti has been replaced with microwaved Nescafé Clàsico, representing an annual savings of about $700).
- My writing goes well, since I no longer have much of a social life to distract me. I’ve Kindle-published my seventh collection of poetry (I’ll Miss You Later). Two editors are reading my book-length memoir-meditation on the challenges of translating poetry, and I’ve begun to write my first murder mystery.
- I discovered Welbutrin is an effective nutritional supplement.
Dorothy Parker said it best (doesn’t she always?) when she advises, “You might as well live.” Truer words never written —and it’s still a pleasure to rejoice in the roses, even if I can’t smell them. And, seriously, rose as a flavor escaped me even when my taste buds and I were still together.
Time to move on.
COVID House Party: The Last Night
In Bocaccio’s 14th-century classic, The Decameron — a group of seven young women and three young men take refuge in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Each night, each one tells a story.
Fast forward to COVID in 2020, where a group of ten urban poets decided to shelter in place in East Hampton. Epidemic abating, they are returning to the city tomorrow.
Each one has written a poem.
Packing for the Ice Floe
In Inuit urban legend —
Hollywood-enhanced in origin —
the elderly infirm are put out to sea
their socially distanced tribe
waves goodbye before returning to the hunt.
In the Age of COVID —
Service-Economy enforced in real time —
the elderly infirm are put on a cruise to nowhere
their socially distanced family
waves goodbye before getting back their jobs.
But COVID or Inuit
planned or un-
it’s always hard to decide
what to take
what to leave behind
Word of Mouth
Now researchers in China have found that the coronavirus, or bits of it, may linger in semen.
— the New York Times 7 May 2020
Reproductive mission accomplished,
the virus finds itself
reduced to shrapnel in the semen
loitering — possibly with intent —
in ejaculate’s slippery warmth,
suggests post-plague reality will require —
in addition to a vaccine — adjectives
worthy of the complexity
now swirling on the tongue,
a conscious recycling initiative
might better suit the newest normal —
a blend of ingredients already on hand — e.g.,
Elegant / Lean Chewy / Muscular
Nuanced / Airy Herbaceous / Bold
Delicate / Subtle Brooding / Pungent
Velvety / Supple Persistent / Flamboyant —
labels borrowed verbatim
from wine-tasting scripts,
whatever else may change —
as both poets and epidemiologists know —
word of mouth is a constant.
PSL for Viral Epidemics
is characterized by
invisible silver linings —
doors slam shut as
windows open and
things happen for a reason,
one of which is
what doesn’t kill us
makes us stronger or
at the very least
hasn’t killed us yet —
so while everything else
in our lives may be
going all to hell,
it’s a good thing we all speak
Platitude as a second language
Subject Line: Condolence Email Template
[NAME] is now living in our thoughts, among all of
our dear — a few not quite so — departed.
But even spiritual arenas have a maximum capacity —
and not all of this crowd got along with each other
when they were here (you know who I mean).
So, let’s be sad but agree to keep only the living
in our thoughts and forget [NAME] immediately.
The Ides of April
These are fateful days
and grateful we venture out
from isolating shelter
masked, gloved and locked
into distancing patterns
once confined to boundaries
of social class and
the budding urban-rural divide
the hyacinth persists —
ignoring an absence of bees —
spearing improbable colors
into this year’s unseasonable warmth
Grateful because — just as
the scorpion must kill the frog —
it’s in the nature of the hyacinth
Buy the flowers yourself
Take the dog
Consult your lawyers (again)
Ignore the mermaids
Become more dangerous
Remember the horrible mother
Forget about Proust in the original
Give the clothes to Goodwill
Get away with murder
Fun Ways to Grieve
Make a list
write down what you hated
read it aloud
while smiling ruefully
Strike a match
light some candles
set the curtains on fire
Walk out the door
close it behind you
from a distance
watch it all burn down
Change your name
leave the country
knowing what you know
Five Stages of Death in the Morning
The ritual begins the night before
when the body is committed
to the bed in sure and certain hope
of resurrection in the morning
Waking to an alarm clock-based liturgy of:
involving frequent use of the snooze button
The five stages of death in the morning
sure and certain until the inevitable
but so far so good
we’re not dead yet
It Happens Unexpectedly
you begin to wonder what you’ll wear
to the funeral of your spouse —
who’s happily alive in the next room
a religious service for an atheist
as a final nod to the in-laws with whom
you’ll never have to share another holiday meal
how soon before finding a new home
for the cat you’ve always hated, going online
in search of frequent no-strings sex, and marrying
yet another version of your problematic parent
but then you hear a familiar something —
his voice, her laugh, a sneeze —
and now it’s time for dinner
I wouldn’t hook up with Paris again
because life in Troy sucks and
now he’s dead they’re all which
brother gets me next ew
plus Sparta wasn’t so bad
until I became the prize
behind curtain no. 2
thnx a lot Aphrodite
then the whole my face
launching a thousand ships
death and destruction
all over the Aegean thing
So I’m watching the city burn
and the big question now
is like do I have any regrets
As the new day appeared, they arose and, having already dispatched all their gear in advance, they returned to Florence, where the three young men took leave of the seven ladies and leaving them in Santa Maria Novella, whence they had set out with them, went about their other pleasures, while the ladies, when it seemed to them time, returned to their houses.
— The Decameron
I’ll Miss You Later Kindle Edition
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