A Cemetery is a Perfect Place to Be: A Pandemic Tale

I coughed up a jig-saw puzzle piece today. It was a piece of blue sky with what appeared to be the edge of a red hot air balloon. As I cleaned the chunks of my regurgitated quesadilla off the puzzle piece, I wondered how many people have ridden on hot air balloons and how many people have simply put together puzzles of them. You know, like a big scenic sky full of colorful hot air balloons, in France or Belgium or Italy. Countries that appreciate the concept of floating and flames. I decided that it would be nice to get proposed to on a hot air balloon. Or have sex on one. Or at least a blow job. 

Anyway, I didn’t think much about how or why the puzzle piece got in or came out of my body. After all, aren’t we all full of impossible riddles, mysteries, and traumas entangled in our psyches? Coughing up a puzzle piece was actually a grounding experience. It made sense in a time where nothing made sense at all. It was March and COVID-19 aka The Coronavirus, aka the biggest downer of 2020, was raging on. Killing thousands and projected to kill millions across the world. Millions of people were under a sort of house arrest known as “social distancing” in order to contain the deadly thing. Fascinating how sometimes the best course of action is inaction. Maybe we all should have been spending more time at home with ourselves to begin with, instead of scampering off to and from people who really didn’t care about us. 

3 days ago, I texted the man I had been dating for 4 months. I wanted to check in on his self-quarantine, and even though we hadn’t spoken in 3 weeks, I thought it’d be a kind gesture. I’d been actively working on being more kind, since going to temple and studying the works of Paramahansa Yogananda–a prominent yogi from the 1950s. From what I gathered, kindness towards others seems like a sure path to save your own soul and attain Heaven on Earth. I guess I texted him because I was tired of living in my own self-contained damnation, holding grievances over expressing kindness. Additionally, I wanted to keep the option open of fucking him on a hot air balloon once this pandemic was over. 

His name was Ryan Rosey. I’ve always been a sucker for alliteration, and on top of that he was a saxophone player. However, he never played for me. Thus, I developed the sneaking suspicion that he only said he was a saxophone player to lure his lovers. Afterall, the saxophone is the most sensual of all instruments. Everyone knows that. I knew that. Bill Clinton knew that. Ryan Rosey definitely knew that. 

My saxophone player and I even had a Valentine’s date. To some that signifies a level of intimacy. However he never texted me back to my caring, albeit nonchalant text: 

hey, been thinking about you. how’ve you been holding up? 

I guess we all have different ways of coping with a pandemic. Or at least that’s what my Sex and Love Addiction Anonymous sponsor would have me believe, if I actually stuck to the program. Some people in the face of a global crisis choose to annihilate any acknowledgement of the person who they cooked a risotto dinner for (once) or stuck their cock inside of (multiple times). 

I coped by going to the cemetery.

In the paranoia that the US government would ban domestic travel, never to see my family again, and the fear of potential looting or apocalyptic scenarios ravaging the streets of Hollywood, my sister bought me a one way flight back to our family homestead in New Jersey. Ironically, the safety I sought was at the cost of being closer to New York City, the epicenter of the virus in America. It was a tough decision, but the night before I left Los Angeles, I had a vision that Paramahansa Yogananda came to me while I was meditating and said: 

“Go back to where you came from.” 

“Where’s that?” I replied. 

“The womb of course.” 

My mother had a hysterectomy 3 years ago. So technically she was wombless. But I knew what he meant. 

As I laid in my bedroom in New Jersey, the bedroom where I lost my virginity to a brown-haired girl my senior year of high school, I listened to my parents yammering in Spanish. They were in the living room watching their 7th straight hour of Coronavirus news specials. It was at that moment I realized that I actually came back to voluntarily lose my mind. If there was ever a moment to do that, a pandemic seemed most appropriate. 

Crippled by anxiety on the 9th day of my quarantine, I decided to walk to the local cemetery. That seemed like another appropriate thing to do during a pandemic. If there was one thing I always prided myself on, it was an ability to be at the right place at the right time. Once during an acid trip at a Grateful Dead concert, I told myself I would become best friends with Lana Del Rey. The next day I bumped into her at a bar in Hollywood and asked for a photograph. She declined. This was an exceptional circumstance. It often only feels right in hindsight, and in the moment it can feel like I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. When I was wandering through the tombs of the cemetery, however, it felt much more like the former. It felt like I was being stroked by the touch of God’s grace. 

For days I had been developing some of the mild symptoms of what could be COVID-19: diarrhoea, loss of smell and loss of taste. If there was one thing I didn’t pride myself on, it was my ability to feel physically unwell through my own mental faculties.  Call it a strong body-mind connection, psychic powers, or a self-destructive nature rooted in unresolved Daddy issues. I have been blessed with the ability to make myself feel like shit with no explainable biological cause. Maybe I should start using this to my advantage and think myself to have abs or something. Maybe then Ryan would text me back. The good thing is, when you enter a cemetery you’re not really thinking about whether your abs are visible or not. 

There was a church in front of the cemetery with a plaque that read: Erected in 1793. It occurred to me the historic nature of my wandering. I felt a sudden sense of patriotism, enough so that I began singing the American National Anthem:

“Oh say can you seeee, by the dawn’s–

I stopped abruptly. I started on a key much higher than I was capable of singing.  It was a brief moment of dissociation,  where I believed I could sing like Whitney Houston. Admittedly, there was no one else in the cemetery–living at least–but I was embarrassed nonetheless.  

“Shut up.” I told myself, with the hushed assurance of a stage mother pushing her daughter out of a dressing room. 

I walked past tombs from the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s. Some were so old that the engravings on the stone had eroded from the waters of storms, time, and the toxic patriarchy from the last three centuries. If we lived in a truly egalitarian society, I wondered if the etchings would have been around longer for a few more moments of legibility.

Many tombs simply had the words Mother or Father or Daughter or Son along with their Christian names, birth and death dates. Some had WWII or Vietnam Veteran engraved on them, with their military position like Sargeant. Is this all that our existences amount to—familial relations and war? That is, if we don’t become a scandalous politician, a Hollywood legend, or the inventor of something useful like hand sanitizer or the little, plastic grass that separates the wasabi from the sushi in to-go packages?

I wondered if Ryan Rosey would engrave a saxophone on his tomb. Or would I engrave the screenshot of our last conversation on mine? I mean, that was what my own life had amounted to– desperately awaiting his text reply.  

I began speaking the names of the deceased out loud in an Italian accent:

Salvatore, Guiseppe, Frank, Marylene.

I imagined some of them in hot air balloons flying over Tuscany. Some names, like Linda or Steven, gave the impression they were more of the jig-saw puzzle types. Hester Day was by far my favorite. She must have been a strong woman. A widower, who was much happier and more suited for life without a man. Perhaps she wore black as a fashion statement long after her husband died. Perhaps she was a lesbian.

As I read these names, it occurred to me: when was the last time anyone had visited these graves, let alone said their names out loud? I once heard everyone has three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is the moment when your name is spoken for the last time on Earth. 

An overwhelming sense of civic duty overcame me, as I remembered these fallen American heroes. Not to mention a sense of mystic might–that of a high priestess resurrecting the dead. I felt powerful. I felt like I made new friends. Friends that didn’t have faces or bodies, which was refreshing given that everyone in the world was turning to Facetime and Zoom to stay connected in light of “social distancing”.

It was comforting to make new friends who wouldn’t pressure me to video chat. I can’t help but to self-consciously stare at the bump on the bridge of my nose when I do. Perhaps I could think my nose smaller or the bump away, or make myself believe I’ve regained my sense of smell again. 

As I left the cemetery, I took note of how the sun was shining in the last hour before sunset, the greenness of the grass, the songs the birds were singing, as they do on the first days of spring. They were entirely unaware there was a pandemic. Unaware of the fear of death looming in the minds of nearly every human across the planet. Is this what we were all so afraid of? Being buried or burying a loved one in a peaceful grassy cemetery in New Jersey? It wasn’t so bad. I was standing in one– and with new friends.

I took my new friends with me in my heart and walked back home. I proceeded to call my therapist in Los Angeles. We talked about my fear of impending financial doom, my panic attacks, the unanswered text, and my unopened bottle of Lexapro I unknowingly packed in my luggage and contemplated taking. I told her how I had just spent an hour in a cemetery. 

“Oh.” She said. 

But I wondered, would Hester Day have taken Lexapro after her husband died? Or after her lesbian lover Gwendolyn contracted the Spanish flu? I didn’t want to compare myself to a deceased woman, of whom I fabricated her life. But I guess I wanted to feel like I wasn’t heartbroken. That it didn’t matter if he texted me back. I wanted to feel, pandemic or not, that I had relinquished all fears of death. That I was as free as all the birds flying over the graves of my new friends. That I was as joyous as all the hot air balloons soaring unapologetically over Belgium. I wanted to feel strong, like I knew Hester was. 

So I hung up on my therapist, and stared at my hands for a few minutes. Then, I went to the kitchen and made myself a quesadilla. Although I couldn’t taste it, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Until, I felt a little tickle in my throat. 

Written by River Gallo.

Images from Mixkit.

River Gallo

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