Centering the body without other bodies, Marquedant questions the parameters of being singular. Part of "Learning from COVID19: Reflections on knowledge-related commons and practices of self-organization amidst COVID19."
Isolation has brought attention to the body without other bodies. One person in one apartment for the foreseeable future. No coworkers, no casual friends, only the suggestion of neighbors coming in through the walls. No jostling in busy subway cars, no pick-up games of soccer, no meet me on the roof for drinks once it gets dark. Just you. Or just me. No one else.
This was almost unfathomable. How can you live without the extraneous company of workers, attendants, people waved too but never introduced? Mail carriers, builders, those overly affectionate with their lawns. The unacknowledged web of others. And be by yourself. What do you call that? To be with nobody. And have it happening to everybody simultaneously. Everyone without someone else.
The sound of two feet moving without ever intersecting another pair was at one point hard to imagine. Like one hand clapping. There was no scenario in which that went on forever. Eventually, you crawled out of bed. Eventually, you met friends. Eventually, one became two became a few, maybe even many. That was the math of the every day. The unnamed normal. That we now long to return to.
The convergence of orbits. On the way to work, the store, on a walk in the evening, there would always be a crossing of lives. If only momentarily. There would be another set of prints. Or evidence of another existence outside your own. A forgotten umbrella. A completed crossword. A warm seat. Even in the remotest of mountains, islands. Even the astronauts have company.
Here the world appears abandoned. Or at least it goes unseen. It must be taken in from the same six angles that the kitchen windows allow. Recycled views. Nothing new, nothing happening below. Unchanged also is the person looking down. They’ve been stuck in there for months. They’ve become experts in houseplants, self-taught renovation projects, in the contents of every kitchen drawer, in the growth of gossamer. They watch their shows, they brush their teeth, but nothing’s up. What do we call this condition? This perpetual state of seeing no one.
There are no good words for one person. For an individual. No way to say it without creating character. Without casting a shadow or an assumption. To say unattached, unaided, unescorted, unaccompanied, companionless, solo, solitary, lone, sole, single is to say something about the individual beyond their number. A sorrow, a lacking, connotation of emotion. We are wordless when we have to be without others. Especially when it is indefinitely.
Together. We’re a gathering. A splinter-group. A league, a swarm, a unit. A multitude rising. An assembly of attendees outside the theatre during intermission. A party of friends trying to all make the same train. A band of students laden with picnic baskets, laughing. A mob of rowdy sports fans overtaking the bar. A small army with balloons in the Arrivals bay.
A pair walks through a public garden. A swarm explores the racks in stores. A committee of confidants pour over a text. A huddle forms inside the carousel during a sudden storm. A horde heads for the after-party. We join cliques, squads, teams as unbreakable as lunch tables. We add-on to the line-up at karaoke night. There are so many ways to say a body of people. A crowd. A league.
Even the animals move, exist almost entirely in groups. Packs of weasels, colonies of rats, herds of rabbits, smacks of jellyfish, towers of giraffes. In migrations, in burrows, in flight. A pod of whales. A flock of birds. A litter, a caravan, a troop. The sighting of a solitary kestrel asks, but where are the others?
How do you say one without the others? To say, “mortal” is to creep too close to the questions of existence. “Human” is similarly removed from the grounded reality of cereal bowls and empty rooms. “Person” is too anonymous, almost governmental. “Specimen” too scientific. “Being” too ethereal. Bachelor, spinster, widow are all about absences. Fellow, then? Subject. Entity. There is no good way to communicate being one person in a state other than alone.
There are dozens of increasingly specific sentiments for multiples. Ways to suggest how they met, why they’re there, what they’re doing, where they went. But the self. By the self. Language is unprepared for this sudden predicament. Not even in the depths of its pockets does the dictionary have a better answer than: a body. A life. Party of one.
Our expressions are unable to describe the current circumstance. The oneness. The singularity of a person by themselves. Which is perpetuated perhaps by the fact that it’s happening to more than one person. All at once. Each individual is next to another person who is also living without people. And they are existing in a building full of individuals whiling away the hours under the same orders. Next door to them is an entire city survived by others. Singles. Souls.
What would you call a group of people alone together? Separated by stairwells and stay-at-home. A separation of people? A shared empty? A cornered off? Individuals without a body? There are several ways to say many. But few to say one. Not with anyone. Just me. Alone. By myself. And by the way, fine. OK. Still here. In a holding pattern of one.
A person. What words will there be for them? How do you say a body behind a door, waiting to see other people again? Will terms arise to describe the sensation of being always behind a window. Behind glass, a museum exhibition for the no one that passes on the street. New slang for the lack of strangers, acquaintances, people whose eye you catch. Phrases that encapsulate this.
An individual waiting to be one in a school, a drove, an inner circle again. A word for bodies hurrying, rejoining like mercury unable to withstand being apart any longer. How will we reference our past selves when they were without others? Will we say everyone was alone.
Written by Zoe Marquedant. Zoe Grace Marquedant is an Asian-American, queer writer from Rockville, Maryland. She received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.F.A. in Nonfiction from Columbia University. Her work primarily focuses on questions of time, bodies, culture, and responsibility. She has been published by SLCSpeaks, the Columbia Journal online, Untitled Magazine, and others. She also has essays forthcoming in Manqué and Distanzin. She is currently one of the 2020 Artists in Residence at the Dogo Residenz für Neue Kunst in Lichtensteig, Switzerland. She otherwise works as a freelance creator and editor. Follow @zoenoumlaut