Plague Diary, Part 1: “I hate this timeline”

April 3, 2020

“You look like you’re in some future cyberpunk gang.”

I am dressed in black jeans and a black hoodie, an oversized flannel jacket, and a pair of Docs caked in Cuyahoga mud. My hair is uncombed and dip-dyed a hue that I swear is blue but that my husband, Patrick, says looks more like green. Around my face, a bandanna is tied spaghetti-western style: my COVID-19 mask for the day. I put on blue sunglasses and relish how disguised I feel. I know that I probably do look ridiculous, but I say: “This is the cyberpunk future.”

“So you’re gonna, what, hack the mainframe?” Patrick jokes.

We walk away from our house on the corner of the street. We are heading to the gas station a couple of blocks away, on a mission for beer and a change of scene—brief and uninspiring as it may be.

“OK, maybe not cyberpunk.” I pull the bandanna down so it hangs around my neck. My husband keeps his on. It’s from his Halloween costume; he’d dressed as Blondie from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I say, “But this is some kind of weird sci-fi future, I mean, right?”

“Why did you take yours off?” he asks me instead of replying.

“I’ll pull it back up when we get close to people. There’s no one around yet.”

“Yeah, but if you wait until we get close to people, they’re gonna think it’s rude, like, you’re assuming they have it.”

“Maybe I want to be rude,” I say. Mainly, though, I don’t want to breathe my own damp breath through a cotton cloth. My bandanna is worn thin; it once belonged to my dad’s grandma. I wonder what she would have thought of all this. I think to myself that I would give anything to have some advice from any predecessor of mine who had seen worse shit.

. . .

Months before all of this, a scene that now seems mythical: Sunday evening, dark already, the Browns game going to shit as usual on a row of TVs behind the bar. In a wood-paneled booth, Patrick and I sat across from our friend Jake. Supposedly we were watching the game, but it was mostly an excuse to hang out and drink. Afterwards we figured we might watch the Cavs game, too, on the patio of another bar that was lit with fat Christmas lights all year round.

Typing this makes me nostalgic. But enough of that.

Jake stacked his empty cans of PBR into a tower as we discussed whether or not life is a simulation.

“I don’t wanna believe that,” I said. “It’s depressing. Like, none of us are real?”

Patrick tipped back the last dregs of his Jameson. “We live in the bad timeline, whatever it is,” he said.

“What about, you know, the basilisk thing?” I ask.

“The basilisk?”

“Roko’s basilisk.”

“What about it?”

“Like…. What is it?” I asked.

Jake teased, “You want us to mansplain Roko’s basilisk for you?”

“Yes.” I swigged my beer.

“It’s this theory that like, AI is testing us. To see if we’ll help it or hinder it. And if you don’t help it, then you get put in like a hellish simulation.”

“So did we already fail?” Patrick asked.

I said, “So it’s basically God, but with a more tech-y backstory.” I pushed my empty glass to stand next to Jake’s PBR tower. “If you do what it wants, heaven. If you don’t, punishment.”

“Basically,” Jake said.

“Fake,” I declared. “And even if not. Fuck the basilisk.” I flipped the bird to the ceiling as if the AI were watching us from the clouds like the God that all three of us had grown up with in Catholic school, and about whom we were now sometimes prone to gossip.

“It still might be a simulation,” said Patrick.

“OK, but that’s the thing,” Jake said. “A friend of mine has this theory, kind of a mix of simulation and alternate universes and, I don’t really know for sure what else.”

I piped in, “Which friend? Ben the stoner?”

“Not Ben the stoner. Different friend. You guys have never met him.”

Patrick nudged me with his arm. “Let him tell us the theory.”

“My friend explains it better,” Jake said. “But I’ll try. So, say everything is a simulation, but there’s multiple simulations, like multiverses. And whenever someone dies in a simulation, their consciousness, or whatever you wanna call it, just instantly jumps to another simulation where they’re still alive.”

“That’s comforting,” I said.

“Yeah, but I mean, everyone else in the simulation where the person died is still there, and they still experience the person being dead.”


Jake continued, “But the thing is, you remember 2012?”

Patrick and I said we did.

“Has anything ever been, like, normal since then?”

“It really hasn’t,” said Patrick.

“Exactly,” Jake said, leaning forward. “Nothing has been normal since 2012. And you know why? Remember how the world was supposed to end?”

“What if it did end?” Patrick said, catching on.

“Dude, that’s the theory,” Jake said. “The world ended in 2012 and we all died, which means all of us got instantly transported to a simulation where we didn’t die. But it was too many people at once, and the, like, server or whatever couldn’t handle it. So everything is crazy now because it’s overloaded. It’s not working right anymore.”

“I believe this theory,” I said.

“Me too,” Jake agreed, in his ironic yet serious tone, the fuck-it-why-not acceptance that I often envy. “It’s the only theory I believe.”

. . .

“I hate this timeline,” Patrick says as we continue our walk to the gas station. We’re passing the Taco Bell now. Security cameras in the parking lot wink down at us in the evening sunshine.

I haven’t thought of the theory Jake told us in months; haven’t thought about the basilisk or the nature of reality or anything to do with the year 2012. I haven’t even particularly been thinking about God. Instead, I’d spent the past couple of days googling Catholic saints.

Narrow search by patronage: against plagues, against pandemics, for the protection of lungs. Patrons of doctors and nurses. Patrons of the sick. Patroness of holding your mental health together. Patron of hermits. Patroness of the impossible. This idea was based on the Holy Helpers, a group of saints collected by patronage and venerated as a group during the Black Death. Anything that helped people back then, I figured, might be just as useful now.

I printed and cut out images, taped them to a cereal box I’d cut in half. Each half was gently folded like a book, so it could stand, and over the remaining cardboard and the plastic tape, I brushed gold paint. I lit candles: a tall, white pillar between the panels of saints, flanked by two small votive candles that illuminated hackneyed Latin phrases I’d written on notepaper: Defendat, Curare. Defend, Cure. 

Every morning and night I lit the candles and prayed. Although I interlaced my fingers, bowed my head and closed my eyes, I didn’t recite traditional prayers; instead, I imagined one by one each member of my family and begged for their protection. I imaged force-fields around them, around their houses, shimmering like halos. The printed-out icons showed saints with fingers bent in blessing or a hand upturned to support a miniature church; a palm frond clasped casually at their side or their breast; instruments of torture or body parts held out placidly while their eyes turned up, rolled back toward heaven. They glowed golden and gently expressionless in the candlelight. I found this comforting, at first.

Wash hands. Stay at home. Keep a routine. Don’t panic. Video chat with friends or family. Stay six feet away from everyone. Get outside. Don’t panic. Stock up on groceries for two weeks to reduce trips into the public.

And each day, I refreshed the burnt-out votives. What else could I do.

. . .

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