(Trigger warnings: Pandemic, suicidality, brief mentions of self-harm, depression, mental illness, spiraling, ostracization, cults, God complex, autistic self-hate. It’s actually not as dark as the past… like, four entries have been? But it’s still pretty bleak.)
[Note: Rowan’s name was initially hidden by the codename “Ash.” Though I’ve changed the text to reflect how I will no longer be protecting them, you will still see ‘Ash’, meaning Rowan. The same is also true of ‘Vali’, who is occasionally referred to in screenshots as ‘March.’]
Vali of 2020 will always be remembered as a time of uncertainty, devastation– a time wherein life stood entirely still and isolation was a way of life.
And on top of that, the pandemic happened.
But first off, let’s introduce Jane to this sordid story. She’d actually been one of the few people the household was inviting over who didn’t seem to hate me, which was new. Though my first impression of her wasn’t fabulous.
We’d met in Vertex, sometime in the early winter, when she was looking for Vali for their first face-to-face since talking on Tinder. And of course, with the common problem of not being able to recognise Vali outside of the goddamned internet, Jane actually ran up to me first. “Vali?”
Of course, she might as well had called me a slur.
“No,” I sneered. I actually begrudged her for that mistake for a number of weeks after that.
Jane was brought into the house as primarily Vali’s friend. Everyone– Arkady, Vali, Rowan, all seemed enthused with her. As if she was their cool new friend could save them from the utter disappointment I turned out to be, which is how I’m pretty sure this body’s younger brother got to be born. She hung out once or twice at the house and she also invited us to her improv class.
I can’t remember a lot about that class, only that I was trying desperately to prove that I was normal, stable, and could totally function in group settings despite the shambles my life was in. But– Jane was actually pretty charismatic and she’d admitted to being autistic. Yet somehow, even though the house seemed dedicated to misunderstanding me, they would embrace her with open arms.
Which was odd to me. I didn’t hate Jane– she was way too into SciFi for my taste and was notably on the younger side, a mere twenty years of age whereas we were all in our late twenties. Everything from her aesthetic to her interests seemed like an odd fit, like a western being introduced into an anime convention. But Jane was being embraced and even my birds were being banished.
Since Story hated herself so intensely for, you know, being the ‘wrong kind of autistic’, it appeared to us that Jane had something we didn’t.
Of course, the reality was that Jane and I both have an interesting combination of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and autism– a desperate need to be liked, to the point of running ourselves into the ground to remain in the spotlight, but with a permanently warped camera lens in which we’re seen and (not so well) understood.
But Jane was the new one. One that wasn’t damaged by the group. There was nothing about her that I could have learned from her to better myself and, were it not for my decimated sense of self, I would have caught that.
But there we were.
So, I asked her if we could meet up. During the planning, I got this text:
We did meet and have lunch and a conversation at Spot. I basically admitted to Jane that I essentially thought she was better at being a person than I was and she was happy to give me the Jane master class on speaking to people.
“Yeah, so, for example, lately Rowan told me that we all needed to deep clean the house on the weekends. But… I pointed out that I was the only one who worked the weekends, and offered to do the deep cleaning on the weekdays instead. And they freaked out at me, so maybe I worded it wrong? And then I asked about it, but, of course…”
“Oh, yes, the famous, ‘You know that’s not what I meant’!” Jane chuckled. “You know, that can be a hard one. You know, what I’d do, is try to approach it from a less defensive position and more from a sort of empathetic one. Asking more open-ended questions and so forth! You see, the thing is, people always view ‘manipulation’ as a bad thing, but of course, manipulation and social triangulation can be used for good, too!”
I nodded slowly, gazing at the tables down below Spot Coffee’s balcony. Gods, for what I wouldn’t give to ask Kaspar about all this.
Aberle, who worked with Kaspar, texted me occasional updates that he had, in fact, heard Kaspar’s voice. There was nothing personal, completely business. “Their Virgo ass was almost four seconds late for a conference call. I was about ready to put out a missing person’s alert.” Aberle went onto say that Kaspar was speaking primarily German instead of its native Czech, adding the filter of translation and impersonal language as an extra barrier between their work and their sense of self. It didn’t bode well, but at least it was alive.
After realising that the effects of Gaslamp could get into the head of just about everyone, I painstakingly looked over my inner world circle, including myself, in the eyes and tried to carve out whatever lingering blackness or tentacle-like things I could see in our souls. There were actually things that had taken root in my soul, which was both encouraging and not. Now I knew I was safely not possessed, or seeing what Chandra had wanted me to see, but I’d already cost myself months of credibility. In both worlds.
Kaspar would’ve known how to navigate all of this. Why had I refused to tell it what the fuck was going on up until it was too late?
Thus Jane might have to do for now.
This conversation happened on March 2nd, the day before I was committed for that measly twelve or so hours. But she did manage to instill a few pointers that didn’t get burned away by the trauma of the next day.
Arkady and I managed a date, later in that same week, at a local restaurant called SEA. I was telling him what I had learned, about how I had to let my NPD and my autism work together, how I had to find that balance in between the two that could let me be understood again.
The thing is– Story’s (Really, Aelaris’) self-loathing for her autism aside, those that want to understand you, will. Those who have no narrative they’re pushing you into will learn your languages, autistic or otherwise.
And once I mentioned Jane’s point about ‘good manipulation’, I could actually see in real time how Arkady started shutting down– refusing to look me in the eyes, looking anywhere but at me. My chest tightened. I was failing a test I didn’t know I was taking. “Do you want to… walk around for a bit, after this? Maybe go to Archimage?”
I knew the answer before he even took that tell-tale deep breath. “No, I think I’d rather just go home,” Arkady said curtly. “I’m tired.”
That was the last date as a couple we ever had. Just an awkward, halting dinner a few blocks away from home, dodging the elephant in the room. I asked, hopelessly, if he wanted to hang out and watch Netflix after that.
The answer was no, of course.
And then, Sage reached out.
Sage and I didn’t keep in constant contact, but I did remember the two times they had helped me out before. So, when they learned that I’d been in the psych ward, they actually reached out to me. And gods, that was a breath of fresh air.
I alternated between bitching about my legitimate grievances and confessing my sins.
It was their idea for me to apologise by cleaning the kitchen and making dinner. Owning a car, they were able to pick up dinner supplies, snacks to appeal to Rowan, and even a bouquet of sunflowers, some of Arkady’s favourites.
I did precisely what Sage suggested. I wrote Arkady a note, lamenting that I definitely wasn’t the sort of partner that I wanted to be for him and definitely not suitable for what he deserves. I mean, hell, in my opinion, giving him an entire star from the night sky would be less than he deserved. Especially as the guilt ate away at me.
Now, this was actually a genuine, largely unselfish act, but I did hope that this apology would receive some sort of reply? An ‘I’m sorry, too’, perhaps? An acknowledgment that maybe this had gone too far and we both should do our best to rebuild? I would’ve written it anyway, but that’s what my ideal reaction would’ve been.
What happened was that these lines were actually thrown back in my face later on, as if I had proven beyond a doubt that I was anything short of the villain they saw me to be.
“Buying a Taurus food to beg for mercy?” Rowan joked(???), languishing on the couch as they munched on whatever pastry I had Sage pick up. “Good idea.”
I forced a smile and went back to the kitchen. With Sage instructing me, I slowly cleaned the entire kitchen and made dinner for everyone. It was actually an old recipe that Casey’s grandmother had given us the year before I’d taken over as host– I wonder if Story recently fronting had given me the idea.
Oh, probably. -Sparrow
Dinner actually went well. I specified that Casey’s grandmother’s last name was ‘Clapsaddle’ and we all had a joke argument of whether calling the dish ‘Chicken Clapsaddle’ would be appropriate or vaguely sound like a venereal disease.
It didn’t do enough, however.
It was this week that I had the odd urge to bleach the blue out of my hair. The blue had been fading (you know, like me) and I felt like I had been moving away from the Xanthe that I knew myself to be, so after seven years, I was saying goodbye to my blue. It about killed my hair but– maybe whatever next version of me there was could behave a bit better, eh?
Later on, I would ask if this had any significance. Story, for as small a time she existed, didn’t have blonde hair. She had silver. But Star, that which existed before even Neb– she did have blonde.
“Shadow said he liked blondes. He didn’t like it when our hair started coming in brown when we were ten,” Aelaris would tell me, years later.
It’s chilling that I was subconsciously reaching back, making up for a time we were a disappointment more than sixteen years ago, maybe in some vain attempt to be liked by my current circle more. And it explains why I couldn’t stand having all blonde hair in the autumn after, once I finally started feeling more like myself.
Then came March 11th.
It was to be our second ‘couples counseling’ session. I could tell by the way my small-talk in the waiting room was being shut down by Arkady’s awkward pauses that this wasn’t going to go well. I felt sick as I walked into Wayne’s office that day. I at least knew to brace myself.
“You… brought up a lot of things, last time, that didn’t match up with what you’d told me at the time when all of this happened,” Arkady began, fidgeting with his hands in his lap.
“I’ve been working on trying to communicate better!” I assured him quickly. I could feel it coming. I could fucking feel it coming.
“I… I feel like I need time.” He actually did look me in the eyes. “A break. It felt like… I didn’t even know what was going on with you, and you completely took me by surprise by our last session. We… need a break. And I was thinking that, during that time, I’d get myself back into therapy and try to understand what’s going on. I need it to just be platonic, for a while.”
“How long?” Christ, if he said until May, I was going to crumble right there in the chair.
No, no, that’s not what a stable person would do! I admonished myself. A stable person would barely even react to this situation. A stable person worthy of him wouldn’t fall apart at all. You’re over-reacting, it might be a month or so, and–
“I was thinking…” Arkady chewed on his lip. “Four months? Until July?”
“July?” My voice cracked. July.
The middle of a whole fucking other season. A third of a year! Past both of our anniversaries, past my traumaversary, two months after even Kaspar was supposed to be back.
I was officially down to only AJ, down to one partner for the first time since four years before, in what was quickly competing to be the very worst time of my life.
Arkady had apparently confirmed it while I was lost in my own thoughts. Wayne was prompting me. “Xanthe, do you feel okay about that?”
“I mean.” No. No. I’m not fucking fine. You don’t understand, I’m not losing only a romantic partner, even just temporarily. I am quickly running out of reasons for anyone in that goddamned house to give a fuck about me or whether it is, in fact, me waking up in this body every day. “As long as it’s temporary. And what do you mean, by like, platonic? We’d still be–” I stopped myself from saying ‘brothers’, based off of our past lives. “Friends, right? It’d basically be, no kissing, no sex, right?”
“Yeah, no kissing, no sex… then we’ll… re-evaluate.” I looked at him and vaguely wondered about the claim he had given me in the car, on the way to Strong hospital that awful night. ‘The worst it will be is a break.’
“Then the break would be over, right? In July?” 120 days. Four months. Fuck me, absolutely fuck me.
Arkady looked at me, eyes flashing from myself to Wayne. “Then we’ll re-evaluate,” he said, more firmly.
I tried to concentrate on keeping myself from shaking. I tried to remember what our last kiss was like– when it’d happened. I couldn’t even think of it– couldn’t even recall the circumstances, the length, the feeling. I’d always assumed another one would come after. And to think, I’d had kissed him without ever knowing it’d be the last time. I’d never known to savour it, to cherish it as much as I needed to, never realised I’d have to keep it, devour it slowly for the lonely road ahead.
Stop fucking panicking. You’re just proving him right. Okay, okay. He probably thinks I’m some co-dependent nutjob that’ll try to kill myself right after this. Granted, it was crossing my mind, but you’d essentially have to send me to Guantanamo Bay before anyone would hear me admit to it. You’re assuming that you’re no longer going to be a person to him just because you’re not dating. The more reasonable side of myself (yes, still me) told me. There will still be mutual support, deep talks, hugs, watching films and talking until we’re hoarse. It’s just no kissing and no sex, you’ll live. “We’ll still be friends, right?”
“Yeah!” Arkady said, blessedly quickly. “I just need some… space, before that.”
I rambled at him, trying to convince myself to be optimistic about this opportunity for us both to get better.
I noticed distantly that Arkady and Wayne were speaking about the pandemic worries. I’d seen this sort of thing before. MRSA, Swine flu, Avian flu. If anything, all of the millennials who got off on saying that the world was going to have a definite, apocalyptic end would get a few more memes about it.
Maybe most of us graduating while the 2012 panic was at its peak left its mark. I was honestly kind of annoyed with the new ‘Coronavirus’ news. I was one of the many, you see, who wanted news of it to just go away, and thought it could be done just by a knee-jerk denial.
Wayne did suggest that I should get out more, maybe make some friends outside of the house, put more effort into my hobbies. There was, after all, an entire queer community that I was more or less ignoring in favour of putting out fires. First, not my own fires, and then… Well, that one was still blazing.
When Arkady and I walked back to the bus station, there was less of an ominous feeling than the last time. “So, as far as hugging, we can still do that, right?”
“Ahhh…” Didn’t like the hesitation, there. But I was fine! Fine!! “I’d… rather you wait until I initiate it.”
This is the same man who would text me for months on end how wonderful our first kiss would be when we finally met on that antiquated Savannahian street. Great! Fine! I’m! Satisfied! With this!!
I checked my phone. It’d been forty-four minutes since we were in a relationship, since I was allowed to tell him ‘I love you.’ These four months were going to last approximately six decades. “Can I know more about your boundaries? Like… with my autism and everything, you’re going to need to be specific. Maybe even write them down.”
“Oh, of course. I’ll just need a while to think on it, I think.”
“Okay!” A pause. “You will actually be going to therapy soon, right? It’s not going to be one of those where the break ending is going to be delayed because you put off therapy, right?” I think he answered the affirmative, but I was really more focused on the fact that he hesitated. “Make a therapy appointment. This week. Please.”
We had a fire outside, that night. I was barely present. I was overthinking every move, every lean towards him, trying to school my very body and expressions from orbiting him like the binary star system we’ve instinctively been.
Sage, as supportive as they’ve been, even texted me, ‘Calm down, I get that it sucks, it’s just a relationship.’
First of all, Sage was likely in bed with their longtime partner, within a house they were going to just be sort of gifted, as they texted this to me. They were telling me that everything was alright, as if it were something they’d been through.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
What no one understood is that Arkady’s romantic connection to me bought me some semblance of mercy and contact within the house. Once he cut that tie, it was inky blackness that closed in on me. Like a dim desk lamp had gone out and I realised I could no longer find my way out of a sprawling, haunted mansion in the crushing darkness.
And he would be sleeping next to Rowan, for probably about half the nights, I predicted. He’d be waking up to someone to soothe those nightmares and I would be waking up to no one. Arkady could vent to Vali and Rowan and Zara and I was too scared to even vent to my journal about what was going on.
Waiting felt like torture.
On the list of “Pros” I’d written for myself in my journal for morale, I wrote, “If I get through this without killing myself, I’ll have bragging rights for life.”
My performance started to suffer at work. I found myself wishing dearly that I would somehow get less shifts, that I could just let myself dissociate and have a break for a few months. I really thought I was going to get fired– I felt it in my bones that I would be out of a job, it was only a matter of time.
I even started to try to see if New York law would help me taking a mental health sabbatical– maybe even one lasting the better half of four months.
Truth is, I wouldn’t have to.
Which is some eerie fucking timing, let me tell you.
I’d worked a morning shift that day, which was a sick fucking joke even in itself. One of the many reasons I felt isolated is because I always worked when Arkady would be home– leaving for the hotel before he’d get out of work, and then he would be in bed by the time I got home. I was the only one in the house with my hours out of sync with the rest of them and that had definitely been a factor. I could have had 7am-3pm shifts, but I was the new kid. I tended to get the shitty shifts.
I’m fine! I’m absolutely fine! It’s a setback, sure, but it’s not the end of the world! I am working on communication and healing! I was telling myself on day one of our break.
Not ideal, but definitely getting more stable! I told myself, day two, deleting my drafted suicide note from the ‘Memos’ section of my phone. I’d written it the day before. Good riddance; it was a long rambling thing about how everyone should have seen this coming from the beginning, about how I just never belonged in the sort of normal circumstances that came with domestic living. If I were to take myself out, my audience would surely a better quality of prose.
But that day, I was on morning desk. And the news broke about the fucking coronavirus.
It’d probably broke a few times before that, in more subtle ways– I was admittedly dodging it because it would’ve been one more thing for my battered consciousness to deal with. But that day, it was officially announced that the St. Patrick’s Day parade would be cancelled due to COVID-19.
What happened next was Bedlam. The calls came almost immediately, lighting up the switchboard at six at a time, of people wanting to cancel their hotel reservations, wanting to know what our cancellation policies were, why the fuck we didn’t have an answer as to if they owed us a cancellation fee. Because ‘worldwide deadly pandemic’ wasn’t exactly in the [HOTEL REDACTED] employee handbook of policies. I’d gotten to the point where I’d just take down their names and information and told them they’d get a cancellation email if we ever heard back from corporate.
The list was a goddamned two pages long. It wasn’t only the St. Patrick’s Day parade that was cancelled, but weddings, conferences, benign travel plans– person after person distressed, panicking, wondering if these would be their last weeks on the planet.
The lobby was a cacophony of shrill, ringing phones and guests asking us questions that were better suited to the CDC.
I’m sure anyone reading these blogs also remembers how utterly apocalyptic those first few days felt. I wanted to cling to something, anything. I would have given an entire limb for someone to just hold onto me so I wouldn’t start to float away.
And of course, I blamed myself for this. I’d wanted this, after all. I wanted more time off of work, I was begging life to give me a break, and this monkey’s paw of a universe had acquiesced to my request. And just like my life falling apart, the world knew there was a problem back in bloody December.
That’s right, I did have that creeping feeling of dread that I had accidentally opened our world up to a pandemic timeline. I spent days tracking the death count, completely believing that I was solely responsible for every single one– which didn’t help my general guilt of, y’know, existing.
Sometimes God complexes aren’t a boon to the self-esteem.
I did know for a fact that there was no way I could move out now– not with the economy in flux, not with no help, not without risking getting infected. I griped to Sage about this the next time they picked me up. They were actually going to let me stay a while, just for a bit of relief from the house.
I remember them and Tony chatting about how all of the anime conventions would be cancelled. The conversation went to the fact that it was one single New Yorker, who had just visited China, that had began our particular country’s pandemic. “Can you imagine being that guy?” Tony joked. “Like, days later, thousands have died.”
“Ahaha yeah,” I said.
I checked my phone. Arkady had just cancelled the therapy appointment he had just made– we needed to save for what quarantine would surely do to our finances, was his logic. Don’t you fucking dare. I will hold a goddamned bake sale to get you into a therapist’s office, god fucking DAMN IT. There was a bit of pleading and offering to pay, on my end. For all the fucking good it did.
I vented to them both a little more about the Zara situation. Sage reacted in a way that most would that hadn’t existed in the odd echo chamber that was our house. “What the fuck did Zara even have to do with this? She doesn’t live there. Honestly, for as long as I’ve known her, she always just needed to be the catalyst for drama that has nothing to do with her.”
“Thank you!” I said emphatically. “You know, I mainly wonder if they’re just using this as an excuse to move Zara in. I know [Arkady] and Rowan both are at least physically attracted to her. It might be Rowan’s attempt at a constant house orgy, part 2.”
Sage laughed at that. “Yeah, no, good luck with that. Rowan actually messaged me the other day and asked if they could pawn you off on me.”
I blinked. “Are you fucking serious?”
“That’s what I said. I’m like, ‘Listen. Xanthe doesn’t even have a car and Tony and I both have jobs. How are we going to chauffeur them around from the fucking CHILI suburbs to their downtown hotel job? That’s why they have a room downtown, they don’t need to be living in my goddamned guest room.’ And like, the entire situation isn’t even fair. You just moved here. It’s not like you even have a circle outside of them and downtown living ain’t cheap. The whole thing makes me just want to slap some sense into these people.”
“Vali was way worse and took a lot longer to get his shit together and you’re already admitting what you did wrong and taking responsibility,” Sage continued. “Rowan needs to learn to give second chances to someone they don’t have up on a pedestal.”
I spent the night. It was a short reprieve, but it did go ahead and boost morale. One particularly hilarious and yet validating moment was when I would be changing into my pyjamas. I normally don’t have too much against changing clothes in front of friends, especially since I’d had my top surgery. But this time, I’d paused. “I… um.” I looked at Sage and Tony. “I’ve got a lot of cuts on me. Most of which are still healing. You can go ahead and look away, if it bothers you.”
“Shit, it doesn’t bother me. I mean, it bothers me that you’re stressed enough that you feel the need to do that, but as far as seeing it?” Sage shrugged. “It’s whatever.”
I bit my lip. Everyone was obsessed with the result and its manipulative connotations, but never spared a thought to the cause. “Thank you,” I said, meaning it.
Then I began to change.
Sage looked at Tony as my cuts were revealed and said, “Are you ready, Tony?” Then they both fell into joking chants of, “You suck, you suck, you suck, you suck!”
I was laughing. Tony even broke off early to say that he felt mean for even jokingly saying it. But it helped. A lot. So much, in fact, that I decided to actually fight for my place within the house. And I gotta say, looking back on these screenshots, I feel kind of like a badass.
I spent most of the week working reduced hours or in my room. I hadn’t been officially furloughed yet, but I could feel it coming. I was attempting to keep to my agreement of ‘space’ but I was also just so fucking scared of everyone. I was scared of being around everyone.
It was approximately a week later when we were all seated in the living room. Jane was visiting and had lamented over the fact that she wanted to continue working, but lived with two elderly grandparents. The elderly, of course, being immunocompromised as a default.
“Would it maybe be a problem if I were to move in, too?” Jane asked.
I swear to gods, mates, the entire room looked at me like this:
“She’s not going to end up taking your room!” Rowan said, trying to be helpful. And that might have been, if I didn’t hear the daunting subtext of, ‘Because you’ll be moving out regardless‘ under their cheerful tone. “She can stay in the attic, instead.”
The fucking attic.
Of course, I’d been using the attic to play video games in and trying to avoid ever crossing paths with Arkady, since I’ve been thoroughly convinced that each time of seeing me would take seven days off of my poor beloved’s lifespan. And no, even my hilariously small telly and gaming system wouldn’t fit in my closet of a room that I initially thought I wouldn’t need to spend much time in. It was a cruel, sadistic irony that the communal space that had initially been such a catalyst for this drama was immediately on the line again.
And there was so much about this that I just didn’t fucking trust. Like I’d said, Jane was twenty and had never lived anywhere else except with relatives. She’d first known us from Tinder, through Vali, who was almost thirty. Plus, I’d experienced first-hand how skewed everything could get when we add in someone else into this situation. I barely even knew Jane and didn’t know if I could trust her anywhere near my space or my partn— my, uh. friend, I guess.
But what I hated most of all is the illusion that I could say no. I knew I couldn’t. And I had all four pairs of eyes on me, acting as if I had any say, which was disgusting. I knew it was a ruse, they knew it was a ruse. They only one who might have a chance of thinking that I had any power in this fucking house was Jane. (Or, depending on how high he was at the time, maybe Arkady.)
“Yeah. Yeah. Sure. I just may want to go up there and play video games, sometimes.” Another choice taken from me. I’d honestly rather they spare me the song and dance of asking– the decision was made, they just had to set it up like I was the only barrier to Jane moving in. Great way to breed animosity, that.
So, there we were– a fractured household, under the stress of a romantic break, a pandemic, the fate of magical worlds resting on their shoulders, and now a new roommate in a household with only one fucking bathroom.
What could possibly go wrong?