Arts·Pandemic Diaries

'Was it always this lonely to be alive?' A poet's search for hope in self-isolation

Alone in a tiny high-rise apartment with her dog, Gwen Benaway is holding onto moments of intimacy and the words of queer writers.

Gwen Benaway is holding onto moments of intimacy and the words of queer writers

Gwen Benaway's dog Bravo. (Gwen Benaway)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

During the pandemic, the days lose their meaning. I can't remember if it's Tuesday or Thursday. March slips away from me, turning into a tentative spring overnight. The tulips send up their green stems and broad leaves, defying the chaos of the COVID-19 crisis around them. I try to phone friends regularly to break up the monotony of isolation, but it only helps a little. My thoughts scatter with anxiety and reported death numbers.

I spend the time alone in my tiny high-rise apartment with my dog. He doesn't understand why everyone hurries by him without petting his head like they usually do. At first, he's happy that I'm always home — but as the weeks pile up, he starts to seek out alone time by sleeping in the farthest corner of the room. It's hard to not take his canine social distancing personally. Everything feels immense around me, as if I'm shrinking down into the smallest version of myself. My life and work collapse into nothing.

Not knowing when the current restrictions will end is the hardest part of social isolation for me. Hope keeps me alive during hardship, but it's a rapidly diminishing resource right now. Almost everyone I know is isolating with their partners, friends, or families. I watch their social media posts in the emptiness of my apartment. Everyone is struggling, but some people have so much happiness already in their lives that the pandemic barely touches them. Instead of reaching out to anyone, I brush my dog's fur, relax into his body next to mine as I pull the metal comb through his undercoat.

A friend sends me a Facebook message. With his characteristic directness, he asks if I'm doing okay. I've known him for almost eight years, but lately we've been getting closer. Before the pandemic started, he kissed me over a couple glasses of wine, gently cupping my face up to meet his. We had tentative plans to spend more time together — exploring this unexpected softness between us — but the crisis has changed everything. I debate how to reply for 30 minutes before answering. I've always been afraid of admitting my desire, but right now, being vulnerable feels even more dangerous. I push through my anxiety and suggest we have a socially distant dog walk. To my surprise, he agrees.

Bravo out for a walk in the quiet neighbourhood. (Gwen Benaway)

We meet on the corner of Church and Isabella. My dog rushes up to say hi to him, sniffing his outstretched hand to make sure he doesn't have any treats. It's early evening. The streets are almost empty because of the stay home orders. Damp night air moves between us, flowing through the budding trees and overflowing garbage bins lining Church St. We walk toward Wellesley, trying to keep two metres between us even though it's almost impossible.

For a moment, I forget about COVID-19. His voice fills up the empty room inside my chest. Our hands brush as we cross the street and the momentarily physical contact feels illicit. We pause under a tree as my dog explores a wet patch of grass. I turn up to look at him and he leans in to kiss me. It happens so fast that I almost don't react, surprised by his sudden courage. I kiss him a second time to make the first one really happened. It's a brief kiss, but I still feel dizzy from the rush of endorphins.

I know it was wrong to kiss him. Social distancing is critically important to limiting the spread of COVID-19. But intimacy reminds me that I'm human. The gentleness of his touch unlocks my body as I lean toward him. After a month without touch, my body craves the ordinary weight of someone's presence. When we hug goodbye, I hold on for longer than I should, trying to pull his warmth into my body as a stockpile for the silent days to come. Surviving this pandemic requires more than watching the relentless updates from news outlets. It requires us to hold onto each other.

I think about what the poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in 1971. She said that "we are each other's harvest; we are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond" — an often-quoted stanza that celebrates our interconnectedness. I find myself drawn back to poetry during the crisis. I reread my favourite poetry books by LGBTQ2S writers each night before bed. It helps me to remember my queer and trans ancestors lived through other pandemics before, often without any government support or a hope of a cure. I feel guilty that I'm not as strong as they were.

Some of what Gwen Benaway is currently reading. (Gwen Benaway)

Was it always this lonely to be alive? As hopeless as my life feels, joy still sometimes finds me. Despite COVID-19, transphobia, and despair, life surprises me with its possibilities. I imagine him kissing me again as I wait for signs that the curve is flattening. I try to recall the exact details of the kiss: his mouth, the way his eyes looked, how I struggled to believe it was really happening. I daydream about the remembered weight of his hand. I replay the moment over and over in mind, trying to make sense of it. It's silly to care about pleasure in a time like this, but as the daily infection count climbs, I find it's the only thing holding me together.

I wait for better days and nights when I won't be alone. I take my dog for walks and turn off the news broadcasts. Some days everything feels terrible, but I remind myself that everything passes. Being frozen in time is difficult — painful even — but anticipation makes everything seem brighter. When the sun rises at dawn, I watch its light diffuse across the Toronto skyline and pray for a return to normalcy.

It's okay, I tell myself. Everything beautiful is still here with us, waiting for us to notice it.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

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