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When I Imagined Dystopia

Driving back into Colorado, after three-months of partial isolation and struggle in the city, I saw the outline of the mountains emerge, faintly at first, from the white-blue sky. The closer I got, the clearer they became. I drove and drove, with 1,700 miles at my back, until I entered their protective embrace.

When I imagined dystopia, I imagined I would be afraid to go outside.

I imagined violence on the streets.

I imagined the air thick with smoke and debris.

I imagined that each day I would wake up with fear in my heart. With anxiety thrumming through my veins. I imagined that even the smallest task – like going to the grocery store – would feel like a risk. Shelves bare, clerks behind glass, smiles hidden behind protective cloth, with only the glassy eyes of strangers visible.

I imagined that people would turn on one another. Violence would become rampant. The police, those meant to protect us, would no longer be trusted.

I imagined it would be hard to breathe.

It was a split decision, after months of build-up, that led me back home in the midst of the pandemic. For days that stretched into weeks into months, we, like most others, stayed firmly in place in our small apartment in the center of the city. We navigated our space together as we worked, ate, and played between two rooms – shifting positions to accommodate the other’s meetings and settling into a rhythm that was so unlike our old life in the city. This new life was filled with small moments of happiness, surrounded by long days of anxiety. A life with a lot more screen time and far less nature. A life with delicious cooking and daily walks threading through a mostly-empty city. A life where the two of us became everything to one another – friends, lovers, family, co-workers, roommates, teammates, collaborators, competitors – our whole social worlds compressed into one another.

We were in the kitchen, finishing lunch when the idea came to me. “Let’s go,” I said to him. “Let’s get in my car and drive west. Let’s escape.”

I didn't know how serious I was about it until I spoke the words aloud. And once I said them they were cement in my mind.

But the west wasn’t his escape as it was mine. And his home to the north-east was calling him, too. So we made a plan. I would go. He would go. And we’d see each other soon.

When I hugged him goodbye, I stared straight into his eyes and I told him that I loved him. There was a part of me that felt guilty for going, as if I should’ve been strong enough to stay in that apartment and wait it out. But the end wasn’t in sight, so it was impossible to know what we were waiting for. (The question haunted me: do you wait for life to change for you, or do you make the changes yourself?) As I stared at him, I tried to convey with my eyes just how much he meant to me. “I’ll see you in 30 days,” I said to him. Then I got in my car and sobbed as I drove away.

As I wove out of the city streets, my mind flashed to a conversation we’d had years earlier. A conversation about where we’d meet if the end of the world came. We had decided on the scene of our first date: at the top of the stairs. One of us would wait there. And I knew, with unwavering certainty, that if it should come to it I would claw myself back to that spot and I’d be waiting.

When I imagined dystopia, I imagined lovers torn apart by time and distance; by necessity and self-preservation. I imagined planes on the ground. I imagined a mass-exodus from the cities, people running for the hills. In the vision in my mind, I saw that those privileged enough to have a place to run would run, and those who our society had neglected, those most vulnerable to the real detriments, would be forced to stay.

I drove through the country and I marveled at how different the world seemed. Where we had been bunkered down and hiding, the rest of the country seemed to be living as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. I noted the signs in the gas station bathrooms reminding me to stay safe, but when I donned my mask to walk into a public place I was met with glares and side-eyed glances, rather than smiles I couldn’t see. By the time I neared the Rocky Mountains the world shifted again, back into caution.

When I arrived home, I stepped out my backdoor and I saw my mom sitting in the backyard, reading the paper. She wrapped me in her small arms and I took a deep, long breath of the crisp mountain air, feeling truly safe for the first time in a long time.

Weeks later, I went into my closet at my parent's house to grab a sweatshirt. I paused among the small selection of clothing that I had brought with me, crammed in between boxes of old records and picture frames. I brought my hand up to the fabric of a knit skirt and fingered my way through pieces of nice clothing that I had thought, somewhat naively, I might need. Lace dresses, pinstripe jumpsuits, cropped black tops. I was struck with a feeling that I had already learned to recognize – that I didn’t need the things that once fit me into that old life; the life that was already fading fast from view.

Person after person commented to me: You look happy there. I looked at myself and saw my golden skin, kissed by the sun after countless hikes up to the tops of mountain peaks, and my long hair that I had once chopped off to fit a mold in the city I thought I needed to squeeze into. As the days ticked on, a deep resolve grew in me: I would not go back to a life that someone else imagined as successful. My image of a successful life included sunscreen-scented-skin and long journeys into the great outdoors. Life was too short, too painful, not to live it my own way.

When I imagined dystopia, I guess I didn’t think that the sun would still shine. Perhaps I imagined that so much smoke would fill the air, from the fires burning in buildings and in forests, that the world would be filled with gray. The sun shines on me now. Bright. Warm. But the smoke from the fires lingers as a haze.

Three birds chase each other around in circles outside my windows.

The mountains that I see right beyond my window pane are standing tall.

It’s the humans that seem to be crumbling.

When my first friend told me she was leaving the city, I wasn’t surprised. She had been planning the move for a while now. The time was right. She slipped away from city life with no frills or goodbyes, just a quiet march home. When my co-worker said she was giving up her lease, I understood completely. She was pouring in half her salary into a one-room apartment that she was no longer living in, choosing to stay a few hours up the coast with her mom instead. I wondered what her move meant for the future. Would she come back? By the third friend to make the decision to go, I had accepted, somewhat, a truth that was building in my mind for many months: I would never again return to the life I once knew in that city. With no ceremony or goodbye, it had ended. The new chapter, without permission or planning, had already begun.

I stayed for much longer than I had intended. The “I’ll see you in 30 days,” turned into 60 and then 90. But for the first time in years, I had no shackles to one specific place. After it became clear that the threat of disease wasn’t going away, my company said to us: “we don’t know what the future holds, so for now you can be anywhere.”

Be anywhere.

He decided to come to me. To fly west, despite the threat. I told him it was the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me. When he arrived, I watched as he pulled his bag towards me down the busy terminal. He had a black mask covering his face. I did, too. I smiled so big that I felt the muscles in my cheeks engage and strain. He couldn’t see my smile, of course, but I wondered if he could see it in my eyes.

(I’ve been trying, lately, to smile with my eyes, especially to those working behind counters, facing masked faces all day. I wonder, vaguely, if it will speed up the small creases in my skin already forming below my eyes, but I think that might be a small price to pay – in order to give some hope back to humanity.)

When he walked up to me, we agreed we wouldn’t touch, not at first. We’d wait until he was able to strip away his clothes and mask, and wash his body. Scrub off anything that might be hitchhiking along with him, even if we both knew, on some level, that it would only do so much good.

So instead, we stood in front of each other, smiling unseen smiles, energy radiating between us. It was the strangest feeling in the world, being unable to hug the one you love. But amazing, too, the lengths to which we would go, just to be together again.

When I imagined dystopia, I imagined it would be something like this. A normalcy so pervasive, in a world that seemed to be falling apart. Having conversation and debate through two sentence images on phone screens. Uprisings on the street being categorized as terrorism. Teenagers with automatic weapons killing innocents. A normal so abnormal that it’s impossible to avoid an eerie feeling in your heart. When I imagined dystopia I imagined it would be something like this. Yet, nothing about this is what I could’ve imagined.

We are going back east soon. Like a caged bird who got her sense of freedom, I'm not ready to return to a space that's too small for my wings. For a city that no longer flies. Not ready to face the hard truth of those streets. I worry that I will forget, again, who I am. I worry that this happiness will slide right through my fingers.

I’m scared to leave the protective cover of this mountain range, of my parents' smiles, of the peace of green spaces. But the bravest thing I can do now is drive back towards the life I worked so hard to cultivate, if for no other reason than to honor it as I dismantle it and say goodbye.


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