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The Telephone Disease
Sometimes I think about a passage in the first part of Slaughterhouse-Five, where a middle-aged Kurt Vonnegut describes how he sometimes gets drunk in the evening and stays up late, placing calls to people he hasn’t talked to in years. The vibe is wistful: he has little to say to these onetime friends and acquaintances, but a burning, nostalgic need to reach out and touch them, or at least to feel as if he could.
I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk . . . and then, speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone, I ask the telephone operators to connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years.
The telephone disease is an ancestor to late-night Google stalking, of course. To the evening hours we all spend with our communications device of choice clasped in our sweaty hands.
When I remember the pandemic fall and winter, one thing I hope I’ll be able to bring to mind is late-night iPhone surfing. Not because it’s pleasant—it often isn’t, or isn’t really, or is just a big inky blank like most addictions are, at root—but because it’s a distinctive thing about right now. I’ll remember getting into bed with my phone and a book I all but know I won’t, in fact, crack open “after I check the internet,” a supposedly quick task that never completes.
What I want to remember about my personal telephone disease, the thing that feels pandemic-specific to me, is the sensation that I am looking for a particular (undefinable) thing. I don’t recall ever feeling quite this way about my phone or about web surfing before. There's this quality of urgency paired with an itch-I-can’t-scratch sensation. As if I'm looking for the truth, or reality itself, and can’t find it.
So I pace the internet like a bear in the zoo, loping around my haunts, in the same repetitive yet listless manner. I go from app to app, checking Twitter, checking the New York Times, checking email, lightly grazing Instagram, then making the circuit again. It’s entertaining and even engrossing. And yet the thought that pulses in my head is, It’s not here. If I could scratch at the ground like a chicken or a dog, would I uncover it? It’s not here. The thing I’m looking for isn’t here. And then: Better check email again, maybe it's come in during the last five seconds.
If there’s anything I remember about the pandemic fall and winter, I hope it will be this. The way that, during this extraordinary year, reality has been so hard to take in that it seems to exist underneath a kind of crust, or behind a scrim. Looking at the internet late at night, searching for something-I-know-not-what, certain only that everything I find isn’t it.