ry my version, even if yours is different. Remember how spring started out hot and half-buoyant, a film over the facts which were dire, the numbers fucked, and the hammer—having been lifted briefly—hovering over our heads before knocking us deeper into our houses. The trees flowered early, then that overnight snow came and covered the green blossoms with a wet white counter. And though you’ve lived here long enough to know spring just does that, you got tricked by how the good weather feels like a thing you should get to keep.
Remember when that snow melted by mid-afternoon and the maple blossoms drooped like leftover garnish, those weeks of cold drizzle lidded the city, and the bedroom was freezing but the bathroom was hot because even the house was like, I don’t know how I'm supposed to feel right now.
Remember that first dose: the vague hysteria about town when we were led around by our postal codes, but still had to plot and scavenge and scheme, to squat at the bottom of a rockslide of Twitter notifications to get a vaccine that’s low-key mandatory.
Now, remember me. Likely at the distal end of one of those long lines of bodies locked together by the six-foot gaps between them, a pattern—body, space, body, space—repeating through an alley behind the city’s foremost mental hospital. My head was hanging over an open book, eyes tearing up at a sentence that—now that I read it over—probably wasn’t written sad.
This next part never happened. Remember it anyway: that embarrassed, shifting gaze over his mask, when Hanif Abdurraqib leaned in and skimmed the page in my hands, put two fingers on the sentence in question, shook his head because he wrote it and didn’t want to be the one to tell me, This is not a crying line.
In case you forgot, the line is this: “Let it first be said that it would behoove you to have a crew of some kind if you are of the wandering sort, or the dancing sort, or the scrapping sort, or the hustling sort.”
STEP ONE: Choose a line.
The line for the vaccine clinic at CAMH was that conventional type, a single thread outside the door.
The Standard Line’s ordering principle (colloquially, ‘first-come-first-served’) where persons [consider re-labelling] position themselves spatially one after the other to represent the chronological order in which they joined the line, collaborating in a transient tableau, a bullet-pont history of arrivals. Each position (also, ‘place’ or ‘spot’) in line is a ranking (first to last) of its relative claim to the goods/services deemed necessary/valuable stuff.
I chose that line because I could walk there from my house, but also because I could imagine ahead of time the exact route I would take. I could picture the front entrance to 100 Stokes Street, the cumbersome glass door that makes me think, How do people even do this? every time I pull the handle—but to be fair, that’s what I think about most things. I guess you’d call that reason familiarity. It's nice, I think, to know a door before opening it, to be able to anticipate its tricks—a manic revolving door, a capricious motion sensor, a locked decoy with a ‘Please use other door’ sign that I haven’t read before initiating a doomed thrust—in order to protect myself from, or at least anticipate, betrayal while in the vulnerable position of seeking entry. A familiar door is a door that I can visualize in a looped pre-game fantasy of my fluid transition from whichever outside I’m fleeing to the inside I’m soliciting, until I reach the exact place I am meant to be.
I’m something of an expert at the front doors of 100 Stokes Street, having perfected averting my gaze from the front desk person as I walk straight back to the elevators. That building was, for years, the regular arena in which my psychiatrist and myself participated in two-person conventions on the state of my mind. He retired at the end of 2020 because he was very old and maybe felt it unsavoury to heal the minds of people shut into a pandemically sick world. On our final visit over the phone he wrote me six months of prescriptions; and since it is a byzantine tournament to find a new psychiatrist in Toronto, we tacitly agreed that I would just stay crazy. So, I guess you’d say reason three that I joined the line outside CAMH is nostalgia.
The Standard Line and its variants are a time-honoured procedure developed to compel orderliness within the shambles of sentience. The SL may very well have been the first type of line established by the first person who had to sort out the least awkward way to distribute to their community a finite resource: figs or shells or tips for staying productive in the Pleistocene. But probably if there was a first time that humans were motivated to wait indefinitely one after the other, to secure the stuff they believed was worth wanting, the stuff was probably some kind of drug; that is, a substance which, when ingested, temporarily makes the body a slightly more tolerable place to live, a little more in on the joke of itself.
At 7:20 on a Tuesday morning, I joined a motherfucker of an SL spilling south then east then north then west around the corners and into the alley behind a building full of frigid drugs designed to induce surviving the apocalypse. I drifted into the row of bodies as if the spot were just a place I felt like being, loosely merging like a tentative vertebra to a weak spine. It was clear that this was going to take a while, and also that I'd already failed; that in all likelihood this business of immunity was a little too flashy for me and my cells—the lot of us more modest, too discreet to be one of the ones who makes it. The reason for my defeat wasn’t so much the long line, the chill, the looming rain, the tense atmosphere of tired eyes over masked mouths. The problem was that once I’d established the proper place to put my body, it was impossible to avoid knowing that that body was full of rage.
Evidence of the rage first appeared at 6:30am, suggesting that it was related to the text my friend sent about how she couldn’t line up with me to get vaccinated because she hadn’t slept the night before. It was the rage that emits like rays coming off the decaying core of rejection, when someone else’s insomnia or province-wide stay-at-home-order penetrates the tender tissue making up my sense of self. It was unlikely, after months of being tethered to nothing but my furniture, that I was going to succeed at not taking this personally. I had better odds of getting a blood clot than reading this text as anything other than a direct insult to my honour—Maybe I should just get Covid then.
I assigned the slight a colour-coded pin (purple) on a map of the vast continent of my ongoing abandonment. I pulled taut the red twine that connects the pins, charting straight lines between this cancellation and various unanswered text messages, un-laughed-at punchlines, locked doors, or retired mental health professionals, and every other episode in the vast conspiracy orchestrated to unwelcome me. I guess you’d call that, taking the global pandemic a bit personally.
I could have gone back to bed and tried again on Wednesday—see section 5: At What Point is It Too Late to Switch Lines? I could have become an anti-vaxxer—see section 11: Is the Line You’re in, Who You Are? Instead, I went alone for my medicine, in order to avoid being a person who cannot be by themselves in a long line or a long societal collapse. Aloneness is a thing I make a point to practice, my regular fire drill to stay on top of, because aloneness is the opportunistic infector of life in a pandemic, but also life in between pandemics. Aloneness is the parasite I cleverly take on by grafting myself directly to its body, evading its ambushes by living on top of it, and acquiring—if all goes well—some kind of immunity.
A line can be in-person or remote (e.g., ‘by appointment’) but always represents a buffer, a liminal space between outside (seeking) and inside (having). Persons [actually, let’s try ‘occupants’] in line are not guaranteed access to the stuff, but the line is a venue, a process, an orderly way to submit to authority in a pose of upright prostration.
Both my rage and the line lasted about three hours, during which time my body mostly stood in place between the same two people as my phone buzzed a stream of notifications from Vaccine Hunters about other lines that I could have tried to be in, lines that might even make me less angry, but that I’d definitely have to—
The positions in a line are hierarchical, though the line as a system is designed to embody fair distribution. Occupants [previously labelled, ‘persons’] cannot choose their place in line, but they may sometimes have to choose their line, keeping in mind that some lines are superior to others. It is, therefore, evolutionarily beneficial to be a good line-picker.
—drive to. But this was the line I’d already decided on, and by standing in it—“Choosing a line is choosing a life for the duration of the line, a life which will likely get better as the line progresses, though some lives get better faster than others”—had inadvertently made it my own. I resented it while following its directives—“Lines make sense because all occupants agree that they make sense, and they agree by being in the line”—performing for its algorithm to avoid getting buried.
STEP TWO: Commit.
The clinic at CAMH had 100 doses to give out that Tuesday morning between 9am and 11am. I planned to arrive at 7, got there at 7:20, very sweaty, and with no memory of what happened to those lost twenty minutes the same way I can’t remember what happened for most of last year. At 7:20, the line was already around the building, built of people who could execute the generic at-least-two-hour time buffer required when trying to get the thing lots of other people want, like, for instance, a cure.
If the supply of the stuff is stable or infinite, an SL flows continuously throughout service time. When supply is (or appears to be) finite—as with event tickets, sneaker drops, accolades in Canadian arts and entertainment—most of the occupants' time in line occurs prior to the official start of service. A shrewd occupant will arrive early to avoid being an unvaccinated unlovable loser unsuccessful in their attempt to procure the stuff.
Once I initiated my play for one of the Tuesday doses, all the other millions of shots on all the other days became a tinge too hypothetical, too incoherent with the worldview I’d adopted that mornin, that this dose was it. This dose was the brittle isthmus across which I could grope myself back to the rest of the world. The mission was—in addition to being doomed—my only chance for liberation.
I had a teacher in university who talked a lot about conflict, where it comes from and where it has to go in a series of events to make those events a story—that is, a place worth inviting other people. She liked to say, ‘If a character wants a chocolate bar, so they go to the store and buy a one, there’s no conflict.’
But there is the way I do it. Because the way I do everything is with a wincing vigilance, a cower the spectre of a hand held up in the air, and a meanish voice saying, ‘No, no, Amy. Not you.’ Conflict is the fluid that builds up when there’s too much time to imagine all the ways this chocolate crusade could confirm my worst fears.
‘What if,’ this teacher—assuming she hasn’t changed since 2006—might offer on this current draft, ‘the character's conflict is a mistrust of the technology because this vaccine is new and mysterious, it could be ineffective or maybe have unforeseen side-effects…’
‘Maybe…’ I’d reply to seem agreeable, while planning to look up negative reviews of her novel.
‘Or what if,’ the teacher might think out loud, ‘the character has heard theories that this vaccine is part of a government conspiracy, that each dose implants a micro-chip, giving the state the power to control the minds of the masses?’
“I think,’ I’d start after a pause to imply I was mulling this over, ‘that this character would embrace the opportunity to have someone else control her mind for a while—Pfizer take the wheel! Haha. You know?’ But the teacher would not laugh and she would not know.
The point is (or might be), that periodically I find myself dropping whatever it is that I’m doing to have an imaginary argument with people I haven't spoken to in fifteen years, making a case for myself like, Look, Tess, can’t you just root for me because you’re here, in my head, teetering on a long, tense neck, positioned at the back of a long line? Does it count as a story if a character wants a chocolate bar, goes to the store, but the clerk says, "Sorry, we’re out today,’’ and the character goes home and ruminates on what she did in the past that could account for this kind of exclusion?’
STEP THREE: Find the end.
Lines, like spacetime, tend to curve. As the line extends, widening the distance between first and last player [previously, ‘occupant’], the curve enables those further back to maintain a sense of belonging by maintaining proximity to the stuff. But as the line snakes around corners, segments grow increasingly estranged, the line splinters into separate worlds, between which alienation burgeons.
On my walk to the clinic, I’d made some tactical decisions that I believed would facilitate an arrival at the back of the line. This way I could float into position unnoticed by my predecessors, without the pre-line flailing—that part before being in line which involves trying to be in line, that indignity of parading from front to back, like I’ve lost a softball game and have to exchange greetings with the players who beat me.
It turns out, 100 Stokes Street has a side door I didn’t know about, and outside of that door was the first person in line who told me, ‘This is the front.’
If a line is long, oddly shaped, or ambiguous in some way, players at the front take on the role of the line’s administrators. They will have no formal line training, only the authority of their firstness. They confirm that this is the correct line and point new players in the general direction of the end: a place the first players have never truly been. But, much has happened since the first players incepted the line; they do not know what has become of the strange beast to which they form a head.
I appropriated the gait and facial expression of a person who was unfazed by the news about the Machiavellian side-door; a person who only had casual interest in the line, and whose day, world, and sense of self remained un-shattered.
I followed the direction of the first person’s index, then had that experience I’d tried hard to avoid, where the line coyly revealed itself like a burlesque performer, unhooking a garment as I turned each corner. Bodies stood or sat or sprawled in a continuous chain, like a word repeated until the meaning falls off its phonemes leaving only the memory of heat in the throat. The line was bottomless. I had the sense that everyone in it had always been there, that I’d just clumsily washed ashore like a solitary flip-flop, asking, ‘Can I be here too?’
Without my direct input, my body crossed the street—either because it just does that now when it sees groups of people, or because it was trying to save itself from the embarrassment of showing up at 7:20, by pretending it was en route to a different engagement, a place with more dignity than last.
STEP FOUR: Take your place.
From a distance, I followed the line into the alley at the back of the building, where a tail of a half-dozen bodies culminated in a small woman with a striped face mask. I disintegrated into trillions of fragile cells then reassembled myself roughly six feet behind the small woman. I became the new last person, then promptly fell down the well of my self, theorizing about what it means to be last in line. This is when (around 7:22am), a new voice was swept into my flash-flooded stream of consciousness, infusing my shame-dreams with a limp disquisition—a patchy tract to spread out a question like, Lines… How do people even do this?
The last lump [previously, ‘player’] of the line is notable for being the most poorly positioned for success, having the most tenuous connection to the stuff. The gravity holding lumps in communion to the stuff is weakest at the last lump. The last lump suffers the greatest likelihood of being shaken loose, flung into space, and devoured by the nothingness between their self and the rest of the universe.
On the journey from front to back, I’d done a rough count of people in line. I knew I was riding the margin between the worlds of the righteously immune and the undignified snooze-buttoners—the people who lack the grit, the willpower, the MBAs to rip the spiky crown off Covid-19’s head and say, ‘Sorry, pal. This ain't the dying line.’ I thought I should go home to be alone in private; thought about my friends getting vaccinated without me. I tried to put out my rage with the words, read Abdurraqib’s pointed low blow about having a crew, felt the absence of mine, and that’s when I started to cry.
There were eight people behind me by the time I realized I was no longer last, that a new last person—a guy in a rain jacket—had replaced me, then had been replaced himself. The guy behind me had his hood cinched around his face. He was reading too; or maybe he was anxiously force-feeding himself written words like I was, re-skimming passages to veil the feeling like he’ll be the only person not invited to the post-pandemic; to interrupt the vigorous calculations of his odds of escaping exile.
I didn’t know anything about the man with the cinched hood except that he was slightly behind me, which, it turns out, made me like him. I was soothed each time a new person joined the line, bumping me into something that looked less like the back and more like the middle—an up-and-coming area that a canny real estate agent might create a more flattering term for: the early-after, the post-interior. To the people behind me, I was the upper crust, glancing over my shoulder like, I’m sorry—did you get here at 8?
At some point, the end of the line circled back to the beginning, curving around the last corner of the building, falling off the sideways horizon of my perception.
STEP FIVE: Stay.
Once a sailor [previously, ‘lump’] takes their position in line, the position must be maintained by the act of continuous staying. In line, some sailors discover that the stillness required for staying leaves them vulnerable to a sudden influx of inner voices, that getting into the line is the easy part which then triggers the real test: the tribulations of waiting for the unknown to reveal itself.
Each segment of the line had its own topographical privileges—bare brick for leaning (N and E), an awning to shelter from the drizzle (E and S), reassuring yellow social distancing marks on the ground that tapered off long before the line turned into the alley. The striped mask, cinched hood and I, along with a handful of others, were spread out across an open area where the wall recessed into two loading docks. The alley was the shipping zone for the two buildings that flanked it, where large delivery trucks would rock back and forth to make space for themselves. Each time a truck backed into or drove out of one of the bays, our piece of the line scattered then recombined in the same order, without any of us saying a word—
The front of the line will recede, the back will distend, but a sailor’s position is fixed relative to the other bodies in line, particularly those immediately before and after: these are the sailor’s neighbours. These individuals, though strangers, are a sailor’s primary means of locating themself, of identifying their place.
—like DNA in a seamless ritual of repair.
Ninety minutes into the line, the heat from my walk had drained through the thin soles of my shoes and my bare fingers which were by then too cold to hold my book. Behind me, people were sitting on the ledge of a raised duct. In front, they offloaded their body weight onto a wall. My cut of the line quietly completed cycles of dislocating and re-merging.
At the back-back, people left and returned with coffees—
Brief excursions are permitted in some line cultures. However, if a disciple [previously, ‘sailor’] has to vacate temporarily, (assuming the line is still in Stage 1 Stagnancy/Pre-motion) they must leave a proxy in their place or else they forfeit their original position.
—with excited hypoallergenic dogs, with expressions of self-assuredness that I couldn’t quite make sense of. I distinctly remember an image of the people of the back-back: they are laughing naively in the sunlight as I trembled in a shadow, resenting the joy they managed to find buried in their hopeless position. But, as mentioned previously, it was raining; there was no sunlight from which to exclude me. And yet, there it is: all yellow and warm over there at the far end of my head. Clear as day.
Things that can be a you [previously, ‘disciple’] in line when you can no longer be yourself: an umbrella, a large bag, or lawn chair. If you leave the line to get coffee or go to the washroom, those objects become (in the world of the line) you until you return, at which point you become yourself again. In order to qualify as you, the proxy must belong to you in some way and cannot be borrowed from the line’s surroundings: a pylon, a garbage can, a large rock cannot be you because those things could be anyone. The proxy must be significant enough to take on the weight of representing you, to act as a brace that maintains the line’s integrity in your absence; without which, your position would collapse and be absorbed between your neighbours. Of course, the best proxy is another person: a friend, ideally. But even from this arm’s length point of view, it’s evident that it’s the wrong time to bring something like that up.
I had a friend say recently, ‘I think I’m getting too good at being alone.’ I don’t remember who it was—I made a note of it without proper attribution, and re-reading it later, thought, Well, that could be any of’em. It could have been all of them, harbouring a premise that just showed up one day in minds across the planet: parallel thoughts prolific enough to be collected into a cliché, if everyone weren’t convinced that they're the only one, that in addition to being alone, their loneliness is fantastically singular.
Occasionally, I remember to drop whichever fight I’m having in my head and think, maybe this feeling isn’t the only one I have left. Maybe it’s just my small knot in a world-wide despair, the literally inconceivable loss, the phases of isolation, the vicissitudes of lockdown. Maybe the call is coming from outside the house, directing me to stay inside the house, and this is the drift between those places.
Occasionally, I remember to take a look around at my apartment-shaped thought-bubble and notice that there’s mainly two things in here: lots of me and a tremendous absence of everything else; a pit I fill with more of myself.
Occasionally, I remember that this is the feeling of being suspended, the sensation of keeping six feet between my skin and the next skin over, the condition of being un-held, and that another word for feeling six-feet apart from the world is rage.
Rage is real enough and big enough, but you cannot use it to hold your place in line because you likely do not understand your rage enough to leave it unattended. You may find, after even a brief separation from your rage, that you no longer recognize it, that if someone were to point to it and say, ‘Is that yours?’ you’d shake your head and say, ‘It looks familiar, but I can’t place it.’ Rage is a bad way to stake your claim on a position or to act as your broker in your absence; your rage cannot be a proxy for you because your rage is itself already a proxy for something else, like your fear, your despair, your loneliness.
Shortly after 9am, three people with clipboards rounded the NE corner of the building, checking ID and awarding the worthy with paper tickets. When the clipboards reached me, one of them looked through her visor like she had a ticket for me too, as long as I didn’t fumble this next part. I held up the health card that I’d triple checked was in my bag before leaving the house. She shook her head: she didn’t want to know who I am; she wanted to know where I live.
I searched my wallet with numb fingers. My license was not in its usual slot. I rifled through the small pockets of my bag, then did a swiping pass through the bottom. The other clipboard people paused to watch me. Their stares had a subtext: that my ability to prove that I belonged to this line would be consequential to those behind me, that the pile of paper tickets had nearly been exhausted, and no one could proceed until they watched me back a boxy truck into a narrow loading dock.
I earned my ticket with an email receipt for a ruthlessly on-the-nose book I’d ordered about how trees need to talk to each other to survive. My ticket said, 96. Either the clipboard person told me, ‘Don’t lose this,’ or I thought, Don’t lose this, so I clung to it for the next hour, though no one ever asked to see it again. Days later I found my driver’s license in a pocket that I had checked repeatedly in line, but was unable to see because I’d been caught up at the time, fantasizing about being turned away.
After me, five other people received tickets: 100 plus one more. The rest of the line broke off like that part of the spaceship that disconnects after takeoff. They— the persons, occupants, players, lumps, sailors, disciples, yous…— floated back to their homes, which I only then remembered were around the corner from my home, because these were my neighbours.
The line moved without momentum, inching along in a series of small advances that slowly consumed the territory between the back and the front, until the last person in line became the first person.
The spectacle of searching for my ID had started a shiver that continued as the line was slurped into the building, as iPad people registered us, as staff in ponchos cheered us on, saying, ‘Congratulations! You’re almost there!’ and I tried to remember where I almost was.
A hero’s [previously, ‘you’] feelings about the line will likely evolve as they get closer to the front. Once the front is in reach, the hero may suddenly see the beauty, the meaning, the wisdom inherent in the line’s structure. What felt like tyranny at the back matures into a peaceful entitlement at the front, a sense that the hero is being rewarded for the hard work of showing up.
In the chair, the nurse spoke to me like I was her grandchild; like she’d intuited my foolishness but was going to give me something good anyway. I was too cold to take off my layers, so I pulled my left arm out of my concentric sleeves—jacket, sweatshirt, thermal—and draped the layers over my shoulder. The nurse gently shook my arm at the elbow and said, ‘Just relax.’
I said, ‘Ok.’ Then, ‘How?’