The Hammer and the Dance

Annette O'Neil
21 min readJun 14, 2021

For Alex

“The ‘hammer’ is the first act, marked by aggressive social distancing measures across large geographies, leading up to a first peak of cases and fatalities. The ‘dance’ is the second act […]: a period marked by repeated loosening and tightening of mitigation measures. Time in the second act is measured not by the steady ticking of ordinary clocks, but by the tempo of the dance with the virus, as we endlessly trade positions of strength and weakness.” — Venkatesh Rao

In April of 2019, somewhere in Asia, there was a bat. Or a lab accident. All we know for sure is that a set of variables, each tracing their vectors along a separate plane, converged on a single point, and the world is now what the world is.

In April of 2019, I met a stranger, introduced to me by an algorithm, outside a food court in Cape Town. We both arrived there almost directly from someone else’s bed. He arrived late and flustered; I arrived as pink and awkward as an over-receptive audience at a pop show.

I decided early on I wasn’t going to be coy, and I certainly wasn’t. Within two hours, he was tilting up my chin for a first kiss. It sent me to the moon and back. I decided, in the end, that I wanted to stay right up there on the moon. So I took him home.

He kept me waiting again the next day. He also kept me on edge in every conversation, but it didn’t matter; I relished the sparring, and I was starving for an attentive, sweethearted fuck after a long parade of transactional exchanges, and that’s exactly what he gave me.

It wasn’t long at all before I was slipping under into something that rang me like a bell. It made nursery-rhyme sense even then, but that didn’t stop me: Open up, that toothy insistent thing inside was hollering as it pounded the door of my better judgment. Knuckle-biting, tell-me-everything, pour-yourself-into-me-and-never-leave love here. Open up. Open up open up.

(Even as I write these things, I’m confused as to their origin; uncertain as to their truth. How can you fall for someone who’s only interested in shuffling you like a pack of cards? Too much, too soon, too reckless. Too tempting. Too sweet not to chase. Too bad.)

We spend the weekend in conversation and in beautiful restaurants and, memorably, in bed. When the weekend is over, he leaves, and I go back to my regularly scheduled programming of lovers — but, to my growing dismay, my interest in them starts to sputter out.

(When did you first experience symptoms?)

Poems pour out of me like water, I moon, I wheel, I ache — but when I daydream of how it would have been if he’d stayed, the image greys and softens. It’s as if I need him here, marvelously tucked around me, all deft little well-practiced gestures of affection, to prove to myself that he’s actually a real thing that is currently occurring to me, and not just something I invented to pass the time; to propagate a poem; to think about when I’m on another frenzied little bender with my own fingers. So I text him and text him and text him and he texts me right back. It’s methadone for my mess. And it’s not long before I’m really messy.

(Those little plucking stabs under my sternum. Those buttercream Yorkshire syllables I repeat to myself, faltering. Those everything things about him that I somehow now so very much need to know. Now now now need him now need more now need this now.)

As the weeks go by, I am unconsciously careful to think about the details of him without thinking about the whole. The whole of him, after all, is something altogether alien, and there’s a flashing streak of cruelty there, and dawdling with his small moving parts is more manageable than acknowledging his dissonant entirety. His idiosyncrasies, his mannerisms, the day-in-the-life snapshots he sends me from his laddy suburban houseshare, the little gems of sweetness he drops for me to play with — these, I can relish in my palm. Transfixed by them, I can safely avoid looking up at the mistake I’m making.

The truth is that I knew just as well as he did that it couldn’t last; it was never meant to. None of it. Not just the infant corpse of him-and-me lying in a fresh grave (Here lies Alex & Annette, 2019–2021 — You left us too soon), but everything that caused us to collide in the first place — my constant, restless wandering; his parents’ unrecommendable union; the carbon-retching aeroplanes that brought us there and away and together and away and together; the hydra-headed social corporations that sold us to each other; the wild high seas of limerence slamming our ships; the conveyor belt drawing us deeper into that territory of our lives within which we should damned well know better, and our accompanying sharp desire not to know better…at least, not yet.

My not-yet was longer. The incongruence is the tragedy.

But I digress.

In September of 2019, a cancer-screening trial in Italy found 111 patients with antibodies to an unknown virus. They brought it to the World Health Organization, which shrugged.

The WHO didn’t know exactly what they were looking at, but all the cases were asymptomatic. How bad could it be?

It’s September of 2019, and I haven’t slept in days. Three, to be exact. Not even last night. Here. With him. I wait until an almost-civil 6AM, then I roll over from where I’m not-sleeping next to him and slide down through the sheets to take him in my mouth. It helps me to stop thinking.

We spent last night wrestling with how we’ll deal with the knowledge that this thing we’re in is far more than likely going to fail.

(On a long enough timeline, everything fails, from penises to planets.)

We’ve been in this for six disorienting, far-apart months. I’ve spent that time splashing around in chest-deep uncertainty, marooned in a series of Eastern European towns as I figure out a workable next move for my life at large. This moment of my life is marked with such a nakedly unpromised tomorrow that I’m frantic for something of which I can be reasonably certain and, for some reason, I have chosen him. It’s a terrible decision, but he’s good at giving me cause to invent reasons, however unscientific, in its defense.

(Did the element of distance early on cut the drug?)

He had left me two days before, on a phone call. I had picked it up in my ocean-view bedroom in Split, idly thinking it was going to be sexy. Today, I remember nothing about that conversation aside from the blood roaring in my ears and my own voice begging him to stop when I suddenly understood what he was about to do. I booked a ticket out to him on the next flight. I was completely, wholly, biologically incapable of doing anything else. It was a desperate, awful shock — not necessarily for the commonplace tragedy of an endpoint, but for the sheer violence of my reaction to it, which knocked me right to the floor.

In the purgatory hours while I waited for that flight, I was seized by a physical misery that was so unique and so devilish that it was almost as interesting as it was unbearable — I thought about the loss incessantly, and every time I did my blood vessels would feel as if they were melting; my hands and feet and face would fill with hot little prickles; an invisible horse would lean against my chest. Hard. My despair would grab my logic by the neck and throw it headlong into a deep closet to deaden the indignant howling: for FUCK’S sake, Annette, this is hardly a breakup you should be concerned about what the FUCK are you thinking get your shit together right the FUCK now he’s a goddamned saleslad from Yorkshire and you are WAY out of line to be freaking out Jesus Christ, you stupid cunt, this is embarrassing WILL YOU STOP CRYING PLEASE

I don’t remember the flight landing, or how I got to the faceless apartment I found for myself. It’s only when he appeared in my line of sight that my vision flickered back into recorded memory: I see him ride up on his bicycle to meet me. It feels like breaking the surface of water with long-empty lungs. I literally gasp. When he wraps me up in a hug, it feels like being saved. I pour into him, of course, but I also hate it a little for just that reason: I hate having to be saved.

And we start talking. His voice is music; his words are spells.

At one point, walking past a disinterested audience of spiders beneath a bridge, the spell darkens. A thought drops out of his head and into the space between us: It’s matter-of-fact, and it’s offhand, and it’s about hurting other women.

(You like broken things.)

I picture what he must have looked like when he learned that he had to be the hurter to avoid becoming the hurt. I picture the puckish, round-faced little child in the photo he likes to show me. I picture pulling that little boy to my chest and wrapping him up and telling him he’ll be fine; that I’ve got him; that we’re okay. I wonder what would be different now if that soulful little boy had felt safe. I wonder if either of us will ever truly know what it is to feel safe with another person.

He keeps storytelling, and as he does I say to myself: Annette, seriously, for the love of Christ, you need to leave. Now. Run. He doesn’t know what he wants — not out of love, not out of you and not out of life in general. He can’t and he won’t keep up. He will lie to you until it tires him out. He’s not that great, anyway. Stop this now. You need to stop this now.

But I turn my head and I look at him. And it does me in. And I lose my nerve.

In December of 2019, patient zero is identified in the Wuhan Province of China. Parallel cases are identified in France and Italy.

Most of us say we never saw it coming, and we might even be telling the truth.

In December of 2019, we’re in London.

I had flown up from South Africa, buoyed by a mad confidence that I could have anything I wanted, whenever I wanted it, and that there would be no otherwise, ever; buoyed by a craving for the very specific smell of his very specific skin; buoyed by little NOS kicks of uncertainty popping into the engine of my conviction.

We are at a throbbing, neon-lit party in a rattling warehouse we don’t remember finding because we were already high. He’s dressed (rather unfortunately) as a slutty nun, and the blond wig he stuffed down his fishnets is pressing into my leg as we dance, and sweat, and giggle. His hands are heavy on the sticky PVC of my corset. I am on another planet, population two. I fucking love it here.

And I love his body, incredibly gleefully, right through its imperfections. I love the imperfections with delight, perhaps particularly — because that lost island of fur on his back and that lopsided shoulder and that vampire hairline and that particular bulldog meatiness and that tactile roundness of cheek and the faintly simian proportions of his frame speak his name to me even (especially) when my eyes are closed. I love the soft lawns of his legs and the stretch of his vowels and the texture of his flesh and his filth and his humor-spiked heart and any and all vulnerability he ever shows me. I love our conversations, tripping over themselves to race along and cover more ground.

I love him with the determination of gravity, at precisely the same moment that he’s doing his best to float.

Somehow, we manage to leave the party and tangle into each other again and again in a fancy hotel room, and the animal smell of sex and his words of comfort make the thinking go away again.

But, if I’m being honest, and I’m being honest…there’s a taste of metal in my mouth.

It’s that I’m having trouble determining if I want to love him, especially since it’s getting hard to hear my own feelings about all this over the scream of the warning horns.

When it gets bad, I look back over my shoulder at my priors for comfort. After all, I can easily see this going in the customary direction, and there’s comfort in a predictable pattern. It’s a simple story, repeated so often in my life: The man does something — not even anything particularly major — that unceremoniously turns me off at the breaker. It’s instant, and it’s complete, and it leaves me a little embarrassed that I spent the money and the time. Communication sputters and ceases without much fanfare. I move on with the rest of my life a little lighter, at least until the next time this happens to me. Hardly any of the people around me know him, or even remember his name to ask what happened. The relationship is subsumed back into the surging crowd, and another grinning face quickly steps forward to replace it.

That this time, with him, it feels so different in my body — well, that doesn’t make any of that impossible, or even less possible. He could easily represent a brief, strange interlude, sparked by the sharp moment of listless alienation after my abortive bid for a life in Berlin crash-landed; charged up by my habitual horniness. I could simply be waiting for a healing of the old half-forgotten wound from which this upswelling of unlikely behavior sprung. Anyway, my old ways are standing right out in the open as they wait patiently for me to come back, like a badly photoshopped ghost standing in the background of a family vacation photo.

I could go back to the States; meet a nice American or four; finally work to stop pining after emotionally unrecognizable men who lure me into a cold, wet corner of the planet. Who knows: Maybe I could stop dropkicking people who are crazy about me in favor of those who are very carefully not.

What I’m saying, in essence, is that whether or not he loves me is utterly tangential to the point.

But the idea that he might love me — now that’s compelling.

A day or so passes, and we’re sitting on a bench at the Hyde Park Christmas Market, whereby Germany has disgorged itself into a muddy patch of England in all its bordello-Bavarian glory. My booted thigh is swung impishly over his leg, and he’s plucking at my stocking suspender.

And he’s smiling.

That smile is a mining drill; that smile is a flash bomb; that smile is a hundred thousand years’ worth of river turning a low point in my terrain into a canyon. That smile is a balloon, the string of which has just been handed to my five-year-old heart, and I hold it like there will be no eventual heat death of the universe. There’s so much written just for me in that smile that I’m pretty sure its wearer doesn’t know the half of it. And here I am, holding my second paper cup of gluhwein, trying not to stare into the sun of that smile, instead letting my gaze swing through the bunting and the tinsel and the fake holly and the thousands of colored lights that loom over us.

We’ve been talking about integrative thinking and politics and the computational form of honesty and the work friends of his I’ve just met. As we sit here, sharing our bench with an animated group of strangers, we’re talking about us. We’re talking about our short past. And we’re talking about our plans: to travel, to live in the same town, to chase girls. It feels like running down a moonless trail at top speed with a flashlight: Exhilarating.

But I’ve already tripped once. It’s hard to keep the same pace.

In March of 2020, everything shut down.

In March of 2020, he told me he loved me, and I believed him.

I think I begged for it, in my way, standing there drawn and quartered between all the things I might do and the women I might decide to be and the ways I might decide to go. Standing there in front of a man whose world fits into the palm of my hand and who clearly likes it that way; whose inner reaches, too, have been left almost entirely unexplored; who forever walks his stage playing the three cowboy chords of the feelings he’s comfortable performing.

I was teetering at the point of believing I should just give it up and head home. “Home.” Whatever that means.

But I didn’t. Instead, I decided to lay it all out: all my fear, and my equivocation, and my anguish, because somehow I still yearned to find a home amongst all those artifacts of improbability scattered amongst the comforts. And so, afterwards, finally nearly emptied of words, I snuggled up into the crook under his neck in the kitchen and I said, “Tell me you like me.”

And he said, “I’ll tell you much more than that. Of course I love you. How could I not.”

And, just like that, all the stay-or-go snapped into stay.

By November of 2020, realism has set in. With the NHS weeks from being overwhelmed, and a higher death toll than the first wave predicted without new restrictions, the Prime Minister, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Advisor, and Cabinet agree there is no alternative to tougher national measures. The second lockdown begins. Christmas is under threat.

Somewhere in Russia, Edward Snowden and his wife Lindsay Mills apply for dual Russian and American citizenship on behalf of their future son “in this age of pandemics and closed borders.”

In November of 2020, he wakes up an hour and a half after he said he would. My hiking plans, looked-forward-to every grinding day of an overlong week, sink back into our burgeoning collection of maybe-tomorrows. The part of me that’s disappointed has a quick scuffle with the part of me that really needs the hug he gives me.

I watch pancake batter bubble in the pan, the amicable morning quiet punctuated occasionally by him laughing behind me, to himself, at something in his phone.

And then a little fugue state comes upon me, uninvited but not unfamiliar. Suddenly, the room around me feels like someone else’s, and the clothes on my body feel like someone else’s, and the man behind me feels like an actor, and I’m caught trying to remember what the fuck I was thinking that carried me here. It dissolves almost as quickly as it arrived, but leaves me uneasy.

Over breakfast, then, he starts, apropos of nothing, a conversation about the sexual politics of cohabiting in a collective. His first antithetical argument is that one member of a partnership inside a collective would (of course!) immediately set about fucking other members due to a match in demographic. Or that the person would (of course!) start dating another member of the collective after a breakup with the partner they entered with.

I am left grasping at air; I was thinking about the joys of a shared kitchen and family-style meals and having friends to watch the dog when you pack a bag and go on a global playdate.

After a couple of minutes of listening to him invent porny rom-com storylines, I have no idea what we’re talking about anymore — it turns into a conversation about how shitty people are to each other, and how that’s the essence of human nature. I argue back that it is not a condition of breathing that we must be shitty to one another. He tells me I am wrong. Any words I have left mill around listlessly in my mouth. I go to the sink, mostly for the opportunity to turn my back.

There is so much about him that is confident and connective and soft, yet so much that is profoundly, assumptively, tragically insecure and wounded that I can barely wrap my head around how the two men can live in one body. I’m sure this is true for me too — we all contain multitudes, many of whom are distinctly unsavory. But there is something about the way he talks about partnered behavior in this conversation that suddenly throws a switch in me: my cheeks fill with fire and I burn my hands on the dishwater as I try to drown out my silent despair with equally silent hostility (he is filthy and insistently infantile and slippery and smells like a goddamned horse blanket and is nowhere near-the-fuck equipped for any actually interesting adventures and…and…) …and as I stand there, staring in hot unrecognized consternation at that beautiful face placidly eating my banana pancakes at my kitchen table, I feel a deep part of myself throw up its hands in concession.

(Hostility, definition: The reaction to discovering that one of your beliefs was not valid, accompanied by the self-directed anger at realizing you already knew.)

And he looks up at me, smiling a bit, still chewing. And his eyes are so…much.

I love him past the things I don’t like, because those things I don’t like are part of the landscape that makes him up; the shading makes the picture. That said: at times like these, I get the distinct impression that he’s not equipped to love me past mine.

The moment moves on. The pancakes are good. He teaches me a bit of guitar. (“I’ve taught other people to play guitar before,” he says, out of nowhere, just to make sure I remember I’m not the first woman who was pretty sure he cared about her.) He shows me some comedy. He looks up at me while he bites along the insides of my thighs.

As I’m falling asleep that night to the seesaw rhythm of his snores, I replay the conversation in my head. It brings me back to sitting alone in that clinically hospitable bedroom in Split, my phone shaking wildly at my ear, listening to him tell me he was leaving.

Realizing he was already gone, even then.

In April of 2021, the United Kingdom lifts a few travel restrictions. Overnight hotel stays are possible again. Things are looking up.

India, of course, is dying. But that’s far away, isn’t it?

In April of 2021, we’re in a hotel room in the middle of Manchester. It’s our second anniversary, and I can honestly not believe the amount of fun I’m still having.

We pry apart a little block of mushroom chocolate, put on some music and settle into the cushions on the hotel couch, straight down into the comfort of our accustomed configuration. It’s been such a hard week; I snuggle into the reassurance of his battered old t-shirt and the soft scratch of his beard.

I go into the trip heavy in my heart. So much has been tough for me lately, so much struggle, but he keeps telling me he’s on my side, on my side, on my side. I believe him.

Good god, I believe him. Don’t I believe him?

(I know we don’t have decades, but I am sure we have years. A couple, at least. There’s just too much we can do together, him and I, at each other’s sides, fucking power couple, pride of the pack. There are so many fucking reasons we’re an unstoppable match that they all but flood my uncertainty; so many reasons that we of course have more time, because there’s no way either of us would ever miss the neon glory of the marvelous fucking plans we’ve been cooking up; the unbearable, easy sweetness of our domestic rhythms; the way our bodies meet each other. The future looks like a combination of Yellowstone and Disneyland and Burning Man and porn. I love it I love this I love him I love us I’m ready fuck yes let’s do this let’s go let’s go let’s go.)

I am so tender. When the mushrooms hit, of course, all the tenderness comes gushing out of me in tears. Tears and tears and tears, rolling down my face as I stare into his chest as if I could actually see his heart in there; as if I could talk directly to the part of him he is under the part of him he’s built to protect it. I remember, through sobs, talking about trying to hold a space where I could enjoy being right here with him so fully and at the same time knowing that everything ends and that at the end of this story that we refer to as our lives we both, well, die.

He cries, too.

Some part of me, deep in the far corner of the back row, knows I’m writing our epitaph.

Afterward, I tangle my arms up in his legs and lay my head down on the muscles of his inner thigh and just play with him and play with him and play with him for what feels like a week.

(You’re my favorite.

I’m doing my best.)

On May 3rd of 2021, I got my shot.

Right in the face.

The day before, we had hiked for a couple of hours in the stark hills above his charming cobblestone-and-castle hometown. We missioned through a curtain of sideways hail, talking about ships and shoes and sealing-wax and cabbages and kings, just like we always do. Peeling the onions of ourselves; making comparisons; making plans; playing. We got very, very wet and very, very cold. He faced off with a sheep when we ate lunch in the safety of an old, fragrant haybarn. And then, when we’d finally made it back to the trailhead, he discovered that he’d lost the car keys.

That’s when things got…strange.

As we stood by the car, digging fruitlessly in our backpacks and framing out what the next move might be, the side mirrors swung out as if touched by phantom hands. Without the keys, the mirrors couldn’t…and he looked at me with a face irreconcilably different from any face I have ever seen him use. It was twisted; gruesome, almost. Half-furious, half-sick. It passed like a thunderclap but it startled me.

As it turns out, the mirrors had moved because the keys were close by, marching toward us in the hands of a smiling lady hiker. As she passed the keys back to their rightful owner, he explained to her, to my bafflement, that he thought I had hidden the keys for a laugh. He then proceeded to get into the car and drive us away in stone-faced silence.

I had never seen him in silence. Never.

As I pressed my hand into his thigh and tried to tease him into comfort, I remember thinking: I saw another part of him. I love that part of him, too. I am jammy today. This is an exciting step closer. I wonder how many more versions of him I will get to meet, in time.

But, just hours later, our time was up.

We were at my house (not “home” any longer; “home” is for people who share things; “home” is what “mine” and “yours” become when you have the license to make such sweet contractions of theme). I was cooking. We were continuing our road-trip conversation about differences in approach. And he was, suddenly, in tears.

And it all came bubbling out of him — all the sudden, hideous, irrevocable no.

My heart, weighed down by a thousand buried terrors, fell right through the floor.

It fell down beneath the impossible pain in our separate long-ago histories, beneath the tree-shrouded paths where my bicycle would chase his, beneath the snowdrifts of sketches and cards and paintings he made for me, beneath the soft pitches of the rolling fells we trampled together, beneath every bed and couch and chair and floor where we slid perfectly into each other, beneath the house he bought that I was going to help him decorate, beneath the nightclubs we never danced in, beneath the planes we never boarded, beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel. Beneath everything I could think of to think about.

It fell and it fell and it fell and it’s still falling.

I had to leave the conversation to get my vaccine, right in the middle of it. While he sat on my couch, I was across town, shaking in a plastic chair in a leaky government tent in a shitty neighborhood, laid bare in my misery on a six-foot stage against a white background. The doctor told me to wait fifteen minutes so the clinic could get me to a hospital if I had a reaction to the jab. I figured I was already having a heart episode, so what difference would it make, and so I sped back home for him to finish me.

I had no tears for that conversation. I felt as though I were floating in a murky pool, reading his lips; if they fell, the tears would just be subsumed into the surrounding despair, invisible. He had become so essential to me in every way someone can be essential to someone else; no part of me could, or can, confidently believe this story he’s telling me — that we’re over. That we’ve been over. That we will always be over. In all the tsk-tsking crowd of my already-knowing, in all my own, muscular uncertainty, this fact is still impossible, illegible, unintegrable. And, now, unignorable.

(I stand there on the half-constructed bridge I was building towards him, watching him disappear into the distance on the other side, abandoning the project. Leaving me there.

He was never on my side. He never wanted to be. He doesn’t want anyone on his side. It’s dangerous there. Best if he’s alone.)

When he fucks me goodbye, I come the fastest I have ever come in my entire life.

The future dissolves.

The future begins.