Last summer, I bought a brand-new vibrator and by fall, I’d burned it out.
Yes, I bought a cheap one. Yes, I was using that motherfucker almost every night. I was lonely and poor and desperate for human touch and in a long-distance relationship that was disintegrating day by day. Just like many of us last year, I tried to remind myself that what was happening was a systemic failure rather than a personal one and that it wasn’t just me, although some days I had a hard time believing it. I told myself the vibrator was a lemon. I replaced it.
By New Year’s, vibrator number two – different make, different model – was also dead.
Yes, I have plenty of other sex toys. Like a lot of people, I keep a stash of them next to my bed. But the newness of that vibrator was symbolic. It was a small talisman promising me a new life, more sex, more chances, more freedom, a small push toward opening myself to the process of starting over, which I knew was on the horizon. The realistic explanation for why two vibrators gave out on me likely hovers somewhere between bad consumer choices and bad mechanics. Machines fail sometimes; so do people. But there was something about burning out two different vibrators in the middle of a pandemic that felt personal. In part, it felt absurdly on the nose, a literal manifestation of the helper/caregiver burnout that psychologist Herbert Freudenberger so accurately shed light on. But it also dredged up the ghost of a saying that, in one way or another, had spilled from the lips of dozens of different people, most of them men, since I was a teen: you’re too much.
People never say that phrase exactly, at least not to my face. Instead, it’s the phrase that shimmers just below the things they do say, like calm down and you’re really intense and relax and wow, you really go off, don’t you? That phrase – you’re too much – was a cultural constant from the time I mouthed my first opinion to the time in my late 30s when I first said the words aloud I have to change my life. Feeling that phrase – you’re too much – rise back up at me in a moment of crisis, in a moment when all I wanted was to give myself pleasure and relaxation and a sense of a comfort in a world that didn’t give a fuck about giving any of that to me, reminded me of what a burden our lust is carrying right now. For some people, that burden can be laid down and their needs fulfilled as soon as they find somebody to have sex with. For others of us, the truth is this: no matter how ferocious our lust (and oh, my God, mine is, mine is), no matter how badly we want to be fucked for hours until we’re sore and sweaty and spent, there’s something else we’re also longing for: the feeling of pressing our naked skin from our lips to the tips of our toes against the body of someone who wants the whole of us rather than just the parts, the feeling of peace that comes to us when we’re in the arms of someone who cares.
Here we are, on the verge of the most hedonistic, hot girl summer that some of us have ever had the chance of taking part in, and here I am, in your ear, whispering all about feelings. I know some of you think I’m breaking the pact. I’m divorced and I’m vaccinated and I should be down to fuck just about anybody for any reason or for no reason at all. In the past, I would have been right there with you, but something inside me has shifted, and I am more aware now than ever that the past is forever gone.
This pandemic has served as a lens on a kind of mass suffering unlike anything I – and probably you – have ever experienced before. In the wake of it, the only thing that matters to me now other than my writing is figuring out how I can honor other people with my ethics of care. When I find people who I trust enough and feel connected to enough to sleep with, yes, I will give them the gift of my ferocious lust, but afterwards, I’m going to hold them close until I feel their heart rate easing, until their breathing slows, until I feel the tension and trauma and terror of the last year leaving their body, if only for a little while.
This continued compulsion to care for others, no matter what’s happening around us in the world, no matter what’s happening even to ourselves, is one of a hundred reasons why it’s important to recognize that caregivers are at the core of this country. Right now, in a hundred different ways, we are cradling a nation of people in our bare arms, a nation of people who have been abandoned by nearly everyone else. And this is why for going on four months now, I’ve written about how that governmental incompetence has impacted caregiver lives. We all know how devastating the pandemic has been on caregivers. We know how people, primarily women, have given up their careers and their identities to care for children and disabled folks and the elderly because our government, with its infinite, incompetent machines and its infinite, incompetent people, has failed us.
I’ve also written a lot about how many of the caregiver stories that end up in U.S. archives center the lives of cis, white, middle class, able-bodied women. I want this column, and the archive that I’m building and promoting in this column, to focus on something different: the stories of Indigenous, Black, and other caregivers of color; disabled caregivers; undocumented caregivers; queer caregivers; and working class and low-income caregivers that are so often left out.
I’ve spent several months now researching and gathering some of these stories, and I’ve learned that many of them fall into at least one of four categories of emotional response: rage, lust (or lack thereof), grief, or isolation and loneliness. This month, the two caregivers I interviewed told me about their lusts and longings, and I did my best to listen.
For Anonymous, 27, in the greater New York metropolitan area, 2020 was a year of both profound societal and personal change, and sex has taken on a weight and role that she didn’t anticipate.
“I am at the threshold of actually kind of a whirlwind year,” she said. Just as the pandemic began, Anonymous was forced to address her mother’s changing behavior, which led to a dementia diagnosis.
“She was being a public menace, I hate to say it, making threats, doing really unsafe things with her car, like driving wrong directions,” she said. “Finally last summer things reached a fever pitch. She drew two knives on me and put them to my body. She didn’t actually stab me, but then I had to call the police, and she was involuntarily committed.”
Calling the police and having her mother committed was incredibly fraught, said Anonymous, because she and her mother are both Black women and they live in what she calls “white Suburbia.” Thankfully, Anonymous was able to search for and secure a care facility that was a good fit for her mother, and the declaration of Anonymous as her mother’s temporary guardian while she navigated the court system to seek full guardianship, an arduous process that took months. Now, Anonymous said, she’s at the last stage of the process: her mom is in a facility that feels like a fit, Anonymous has been designated guardianship by the courts, and she’s divesting the real estate: her mom’s house is under contract, and Anonymous has to move out in early May.
Because her parents are divorced and her elder sister passed away several years ago, the process has been one that Anonymous has navigated alone. That culmination of this long and difficult process, however welcome, has come with some additional discomfort and pain. “I’ve had to go through 30 years of stuff and find out some things about my family that I didn’t know,” she said.
In addition, Anonymous feels like for the first time in a long time, she’s got some autonomy again. “I’m the youngest in my family, and I’m the only one left in this house, and I’m on the cusp of being in my own apartment and starting to just figure out like okay, who is (Anonymous’s full name) on her own, who just happens to have this role of guardian/caregiver,” she said. “How do I have my own life now?”
This stage of self-discovery has led Anonymous to some new understandings about herself and her sexuality. “I’m realizing about myself that sex is an integral part to my grieving process,” she said. “I realize I have a strong need for sexual touch.”
Since quarantine began and her mother has been moved to a care facility, Anonymous said she’s been swiping on Tinder, had phone sex for the first time, and now does so regularly with certain matches. And yet there’s currently a gap between her desire and her reality.
“The complicated thing is, I’ve been swiping/lusting after/sexting middle-aged white men, but I also recognize that I’m queer (although not out), and I have a deep desire to be with a woman,” she said. “The things that I do sexually don’t necessarily align with what I want sexually.”
What she wants, she said, is articulated beautifully in the first line of a poem titled “Queer American” by poet Itiola Jones: “I have sex with men but make love to women.”
Anonymous said that there’s a lot she’s trying to navigate right now about her sexuality: why she continues to seek out older cishet white men when she is really drawn to women, when or if she should come out, and what her attractions mean for the future. “I’m attracted to men and women, but it’s not a 50/50 split,” she said. “It’s more in flux.”
What’s also fraught and somewhat bittersweet is that Anonymous recognizes that part of her sexual autonomy was made possible by her mom’s dementia. “I grew up in a very religious household, and part of me feels like I have the freedom to try to go about this because my mom is incapacitated now, and what is she going to do?” she said. “A lot of this was because I didn’t want to disappoint my mom.”
And now Anonymous knows she’s at a crossroads, and figuring out her next move isn’t easy. “Am I ready to grab the freedom by both horns? Part of me isn’t,” she said. “I operate kind of within the memory of my mom, even though my mom isn’t who she was. I still have her in the back of my mind. In some ways, it still keeps me prisoner.”
Because lust and longing are so complex and multifaceted, especially in an era of isolation and fear, people’s experiences with these subjects differ dramatically.
Anonymous, 32, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is a perfect example of this difference. She told me that the lust and longing that the pandemic has highlighted for her is less about sex as a phyiscal act and more about a particular sensuous fantasy. For months, she says, she’s been having the same dream about the future launch of her second book, which is about vegetables.
“Every night as I fall asleep, I imagine in great detail the book launch,” she says. Central to that fantasy is a dismantling of the white supremacist legacy of the Bon Appetit test kitchen— which came under fire last year when several of its high-profile staff provided evidence of its toxic, racist work environment and pay inequality—whose videos used to carry tremendous personal meaning for Anonymous. In her fantasy, the test kitchen “never fell apart and was actually as delightful to work in as it seemed and not racist.”
The fantasy book launch, she says, is on a rooftop in New York City “and it’s summer and warm and I’m wearing a sequined gown and my boobs are OUT.”
Anonymous, who identifies as pansexual, said the setting of her imagined book launch is filled with aesthetic beauty and a multitude of sensory pleasures: comfortable couches, poetry, food by Carla Lalli Music (who, in this fantasy, is also the co-author of Anonymous’s second book), edibles, and the sensual touch of the talented people she admired. In the dream, “Claire Saffitz pushes a lock of my hair behind my ear. I hug Alex Delany, who has never said any slurs, and he is so tall he picks me right up off of the ground. And there’s endless amounts of fizzy semi-sweet beverages. I don’t have to drive or navigate anywhere. And I sleep in a king-sized hotel bed.”
Part of the reason this fantasy is so pervasive, said Anonymous, is because before the revelations about the racism behind the scenes, the Bon Appetit test kitchen was for her “a keystone of calm.”
“The BA videos had been a bastion of comfort for as long as they had existed in this format,” she said. “I had subscribed (to) the physical magazine for YEARS before the videos became a thing, so I had been there all along. I consistently dreamt about the chefs.”
The videos, she said, became even more of a touchstone and an escape during the pandemic. “At the beginning of the pandemic, our under-four kid was home with us (he returned to daycare in July) and even though my husband and I shared the work of caring for him while working, I still broke down crying for a full hour at least once a week,” she said. Once her child was in bed at night, “we would watch the BA videos that came out and for a few minutes could breathe.”
The revelations about the racism and toxicity in the test kitchen, said Anonymous, “broke me.” Despite the many fans like her who supported and sided with the chefs who were speaking out, Anonymous said the damage was done. Though the videos eventually returned, the evidence of racism and abuse had significantly harmed both the lives of the chefs who experienced it and the community environment that existed before the revelations.
The fantasy, said Anonymous, is the place where she can cultivate an imagined world: being friends with semi-famous people, time away from the apartment where she’s been trapped all year, being celebrated during a time when celebration has been hard to come by.
“The idea of being shuffled around and celebrated is a dream,” she said. “Especially since my first book came out at the beginning of the pandemic—all of that attention and care for the book I had been working on for a decade became digital or disappeared altogether. What if I could get that back!”
Her fantasy is also a place where she can escape the reality of the world and the loss of a source of comfort she treasured. “I like to pretend that maybe there’s a world where nothing went wrong. Where this thing I loved so much never broke,” she said.
The human history of longing is far older than the stories I’ve shared here, older than the pandemic, older than our country itself. Thomas Beckett wrote about it over 700 years ago in Life & Martyrdom: the maid “longed sore”; in 1593, Christopher Marlowe wrote about it in Edward II: “Come lead the way, I long till I am there.” Again and again, it gripped writers, from John Milton to Jonathan Swift. Again and again, it gripped the populace, and deep beneath our communal skin, here is our lust, but it is but one tiny cell in the collective body of our longing. We lust, and we long, and we hope that the things we long for will somehow become manifest.
But the only thing that has manifested itself so far is the lesson I began to learn in earnest in 2016, the lesson that took on its grave collective shape in 2020, a lesson that was always a feature of the culture of the United States and that I should have learned long ago: no one is coming to save us. We are all we have, and so we have to save ourselves. This is a lesson I’ve shared with you before. And while sex is not the antidote to our longing or our only source of salvation, it can be one of them, especially if we treat it as a mode of ethical engagement and reciprocal healing and care.
Vibrators and relationships and governments fail. So do people. But every day, we can try again. And this is what we caregivers do. We hold up the nation with our bare arms, even when we fuck up, even when we fail. And this is in part why I’m creating Submerged Archive. I want to chronicle our caregiver stories, and I also want to shout them from the rooftops. I want to know who is listening. I want to know who the fuck is going to hold us up while we hold up everyone else.
The interview with Anonymous, 27, in the greater New York metropolitan area took place via Zoom on April 22, 2021. The interview with Anonymous, 32, in Harrisburg, PA took place via email on April 27, 2021. All identities of caregivers who choose to remain anonymous for the purposes of this column or the archive are recorded but will be kept confidential in archive records.
For more information on the larger archive project, please visit the Patreon for Submerged: An Archive of Caregivers Underwater. If you have a story to tell that you think should be included in this column, please fill out this form, send a DM to @wearesubmerged, or tweet the #wearesubmerged hashtag.
Megan Pillow is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. She is co-editor of The Audacity, a new newsletter by Roxane Gay. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in, among other places, in Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Paper Darts, Brevity, Passages North, The Believer, TriQuarterly, and Gay Magazine and has been featured in Longreads. She has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, for Best Small Fictions, and for Best of the Net. Megan has also had stories featured on the Wigleaf Top 50 and the longlist, an essay honored as notable in the 2019 edition of The Best American Essays, and a story honored as distinguished in the 2020 edition of The Best American Short Stories. You can find her on Twitter at @megpillow.
Photography by: Polina Kuzovkova