Limbo/Liminality/Phase 0

Mannequin clad in protective gear; Madrid, 10 May 2020.

Today, half of Spain moves into Phase 1, which means that, among other things, their sidewalk terraces will open at 1/3 capacity — but not Madrid. We’re still in Phase 0. We could’ve seen this coming, but it stings nevertheless.

Another thing that turns out to be true about human nature: you always want what you can’t have. As soon as we could go out for an hour a day between 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. or 8:00 p.m. – 11 p.m., I immediately wanted to go out instead at, say, 2:45, and for an hour and 45 minutes instead of just an hour. Or I wanted to go somewhere else altogether, like the beach.

Opening a door a crack busts open the floodgates. Officially, we can take a walk with one other person from the same domicile or we can exercise alone, but I’d bet money the groups of bicyclists that gather like schools of fish at each red light are only pretending not to know each other. I also don’t believe for a red hot second that all the people walking two-by-two actually live together; you just don’t see that many women in their 50s who have roommates, likewise men in their 60s, or 16-year-olds, for that matter.

In 1985, my sophomore year of college, I took Medieval Literature, for reasons that probably weren’t clear to me then, and definitely aren’t clear to me now. (If liberal arts is truly the most useless of studies, medieval literature surely holds pride of place as the most useless study within it). These past two months of La Cuarentena are literally the first time in 35 years I’ve thought about that class.

But right before the State of Alarm, when those who could in Madrid decamped to their second homes, I remembered how, in the Decameron, those nobles fled Florence during the Black Death, and set themselves up in a deserted villa where they ate well, drank good white wine, and told raunchy stories. It was strangely comforting to think that we’d been here before, that humans tend to behave in predictable, if greedy and self-interested, ways.

Phase 0, our threshold, our pause, our jumping-off place between Lockdown and New Normality, is full of rules and just about as complicated as Limbo was in Dante’s Inferno. Limbo, the first circle of hell, meant traveling through 7 gates, the first of which had, (I think), Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here written above it.

Tomorrow I have to take the kids to the orthodontist, which is allowed, but requires a paper from the practitioner and a level of trust and organization that may be beyond me. It’s still unclear if the three of us can ride in the same cab. The subway’s running, but only at 30 percent capacity, and it’ll be years before we can convince ourselves to set foot on it.

We might actually consider walking there, but that would take an hour. Besides, the appointment isn’t during the time when we’re allowed out, and even if it was, one of us would have to walk 20 ft. behind the other two and pretend she didn’t know us.

Beyond here, there be monsters. We stand on the threshold.


  1. The rules you very naturally dislike sound like jewels of sanity in Spain’s crown. I do not relish freedom here in the United States if Anarchia. Don’t fence me in, indeed.

  2. Brian just re-read some (not all) of the Decameron. He’s forgotten how bawdy the stories are. Good luck tomorrow!

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