When I was 12, a classmate took me aside. You know people would talk to you more if you looked them in the face. In the eyes, she said. You know?
I looked up into her eyes. She smiled and I filed the information under ‘how to people’.
Coronavirus swept the world into chaos when I was 19, ruining my social skills. University moved online, food was delivered, interactions with the outside world happened through computer and mobile. My reasons for leaving the house evaporated.
Later, when I did venture out, everyone had their noses and mouths covered because they were scared, and the government said to. Protect your neighbours. Protect your gran.
I couldn’t see people’s mouths when they spoke, and I’d lost the ability to look at their eyes. Masks made people impenetrable.
By the time I was 27, there had been two more global pandemics, mutant viruses that swept across the world, direct from megafarms to tables. Millions died. Billions quarantined.
Almost all of my interactions were online. I built friendships with people through online games, texted distant family members. I sometimes remembered to thank delivery people, eyes down, shuffling.
I worked for a tech company, worked from home like everyone who could, did. I developed drones that delivered packages to far off people and nearby people. I sent drones to myself, so I wouldn’t have to say thanks.
I wondered who would find me if I died. I wondered if my house was my cocoon or my catacomb, and whether there was a difference.
I was 34, working for a tech start-up which didn’t require me to leave my house. They were young, kids who had never learned then forgot how to make eye contact.
We made bubbles. Domes. Wearable fishbowls. We made helmets that made people look like high-tech steampunk divers. Head and shoulders pieces attached to filters and compressed air so that anyone could go out without catching the latest plague, go shopping, meet people, and tap their fishbowl against their friends’ in greeting.
We practiced our people skills, taught ourselves and each other to make eye contact through video conferences.
A drone delivered my fishbowl when it was ready for testing. I wore it around the house, and made eye contact with people on my computer screen.
The company made a killing. I was 37 and magazines wanted to know how I felt about being minted and a genius. I agreed to go out and do an in-person interview. I was ready. I had a 25-year-old file in my head called ‘how to people’.
I vomited in my fishbowl during the interview.
I took off my helmet in the public restroom to clean it out, and rinse my mouth. I stared at the fishbowl and my face in the mirror. I wondered if I would catch something deadly while I dried out the helmet.
Later, I wondered if anyone would find me if I died. In my cocoon. My catacomb.