“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Chicago” by Benjamin Balthaser

Samuel Schwindt


Social Distance

Whatever we return to, it is not closeness.  Distance
was a way of knowing, a life.  My uncle Al with
his half forgotten Yiddish curses, the old bones
of our ancestors parted like smoke.  I remember
the boy who broke a bottle over the oil drum’s lip

said he would cut me, only that my faggot blood
might infect him.  I blew him a kiss and wanted
nothing more than the close sweat of my fear
to kill us both.  There are the decisions, for instance,
about whether to hug or touch or take a sick friend

to the ER.  How different than the dangers of any
lover who might infect us with their longing, their ghosts?
No touch is without transmission, the belt that cracked
soft welts in my lover’s skin as her mother unraveled
the shrinking roll of paper money into her fist, they tear at my

hair, bring her into the arms of another.  I read
once that in the Jewish ghetto during the black
death a man set fire to his son in belief that Hashem
needed another body as a sacrifice:  the boy submitted
silently, and no one, not even Abraham intervened.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say we were
never happy or good, we met in public as a show of
force, a kind of gregarious violence, the sad cacophonous
flocks of tourists bulging over a railing as their arms
stretched out to the sun.  Or: that when my ex

finally left, she paid my rent and brought me
a stack of books from her shelves she hoped
we would one day read together.  Distance can be
a kind of kindness. When the man plunges
his fist into the woman’s face he demands: where

is your mask you Chinese bitch?  Another way
to ask this may be:  what happens when
we all stop wearing one?  There are faces that
have yet to be uncovered.  Whatever intimacy
was, it was never so brave as to walk unclothed

in public: what regrets we now have that we
were afraid to disrobe and show the sobbing
droplets of fat and flesh to the sun? My face

is raw and vulnerable; my face that not even
I can touch as the world grows louder, more distant.

–March 14, 2020


Benjamin Balthaser’s creative and critical work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Massachusetts Review, Boston Review, Jacobin, American Quarterly and elsewhere.  His 2012 book of poems, Dedication, details the lives of blacklisted Jewish activists during the McCarthy era, and his 2016 book from University of Michigan Press, Anti-Imperialist Modernism, explores connections between cross-border, anti-imperialist movements and the making of modernist culture at mid-century.  He is associate professor of multi-ethnic literature at Indiana University South Bend and lives in Chicago.