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The Blackout Experience: Why socializing without the Internet is terrifying
One writer’s experience of lower Manhattan’s power outage during Hurricane Sandy—and a visit back to a pre-Internet age.
What do you do? It is only 6 o’clock and it is dark out. It has been dark in your apartment for the past three hours. There is nothing to do. You tried reading a book. You read out of necessity and not for leisure. It does not take your mind off things. Somewhere, out there, something is happening and you’re stuck here, reading a book. You stop after a couple of pages. You wish you had a magazine instead, something with pictures.
Earlier you walked to the only working pay phone in the West Village to call a friend. “What are they saying?” you asked her. “Three more days,” she told you. She invited you over for a warm meal and a shower. She doesn’t know what it’s been like. Your will is broken. You have enough energy to walk five blocks to the pay phone, but not across the Brooklyn Bridge. “I’ll be fine,” you told her. “I’m getting a lot of reading done.”
You’re not getting much of anything done. It is now 6:10. You’ve been staring at your TV’s dark screen for the past ten minutes. You don’t remember what it’s like to be able to watch TV. It seems foreign. You make another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You guiltily eye the wine. Three bottles in two days. “Should I?” you ask yourself. Why not? There are no rules in the blackout, just hours. You could always nap again. It doesn’t matter if it’s six in the morning or six at night. The hours spill over into each other, like a flood. You are aware of only two conditions: sunup and sundown. No, not even so: it is all dusk.
Last night you decided to go out and have the “blackout experience.” You’ve heard people talk about the blackout experience from previous blackouts. You, too, want to bond with strangers. You’re lucky. The restaurant at the corner is open. You usually don’t go there because it’s overpriced but you’ve been eating peanut butter for two days straight and you would kill for a tomato.
You take a seat at the bar, next to an attractive young man. You spotted him even before you walked in, from the window. His unshaved face was illuminated by the candlelight. You get your hopes up. This could turn into a romantic blackout experience. The bartender greets you and pours you a glass of wine. You catch your reflection in the mirror behind the bar. You become conscious of your not having showered in three days, and are grateful it’s dark. You contemplate going to the bathroom to apply some lipstick, but remember you have trouble applying lipstick even when you can see. You sip your wine and are eager for the blackout experience to begin but no one is talking. “Can’t believe it’s only seven o’clock,” you say. The attractive guy nods but does not engage. Instead, a guy you had not noticed at all, from two stools down, chimes in. He was reading his Kindle, but was looking for an excuse to turn it off. No one wants to read in a blackout, but we all pretend to be reading. The door opens and a petite brunette walks in. She kisses the attractive guy. He pays and they leave. You are disappointed. This is not a Katherine Heigl movie, you remind yourself, this is real life. You order the hummus.
Another two glasses and it’s just you and the Kindle guy left at the bar. His name is Jeff. He is showing you pictures of his hometown in New Jersey on his phone. You don’t recall why—something about Kevin Smith. You had assumed he was gay but now you’re not so sure. “Let’s go to that little bar around the corner,” he suggests, “for a change of scenery.” You agree because you may not be having “the” blackout experience, but at least you’re having “a” blackout experience. The little bar around the corner is lined with tea lights, and the owner is friendly. You are his first customers. He pours you two shots of Jameson. Jeff kisses you. He is a terrible kisser. You still think he might be gay. You start playing music on your iPhone. You don’t care about saving the battery any more. You are tired of saving batteries. The bar slowly fills up. People start playing charades: the ones sitting at the tables versus those at the bar. You’re too drunk to partake, and Jeff keeps trying to kiss you. A man walks up to the bar and orders tater tots. In the dark he looks like Simon Le Bon. You’re convinced he is Simon Le Bon. Another shot of Jameson. Your eyes can only focus on the foreground, the rest becomes blurry. Simon Le Bon offers you a tater tot. You take it. You ask him if he’s from the 80s. You offer Jeff a tater tot. He looks green. “Are you going to throw up?” you say. He does. You decide to call it a night. You take a flashlight out of your purse and walk home. You reach the front door. The long hallways are pitch black. You start climbing stairs. You climb, turn into a dark hallway, climb again, turn into a dark hallway. You try not to think what could be lurking beyond the small bright circle of your flashlight. You climb, you turn, you follow the circle. You sing a children’s song to calm yourself. That somehow makes the hallways seem creepier. You reach your door, fumble with the keys. You check behind your back with the flashlight a couple of times. You finally open the door and hurry in to close it.
It is colder in your apartment than it was outside. The feeling of unease doesn’t leave you. This place doesn’t feel like your home. For the first time in how many years, you realize it is small. Very small and very dark. “It has character,” you used to say. “It is cozy.” But it is a rat hole, really. You’ve been living in a rat hole this entire time. You light a votive candle. It is green—nobody wanted the green candles, they were the only color left at the bodega. You admit you wouldn’t have picked green had you had the choice. You light another candle. This one’s an aromatic one—apple spice. Again, you had no choice. It was down to that and a musical one that played Silent Night when lit up. You make yourself another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You brush your teeth with ice-cold water, forgo washing your face. You remove your clothes, then put on other clothes you can sleep in: sweatpants over your pajamas, hoodies over t-shirts, socks over socks. You pile on the blankets. The place smells like apple spice but you’re freezing. You check the time. It is 10 o’clock.
Sophia Efthimiatou is originally from Athens, Greece. Her work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Chattahoochee Review, The Louisville Review, Granta Online, and McSweeney’s, among other publications. She lives in New York City with no pets.
Photograph by The Ewan