Journal of the Plague Year 2020: Free Baja Arizona

siamese cat
Lyndon’s masculine dignity does not permit him to wear a silver chain-and-mesh halter top.

Today I looked at Arizona’s numbers — I’m experimenting with using the Johns Hopkins website, which is updated more frequently than, but sends my iPhone into a frenzy of error messages and page reloading — and I panicked.

Here’s how we look on

Arizona, US
Confirmed: 79,215
Deaths: 1,641
Recovered: 0
Active: 77,574

That’s a massive jump in cases.

It’s instructive — though a false comparison in many ways — to compare this to New York’s historical data from

Here’s New York state on Tuesday, March 31:

Confirmed cases: 75,795
Deaths: 1,550

Of course, we’ve been accumulating cases and deaths the whole length of the pandemic. Arizona shut down from March 14 through Labor Day, and many local restrictions remain in place. Still, it’s chilling. Hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators, but the rolling averages for both are spiking right behind confirmed cases.

So, yeah. I had this stretch of raw panic, half an hour or so when I’d stepped away from my work laptop and got the Johns Hopkins website to load on my phone. I sat there staring at the red bubble and the numbers and thought, We’re fucked.

Because New York is a wealthy state governed by a bossy technocrat. Arizona is hard to explain to outsiders. In Tucson there’s a popular bumpersticker that says “Free Baja Arizona,” which is a way flipping off both the rich assholes in Phoenix and the snowbirds who whimper and want a law passed because they heard someone speaking “Mexican” in the grocery store. I love Tucson, but I have no faith — none, nada, zilch — in our governor or state legislature.

To quote a snide friend calling from the Golden State, “What’s your governor’s name? Douchey?”

Yeah, pretty much.

When we reopened, it seems like a spectacularly bad idea, but I thought, Look, I’ve been wrong before. I genuinely thought we’d have a quiet summer, and the virus would come roaring back in September or October. So I crept out and got a haircut and bought a pair of sunglasses. I’ve refrained from karaoke, gallery hopping, live music, in-person tabletop gaming, and getting blood drawn to have my testosterone levels checked. And yet here we are.

I want to scold the whole state.

I dragged around the house for several minutes, lying on the chaise lounge like a character from an Edward Gorey cartoon, then nervously checking the New York Times, Washington Post and Guardian live feeds.

Okay, so we’re fucked. Now what? There’s no real action for me here.

So I sat back down in front of my work laptop, and tried to bury myself in a test report. And when the time came to take another break, I spent time noticing my cat Lyndon, seen below dozing next to a pink shopping bag.

siamese cat
Lyndon Johnson, snoozing on a down-stuffed silk couch.

I might as well confess: This weekend my friend Jane held a trunk show at her house, and Reader — I went. I immersed myself in beautiful clothes, and bought a handful of frivolous items: A drop-waisted pink silk dress with a pin-tucked bodice; an entirely see-through white cotton shift; a silver mesh-and-chain halter top.

And when I’d paid for my purchases, she closed up shop, and I drank a glass of wine and gossiped with Jane and her husband Tom, and I remembered how dear they both are to me. There’s a passage in Inglorion in the Elysian Fields where I describe the “casual master/apprentice relationship” between Inglorion and Tereus. Parts of it are based on the time I spent following Jane around. She taught me how to collect art and buy a vintage silk rug. I learned from her the magic of steaming clothes instead of paying for dry cleaning. When I started working desperate overtime and traveling incessantly for work, people asked after her little friend, and wondered aloud if I was okay.

During those few years when I hung out all the time at their store and art gallery, I ended up in a lot of videos and photographs of the art scene. Like Inglorion, I was an art model when I was young and needed the money. I took it up again because I enjoyed collaborating with artists, and a few very skilled ones took a flattering interest in my look.

When I first realized I wanted to become a man, I thought of those years when I enjoyed a certain modest, small-town fame. I loved to play dress-up then, and I still do. When I decided to transition, I knew one thing for sure: being a man wouldn’t oblige me to dress like a goddamned grocer. I would be a playboy and a dandy, as elegant and dangerous as the Mohocks and blades of the 18th century.

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of, Reader. Stay safe from the Covid-19. Wear silk underthings if you have them.


J.A. Thompson

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