Like stockings in wartime, or oranges during the Depression, gossip is this pandemic’s scarcest, most coveted luxury. A friend sent me some recently – an acquaintance we dislike from our university days is romantically linked to someone who seems equally icky – and I couldn’t remember feeling such a delicious, gratuitous jolt not occasioned by coffee.
We spent a good seven minutes or so analysing their Instagram debut as a couple – him sipping a goblet of wine on a Brooklyn sidewalk, her cuddling his dog on a deserted beach – then we read his LinkedIn profile for clues as to how they met, and then we were quickly shunted back into COVID life: a Zoom meeting, a child in need of a fresh nappy. I can’t remember. I was walking on air the rest of the day.
Gossip gets a bad rap these days. Framing Britney Spears, a new documentary about the singer’s downfall, casts the tabloid magazines of the mid-2000s as villains, and the public’s insatiable desire for tidbits of Britney’s existence as tawdry. So I should note that when I say “gossip”, I mean something fundamentally benign, less about celebrity than the satisfaction of keeping up with happenings in lives only tangentially related to our own.
It needn’t be negative, either: is there anything more simply joyous than a tier-three friend announcing her pregnancy? No need to send a gift; good vibes and a felicitous text message will do. Or what about the engagement of a colleague? None of the anxiety of wondering whether you’ll be invited to the wedding, where it will be, what you will wear. Just some warm champagne in a plastic cup by the photocopier at three o’clock in the afternoon. Doesn’t get easier than that.
The lack of emotional investment is part of what makes gossip such a pleasure. When those close to us celebrate milestones, even positive ones like birthdays or weddings, things can feel complicated. Even the most functional of relationships carry baggage. But running into someone at the supermarket who you know from a yoga class you used to take and responding to her news about an adopted puppy is as blissfully straightforward as savasana.
How I long to see pictures from a party I was not invited to!
Here’s the thing, though. The supermarket is now an in-and-out proposition. When I do go, it’s with a specific list and two masks (one cloth, one surgical). The idea that I would be idly roaming the aisles such that a run-in with a casual acquaintance would even be possible is a distant dream.
Besides, it’s the middle of winter here in the US, and with a mask and a beanie on, it’s near impossible to tell who anyone is, let alone that nice lady from accounts who switched jobs three years ago.
Still, life goes on and I miss knowing anything about the people who exist two or three rings out from my core circle. Social media these days only reveals so much, not least because we’ve all become cannier about privacy settings. And the university acquaintance announcing her relationship on Instagram was a rare event amid a sea of half-hearted selfies in tracksuit pants, which is how most people appear to be doing one year into lockdown.