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The Virus: Week Three

(Continued from The Virus: Week Two)

The following day (March 19), breaking quarantine and not happy about it, we finally made some progress in the quest to find toilet paper for my father-in-law. They have none, so we buy a bunch of napkins. The soundtrack in the store is Huey Lewis and the News’ “If This is It,” and then Debbie Gibson: “noooooo, only in my dreams, as real as it may see-eee-eem, it was only in my dreams….” There is no garlic, no water, no eggs. “Maaaaybe Friday,” the worker says, with respect to the eggs. As the carts approach the checkout lines, another worker plucks excess items from people’s carts: “Only one per customer,” the worker says, taking away one of our bags of napkins. “Only one per customer.” The PIN pad at the checkout line displays a new message: “Would you like to donate to help Feed Families during this Crisis?” Reassuring emails have been sent by Souther California Edison, Howard’s Appliances, Media Temple web hosting service, SimpliSafe, Ulta, Sephora, Home Depot, Lowe’s, the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts, CalSTRS, a local yoga studio, Cox Communications, Farmers Insurance, Big O Tires, Marriott Hotels, Bellagio Las Vegas, several employers, and Universal Orlando Resort, which is 3000 miles away, and a place neither of us has ever visited.

One day after that, the number of recorded deaths in the United States is now 170, the number of cases is 12,000; no, make that 13000. A message has had to be sent out to notify all of the staff in our Writing Center that they have been laid off, and all of our tutors. A new habit of mine is to start going through a mental inventory of everyone I know and try to imagine which ones might end up dead before all this is done. I try to imagine what would happen to my wife if I die from this thing, then try to stop imagining it.

Just a day later, the governor announces a statewide lockdown. It’s the first day of spring. 200 people in the United States alone have died. The skin around and between the knuckles on both hands is cracking and bleeding from all the extra dishwashing, and from all of the extra hand-washing. Out on the street two landscapers were speaking to each other in Spanish, a white guy pulled up nearby in a van. A sudden pang of nostalgia for the terrible year 2019 washes over me. Went for a walk: a cool wind, everything is green; a riot of birds. A neighbor responds to my question to him about how he is doing with all of this, and he tells me from a comfortable distance about their many struggles: the loss of his catering and entertainment/party business, which had just gotten started before all of this; and his father falling and splitting his skull open, sliding into dementia, as my father-in-law has, and of his father’s sixty days spent in a coma before being transferred to a nursing home, just before all of this. Pubs no longer being allowable, I FaceTimed with E– instead, never knowing where to set the phone, from what distance or what angle to speak to someone else in this fashion, a mode of communication unfamiliar to me. This was the first day where it was momentarily unclear to me which day of the week it was, just only one week into isolation. My wife says that large bank withdrawals have been increasing.

The next day was, I believe, March 22. Three common yellowthroats flew briefly around in the yard, sporting and playing. There is a sudden familiar stabbing pain in my chest. Did not see or hear another human being all day other than my wife, and not counting the frenzied people on TV or in my timeline on my phone. There is a commercial on the TV from the CDC; never seen one of those before. Maybe the events of these past two days happened in the opposite order, come to think of it.

That same day, or more likely the day after that, we go to see her father, to deliver him his napkins and cigarettes and to refrain from hugging him or breathing on him somehow. The 405 is dead, hardly any traffic at all. We discuss what each of us would do if the other died. When it’s my turn, she doesn’t like my answer. The number of strangers and acquaintances one typically sees in any given day in the city is already rapidly dwindling. Trying to see dad and sister from across the room, or from the front door, trying not to touch any loved ones, trying to maintain a suitable distance, standing at opposite sides of the room from each other, anxious to leave before we infect them. Her father doesn’t know what decade it is anymore. “They just gave us a month’s leave!” he says about the longshoreman job he retired from thirty years ago, cackling with glee at this blessed gift of freedom from work. On the dead freeway the overpass signs tell us to STAY SAFE FROM COVID-19 WASH YOUR HANDS. The skater kids in Ramones shirts are out of school, they’ve set up a makeshift mini-pipe and slide rail in the nearby street. “I’ve gotta play Fortnite!” one of them shouts in a doleful lament. “It’s my birthday, I gotta play Fortnite!” There are 300 dead in this country, a hundred more than yesterday. We’re home and cloistered by 10:00am. It’s the first day it ever felt like we were clearly hiding from something; it is out there somewhere and we are trying to hide from it.

Just a day later, or maybe it was that same day, there are now over 400 US deaths being reported, and many thousands more everywhere else. Like the garage door before it, the WiFi network at home isn’t working. Trying to get all classes online. Out the front window, over the course of the long day one would have seen only a single FedEx truck go by. No loved one has lost their job yet, no loved one has lost their home yet, no loved one has caught the virus yet, and no loved one has died as of today, March 23. It’s been cold. The thermostat and heater stopped working. The electricians come by to look at it. One lives with his 75-year-old grandpa: “I don’t think it’s that big a deal,” he says, after we don’t shake hands. “Things are already good in South Korea. I think things will get better here pretty soon.” The other electrician says that they just got done installing a bidet for a guy; he is telling this story and shaking his head, and I refrain from asking why an electrician would install a bidet rather than a plumber, but there is no reason to add to the public displays of my profound ignorance. They want $140 to replace an old outlet, but still the heater doesn’t work, maybe it’s an FAU problem for an HVAC guy to fix, I look up what “FAU” means, the first electrician coughs loudly, but only once. The garage door and the WiFi network and now the heater and/or the thermostat haven’t been working. 500 deaths so far in the United States. My wife shows me the “Safe Passage” letter the bank has issued her; these are the papers she must show to any authority who may pull her over and ask her who she is and what she’s doing outside. For quite some time it was unclear to me if today was the 23rd or the 24th. There are no more people to hover around, to associate with, to eavesdrop on, to talk to and meet and get to know, to ignore from a close distance. There are so many commercials on TV. In the Cosentyx ad people are hugging; in the Trulicity ad the dad buys the girl her first car, dad and the girl hug each other, as my wife and her dementia-addled father were not able to; the dad in the Trulicity commercial shakes hands with the man who is employed as a car salesman; the Cancer Treatment Center of America commercial shows a spacious, well-appointed, high-tech medical care facility, people are huddled together through therapy sessions, and the person employed as a doctor is holding the patient’s hands to comfort and reassure the patient that they are receiving the best care possible in the greatest nation on earth; Alfa Romeo, maker of luxury cars, is having what it calls a “Spring Acceleration Event”; the people cast as friends in the Made-In cookware ad are clinking wine glasses at a celebratory dinner party; HomeLight is showing me how to get the most money for the sale of my home; the Nicorette lozenge commercial is set inside a packed airplane, no empty seats, people squished together in a tiny metal tube; the third designer drug commercial is for Skyrizi (risankizumab-rzaa), and they’re having a dinner party and a barbecue with all of their friends and hanging out at the beach and leaping joyfully off a pier together and I spot a plane in the sky; in the ad for the film 1917, the soldiers are huddled together in trenches; in the fourth designer drug commercial, there are students in school, there are people at work, a mom and her kids roam the commodity-packed aisles in a fully stocked grocery while the mother thinks about the benefits of Botox; in the Amazon commercial a woman is jammed in on a crowded bus and making her online purchases from Amazon on her phone and it brings a smile to her face, everyone buying things on Amazon is buying things and smiling. My concerned and frightened students might be emailing me questions about what happens next, but like the garage door, the spotty WiFi, and the broken heater, the Canvas learning platform we’re all expected to use isn’t working either.

It’s March 24, a day later. 600 US dead. There is a rapidly rising sense online that things are about to get very grim all over, this is the prevailing mood online. There is almost no one outside, almost no human sounds. A striped slug on the morning-wet asphalt. My students have questions and concerns but Canvas still isn’t working. There are still zero people I know who have it so far; zero family; zero in this house. But California is woefully behind on testing, so every number is meaningless. My ears and head suddenly got hot late night and I was trying to calm myself. It seems likely that there are many reasons someone’s ears and head might get hot, and not just one reason. It is important to remember such things.

Just a day later, or that same day, there are over 800 people in this country alone who’ve died from the virus. In a different local grocery store still searching for a few essentials, I get into the wrong line, I don’t know where or how to queue here, I hand over my reusable bag but I’m wrong about that too. “You bag it yourself now,” the cashier wearing gloves says. Hardly anyone in the store. Eight people in masks, the most I’ve seen so far. There is red tape on the floor in six-foot intervals to show people where to stand. It’s the first time I’ve ever been scared or nervous to be out to buy butter or fruit. The workers are cleaning constantly, the butcher and the baker are both shut down and emptied out. In my one brief trip outdoors, there are more cops out than ever before. The foot traffic and car traffic is very light, but the stores still barely have half of what most of us need. No groups, no open businesses. The sushi place I went to twenty days ago is closed; the pub that my friend and I went to last week is closed. Starbucks and the local coffee shop and nearly every other business is closed. A day no longer feels like a day. As of today, which according to my notes is Wednesday, March 25, 2020, there are friends of friends who are getting it, and sometimes now even dying from it. But none of my friends and loved ones have it yet, none of the people closest to us; not my elderly father-in-law or any of the kids or any of us; we don’t yet have it. Those numbers are still at zero, but this feels like the last week that such statements will be true. The refrigerator trucks being used as makeshift morgues are starting to roll up to the hospital in our old neighbor in Queens, and the U.S. death toll passed 1000, just before we went to bed.

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