Diatribe

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By now, the odor of abandon and decaying food has almost dissipated from Mischi’s apartment in Queens. She has been paying rent for a vacant apartment since her death, and now Ruth and her son, Mark, have come all the way from California to dust it off, to expel the mustiness, to empty it of history and the tangible void of the last few months so that it can be released back to its owner once and for all.

Everything has been in disarray since the beginning of March, because the sudden news of her mother’s death sent Ruth rushing to New York to take care of the barest necessities. She stayed only a few days, convinced that she would be back in a couple of weeks to arrange everything properly. It had never crossed her mind that five months of purgatory would pass before her return. Yes, the virus was filling the news then, and New York was already giving hints that it would become one of the world’s epicenters, but it still seemed like a distant, foreign scourge, not quite real. In March, she took care of the basics. Collecting the ashes from Staten Island, she faced the same views of the Statue of Liberty that had greeted her mother arriving on these alien shores. Curious about a church she’d never seen before, she entered on a whim, and the remains started to writhe within their urn, because it seemed Mischi’s repulsion to Christianity survived even incineration. Back at the apartment, she recited the Kaddish, the prayer of the dead, with a minyan formed of the hodgepodge of nonagenarians and former employees Mischi hadn’t been nasty enough to drive away permanently. She ended up kissing and hugging these near-strangers as if everyone had forgotten that in these times, death lurked in every breath.

Ruth performed these obligations by ritualistic instinct, relief growing as she closed out this chapter of her life full of fighting and anger. Eager to be done and feeling slightly dazed, she threw things away with abandon, emptying the apartment as quickly as possible. Later, when she realized that in her cleansing frenzy, she’d thrown away all the death certificates she’d just paid for, she allowed the thought to cross her mind that maybe the anger hadn’t been completely surmounted. The one thing she kept without a second thought was the suitcase that Mischi brought on the Gripsholm, the Swedish ship that carried her to a new life in New York. In March, Ruth set this luggage in a corner and there it remained, oblivious to the march of history and the absence of Mischi. She still doesn’t feel ready to face whatever’s inside that shabby and enigmatic suitcase and has been postponing opening it all week long, knowing the memories it holds might shatter her.

Perhaps she’ll open it today, taking advantage of being on her own, since Mark set off for a Saturday in Manhattan and shows no signs of returning. Both mother and son deserve a break today, after a frenzied week trying to dispose of the seemingly inexhaustible stores of books, documents, tchotchkes, furniture, clothing, medical equipment, and now-obscure devices that accumulate over more than half a century of a life in the same apartment. Who’d have thought giving valuable items away could prove so difficult? Ruth has enjoyed strengthening her relationship with Mark over these days, but now she is lured by the idea of solitude, which seems to her like a chance for the long-awaited closure to the mourning that has clouded her since spring. She will say goodbye for the last time to that apartment where she spent most of her childhood and adolescence with her parents and sister, all of whom, it hits her, now exist only as memories, many of which are staged within these four walls.

Mischi made her exit at the right time; how awful it would have been for her to live through the pandemic. And what would Ruth have done? Expose herself repeatedly to the menacing, panting crowds of airports or move in with her mother? Both options sound potentially deadly, and just thinking about it sends a chill down her spine. Fortunately, Mischi died exactly as she wished — at home, suddenly, painlessly, after a long life, able to claim a moral victory over the cancer the doctors had said would kill her in three months all the way back in early 2017. It was almost to be expected, because by the age of eleven, she was already a reluctant expert on the necessities of survival, leaving behind all friends and family to escape to England on one of the first trains of the Kindertransport. But a week before she’d died, she announced on a phone call with Ruth that she was more than ready to leave this world behind too, and she finally did so at the age of ninety-two.

Over these days that mother and son have been confined to the apartment in Queens, they have erected a giant, chaotic pyramid on the Persian rug out of every document that exudes the slightest whiff of interest, and Ruth’s goal for today is to do a thorough winnowing.

She is eager to plunge into the maelstrom of paper because the written words are serving as stitches for a wound that has gaped open for decades. For some unknowable reason, Mischi spent more than thirty years bad-mouthing her as greedy and conniving, even threatening to disinherit her in later years, as if determined to perpetuate the pain she had suffered when her own father did the same to her.

Hence, Ruth was astonished when she read the will in March and discovered that Mischi’s last testament contradicted those lacerating, inexhaustible curses, not only granting her daughter her rightful share of the estate but giving her absolute power as the sole executor. This unanticipated posthumous gift was a tremendous emotional reprieve, a far cry from the single table and lamp granted to Ruth in an earlier will tauntingly shown to her by her mother. 

Now she sits before an overwhelming epistolary expanse and reads and reads without respite. Through her hands pass dozens and dozens of angry letters, from forgotten battles that took place between 1952 and 2016, and she separates them into two piles. On the right, she places the letters returned to Mischi which trace her fierce advocacy for Black civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. She had already known the broad details of her mother’s education campaigning, but the deep commitment to fair housing was all new to her. On the left, she puts the Byzantine labyrinth of correspondence relating to her attempts to recover the family businesses, real estate, and works of art, in a struggle that spanned seven decades, with restitution of pennies on the dollar granted in spurts and dribbles. At the age of eighty-eight, her life already behind her, she received a tidy sum from the German government that allowed her, in her 90s, to finally discover the pleasure of spending money. Inextricably intertwined with this saga is her ultimately futile fight to recover her rightful share of her parents’ estate, traced in drifts of letters from a dozen different lawyers. Ruth has always wondered what led them to disinherit her — an impossibility in German law, as Mischi later discovered — because, from the correspondence she comes across, it seems they never stopped caring for their daughter.

Just minutes ago, she discovered a letter from 1944, in which Dr. Hilde Lion — founder of Stoatley Rough, the English boarding school for German refugee children where Mischi spent the war years — assures Lily and Hermann Matthiessen that their daughter loves to receive news and photos of them, that they don’t have to worry about any lack of affection, and that she is a good-looking, tall girl, very practical and quite capable to organise.

She finds a diary of Mischi’s. She skims through it, skipping whole sections, until she comes to a 1959 entry in which, exhausted and lovesick, Mischi contemplates suicide. Ruth’s first overwhelming impression is how much her mother truly loved her father, and the letters she’s found demonstrate that this endured until the end, even decades after their separation. But she can’t help the nagging realization that, conversely, Ruth and her sister, Irene, are mentioned only in passing, as if they were irrelevant to this decision… her mother has been ignoring her for even longer than she thought.

She tosses the journal away in a moment of ire, and glances out of the corner of her eye at the Gripsholm luggage, as if to say that now she has seen everything she needed to, that she is ready. But something is still holding her back: she knows her mother treasured that suitcase for decades. It’s ridiculous, because Ruth has never felt intimidated by objects, but she cannot open it yet; she does not feel strong enough to face its contents, maybe because of the weight of history. 

Instead, she grabs a small file cabinet with a label that reads “Kochrezepte,” which holds the recipes of her great-grandmother Helene Dobrin, Mischi’s beloved grandmother who was killed in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp near Prague. Helene and her husband Moritz founded the Dobrin Konditoreien, which quickly grew to many branches across the ritziest neighborhoods of Berlin, so successful that it became a fixture in guidebooks and even literature of the epoch. Family legend has it that Helene introduced the banana split to the German capital, and she was unquestionably a savant with desserts, so Ruth strokes the autumnal pages and vows to cook Schokoladencreme and Zitronen-Eis and Kastanientorte when they return to California.

Suddenly, an envelope drops from the file cabinet with a small note pinned to it: “Last letter from Helene to Lily before she was sent to Theresienstadt.” The ink is still crystal clear, as if written yesterday, but it is in German, the precise, old-fashioned cursive on the pristine onionskin so elongated that it resembles Cyrillic. Ruth is almost relieved that the message is indecipherable for now, and she places the letter next to the green passport with a large swastika that Lily used to flee to the United States via a tortuous journey overland through wartime France, Spain, and Portugal.

Generations of a family reside in these epistles that flood the Persian rug, yellowing papers with ink spilled in love and anger and confession by people who now must be conjured out of this correspondence that oscillates between futility and transcendence. They speak of music, literature, food and all the routines of a life, but the letters also served as a means for Ruth’s father, Stanley, to reveal his homosexuality, and for her sister to tell her that she had terminal cancer, shortly before her death at the age of forty-five. At this remove in time, there is indeed a curious flattening in which the mundane has become as important as the momentous. 

Ruth is besieged by so many simultaneous sensations that no single emotion can break through, and she feels absolutely nothing except dread of that brown, battered suitcase. She focuses again on the letters: she reads them quickly, with a curiosity that is both historical and familial, and she is especially amazed by those from the post-war period, because, in a single letter, Mischi is able to casually mix book recommendations with news of relatives killed in Auschwitz, and the pleasure of a night at the theater seeing The Rivals with the the horror stories of her grandfather Moritz about surviving Theresienstadt.

Among the countless letters between Mischi and Stanley, who couldn’t resist painting their love in ink even when living under the same roof, Ruth stumbles upon love letters to Mischi from a boyfriend in the 1940s, Hans, never mentioned by her mother in 70 years, yet apparently a key figure of her youth, and of her life. There, another side of Mischi appears, vivacious, chattily romantic, reproving him lightly for calling her “sweetheart” and “honey,” blaming it on pernicious American influence on newly-arrived Hans or perhaps a heat wave addling his mind. In a letter written a month before the end of World War II, Hans resorts to German words and uses the affectionate nickname “Mischilein,” expressing his impatience to be reunited with her in New York, which he describes as an amazing and dizzying city, as well as a place full of fruit and chocolate, so unlike England. He tells her that he has met with Lily and Hermann who, after so many years of separation from their daughter, are forced to ask this stranger whether she is tall or short, fat or thin, beautiful or ugly, straight or hunched. And Ruth suddenly makes a connection in her mind and realizes that this Hans is the same person as that mysterious figure who finally convinced Mischi’s parents to bring her over from England and reunite her with them.

A curious and slightly jarring phrase jumps out at her. Hans assures Mischi that he has not said a word to her parents about her “slightly fat hams”. At first it seems vaguely insulting, especially since Mischi has always been rather skinny, if anything, in her youth but then she sees its sweetness. This is clearly one of the inside jokes of a playful young couple (likely born in the awkward transition from Germanophone to Anglophone), repeatedly endlessly by flirtatious lovers who see a lifetime before them, until suddenly it is never repeated again. It was never intended to be seen, seventy-five years later, by the prying eyes of someone who exists only thanks to the disintegration of that romance.

After surviving all the stresses of a year apart, why did their love collapse so quickly once Mischi rejoined him in New York? Perhaps she didn’t marry Hans because for her, New York was always supposed to be a blank slate. She fervently refused to play the role of the pitiable Jewish refugee and strove to disassociate herself from anyone else who had escaped the Nazis. Driven by an instinct for self-protection and rebelliousness against her family, she preferred to marry the most Aryan-looking man she met, an intellectual Christian from rural Indiana, and to celebrate Christmas with her daughters instead of Hanukkah.

The explorer on the Persian rug also comes across less exciting but less distant messages, which had fallen into the oblivion of forgetfulness, and the Ruth of the present stares into the eyes of the Ruth of the past, who, apparently, was already obsessed with food and J. D. Salinger and casually bandying about Freudian terms to describe her feelings at the age of nine. But what surprises her most is to read how she and her mother joked with each other and talked to each other with love, and it brings her back to the first 20 years of her life, when she had admired her mother so much, before everything soured.

Mischi’s cooking is one bright memory she always kept, and Ruth clings to it. She opens the freezer, where the last taste of her mother awaits her, and the soup that Mischi froze the previous Passover still tastes like youth and life all these months later.

After this culinary reconciliation, Ruth returns to the fray and grabs a few more folders. She knew Mischi always had some aspirations as a writer, but she had no idea how complex her poetry was, or that she had gotten interest from publishers about short stories and even a novel. How could she have hidden this part of her life from her daughter? She finds a rejection letter from an Annie Laurie Williams, who regrets being unable to publish Mischi’s story, Exodus, but expresses great interest in her upcoming novel.

Ruth reads the first sentence of the novel, apparently untitled — “When the Jacksons did their customary entertaining on Saturday nights, Harriet Jackson underwent a complete metamorphosis” — and falls into the reader’s trap of wondering if Harriet is an alter ego of her mother. She leafs through the sheets and jumps from page to page until she reaches Harriet’s suicide, and she is stung once again by Mischi’s attitude.

She turns around and sees only photos full of inhabitants of the past which, instead of saddening her, suddenly make her feel an enormous gratitude for this world-wide caesura. Plunged by Death into dissociation, confusion and uncertainty, she has been able to take refuge in silence, isolation and freedom from distractions, the perfect ingredients for a generous balm, all of which she would have lacked under normal circumstances, since in American culture everything must be overcome from one day to the next, because it holds no place for mourning.

Seen as a unified story, the pile of documents floods Ruth with sympathy, compassion and appreciation. With the safety and perspective of time, reified on the Persian carpet of that apartment in Queens, her mother has been transformed into a literary character with multiple names — Marion, Mischi, Mischilein, — a stranger with a fascinating life that her daughter was often barely aware of. It seems to her that this post-mortem portrait exudes intelligence, humor and sensitivity, and Ruth forgives her mother all the years of threats and negativity.

Now she feels emotionally ready to face the suitcase. Ruth carries it next to the window to illuminate it clearly and, even though she’s not normally one for photos, she snaps a couple as a memento, because she’s afraid the valise will crumble in her hands. She wipes off her glasses, takes a deep breath, smiles, and steels herself to open the case, knowing she can take any painful memory or discovery. She has History before her eyes and feels powerful confronting that suitcase which bore her mother’s dreams and sighs on the long boat ride from Liverpool to New York and the unknown. For a second after it falls open, Ruth’s brain can’t process what’s before her eyes, and then she giggles helplessly as she realizes the case is filled entirely with the tackiest Christmas decorations she’s ever seen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Oneirism

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After all, Keza has been exercising omnipresence for some time: why should one more city be a problem? Saturday kicks off with a job interview over Zoom that she’d told Ganza would finish by 12 at the absolute latest; three quarters of an hour past noon, she’s still there, her tongue coated with the minutiae of her value as a computer programmer, pert as ever, full of assurances that the location is perfect. If she’s hired, she’ll be in Seattle right away, yes, yes, no problem, it’s practically next door, there’s nothing tying me down here.

Much as he tries not to eavesdrop, Ganza overhears each of Keza’s promises, and the mere thought of her departure saddens him. He tries to focus on cooking: he long since finished the mimosas (they will be watered down), the pancakes (they will get cold), the fruit (it will go brown), the scoops of ice cream (they will melt). His patience is wearing thin, but he knows that this is a great job opportunity for her, but he doesn’t want her to leave Nebraska, but in reality it’s less than four hours by plane, but he’s tied down here, but it will be a great place for an electrical engineer once he can go, but he hopes she stays, but hang up already, goddamnit, but.

When Keza finishes, it’s obvious that the interview has left her drained, but she revives herself with that watery, cold, browned, melted and love-filled brunch prepared by her Ganza. The culinary shortcomings go unmentioned and they thoroughly enjoy the start of the birthday weekend, despite the incessant pinging of notifications, which Keza ignores, but which irritate Ganza, so much beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep. Keza doesn’t even bother glancing at her cell any more: at nine o’clock at night in Central Africa, her aunts have finally finished the daily grind and are free to flood her with advice in the form of photos and memes and videos and copy-pasted texts full of painful misspellings about how to wash your hands, the benefits of eating meat, anti-epidemic robots in hospitals, the evils of thinness, the horrors of too short a dress. And they also send selfies, many selfies, every day, with lighting and perspectives that would inevitably accentuate (or create) double-chins on even the best of aunts. Not all are really her aunts, of course: in Rwanda, every baby is raised in the bosom of the community, family or not, and the women involved in that upbringing are generous enough to bestow their precious advice ad æternum, no matter how old the baby grows. The non-aunt aunts of WhatsApp are the antonym of silence.

Despite the aggressive beep-beep-beep, the volatile mix of champagne and vitamin C starts to have its effect, but just as things are really progressing, a call comes in. Ganza tells her not to take it, come on, it’s not your birthday until tomorrow, but she knows all too well how the twenty-four hour phone and internet packages work in her homeland: if she doesn’t answer now, they may not talk for another week or two.

It’s Keza’s mother. You know the drill, shhhh! I couldn’t wait until tomorrow, how is Maine, very good, very good, quiet, here it’s the same ol’ same ol’. Her conversations with Mom verge on the soporific, now more than ever since she fully dedicated herself to lying as a narrative form before, at least, the half-truths gave her a rush of adrenaline. She recounts to her mother what she would be doing in Maine by reproducing her day in Nebraska, changing the backdrop a little, imagining herself confined in solitude in that apartment she hasn’t seen in weeks. She no longer gets nervous when they talk because she is at peace with this compassionate white lie. In case Mom calls that day (since it is winter in Rwanda, she always asks if it is cold), Keza has gotten into the morning habit of checking the weather in the city where she pays rent but hasn’t set foot since March.

Keza considers it perfectly normal not to reveal the whole truth about her romantic situation, which is still tender, uncertain and fragile, but to lie about the weather somehow seems to her the nadir of shamelessness, because that would be to deny nature. Feeling Ganza’s skin is also part of nature, but it happens in a modest recess, not exposed to the totalitarian sun and wind. She would never do that to her mother, so in Omaha, Nebraska, she always dresses in accordance with the meteorological whims of Portland, Maine, to remain faithful to the woman who gave her life, even if it means sweltering occasionally. Besides, science assures her that both cities have temperate continental climates, so who’s she to quibble about 10 or 15 degrees?

Keza changes the subject as quickly as possible: everything is fine here, everything is the same, the usual, how about you? Life in Rwanda has changed with the virus, of course, and at first she was interested in keeping up-to-minute on all the daily ins and outs, but now it has all begun to blend together: the family businesses are still struggling to stay afloat, people are swarming around without masks or remorse on their motorbikes and in church, and most are living hand to mouth. Dad likes to think he’s the one saving the day because he’s bringing some money in here and there from those ventures he’s always tangled up in that Keza and the rest of the siblings are kept blissfully ignorant about. Mom keeps things running smoothly: she doesn’t merely do housework that’s a perk of the rich she works at the gas company, has savings, and ensures her husband thinks that yes, yes, without you, we couldn’t manage. So the usual, but with a pandemic in the background. 

Her parents are not really aware of what is going on in the United States Dad is not at all aware, let’s not delude ourselves; he never calls. They know about historical slavery and stop telling us about it: they have no idea about the current injustices. They’ve never heard of George Floyd, much less Breonna Taylor, and Keza doesn’t tell them about #BlackLivesMatter, or protests around the country. What for? To make them worry? Everything’s all right, Mom; the usual, Mom.

Her mother knows the basics: that Keza works from home (home? “home”), that she does something with computers, something, that Ganza exists, that he is a Tutsi, obviously, that it hasn’t rained today. She doesn’t need to know anything else: delving into the intricacies of daughters’ lives is overrated.

Keza mentioned him once months ago, a friend, and then didn’t breathe a word when she moved 1,000 miles away to hunker down through the uncertainty and loneliness of the pandemic in his house, all timelines accelerated. At the beginning, she always made sure to Skype from in front of a white wall, to avoid arousing suspicion, but little by little she has managed to assemble a reproduction of the living room of her apartment in Maine, a stage designed with a click, so perfectly identical that Keza moves through it, phone in hand, with a mixture of comfort and repulsion. She doesn’t know why she has gone to so much trouble; in the end her conversations are made up of pixels, echoes, endless repeating, and what, what, what?

Today lying seems unusually daunting for some reason: she invents a parallel birthday in Maine, where her sister still lives, and recounts to her mother in great detail the plans they have together, but soon she gets caught up in the fabrication and is able to visualize every detail, even the color of the non-existent confetti at her imaginary celebration.

They end the call, and so much dissembling leaves a bad taste in her mouth. No matter she’ll steel herself by the next call and continue to hide her omnipresence and talk about the weather, gaslight her mother if she remarks on anything off about the furniture and patiently explain once again (and again and again) how to activate the front camera.

Keza is living in a joyful glow. She really cares about Ganza, but it must remain a secret, because she has grown up listening to “don’t go out with a boy until you’re married” and “hide your fiancé from your father until the wedding day.” And that’s why she must omit him, separate him from the world shared with her mother. By verbalizing an imaginary reality in which she is single and confined in solitude, she has unwittingly created a double life that overwhelms her sleep-weakened defenses to erupt into her nightmares.

They’ve barely been dating for six months, but for Ganza this is the most special weekend of the year. He gives her his first gift: a surprise dinner with friends on the terrace of the African restaurant downtown, her favorite of the city. The evening starts with gloves, mask and air kisses and inevitably ends with photos of abandoned social distancing and santés with spit-covered glasses. The cherry on top of a perfect night is his second gift, which the whole group gets excited about: traditional Rwandan outfits with matching prints. The couple quickly changes in the bathroom, making them look even more hopelessly like lovebirds, and their garb ends the night stained with toasts and laughter.

They sleep spooning, without taking off their soiled clothing, in an improvised, unspoken, and enveloping gesture of love. Keza lives in flyover country, pays rent on an empty apartment in the Northeast and has her sights set on working on the West Coast. Sometimes she gets lost in nocturnal musings, questioning the tangibility of her existence, but today she drifts off with the absolute conviction that her true home lies in that secret embrace.

She awakes to the pleasure of a foot massage, a barrage of celebratory kisses and the smell of coffee and reheated dinner leftovers. Keza rouses herself and looks at the outfits that now marks their unity as a couple, and she feels happy and calm. Her objectives for today: tranquility and repose no work emails or competition over who folds the laundry faster.

Although on Sundays they usually start the day discussing current events with mouths full of solutions and breakfast, Ganza tries to keep things trivial, steering the conversation away every time a fraught topic comes up, because today is a happy day, we should talk about something else; today you wanted to relax, right? But Keza argues that there is nothing more worthy of her birthday than words, their only power, in fact: as temporary residents of the United States, they cannot risk going to demonstrations, since getting involved in any hint of politics could easily end up in deportation. They can’t even feel secure walking in their residential neighborhood at night, because they are at the mercy of any white neighbor who deems them suspicious and calls the police.

They love to see the system finally teetering, but they have to resign themselves to a struggle from the shadows and take solace in talking about what’s going on around them, watching videos of police brutality, stirring up consciousness on the Internet under pseudonyms, patronizing African American and African businesses. Their trench is built of those little gestures. They want to help and participate, because they have become a part of this country over the years, even if they don’t plan to stay forever, in this place as full of opportunities as of contempt, this place that has defined their identities from a perspective they never could have conceived of in Rwanda. They both reject from the core of their beings any possibility of raising children in a land where merely to be black is to be in constant danger.

But for now they see no reason to return to Rwanda: their careers are going well, each of their siblings is scattered in a different country, all their friends have emigrated, and every visit means hundreds of dollars in gifts. When they return, in the future, it will be to open their own business, but their present is located somewhere in the vastness of the United States. Better not to protest, no.

Ganza is right: on this day it is better not to think about any of that. Forget it, it doesn’t matter, the agenda for today is to immerse herself in utter relaxation. But in the midst of her mani-pedi, Keza remembers the pepper spray that the police used against demonstrators last Thursday; as they watch a matinee, a racist comment from a man in the street a couple of weeks back races through her mind; and even trying to read a book (with the incessant beep-beep-beep symphony in the background), her eyes glaze over as she reaffirms to herself that people only listen when there are riots, and she feels devastated that she cannot be there.

It is only when they cook the special birthday dinner together isombe, ubugali and waakye that Keza becomes completely immersed in the glow of tenderness that has been a gift of the lockdown and stands watching Ganza dipping the sorghum leaves. She forgets about Seattle or Portland and for once is fully present in Omaha, and the scene radiates so much beauty that it becomes an oil painting: the blending of colors, the perpendicular light that divides his face, the shadows that infuse the cabbage and tomatoes with drama, the atmospheric perspective created by the sfumato of yucca flour.

The still life is shattered by a sudden ringing. As soon as she picks up the phone, Keza has a mysterious premonition that her mother is no longer living in ignorance. She feels ridiculous, tiny, insignificant. She doesn’t know how she knows, but she knows. A hunch, what do you want me to tell you, kid? The thought lasts for a second should I tell her or not? but then she returns to constructing a simpler life, thanks her for the well-wishes and focuses on the staccato questions with precise answers: no, Mom, not at all cold, not at all, the weather here in Maine today is gorgeous. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Atmosphere

[Leer cuento en español]

A storm like this is unheard of at Kilstonia during the dry Oregon summer. Strange to see the pounding rain; only this morning, the baked cloudless sky had set off in stark shadows a beaver brazenly gorging himself on the willow tree on the island. Vera’s willow tree. She jumped out of bed, 81 years and recent foot surgery at once forgotten, grabbed her .22, unlatched the lock to the balcony, paused a brief instant to avoid spooking the critter, and edged the door cautiously open. Resting the gun on the railing to avoid any unwanted trembling, she closed an eye to aim carefully, mumbled “I got you, you little bastard,” and shot him to doll rags, one more witness to her excellent aim.

While she was at it, she picked off a couple of passing nutria, an exotic invasive species with no business in these parts. The beaver may have a bit more local cred as the state animal, but he should have thought more about the responsibilities which accompany that honor before sinking those blunt teeth into her willow tree. Blasting those animals away filled her with peace. Vera already has enough to bear with the geese blanketing the shore of her lake with shit, the birds pecking at her corn, and the deer invading her garden every time she forgets to latch the gate. What a glorious morning.

That happiness was shattered when Vera remembered that the bridge was being repaired, and leaving the animals there to gaze at the sky might mean an unbearable stench in a few days, because it’s hard to guarantee the prompt services of a vulture or a hawk. Normally she would have asked Steve to collect the inert animals, but her husband was still inert himself, and she decided that, in the end, it would be less trouble to take care of it herself than to spend all day begging him to. Anyway, she knew very well it wouldn’t take long: she gathered her gray hair in a ponytail, grabbed the boat, rowed the thirty feet needed to reach the island, seized the beasts by their necks and, once back on terra firma, tossed them into the woods to be eaten by a fox, a lynx, a cougar or any other carnivore that should take a liking to these nasty creatures.

When she got back to the house, its 10,000 square feet imposing even amidst the natural splendor stretching out in every direction, Steve was impatiently waiting to go on their daily morning stroll to pick up the mail, on many days their only lifeline to civilization. When he heard about Vera’s spree, though, he took an unusual step: in case they crossed paths with any hungry animals lured by the sweet stench of his wife’s victims, he fetched the hunting knife that usually only accompanied him on late night walks.

As they returned home under the clear blue sky, Vera felt a sudden sharp pain in her temples and told Steve that a storm was brewing, but he sternly disabused her of that misconception with that universal reflex of husbands that always drove her to desperation. Fine, let him think whatever he wants, time will tell. She can’t be touched by negativity, because pacing the paths of those 40 acres that are her corner of the earth cures her of all ills: she has always dreamed of having her own forest, and now she has much more than that at Kilstonia.

Like every morning, the couple did the New York Times crossword puzzle, side by side, the effects of the coffee mingling with the rush from solving the trickiest clues. Vera was surprised that Lidia the spider was not in the kitchen, but she didn’t take it as a bad omen at the time. What did begin to arouse her suspicions was that, in all the hours and hours she spent tending the garden, she didn’t spot a single arachnid among the daisies, the roses, the delphiniums, the achillea, the lilies, the hollyhocks, or the columbines. And this despite painstakingly searching for them because, in the tradition of the Czech community of Baltimore where she grew up (still the foundation of her vision of the world seven decades later), spiders bring good luck.

This mysterious absence sent a chill down her spine, intensified by the dark, bruised clouds lurking in the west that merged with the tops of the dozens of pine trees encircling the house. She remedied this by wrapping herself in her favorite sweatshirt, which reads “My body is a temple (ancient and crumbling).” She continued busying herself with her wonderful flowers, where today not one bee was buzzing, playfully, to bathe itself in nectar… “Ježíš Marjá,” she exclaimed. She had been so fixated on spiders that she had overlooked the complete disappearance of insects. She listened intently: there was no bird song either. She shook her head. Ježíš Marjá, Ježíš Marjá. When she swore, the words always came out in Czech.

Curiosity outweighed any real concern and, since there was nothing to disrupt her habits, at four o’clock in the afternoon she sat down in the sunroom with her book — she was currently immersed in the mammoth History of the Persian Empire — a white wine and soda — to help her relax — and a bowl of potato chips, such a treat that she broke them into progressively smaller and smaller pieces to stretch them across time — something her brother taught her as a child.

That’s when the storm arrived suddenly, a violent barrage of hail assaulting the skylights with such force that Vera felt dazed, transfixed for several long moments before staggering to her room to take her second nap of that strangely dark day at the end of June.

Now, the couple of retired aerospace engineers is quietly cooking dinner, but the storm and Vera’s headache rage unabated. So powerful is Steve’s sweet tooth that Vera expresses love through fine pastry, but today she just wants to do something quick and dirty, so she can get to bed and sleep all night long. Steve’s warm voice and the meticulous narrative style he learned as an only child in a bookish Jewish environment massage Vera’s aching temples. Her husband recounts his day and laments lacking time to do everything he wanted: he played the piano for a while in the music room but not the violin, he played chess online but didn’t read, he did a few push-ups and weights in the attic but no abs, he grumbled at length while reading the President’s latest tweets and jotted a couple of notes but didn’t add a single paragraph to his book Feeling Our Universe. Same old same old.

The coronavirus has barely tickled them. There have been a few changes, of course: they can’t receive visits from their children and grandchildren, or hold the music camp they’ve been hosting for years, or attend the monthly Eugene Atheist luncheons, or play string quartets, or meet with Cottage Grove Community United, the group they founded to upend the area status quo, already triumphant in shutting down the infamous “fascist knife shop” (two of the owners having been recently convicted of hurling rocks through the windows of a synagogue). They miss the energy of group creativity, activism, and family, but the routine, the essence, is still intact.

Vera rubs her temples, and Steve recommends that she take an aspirin and heads to the first floor to fetch it. Five years younger than his wife, he is concerned about her health and takes zealous care of her, especially now: Vera has already made it through six or seven bouts of pneumonia, so the virus would strike her mercilessly. Steve does all the shopping so that Vera needn’t come into contact with people at the supermarket, but he’s not too worried about Laura, the woman who cleans the house every week, or Jake, the bipolar gardener who lives illegally in the cabin next to the barn, the rusting hulks of his cars covering the lawn, and whom they’ve been politely inviting to vacate the premises for some time without effect. After all, Vera has been practising social distancing all her life — thank God for her Central European origins — and she still has excellent hearing, so she doesn’t need to get too close to anyone.

The clouds cling to the treetops of Kilstonia and drape the entire sweep of the heavens without diluting their fury, and by 7 PM, an unusual greyish darkness has already fallen almost two hours before sunset. The first blackout hits when Steve is descending in the elevator, aspirin bottle in hand, but it doesn’t last long and he escapes the funereal claustrophobia within a few minutes. Neither of them is scared, because they live with the simple conviction that fear is not a useful recourse.

For dinner, they have spaghetti in a thick sauce overflowing with meatballs. No calorie counting or fad diets here — the blood of generations of butchers run in Vera’s veins, after all — but they eat so gracefully that neither of them allows a single drop to escape onto the spotless white tablecloth, still immaculate and unwashed after hundreds of meals. Under the flickering chandelier, Steve tells her how salt was a monopoly of the Spanish royal family from the Middle Ages until 1869, prices tyrannically raised when unforeseen expenses arose, such as a war or the fancy for one more palace. Vera has been intentionally undersalting her cooking for decades because Steve never asks her to pass the shaker without unearthing another tale from the annals of salt, apparently endless, of which she never tires.

In the same week in August 1966, Steve discovered and named the comet Kilston and gave a ride to a funny, intelligent blonde girl whose car had broken down in the Berkeley hills and would become his wife ten years later, after a decade-long soap opera involving irresolute sisters, the Summer of Love, and three children thrown in. The comet will not return for another 180,000 years, and his love for Vera would not repeat any sooner.

For dessert, they have toast with Plum Impeachment Jam from the 2017 summer harvest, lacking flavor for Steve but leaving Vera content. That’s when the generator explodes.

“It seems like the Donald isn’t a fan of his jam,” declares Vera, who never loses her cool, but they immediately get into an argument about whose turn it was to fill the propane tank — yours, no, yours, no, yours, yours.

Well, we’re not going to fix this tonight: Steve scrounges around for some candles, clearly with no intention of going to bed, but Vera is not up for any nonsense — there is a storm pounding outside and inside her skull — so she climbs step by step by step up the majestic double stairway, supporting herself with her cane and the bannister (when was the last time she dispensed with the elevator?). Before she gets into bed, she gives herself a quick sponge bath and goes out on the terrace to admire the vast moonless night from the balcony: what extraordinary beauty, that absolute darkness that does not exist in the city, and that she had never known until moving to the kingdom of Kilstonia.

She sleeps peacefully and, at around one in the morning, in the midst of that dream where she shoots zombies from the balcony as they lurch towards the house, their faces uncovered, their coughing virulent, their hands clutching “Trump 2020” signs, she is awoken by frenzied footsteps ringing on the metal spiral staircase by her window. She peers out and sees Jake, waving a shotgun with crazed blue eyes popping out of their sockets, in what looks like another one of his psychotic breaks. Not again… She calmly draws the curtain, opens the door to the hall and proclaims with that authoritative echo that is a gift of grandiose architecture: “Steve! Go out to the east wing and see what the hell is wrong with Jake.”

She tries to get back to sleep, because she has a couple of zombies left to deal with, but the loud notes of the piano reverberating through the floor ensure that she can’t sleep a wink. What a drag. Steve clearly didn’t pay any attention to her at all. She grabs her cane and heads downstair — step, step, step — engulfed in inky blackness illuminated sporadically by relentless flashes of lightning. She reaches the bottom with a stumble and raises her cane up high so the grandiloquent excoriation that Steve is about to receive for not dealing with Jake will be more theatrical. She opens the door to the music room and the piano stops playing. She tells herself that it must be the ghost of the music camp that will never happen this year, and she lets out one of those guffaws which only one’s own unsurpassed wit can elicit, and it rumbles through the walls of the mansion and mingles with the thunder.

But Vera only believes in one ghost, that of her mother, who haunts her from the morning, when she carefully arranges everything in its proper place, through the afternoon, every time she finishes a task with iron perfection, to the evening, when she performs her washing ritual (hands, face, and feet) before going to bed.

When she closes the door to the music room, she hears Paganini clattering from the radio in the dining room, and Vera is led there by blows of her cane and lightning. In the brief pallid clarity of a flash, Vera sees a red gush that has ravished the cleanliness of the tablecloth and fleeting legs dragged across the floor. Fear grips her for the first time in decades: she has not known terror since fleeing her mother’s wooden spoon after revealing her engagement to her first husband.

She doesn’t know how to react. She flicks the nearest light switch, as if to illuminate her house and her mind, both immersed in darkness, in the nightmare of Steve’s blood on the tablecloth, of his feet now disappearing from her view through the glass door. Nothing. Should she climb stair by stair by stair to retrieve the .22 from her room? How could she have left it upstairs? What a blunder. But there’s no time to go back for it: she could lose Steve. A sudden Socratic epiphany blazes, and she remembers the wild hemlock she’s been trying to dispose of for ages, but which she subconsciously has always known she’d eventually resort to.

She creeps outside stealthily. The sky roars, the rain drums down ceaselessly, the branches of the garden mosaic writhe and turn to snakes, the raven Cicero croaks his long-winded discourses without respite, the wind chimes abandon their delicacy and howl with metallic fury, Vera tears the hemlock out with her gloved left hand and ponders how to administer the poison. Of all the possibilities, her favourite is undoubtedly shoving the herbs up Jake’s ass, but she realizes the logistics may prove tricky — although, well, as a child she threw a boy twice her size into a hole when necessary to defend her brother: no doubt she’ll manage to make it work now. She’ll have to improvise based on what she’s given. That bastard Jake, clinging to them like a limpet, unabashedly calling himself one of the family — pah, as if they didn’t already have family to spare with five children and seven grandchildren — with his gun collection filling his illegal hut, worse than a thousand hungry beavers or nutria. She, like the police, had believed him when he claimed his wife woke up in the middle of the night and shot herself, but now she is filled with doubt. She remembers the crimson stain, the slack feet bouncing, the protruding eyeballs of a maniac with coronavirus (I mean, he never wears a mask, this guy). Hemlock. Up the ass.

Vera, limping in sandals and socks and a white nightgown, her hair disheveled, spots movement in the pond, like a struggle, and advances quickly under the pitiless rain, taking advantage of the fact that the noise of her footsteps is swallowed by Cicero’s incessant harangue and the hooting of the owl from the windowless barn. The shadowy figures of the two men are battling for their lives amidst the water lilies, and Vera remembers Baba Sklutskem, draped in muck and algae, that club-wielding water spirit lurking in the depths of lakes to drag men to their death, who appears with her mother’s face, and the vision makes her recoil and turn around. Steve calls out Vera’s name.

Her Steve, her beloved Steve, the apple of her eye! She will sniff his tie-dye shirts every day, erect a shrine in his honor in the geographical centre of Kilstonia adorned with orchids and marshmallows and chess pieces, cry every time she sees the North Star shining in the sky. Ježíš Marjá, Vera, save your husband, your mother is long dead and lives only in your daily routines, and Baba Sklutskem exists only in folklore and certainly isn’t welcome in Kilstonia. Vera tosses away her cane and runs with an agility she’d thought long-gone; she thinks of the red blood on the tablecloth, of the dragged feet…

Vera, Vera! Steve keeps yelling, and the yells fill her with such fury that she crushes the hemlock into juice. When she arrives at the shore, panting, Steve turns casually to her and informs her with the greatest tranquillity in the world that Vera’s shrieking about Jake startled him so much that he had soaked the tablecloth in stewed rhubarb, that he was forced to eat the entire bowl so it wouldn’t spoil with the fridge off after the generator explosion, hehe, some people might think it was too sweet to eat plain, but the final bite hadn’t lost any of the relish of the first bite, fancy that, an entire bowl, well, until she’d made him upend it! That Jake was hysterical and lost, and that Steve had to soothe him by explaining the magical essence of our gentle universe, how everything is connected and how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That Jake suffered a real shock when he got wind of this, and Steve had to drag him into the lake so the icy water would bring him back to his senses, because there was no other way to revive him, look how calm he is now, our dear Jake. That the two of them are tangled up in the pedicels of the water lilies, though in no danger, but the hunting knife has sunk to the bottom of the lake, so a pair of pruning shears would really come in handy.

Because of her unwonted exertion, Vera’s hips, left knee, right big toe, and upper eyelashes hurt, and she is drenched with rain and foaming rage. Now she would love to use the hemlock on Steve instead, via the same orifice, but she can’t, not for lack of enthusiasm, but because it has all disintegrated along the way. Vera, who had avoided the pinch of fear for more than sixty years, peers down on the miserable duo crouching damply among the plants and melts back into the storm, illuminated by a continuous explosion of lightning bolts: Ask Baba Sklutskem to help you out, or perhaps I could cut off the stalks from the upper balcony with my .22, but I can’t vouch for my aim at night, so maybe you lovebirds had better manage on your own, and after you’ve gotten out, the two of you can see to it that the tablecloth is sparkling by the time I’m up for breakfast, because there’s no place for stains in Kilstonia. And she departs screaming an endless flurry of Ježíš Marjás at the top of her lungs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Gastronomy

[Leer cuento en español]

It was all caused by that fateful office durian party and his resulting binge. And the worst thing is that Ong himself had come up with the idea, inspired by the arrival of June and hoping to cheer up his coworkers, their palates plunged in sorrow and longing for vanished flavors.

The arrival of the king of fruits is always an occasion of joy, but in this year of culinary deprivation, Penang’s favorite delicacy has become manna in a desert of monotony and isolation. That’s why, when Ong showed up this morning with those disposable plastic packages of durian well-wrapped, well-sealed, no smell on the bus, no smell his coworkers had greeted him with eager cries.

His few coworkers who were still there, that is many had asked for indefinite unpaid leave to avoid infection or because of the political instability, who knows. But now is one of the most joyful periods of the year, and they gathered round a couple of tables eight feet apart, disinfecting every package, not passing anything along and enjoy the savory, sweet, creamy fruit, its smell permeating the air, attaching to their hair, their clothing, and their souls. Durian, like love, is meant to be shared. With so few left to share with, though, Ong ended up gorging himself, entranced by the irresistible seduction of that fruit fatal.

Even in this rare moment of bliss, Ong couldn’t resist complaining. What misery, what misery it has been for his taste buds. And his coworkers are going through the same suffering: nobody knows how to cook, what’s the point? They live in a culinary mecca where buying food crafted by a specialist is cheaper and quicker than getting tangled up with pots and pans at home. A colleague, mouth full of durian, heart full of desperation, recommended a brand of frozen dim sum which is quite edible when boiled at home, don’t be close-minded, it does the job, and they laughed at this perversity, and each returned to his job.

Ong, mesmerized by the demands of his belly, can’t get his favorite dim sum restaurant out of his head all afternoon and hasn’t done diddly squat. What’s it been, eight, ten weeks now? Without being able to sit in a restaurant. Now they do let you, but with contact tracing and social distancing, and eating out means being immersed in a viral paranoia that clouds and dizzies you, and it’s impossible to enjoy anything.

He sits there, in that grey building in an office park in the Free Industrial Zone, gawking foolishly at his computer, caught in an obsessive spiral in which all he can focus on is tasting one of his favorite culinary treats again. But first, he has to send invoices in English, dim, record the last air freight of the day, sum, authorize the departure of a shipload in Malay, dim, negotiate prices in Hokkien for transport on passenger-free commercial flights, sum, explain in Mandarin to a Singapore importer the problems of meeting the voracious demand with the current meager supply, dim, because, if not, the shelves of the supermarkets will be empty, sum, and he will not be responsible for such an atrocity.

With difficulty, he wraps everything up and leaves once and for all, no longer able to resist the urging of his insatiable stomach, which, though already full of durian, insists on tasting dim sum. Although his mind may tell him that a bland slop is all that awaits him for dinner, his stomach prevails by projecting mirages before his mind, of laden carts groaning under a dizzying array of neatly-arranged plates amidst a halo of light, surrounded by the dingy colonial charm of the colorful shophouses of central Georgetown, where the best dim sum in the country is eaten.

Ong feels feverish, but suspects that the sensation is fruit of the visceral gluttony that is whipping him with psychosomatic fury. It can’t be anything else; as usual, this morning, before he had been allowed into the office, they had taken his temperature, invited him (invited him, ha!) to apply an anti-bacterial gel and check in at the entrance, with his name, ID, hour, minute and second of arrival, exact temperature and practically his brand of underwear. And, anyway, well, he doesn’t have a fever. Neither he nor anyone else. He touches his forehead and perhaps there is a slight burning, but nothing, nothing. There’s no virus whatsoever. This is all just a result of culinary nostalgia, no doubt. He grabs his things with a calmness grounded in his own conviction that all is well. He shuts all his paranoia in that scrawl-filled notebook which he puts away in his briefcase with all his fears and locks up, suffocating the panic behind the lock.

He goes out into the street, and the humid 90 degrees pack more of a punch than ever. There’s absolutely nothing wrong. It’s rush hour and prices on Grab are sky high, so, since he’s feeling so well, he heads to the bus stop and unsheathes the weapon he needs for such an inexplicable whim: patience. He’ll take the bus to Komtar and then continue in a taxi. There is a very long line, which at first intimidates him, because it reminds him of the lines that formed when they shut down the city a few weeks ago, and people began to pile up in front of the police stations to apply for the necessary permits to make interstate trips. Then chaos had seized dominion little by little, with police checkpoints on every road and those government edicts that even their enforcers did not understand, and nobody sure how to behave. The emergency alerts issued by the government, which were pushed to all cell phones in Malay only, with shrill alarms that seemed to announce a nuclear strike, not only spread panic but also deliberately excluded two thirds of the island’s population. It was during those days that he realized that this time it wouldn’t be like the SARS and MERS scares, that this was something huge, which in recent weeks had already wrought radical consequences on the economy, on freedom of movement, on Malaysian politics, on his nerves.

But this line can be blamed only on rush hour and the embarrassing scarcity of 301 buses. Wait, wait, he’s starting to sweat. Is the fire from within or without? He rubs his face against the cold glass of the shelter, slowly, with a cat-like gesture that he hopes nobody sees. At least the street is awash with the sweet smell of durian; despite the virus, it seems like every trunk is loaded with the fruit, and stalls have sprouted up overnight along the side of the road. He focuses on that fragrance as a survival method while cooling his forehead.

Finally the bus arrives and he ends up last to board, because he doesn’t like crowds, much less of contagious people (like him?). Before climbing the stairs, he gathers his strength and puts on his best “I don’t have a fever” face. The driver takes his temperature once, frowns, once again. Ong smiles grimly (as if his mouth were visible through his mask) get in, c’mon, get in, it’s only a few tenths of degrees, and acknowledges the favor with a terima kasih that is more like a sigh.

He pretends to sit tranquilly, collapsing next to an old woman who doesn’t seem like she can see her hand in front of her face, so she probably won’t be judgmental about Ong’s sweat. He presses his face to the cold glass again, his relief only spoiled by his own thoughts: he grows even hotter at the thought of that devious coup d’état supported by the sultan himself and orchestrated to take advantage of the COVID outbreak and seize power from Mahathir after instituting confinement, even though this is still a democracy, right? even if they didn’t vote for the new prime minister, even if now Muhyiddin has consolidated power, even if it doesn’t matter anymore, because you have coronavirus and that’s that, admit it, Ong, death is kissing the back of your neck, you will disappear from the face of the Earth and leave the living to squabble over freedom. 

Don’t cough, don’t cough, watch an episode of Normal People on your phone and relax. But he can’t lose himself in the show and is obsessed with the idea of not coughing, and although he doesn’t really need to, he starts coughing like a Sabah coal miner, and the old woman asks him if he is all right while she edges away and pulls out two tiny plastic battery-operated fans to try to push the virus away. The ingenuity and the futility of this gesture somehow seems adorable in that moment. Ong has an urge to lay his head on the woman’s shoulder, but he holds back, and his stomach starts screaming “dim sum, dim sum!” as if he weren’t teetering on the edge of his grave. The young man is so moved by the etymological origin of that term “to gently caress the heart” that his stomach triumphs once and for all in the internal debate between dying while eating or dying in bed.

His favorite restaurant is far away and, as the fever continues to rise, it begins to seem more and more irresponsible to go; besides, it’s more than ten kilometers from his house, so legally it’s not even permitted, even though he’s already done it twice by dodging the police, Admittedly, he didn’t have coronavirus back then.

He should just go home directly, but that recommendation of frozen dim sum from his co-worker pops into his head. Since he is going to die anyway, it is worth one final effort, on a smaller scale, even if it is for frozen dim sum. He will get off in a couple of stops and go to the supermarket, that’s it, in and out, without infecting anyone, without talking, without looking at anyone. At home, the only thing he has to eat is his plants and he would never do that to his babies. This specter which is haunting him will not deprive him of one last culinary pleasure, no way. He’d kill for that delight.

As he passes from the icebox of the bus into the sauna of the outdoors, his glasses fog up, and the blur makes him feel even dizzier, so he buys a teh tarik with extra ice from a street vendor who shouldn’t be there, but he is and, well, he looks healthy, and Ong pays without infecting him. He waits in line at the AEON it’s short, there’s no longer so much precautionary hoarding something he would never subject himself to if this weren’t his last meal, because he hates lines, he hates them, but he manages to lose track of time thinking about what he would give to see the Kek Lok Si temple or the mangrove backwaters of Balik Pulau once again, to go walking with his ang mo friends along touristy Chulia Street and introduce them to the world of curry mee (without telling them that in Penang it’s served with pig’s blood), to take another walk through the jungle to the beach, even to have his food stolen by monkeys again… But above all, he would love to ride his bike along the trail of durian orchards, bathing in that pungent smell that brings him back to his childhood. Once more, just once more. His eyes flood with liquid memories as he sticks the cold plastic bag to his forehead, what pleasure, what delight, what relief, and tears, sweat, and condensation mix on his face.

When his turn comes, he downs his tea in one gulp, dries himself with his sleeve, and enters the supermarket, all in a single movement, and the combined coolness of ice and air conditioning courses through his body in a chill that leaves him terrified and reminds him that the icy hand of death is still clutching at his skin, but he is convinced: he will fulfill this Dim Sum Mission if it is his last act on Earth.

At the entrance, he carefully puts on his “neither hot nor cold” face, and the guard scans the temperature of that forehead frozen from street drinking, no problem, enter, enter, the lie sticks. The guard asks him to fit his mask tight, tight, tight, puts a sticky, disinfecting mixture of soap and water and spray on his hands, sticks a number on his body that he will have to display at checkout and makes him register with a QR code to monitor the time he spends in the store: fifteen minutes, not-one-sec-ond-more. He beelines to the frozen food section, grabs a bag, pays but doesn’t anybody respect safe distances in this line either? exits and presses dim sum glaciers to his forehead of virus and fire. A blink of an eye: that’s how long he takes.

Now all he has to do is get a taxi, a Grab, a MyCar, a trishaw, whatever. Soon he will arrive home and kiss his mother, his sister, and his plants one last time. It’s sad, but what luck to be able to see them all.

Two drivers kick him out without explanation as soon as he gets in the car. That’s it, it is obvious to everyone that he has coronavirus, and he has become a pariah. He bites open the bag, tries to eat a frozen dumpling. That’s it, his time has come, there’s no doubt about it: nobody in their right mind would put that in their mouth, what a shitty last meal. He spits it out. The third driver also rejects him, but at least gives him a reason, gesturing to the sign on the headrest with a crossed-out durian, familiar in public transport across the Malay peninsula. In the enclosed space, every surface and fabric would be impregnated with the powerful smell. 

In that blessed instant, Ong suddenly realizes that he reeks of the cursed fruit and recalls the indigestion and fever that has always punished him for overindulgence in his beloved durian. It first happened when he was a little boy, but with panic in the air, he hadn’t even thought to blame his suffering on gluttony. His face floods with joy, and he uses the entire remainder of his anti-bacterial gel to wash his hands and mouth thoroughly and conceal the odor.

He gets into the fourth taxi, relaxed in his fever, leaving behind the stress and anxiety caused by pondering these totalitarian times and the uncertainty of the future. His conquest of the false coronavirus fills him with assurance, and he immerses himself in the happiness of this moment by resting his forehead against the icy-cool window until he drifts into sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

[Tales of the pandemic based on real stories from around the world with a touch of fiction.
Ongoing literary project.]
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, by Mary Cassatt

Oneirism

After all, Keza has been exercising omnipresence for some time: why should one more city be a problem? Saturday kicks off with a job interview over Zoom that she’d told Ganza would finish by 12 at the absolute latest; three quarters of an hour past noon, she’s still there, her tongue coated with the minutiae of her value as a computer programmer, pert as ever, full of assurances that the location is perfect. If she’s hired, she’ll be in Seattle right away, yes, yes, no problem, it’s practically next door, there’s nothing tying me down here.

[Read more]

Atmosphere

A storm like this is unheard of at Kilstonia during the dry Oregon summer. Strange to see the pounding rain; only this morning, the baked cloudless sky had set off in stark shadows a beaver brazenly gorging himself on the willow tree on the island. Vera’s willow tree. She jumped out of bed, 81 years and recent foot surgery at once forgotten, grabbed her .22, unlatched the lock to the balcony, paused a brief instant to avoid spooking the critter, and edged the door cautiously open. Resting the gun on the railing to avoid any unwanted trembling, she closed an eye to aim carefully, mumbled “I got you, you little bastard,” and shot him to doll rags, one more witness to her excellent aim.

[Read more]

Gastronomy

It was all caused by that fateful office durian party and his resulting binge. And the worst thing is that Ong himself had come up with the idea, inspired by the arrival of June and hoping to cheer up his coworkers, their palates plunged in sorrow and longing for vanished flavors.

[Read more]

Melomania

Andrei dreams that once again his hands will be a blur as he plays Rachmaninov’s preludes to an adoring crowd, the frenzy will create a gale that rips the socks off the pot-bellied, mustachioed man in the front row, and the performance will end with the piano bursting into flames from the hammers’ unrelenting assault on the strings.

[Read more]

Geography

Strawberry and cream tarts, lemon bundt cake, artisan tiramisu, blueberry muffins, Dutch apple pie, chocolate eclairs, cherry cobbler, cinnamon rolls, and bread, bread, and more bread. All expired, but it’s better than nothing.

[Read more]

Mnemonics

The idea of actually calling the police occurred to the Daughter. By no means did she want him to be arrested and spend the night in lock-up — which no doubt nowadays served more as a breeding ground for the virus than anything else — but it couldn’t be denied that, in a way, he had brought it on himself; driving all the way to Zhuanghe was truly a preposterous idea.

[Read more]

Autarchy

Beyoncé is trapped in her gel nails. Well, not Beyoncé Beyoncé, it’s just that Maria refuses to allow her real name to be used, because it’s simply too distinctive, and she prefers not to be recognized in the street. So we’ll have to turn to her idol for a pseudonym (surely, there must be more Beyoncé fans than Marias in the world). Anyway, what happened is that Beyonce got sick before the virus got its official papers cleared to leave China, and she endured nine days of fever and misery, but she didn’t die, because she took good care of herself, and because she was lucky, and because she’s not in a high-risk demographic, and because she doesn’t know if she had coronavirus or just the flu or who knows the hell what.

[Read more]

Theophany

The neo-ancient emergence of the phrase “streaming mass” had launched her into delight tinged with relief. She has stoically resigned herself to renouncing her walks to the Dish, her jazzercise classes, her meandering bike rides, no matter how much she longs for them. All for the common good. And, well, she has a big backyard, where she can run, dance, or do flips on the trampoline if she wants. She never actually has, but why shouldn’t she?

[Read more]

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Melomania

Andrei dreams that once again his hands are a blur as he plays Rachmaninov’s preludes to an adoring crowd, the frenzy creates a gale that rips the socks off the pot-bellied, mustachioed man in the front row, and the performance ends with the piano bursting into flames from the hammers’ unrelenting assault on the strings.

Recently, he’s had the chance to play the pieces that have been languishing on his to-do list for a century, with time on his hands to practice for hours and hours on end. Days pass in the blink of an eye as he coaxes virtuosities out of that piano without an audience in the corner of his living room. Since he is forbidden to leave the house, he must be diligent in ensuring that his talent remains at the forefront of people’s minds, so Andrei records himself and records himself and records himself, striving for perfection on each and every note, hoping to receive the endless ovations from enthusiastic audiences that sustain him, if only virtually. 

He watches the videos several times — the flying fingers, the waving bangs, the jumble of friendship bracelets dangling from his wrist, the glasses precarious on his nose, the pajama pants, the thirty-three years barely marked on his face — and assures himself that this incarnation into sound has retained all the sublimeness of the original composition. He settles on the version he thinks is best suited to Carnegie Hall and, on his 22nd viewing of the chosen video, the composer whispers to him that if he really intends to flaunt his talent by playing Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat Major, Op.106, the “Hammerklavier,” it might be wise to avoid looking like a hobo, with those polka-dot pajamas and frayed cuffs. Perhaps he could suggest some nice velvet court robes shimmering with gold and silver embroidery? Andrei silences this insolence because he’s sure Ekaterina Voznesenskaya (Katia to her friends) loves his bohemian look, a true artist totally absorbed by his own genius and isolation. And is Ludwig really one to talk, anyway? That unruly mop of his always made him look like an escaped lunatic. 

It’s good, very good, the “Hammerklavier” video. If he plays like that on June 8, 2021, he will officially establish himself as an artist. For sure. Perfect rhythm, ideal harmony, optimal hand positioning… And, on top of that, it’s cunningly recorded to show him from his good side, for when people see it, for when Katia sees it.

Before he uploads it to Facebook, he puts water up to heat in the samovar and, from the kitchen window, overhears the neighbor trying to convince his girlfriend to move to Moscow once and for all. Andrei cocks an ear: for weeks he has been following the trials and tribulations of this couple and their dramatically vapid dialogue, as if ripped straight from an STS soap opera. The accusatory shouts begins, the water starts to boil, I won’t go to such a dirty, ugly city full of proud muzhiks, he searches and searches for his favorite cup, they progress to another kind of screaming, he puts the zavarka in, listens for a little while longer, pours the water into the kettle, he will never understand make-up sex, lets it steep, closes the window, sweetens the tea with jam.

He doesn’t know how he should caption the video. For the clip he posted on May 10th, he wrote, “Shortly before the corona era,” to remember one of his final concerts in a venue with an audience — dressed to kill, back then, yes: with his bow tie, his maroon suit jacket with navy blue sleeves, his tartan pants in gray tones. Katia had liked the video and every single comment made on it: “Thank God for Andrei” from Nina Golyshevskaya, “Incredibly beautiful” from Steve Kilston, “Rock star” from Marina Kononov, and “Hope you’ll be able to visit us soon” from David Lischinsky. Katia had clicked like, like, like on everything. And she herself had chimed in with, “Excellent” with one, two, three, four, five exclamation marks. Whoops, six. Six exclamation marks.

Katia has been reacting to everything Andrei posts lately: a surprised face for the video playing Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, star eyes for the shot of him in Baltimore exactly two years ago, broken hearts when he uploaded endless photos of St. Petersburg under a cloudless azure sky, a thumbs up for the musical and culinary memories from that palatial Oregon mansion, green hearts for the selfie accompanied by an Oscar Wilde quote, a kiss for his short recording of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 4, a crying face for the photo of a soldier playing the piano in front of a tank with who knows what war as a backdrop. 

But what touched the musician most deeply was when Katia watched the video of the piece Solitude 3, composed by him, himself, the future superstar Andrei Ivanovich Andreev, who will soar to worldwide renown with an hour-long standing ovation in Carnegie Hall, nearly fainting from a surfeit of glory, with his wife of the future weeping tears of joy from the loge and remembering that comment she’d made on May 14, 2020: “A true reflection of solitude.”

In the end, Andrei posts the video with just the title and popular name of Beethoven’s piece accompanied by the appropriate YouTube and Spotify links, eschewing musical note emojis or any such frippery, and waits expectantly before his screen. After five and a half sips of tea, Katia’s reaction arrives. She comments with an emoji of a bouquet of flowers, conveyed to Andrei by the taciturn OZON delivery driver who hums Fanny Mendelssohn’s Nocturne in G Minor through his mask as he sullenly slams down the package with the socks Andrei ordered several week before.

He arranges the colorful socks on the white table in the living room, each pair exactly one vershok apart, and takes 3D photos of them. He already has his complete outfit for the Carnegie Hall performance (unless he gets fat, which at this rate…), but he’s still missing the most important element. He has just received ten striking pairs with stripes, checks, diamonds, and color blocks, and he likes them all, but he can’t settle on one in particular. He puts on his suit, his shirt, his bow tie, his shoes and starts swapping the socks in and out. Nothing –  he still can’t choose. He places a mirror to one side of the piano and plays while wearing every possible chromatic combination, peeking at himself out of the corner of his eye. Nothing, nothing. He records a video of himself on his camera, searches in a sound effects library for applause to play at the end of each piece, to add authenticity — what can he say? He is addicted to that tightrope sensation of performing to a large auditorium with every error final. No dice. He strips off the rest of his clothes to perform sporting only socks: first this pair, then that pair; recording, mirror, peek, bow. It works, it works: the yellow ones with black squares are perfect for Carnegie Hall.

Perfect? No matter that he already posted the Hammerklavier video today: he’d better share the 3D photo on Facebook, see what people say, see what Katia says. He’s not going to mention the performance in New York, just in case it gets cancelled. He’ll ask casually, “Which ones would you wear for a big concert?” If Katia picks the red and black gingham pair or the white ones with two-tone triangles, he will forget her forever and create a Tinder account and all her emojis will pass in one eye and out the other.

But Katia comments immediately: “No contest, the yellow ones!” And then Andrei, from his home that is peacefully immersed in a silence as absolute as John Cage’s 4’33”, walks hand in hand with Katia through the streets of St. Petersburg and shows her the Rimsky-Korsakov school, where he teaches two days a week, and they eat borscht and pelmeni and stroll along the banks of the Neva, clothed in granite, her waters interlaced with fair bridges, past isles bedecked with dark-green parks, as they whisper verses by Alexander Pushkin and kiss each other for the first time in one of the countless stars on the domes of Trinity Cathedral and enter the paintings of Elena Figurina and Galina Khailu in the Erarta Museum, and Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor serves as a soundtrack, and they recall the time of COVID-19, already discussed in the past tense, what anxiety, when all the concerts were cancelled, and it seemed like the government wouldn’t aid artists, and no networking could be done in person, and we communicated with emojis and solitudes.

He travels back to the present hypnotized by the turtledove that lands on the windowsill every day at 7:46 PM and coos and purrs and twitters the Gavotte by Ella Adayevskaya and stares at him until hitting the final note and taking flight. The day’s last light is fading: he should have some dinner, study a little French, and read Zinaida Gippius to try to avoid thinking about June 2021.

Carnegie Hall keeps the concert on the calendar, a halo of hope shining around the date, but Andrei is aware that time deceives; it seems like only yesterday that he sat down in front of the piano and, with no prior training, imitated by ear what he’d just seen that older girl do. Almost three decades have passed in allegro vivace: twelve months more will pass in a sigh — and who knows what the world will look like a year from now. If he has learned anything in the last two months, it is that time does not exist, that the present and the future are only tinged by aspirations or fears or hopes or dreams, and that only Chopin’s nocturnes are clad in iron certainty.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Geography

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Strawberry and cream tarts, lemon bundt cake, artisan tiramisu, blueberry muffins, Dutch apple pie, chocolate eclairs, cherry cobbler, cinnamon rolls, and bread, bread, and more bread. All expired, but it’s better than nothing.

Each time he readies this cornucopia for his people, it fills him with excitement, but ever since the chase and the $130 fine a few months ago, there is always the nagging concern that maybe this time will be another disaster.

He has just left the only supermarket that responded to his pleas the Albertsons in South El Paso from which he has been taking a daily cartful for the past five years and he realizes he is already feeling unusually tense. Will they let him cross? He arranges the surplus and expired products with the restraint and methodical efficiency of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s already become rote: he arrives every day at the loading and unloading zone, passes through to the bakery and pastry section, collects everything his compatriots don’t want, to be taken to those who can’t choose what they want, puts it in the cart, and distributes it among the coolers he always carries in the trunk.

Calm down, calm down, he sips water, exhales, gets in his pick-up truck, murmurs a rapid prayer. His nerves are on edge after three border crossings in a single day last week. Normally things aren’t so hectic, but it appears that, in these times, perishable goods have lost their attraction for American shoppers, and they pile up, pile up, pile up and usually land in the dumpster.

He buries his anxiety, starts the engine, and heads for the border, temporarily imbued with the tranquillity of hope and faith. That journey of barely five minutes is filled with the faces he will hopefully see today. First appears little Maria Fernanda from the orphanage, whose parents were murdered a couple of months back, but is always full of affection, seeking to be hugged, embraced, cradled. Then he decides he will leave some bread at Angélica’s house, partially repaired after another rampage of her teenage son, who sniffed glue as a kid, and then went on to marijuana and then cocaine and then meth. Wresting his thoughts away, the visage of Rahui comes to him, Rahui, who himself lives precariously in the Tarahumara settlement, is always eager to help unload the pick-up truck and distribute food to his neighbors. Just before he arrives, there flashes into his mind an image of that wryly upbeat woman everyone calls La Perrita, who loves chocolate and dirty jokes and who was thrown by her children into the teeming chaos of the overcrowded psychiatric hospital after she fell on the train tracks and lost both legs and an arm. Merely thinking about them fills him with warmth: the loneliness of a childless divorce vanishes like smoke when he arrives in Juarez, when he joins his makeshift Mexican family. He sees them every week, they kiss and hug (nowadays much less), play, pray, sing, laugh and even celebrate together at Christmas and Easter. God willing he will be able to get across. God willing.

Agents on both sides of the border have him firmly in their sights. While returning to the U.S., despite a digital trail of his countless arrivals and departures, is usually a breeze (because it’s his own country, and he has the SENTRI pass for trusted travelers), Mexico often poses problems. As he approaches customs, Jeff plans how to proceed. There are five entry points at the border — he knows them all too well, after 23 years of experience. To lessen suspicion, Jeff tries to repeat as infrequently as possible, keeping a running mental record of which is due. Although controls are less comprehensive in this direction, Jeff is often accused by officers of carrying too much food. Through painstaking trial and error, he has determined what is likely to be considered an acceptable amount — two four-foot containers per trip, three at the most — but today they may say even that’s too much. Then he will have to go back and wait for another day and try to distribute the food to the homeless people he finds in El Paso or to his neighbors, because food banks only accept donations of non-perishable food. As a last resort, Jeff will eat what he can himself before it goes bad, but what the supermarket discards is already on its last legs, and not a single eclair more can be crammed into the freezer. What can he do: sometimes the trash is an inevitable fate, and his thoughts always turn to his children whenever he’s forced to toss the spoiled food.

He’s approaching that high wall that’s been steadily growing since 1819, and Jeff can’t stop sweating. Come on, you’ve been doing this for years and years. There are a couple of cars ahead of him. No comparison to what it’s usually like; the border closed on March 21, and only those considered essential can pass. He’s essential, in theory, but they can refuse him on any pretext.

If they don’t let him through, he won’t try his luck at another checkpoint. He would hate to repeat the experience of last year’s pursuit and ticket, when he was carrying four coolers loaded with pastries and the agents wouldn’t let him cross, and he switched to another entrance and initially managed to get through, but the first guards had tipped them off, and he was commanded to stop, and he started singing loudly to feign incomprehension, and they chased him down with a truck, and they dumped him back in the United States and screamed at him, and he had to pay a fine of $135 to boot. And 2300 pesos goes a long way on the other side. No, if they don’t let him pass, he’s not going to gamble again. Now he treads carefully: better to live to fight another day, even if he has to throw away precious expired food. 

The border gets closer, closer, and Jeff tenses his shoulders, squeezes the steering wheel with his hands, prays and prays that they don’t give him any trouble, turns down the K-LOVE music that always accompanies him, fits the yellow cap over his gray hair, adjusts the tiger-print mask (better to leave it on, right?), readies his passport, and hands it to the officer with gloves and caution and his blue eyes glowing with supplication and prayers crouched at the corners of his lips. Will he manage to get across? 

In general, he knows the weak points and proper approach for each of the border patrol officers, who don’t give a damn about the starving people in their country or the children wasting away in orphanages. However, the agent he’s drawn today, Jorge Lopez, always keeps him guessing, because depending on what side of the bed he woke up on, he sometimes displays compassion, sometimes blazes with fury; and he’s just as likely to dutifully process the official food transportation tax as he is to cough with the self-importance of petty authority to elicit a bribe.

Jeff forces his eyes into a smile and says good morning, how are you, sir, thank you very much. To avoid any sign of weakness or concern about his lengthy entry record, he concentrates on mentally plotting his course for the day. Before starting the deliveries, he will head to kilometer 27 to buy meat, milk, eggs, and fruit at the El Roble supermarket. The cash, cobbled together from various donors as well as a sizable portion of the profits Jeff makes from his own eBay store, provides for a decent haul of fresh food. On recent trips, he’s wandered bewildered through the richly-stocked supermarket aisles: piles, mountains of toilet paper gleam under the fluorescent glare, because this battered city can’t afford the luxury of descending on stores like locusts to hoard for a catastrophe. In these times, a full supermarket is synonymous with thousands of empty cupboards and refrigerators. In Ciudad Juarez, hunger and drugs kill many more people than any damn virus.

Officer Lopez addresses him as if they haven’t faced each other two hundred and forty-two times previously, and Jeff responds with restrained friendliness, and Officer Lopez asks if he has anything to declare, and Jeff mentions the three coolers full of bread and pastry, and Officer Lopez peers at him with puzzlement and examines the vehicle with eyes filled with the eternal suspicion of one who works every day in the uncertainty of discerning good from evil.

Suddenly, this inspection, now so routine, seems to him like an oasis of calm, and he is flooded with a sense of tranquility. Let God’s will be done. What truly worries Jeff is that the lords of this jungle will exploit the situation to lure in and conscript the most desperate for the skirmishes of their lethal trade. In April, obligatory social distancing was imposed in Mexico and more than 70 percent of the large factories in Juarez closed. Now many are on the streets and dying of hunger: staying home is not a choice, but a privilege.

On top of everything, this virus has the cartels pissed off, because most of the ingredients for making drugs come from China and the ban on shipping goods from the Asian behemoth is, in this land, a ban on getting rich. Incensed. The closed borders are decimating the drug routes. Downright infuriated. A few weeks ago, five gringos were executed, including a school teacher Jeff had been working with.

But Jeff doesn’t fear these thugs, and he drives around quietly in his pick-up truck, with his Christian music and “You have a friend in Jesus” on the license plate, telling himself, repeating to himself, that the bad guys may not fear him, but they fear God. At sixty-seven years old, maybe what he should really fear is the virus, high-risk group and so mobile, but what terrifies him much more is that his people may not have anything to put on their plates.

Agent Lopez regards Jeff with apathy: it seems that today it will be the official tax; two, three hundred pesos per cooler, he will have to pay. Times aren’t so hard now really: the health crisis doesn’t stop civil servants from drawing their salary, so Jeff is only forced to cough up a bribe a third of the times he crosses the border. The situation always gets worse after federal elections, when every departing president has the nasty habit of emptying the state coffers and leaving the customs agents trembling. Since they won’t get paid anything for three or four months, they forget to ask for the official paperwork to be filled out, and their mouths fill with absurd sums, knowing that the flow of gringos will feed their families when the state can’t. There’s still a year or so to go before the next election, so, putting aside morals, Jeff is essentially indifferent: he just declares what he’s carrying, and the cost of the bribe ends up equivalent to that of the tax only the pockets in which it ends up change, but that’s not his problem. He just wants to get to the other side.

He waits as the agent fills out forms, signs such and such document, pays for this, that, and the other, and finally crosses the border to his second home, that city forsaken by God and man without drinking water, without sanitation, without paved streets, and without hope and sighs with relief. Jeff is determined that he will not stop he will keep on making his three weekly trips in this pick-up truck that has only seen El Paso and Juarez and that already bears 300,000 miles and tarts and cake and tiramisu and muffins and pies and eclairs and cobblers and rolls and bread and experience.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Mnemonics

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The idea of actually calling the police occurred to the Daughter. By no means did she want him to be arrested and spend the night in lock-up — which no doubt nowadays served more as a breeding ground for the virus than anything else — but it couldn’t be denied that, in a way, he had brought it on himself; driving all the way to Zhuanghe was truly a preposterous idea. 

Xu Wei was between a rock and a hard place. All the siblings were taking turns looking after Grandma, and now he was up. If he didn’t go, either he’d just be leaving someone else in the lurch, or he’d be dooming Grandma to rapid (and lonely) deterioration. And Grandma already had afflictions enough, given that she wouldn’t be able to celebrate nongli xīnnián for the first time in eighty-six? years — at this point, it’s hard to keep track. No, it was Xu Wei’s turn to stay with Grandma, so he would accept his burden. 

Ever-methodical since his birth under the sign of the goat, he packed his bags in a matter of minutes, resorting to his old trick of humming rhyming lists to avoid forgetting anything. Socks in the glove box, cigarette packet in my jacket, ID and cash on the dash, shoes and hat and suit always in the boot, yan xu bing’zi on the seat next to me.

Li Na, whose enduring love for this man had been anchored in those rhyming ditties for decades, was on the verge of a conniption fit. She had already tried, actively and passively, to keep her husband from leaving, because the virus is spreading, because I swear I’m getting a divorce, because you’ll die and give the Daughter a stroke, because nobody cooks a wǔcǎi xuěhuā shànbèi like yours, because I’m too young to be a widow, because it’s freezing cold, because I’m too old to find a boyfriend, because you’re staying here, and that’s final!

But Xu Wei blithely kept going back and forth to the car, with his dopey grin and unwavering devotion to being contrarian, and those unescapable, sing-song rhy-yming li-ists began to grate on Li Na more and more. As he passed from one room to another, the song remained reverberating, like one of those pungent farts that lingers endlessly in a room: “Socks in the glove box, cigarette packet in my jacket, ID and cash on the dash.”

“ID and cash on the dash…” ID AND CASH ON THE DASH…”

In the end, that pestilential song gave Li Na an idea and, as impulsive as any good horse, quickly slipped that detestable “ID and cash” off the hapless dashboard and left him bereft of ID, driver’s license, and credit card.

That cheerful farewell with a have a good trip and a call when you arrive and a smile perplexed Xu Wei, but at the same time, he regarded it as a small triumph, the respect due to the man of the house.

As soon as the car pulled out, Li Na pulled up WeChat to video call the Daughter and report the scheme that had been launched with the theft of the wallet, improvised and without follow-up. It was then that the Daughter, a distant spectator of this drama from her home in the United States, brought up the police, with Machiavellian resolve and a thirst for harmony.

Li Na recounted everything in minute detail to the young man who picked up the phone, that my husband is in a metallic orange Chang’an, with license plate 辽B-C1603, that he doesn’t have any papers, that, remember, it is dangerous to leave Dalian, that if he is stopped, send him home right away. But the receptionist transferred him to a clerk. But the clerk transferred him to a detective. But the detective transferred him to the highway patrol. And even though the story shrunk inexorably with each telling — Chang’an, metallic orange, 辽B-C1603, home, right away — Li Na never despaired.

When Xu Wei called to tell her he had been stopped by the police, she feigned surprise as she sighed with relief, but he wouldn’t let her get a word in edgewise in his eagerness to tell her that according to AutoNavi, I’ll arrive at my destination in Zhuanghe in one hour and forty-six minutes, that the police let me go because you know what a smooth talker I can be, and my charm has only grown with the years, that what no longer work so well for me are rhyming lists, that I was convinced I had my ID and cash on the dash, that I’ll see you in a few days, that in a week at the very most. 

At the very least… what a horrible month. Not only did the city of Zhuanghe close its borders two days after Xu Wei’s arrival, but it forbade him from even leaving the apartment because he didn’t have his papers and had traveled from another city. They treated poor old Xu Wei like a leper, there, locked in his apartment, with sensors monitoring his door to make sure he didn’t leave, and a sign warning his neighbors of the mortal danger of breathing the same air as this undoubtedly virus-ridden intruder. How eternal those few weeks seemed: two cases immediately emerged in the building, one of his brothers had to bring him food, three cases, they played game after game of mahjong (the old biddy is invincible), five cases, he bathed Grandma every day to cleanse her of the virus, the virus, the virus, six, he looked ever poorer and dirtier as his beard grew — which also brings bad luck, and he has nothing to shave with — seven, eight cases.

Li Na has been calling the Daughter and Xu Wei every day; at first with concern, then with melancholy, and finally out of inertia. She had never lived alone before and, to alleviate her isolation (and to celebrate it) she has decided to change things up. Inspired by the Daughter, she has chosen to lead a gweilo lifestyle: she has done zumba every morning, binge-watched the complete filmographies of Audrey Hepburn and Janet Leigh, paraded around the house in a man’s shirt, and eaten caesar salad every day. She has missed Xu Wei, of course, but by the Great Lady of the Three Foxes, what bliss, but how sad, but what a treat.

Today Xu Wei is finally back, hurrying, hurrying, to get to a barbeque at a friend’s house in the outskirts of Dalian, visions of succulent lamb dancing before his eyes. In a rush and excited to return home, Xu Wei struggles to turn the lock, and when he finally opens the door, he does so with a thunderous crash. Li Na hears it (as if it were possible not to) and slips in the bath from surprise and nervousness — positive or negative, who can say?

Despite the spurts and spurts of blood gushing cinematically down the drain, Li Na doesn’t want to go to the hospital because, as she well knows, eating lamb when one has stitches goes against thousands of years of medical lore. And she’s going to devour that lamb whole after a month of salads. She won’t let them give her a single stitch.

Eight stitches. 

Xu Wei absolutely refuses to go to the party under any circumstances, because he doesn’t dare to tempt fate any more, because what wretched luck he’s had: it’s as if he’d been on a fourth floor, as if he’d dressed in white, as if someone had gifted him a clock, as if he’d left his chopsticks stuck in the rice, as if he hadn’t followed the tenets of feng shui, as if he’d adopted a turtle. But either we go to the party, or you can go back to live with your mother and leave me in peace.

In a few minutes, Xu Wei, clean-shaven, will check that his ID and cash are on the dash before starting the car to take his beloved wife with eight stitches on her scalp to dine on lamb. And whatever must happen shall happen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Theophany

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The neo-ancient emergence of the phrase “streaming mass” had launched her into delight tinged with relief. She has stoically resigned herself to renouncing her walks to the Dish, her jazzercise classes, her meandering bike rides, no matter how much she longs for them. All for the common good. And, well, she has a big backyard, where she can run, dance, or do flips on the trampoline if she wants. She never actually has, but why shouldn’t she?

Physical exercise is not, then, her main concern, but missing Sunday Mass is a harder pill to swallow. Now that is something unpardonable. She has given more than a chance to guided meditation videos on YouTube and theological chats over family dinner but, after two weeks devoid of the reverend’s velvet words, the pit in her stomach bores deeper every second. How is it possible to face these apocalyptic times without the spiritual peace of Sunday’s congregation?

That’s why just reading “streaming mass” on her church’s website in spite of the friction of its meaning, its almost paradoxical chronology had made her feel a little bit closer to heaven.

This Sunday, dressed to the nines, she’s set up to correct exams while she waits for the service to begin. She dialed in to the video call twenty-three minutes and fifty-seven seconds before the start of mass, when there was not yet another soul to be seen in this cyber-limbo, so she continues to wield her red pen, less focused than usual due to the angelic chime every time someone new joins.

Six minutes and fourteen seconds before the streaming mass, she puts the exams aside to be dealt with in a clearer-eyed moment and begins to focus on the images of the other devotees. There are dozens of them and, every time one speaks, her picture fills the screen and ruthlessly unveils all the secrets of her home, at a stroke transforming all the others into petty, unwitting domestic spies.

Although the longevity of the parishioners is hardly news to her, Caroline can’t help but be struck by the great host of pills in the foreground, of respirators in the background, of canes and walkers strewn about not judging, not judging, that would be a sin, but you have to admit it’s striking. She, who drags the average age down quite a few years, finds it almost sinful to peer into room after room of these old people, the poor devils, awash among their pillboxes, their orthopedic devices, their embroidered cushions, and their antediluvian photos.

Holy Mass begins; and it turns out that the seniors, for whom this first encounter with video-conferencing is a baptism by fire, are not at all acquainted with the concept of “muting the microphone”. The reverend’s words are incessantly and irrepressibly interrupted by, “I don’t know that man from Adam,” and “Heavens, how does this work?” and “Turn up the goddamn volume, Joseph, for Chrissake.” Images of the reverend are interspersed with ladies in their Sunday best shouting that they don’t understand, with half deaf gentlemen who don’t understand that they are shouting, with shouting grandchild after grandchild, not understanding what’s not to understand.

Bedlam and chaos. The blind leading the blind.

Caroline, all dolled up for this long-awaited moment, finds herself getting more and more distracted. She tries again and again to focus on the word of God praise to you, Jesus Christ but the situation is more hilarious than solemn. And exasperating. So funny, but so maddening, but so funny.

The reverend sighs, blesses, sighs, sighs.

A young man well, not so much young, as younger than the others materialized on the main screen as if descended from from the heavens and demonstrates on a sheet of paper the steps for muting the damn microphone, written in letters the size of a soft-boiled egg. Caroline sees the promised land beckon, but the blessed vision lasts but a few moments; the Methuselahs click, click, click, they try, click, click, click, but nothing, click, nothing, click, click, nothing, nothing, nothing.

Hell, now in streaming.

Caroline boils inside one must have the patience of Job… She bites her tongue, crosses herself, makes a perfunctory gesture of farewell and hangs up, closing her computer with restrained violence.

And her house is plunged suddenly into the deepest silence. And, there, in that sacred hush, there, there, hidden, there dwells her God.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Autarchy

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Beyoncé is trapped in her gel nails. Well, not Beyoncé Beyoncé, it’s just that Maria refuses to allow her real name to be used, because it’s simply too distinctive, and she prefers not to be recognized in the street. So we’ll have to turn to her idol for a pseudonym (surely, there must be more Beyoncé fans than Marias in the world). Anyway, what happened is that Beyonce got sick before the virus got its official papers cleared to leave China, and she endured nine days of fever and misery, but she didn’t die, because she took good care of herself, and because she was lucky, and because she’s not in a high-risk demographic, and because she doesn’t know if she had coronavirus or just the flu or who knows the hell what. 

Now she’s completely cured. She may not know the precise nature of what she had, but she’s definitely cured. To celebrate her recovery, she’d forked over twenty euros for an old Chinese lady to attach some beautiful pink — natural-toned — gel nails, with a little flower at the edge, natural in a totally different way. To attach them tightly to the nail plate, attach them very, very tightly. 

It was the first time she’d ever gotten gel nails, but she deserved it, for fuck’s sake; she’d been clinging on to life by a thread (or at least had a really nasty fever) for nine days. She deserved some gel nails as a reward. Of course she deserved it. 

The only hitch was the arrival of the pandemic, this time officially and with a stamped tourist visa, so all businesses that weren’t strictly essential had been required to close indefinitely, by decree of the Bundesregierung. And now it turns out that gel nails aren’t a necessity. Unfuckingbelievable. All the Chinese nail salons closed. Every single one.

And now two weeks have gone by since she stuck her hand in that device with a UV lamp that burned like bloody hell. Two weeks — the nails are starting to look battered. Wikipedia informs her that nails grow an average of 0.1 millimeters per day. So that’s 1.4 millimeters already. Beyoncé’s voracious half-moons are encroaching further and further onto her cuticle. 

Poor Beyonce, half-heartedly telecommuting from the confinement of her apartment, types endlessly on her laptop and misenters number after number in Excel because those damn claws protrude farther every day and stick themselves where they’re not wanted, and everything gets messed up. She has to pore over every formula with a microscope. 

And worst of all, she can’t concentrate, because her friend Carmen (we’re going to have to call her Gwyneth due to privacy concerns) told her that oy, oy, oy, those nails and that gel must be veritable nests of coronavirus. Disinfect, disinfect. Ne-e-sts. 

Beyoncé checks the cells, half of them wrong, because those nests of coronavirus relish chaos. She is completely incapable of concentration, Gwyneth’s words a relentless drumbeat behind every thought. Plus, the laptop was brought to her from the office only a few days ago; no doubt it’s still bathed in viruses. She sprays her nails with disinfectant at every chance. Calculation, psss, psss, correction, psss, multiplication, psss, psss, etcetera, psss, psss, psss

And then there’s grocery shopping, yet another ordeal. She couldn’t get it delivered without pawning one of her more important organs, because she lives alone, and you have to buy provisions for a football team to qualify for free delivery. So she goes to the supermarket, whatcha gonna do? At least she gambles the lives of her gel nails: on previous excursions, two of them were ripped off by the cursed, blessed handles of the shopping bags, but she can’t have such misfortune every time (no matter how hard she tries).

When she ventures into the terrifying world outside her apartment, she applies every last tip forwarded to her on WhatsApp: she wears gloves and a mask, she doesn’t touch anything at all, she scolds a woman who is manhandling loaf after loaf of bread with her bare hands (c’mon, lady, Jesus Christ!), she keeps six feet apart in the queue, she sprints across to the other sidewalk when she spots a figure approaching in the distance. Look what she’s come to. When she arrives home, she initiates disinfection protocols as soon as she reaches the landing — a bucket of bleach at the entrance for her shoes, plastic bags to shield the plastic bags, coat banished to the disinfection zone (which she doesn’t have, of course, because she lives in a studio, not a mansion). She washes her hands as if digging for a secret layer of skin. She scrubs and scrubs the nests of coronavirus, which have been well and truly exposed. And then she rounds it off with a psss, psss, psss, and then a few more for good measure.

She feels hideous, with her nails in this state. One day she straightens her hair, which she always keeps curly nowadays, unstraightened since her last wild night at Fabrik; pwah, more than five years ago. She looks strange: between that hair and those nails, she looks like God knows what. She Skypes her mother, how ugly you are, then her best friend, how ugly, how ugly. And she sulkily washes her hair to bring back the glory of her curls, but her nails don’t fall out no matter how long she keeps on at her scalp.

She has learned to knit from YouTube videos, and the hours fly by, but she can’t get her nails out of her head, because they are always before her eyes, dancing to and fro with the needles. The nails without gel, the ones that broke carrying the groceries, still have remnants stubbornly glued on, and those can’t be pried off either. The other nails are increasingly on their last legs, but well-anchored, shining pinkly and in bloom, the half moon on the cuticles now full. Perhaps the cure is worse than the disease. 

Beyoncé only leaves the house to go shopping, but what truly makes her feel trapped are those tacky gel nails: what on Earth was I thinking when I get them done, I want my twenty euros back, I’ll never get gel nails ever again in my life, never.

With all her fretting about nails this and not nails that, the days rush by: she watches a film about explosions and sweat starring Angelina Jolie, and she forgets her nails; cooks and there her nails are, staring at her; psss, psss; sunbathes on her balcony in the breaks between the Berlin snow and nails? what nails?; does a HIIT workout and everything hurts except her nails; sews and sews and nails and nails and psss; she takes a nap and dreams about nails; reads Julia Navarro and sometimes they creep past the edge of the page, psss, psss, and other times, they are lost in the drama of the novel; she organizes bingo games over Skype and the nails knock the balls away when she tries to pick them up, psss, but it’s fun, and she doesn’t mind so much — not for nothing was she crowned “Online Bingo Queen.” 

She’s already been confined for 2.1 millimeters (or three weeks), and it seems like it’s going to be long-term, but the days are losing form, are losing form more and more. Her main concern in life is whether the Chinese women will open the nail salons. Well. Perhaps someday the gel nails will plunge over the finger cliff inevitable with the march of time. Perhaps that day will arrive before the uncertain date of the end of the quarantine. Perhaps. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus