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.

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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~ Leer los cuentos en español ~

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.

Of late, he’s had the chance to play the music that has 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 performs virtuosities on that piano without an audience in the corner of his living room. Since he is forbidden to leave the house, it is important to keep his talent in the front 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 virtually the endless ovations from enthusiastic audiences that sustain him. 

He watches the recordings 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 not destroyed any of the sublimeness of the original composition. He chooses the version he thinks is best suited to New York’s Carnegie Hall and, on his 22nd viewing of the chosen video, the composer whispers to him that if he really wants to flaunt his talent by playing Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat Major, Op.106, the “Hammerklavier,” it would be wise to avoid looking like a hobo, with those polka-dot pajamas and frayed cuffs, and instead wear some nice velvet court robes shimmering with gold and silver embroideries. Andrei silences this insolence because he’s sure Ekaterina Voznesenskaya, Katia to her friends, loves his bohemian look, an artist totally absorbed by his own genius and isolation. And who’s Ludwig 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 a Channel One 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, 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 what 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 last 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 grey 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 publishes lately: a surprised face for the video playing Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, star eyes for the portrait in Baltimore 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 in 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 and will nearly pass out 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.”

Andrei posts the video with the title and popular name of Beethoven’s piece accompanied by the appropriate YouTube and Spotify links, eschewing musical note emojis or any such nonsense, 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 surly, 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 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 for applause in a sound effects library 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 with only his 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 just write, “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 help the artists, and no networking could be done in person, and we communicated with emojis and solitudes.

He travels 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 Zinaída Hippius to try to avoid thinking about June 2021.

Carnegie Hall keeps the date in place, shining with a halo of hope on the calendar, 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 that older girl had just done. 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 merely 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

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

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

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

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

‘Saudade’ & Other Stories (Untranslatable Words Cycle)

SAUDADE
Portuguese
~Loving something or someone that you have lost and will perhaps never regain~

It is considered the southern-most in the world, a fruitful little orphan from Tierra del Fuego which flits among around thirty-two thousand words, more expressive in some mouths than all-powerful, overwhelming English or Spanish.

How tragic to think that in the final report, from the year 2013, there is only a single speaker of this language, Yaghan: the octogenarian Cristina Calderón, who is (was?) responsible for compiling the words of her language — hers, hers alone — in a dictionary which is a cemetery.

POCHEMUCHKA
Russian
~A person who asks too many questions~

Has it over occurred to you that you’ll never be able to see your own face? Never.

Never.

Can you conceive of the length of never?

You never realized you’ll never see your face? Never? Never. Think about it: you’ll only see your face in the mirror, in a photograph, in a video, or in a river, like Narcissus. Do you know that where you see it most often, in the mirror, it’s reversed? That is, you’ll never, ever see your face, and the closest you’ll get is a clumsy imitation, in real time, but reversed. Always reversed.  

You’ve never thought that everyone else will see your true face? That is, you will never see your face, which, after all, belongs to you, but the whole world will. Doesn’t it seem unjust, grave, even insulting?

Has it ever struck you that nobody will ever see their own face? While your eyes can possess other faces, recognize their expressions and tics, their etched wrinkles, their beautiful imperfections, in some kind of reciprocal revenge? 

You are the only person who can fully see your inner being, and the only one who never will be able to see your full exterior. 

You’d never thought of it?

Really? Never?

Never?

TREPVERTER
Yiddish
~An ingenious retort thought of when it’s already too late ~

In the end, they met only when his lover chose to, even if Marc had front row tickets for the hottest show in town. They had been together since the Mesozoic, with all the asteroids that entailed, and the man demanded Marc’s time to suit his whims; he hurled asteroids at his whim.

Marc responded with adolescent petulance and scant imagination: you started it, how could you have.

His lover always brought up the past: what Marc had done (wrong) in the past; what could have been infinitely better in the past, what never should have happened in the painful past: you started it, how could you have.

The words of his lover ran endlessly through Marc’s head — well, you, you; you, you — and hammered mercilessly, made him childish, made him small: you started it, how could you have.

And the echo — how could you have, have, ave — hurt his eardrums, his eyelashes, his gait. The final time he reproached him about the past like an expulsion of phlegm, achoo and adieu: and he vanished among the bushes with an air of finality, branding Marc as hysterical.

Marc died and returned to life and I’d rather be hysterical than historical like you, but the hands of the clock caught the words in his throat, never to reach the loveless cochlea of his lover.

BOKETTO

Japanese
~Gaze into the distance without thinking of anything in particular~

I had plenty of time, so I arrived late. It’s always been like that with me: if I’m running late, the stress renders me quick and nimble, but when there’s no hurry, I lapse into complacency and end up unpunctual. And, to make matters worse, I had a hard time finding the room, because the building was strange, because there were no signs, and because I’d never been there before, god dammit.

I went in. I was the third person in the class: a middle-aged student with the face of a pervert whom I always ran into at cheap yoga classes around the city — we were cut from the same cloth, it seemed —, the instructor, and I. There were large windows, but it was dark.

[INT. CLOUDY – CULTURAL CENTER IN BERLIN – 4 PM IN OCTOBER.]

I don’t know which was darker, the antique parquet panels, in the dim light filtered through muddled clouds, or the expressions of the student and the instructor at my hasty and muddled arrival, but everything became a little darker — and much blurrier — when I took off my glasses.

I joined in with the downward-facing dog, following the precise, apathetic instructions of the ancient teacher. Hold Adho Mukha Svanasana for five breaths. I couldn’t see her face well, but her severe chignon, her cracked, quavering voice, and her stiffness inspired a tender pity — for how many millenia had this little old lady been doing yoga? Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana. She was, without a doubt, the worst yoga instructor I’d come across, and I felt like leaving immediately, but I remained, out of sheer embarrassment. Ardha Bhujangasana. In the five years I had been doing yoga, it was the first time thoughts raced inescapably through my head and I found myself unable to clear my mind. Hold Virabhadrasana for five breaths. I had so much work, and so many visits, and so much flux that I needed a good yoga class, not one led by an inflexible crone, with a student who, within the hour, would stalk me on the internet and send a leering message. Garudasana. Relax, relax: negative thoughts be gone: be gone, be gone. Parivrtta Trikonasana. A single part of me did relax, and I was unable to avoid loosing three farts. Tadasana. When the instructor came to correct my pose, her frail grip could barely budge me. Paschimottanasana. Nothing was much of a challenge. Vrksasana. In the tree pose, I stood gazing at a tree outside the window and managed to think of nothing, until the tree looked me straight in the eyes and told me I was doing it wrong, without knowing that I was a different kind of tree. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. A weeping willow, perhaps.

Savasana. In a good yoga class, the final pose is the most beautiful experience in the world — without the slightest exaggeration — but in this class, I couldn’t care less. Savasana. Savasana. OK, then, I’ll lie down. Savasana. The instructor did not resort to her aged voice to guide our relaxation, remaining silent, and she gave us feeble massages with her wasted hands, possibly struggling against unbearable arthritis pain.

She brought the relaxation to a close as ineptly as she had started it. Finally, it would end. I put my glasses on, and the instructor asked me my name. I answered staring at her face: the world I had been immersed in for the last hour was false — but the force of my conviction had transformed it into reality, and it would have continued as such if I hadn’t donned my frames — the ancient instructor was barely 20 years old.

DAVKA
Hebrew
~The opposite of what is expected~

As if coincidences existed — on the final day of the Chess Olympiad in the South American country, World War II broke out. Twenty-four of the greatest chess players in the world remained, filled with fear and with dreams dashed and far from the bombs and with empanadas made of chunks of meat and nightmares.

And Argentina was transformed for years into a bag full of bishops and pawns and kings and rooks and queens and knights.

NUNCHI
Korean
~The subtle art of gauging the moods of other people~

She wouldn’t cross the park to get home. She was alone, midnight was approaching, and there was almost no light —  because it was a park, and because Berlin — and because, most of all, she was a woman.

No, no: she wouldn’t cross the park. Nope. You must be joking. No way. Are you kidding?  Never. Not a chance in hell.

She crossed the park. She crossed the park by mistake. When she passed the parking lot, she thought she’d reached the edge, but she was inside, WAY inside – endless trees looming from the shadows without a person in sight. A horn beeped, and the car’s occupants yelled something crude in German at her, calling her over with hand gestures. She ignored it and quickened her pace.  

It was dark, and she was buried under Arctic layers —  shit, how did they know she was a woman? As if that weren’t enough, her phone was dead, so she wouldn’t be able to speed-dial someone, like she usually did in situations like this  — she was utterly alone.

A vast expanse of park still remained to cross, and there was no turning back, or she’d run into the guys from the car and the horn and the yelling. 

On one side

fear.

Fear

on the other side

And who doesn’t fear?

Those who haven’t had it hammered into them.

Men don’t fear:
and especially not men with their hood up.

So I’ll raise the hood of my coat.

Men don’t fear:
and they usually don’t have long hair.

So I’ll hide my hair.

Men don’t fear:
and they walk confidently.

So I’ll walk like them.

She became a tough guy, even hamming it up a bit, because it was night-time, and she was crossing a park, and she had her hood up, and she had a vagina, and she wanted to conquer her fear.

Her stride became looser, cockier, the product of exaggerated masculinity and slightly-raised arms, like a bird’s courtship display, but, even more, of the pain of her bunion, which gave her a limp and credibility. She avoided the eyes of the few people she passed, because she was wearing large glasses with flowers which hurt the plausibility of her character – she would buy glasses with tigers, fire, and dragons for next time (the next times). It itched between her legs, and she scratched her balls – yes, her balls: she felt them. Something hindered her breathing and she extracted a chunk of snot from deep in her nostril – just like that, without subterfuge. She spit. She burped. She scratched her balls again. She crossed the park fearlessly: without anybody calling to her, without anyone invading her personal space. 

She emerged into the light – the dim light – and lowered her hood and took out her hair and returned to her normal gait and saw from afar that she was missing the bus. 

At the bus stop, she looked at the schedule, but she didn’t know what time it was because her phone was dead (and nobody wears a watch nowadays ), and she asked a man the time, and the guy gave it to her and asked for her telephone number in return, and she said she didn’t speak German, she didn’t speak English, she didn’t speak Swahili, she didn’t speak. She waited for the man to leave and then ventured home on foot, because no more buses were going that way.

From Hans-Otto-Straße to Andreasstraße
pass 28 minutes and not a single street with a woman’s name
the streets belong to men:
hood up, hair hidden, and a man’s gait.
Because the streets belong to men.

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

These are a few translated stories from Saudade, by Patricia Martín Rivas, published in Spanish by Editorial Franz. It is a collection of short fiction, unified by the concept of untranslatable words. While every story stands on its own, each is inspired by a word unique to a particular language, never using or defining the word, but rather playing upon the meaning in often surprising ways. The stories vary in length, tone, and setting, but they do share a precise, poetic style, and many are touched with a certain melancholy reflected in the title.

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