“There’s this Chinese virus circulating around,” I say, “should we postpone our Florida trip?”
“You’re so racist,” my daughter, the little angel, responds, “you can’t say things like that — it’s not Chinese or Japanese ok, it’s just a virus. And, no, we shouldn’t. It’s not a big deal.”
We had planned this spring break trip, my daughter and I, with her best friend and her best friend’s mother (who also happens to be my best friend), a month ago. The internet was scoured for good deals on Airbnb and airline tickets. Short excursions were planned and there was much discussion on what we, the mothers, were going to be allowed to do in the nebulous area of hanging around our adult children.
“Don’t chase after us if we want to go to a nightclub,” my daughter says. “We’re both 19 and adults.”
“So are we,” I say pertly. “And you can’t stop us from going to the same nightclub —we’re adults too. In fact, we’re real adults. You’re not old enough to be allowed in, even with your fake ID’s.”
“Stop, you’ll ruin everything,” my daughter wails.
There is no virus in Virginia and a few cases have popped up in Florida. I figure those few cases are probably confined to their county, safely tucked into bed, and aren’t going to be whizzing around the beach on roller blades. Anyway, how bad can a flu virus get?
We leave on a bright sunny day and the airport looks clean, sanitary and filled with normal, healthy looking people. Apart from the killer toothache that begins in my jaw as soon as we take off, there is no sign of distress anywhere else on the plane.
I hold my jaw and sotto voice moan my way down the aisle to the bathroom as soon as the seat belt sign is off. Rinsing my mouth with warm water temporarily relieves the pain, hallelujah. A couple of passengers cast worried looks at me clutching my jaw in agony, but most don’t care. If there is a thought of Covid, it’s 30,000 feet below us. The air hostess, a motherly, “older” woman asks me if I need anything, and I say whiskey, neat — that’s the only edible disinfectant which will ease the pain and my mood at the same time.
Six mini whiskey bottles later the pain disappears, and we land. The landing is a bit wobbly, I think.
March 8–March 10
There are two cases of Corona in Dade county, Miami, but they may as well be on Mars. The strip is packed, and people are hugging, kissing, eating and drinking and hollering, up and down the boardwalk. Restaurants are packed, elbow to elbow at the bar. We eat some great Cuban food at a local place called Puerto Sagua and strike up a conversation with an elderly woman dressed like Joan Rivers. In between scarfing down big bowls of Cuban beans and rice we discover that she owns several apartments in buildings nearby, which she uses to bribe her grandchildren to visit.
What about this new virus? I ask her. Do you think it will spread here?
She waves a skinny, blood red manicured hand, almost obliterated by a fat diamond.
It’s an election time stunt! They want to bring him down.
Back at our hotel, we have an unexpected visitor in our room
“It’s a roach!” both the 19-year old’s screech in unison and jump on the beds, clinging to their mothers — us. A large roach has fallen from the ceiling and is running frantically on the dull beige carpet. “Get proof!” I yell, pulling out my cell phone, my law school background kicking in.
After housekeeping has been hysterically called, an inappropriately cheerful young man shows up and inspects every corner for the truant roach.
“Aww, I can’t find any roach here ladies,” he pronounces happily, as if the case is closed.
I stick the iPhone under his nose.
“That’s his mugshot,” I fume. “Until I see him saunter or be carried out that door, he’s here alright.” It’s a good picture for a roach, I think, with his feelers highlighted against the nubby carpet.
“Didn’t Covid come from roaches?” one of the 19-year-olds muses.
At dinner on the strip, we order a giant cocktail and I almost jump out of my chair when I see a couple of feelers clinging to the edge, but they’re just shadows. We drown out the memory of our photogenic roach by watching the carnival on the beach — loud music blares out of nightclubs, where writhing gyrating bodies are so sweaty and entwined they look like a single giant organism with a million appendage arms punching the air. Covid sounds positively benign here — it could be a trendy new name for one of those thudding clubs, where lines waiting to get in spill onto the boardwalk.
When we get back to the hotel, we are rewarded with a free night’s stay, courtesy of our roach visitor, and an explanation for how he got there in the first place.
“They are flying roaches,” the manager tells us. “They live in the palm trees and, if a window is left open, they sometimes get into the room.”
I’m just glad we found out about the roach’s flying prowess after we switched rooms.
March 10-March 31
The March 11 headlines in the New York Times scream — It’s Just Everywhere Already!
Ok, but that’s New York, the city which is a sponge soaking up whatever the world throws at it — immigrants, tourists, viruses. Virginia is a safe little southern haven and has only 4 cases so far. The first one was recorded on March 7.
We land back home to a slow drumbeat of hysteria growing in the background. CNN has a 24-hour body count on a side screen, and New York’s hospitals are beginning to send distress flares as people start crowding their ICUs. The elderly are particularly at risk I hear Chris Cuomo say and I sigh, relieved, while pin pricks of guilt run through me at my vaguely evil thought that this is another demographic’s problem.
“That’s you, Mom!” my daughter is watching in horror.
I begin to protest at her cavalier clumping of her mother into an elderly demographic, but suddenly a realization climbs into my brain. The defining edges of the vulnerable elderly are getting pushed backwards towards me with every passing day. Cases are showing up of individuals who are 40, 50, and 60, with no pre-existing conditions, and this horrible pneumonia is consuming them.
For the first time since Covid-19 made an appearance in the news, real fear begins to lap at my heels.
I spend this week soaking in an aura of creeping dread that emanates from the television.
We watch New York implode, in super slow motion this time, not the instantaneous impact of the twin towers, but more like a steadily enlarging ripple of doom; an invisible enemy that can slip into the tiniest crevices, down unsuspecting throats, and tear apart lungs more swiftly and efficiently than any lethal weapon. We are glued to the news channels, CNN and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and the rolling footage of the most frightening thing of all — the inside of hospital emergency rooms. We watch Italy burn, while the fire picks up speed in New York City, prompting Governor Cuomo to declare a lockdown.
In the grocery store, I can’t find toilet paper. We still have five rolls at home, and I lay down the law. Only one sheet per episode per person.
“What!” My daughter protests. “You’re going to regulate the toilet paper now!”
“Yes,” I snap back. “Be grateful that’s the least of your worries.”
WhatsApp begins to clog with toilet paper and Covid-19 jokes.
Until Covid-19 no one ever knew there were so many assholes out there.
If you need 144 rolls of toilet paper for 14 days of quarantine, you needed to see a doctor long before Covid-19.
Did you hear about the man who contracted Covid-19 despite buying 9,200 rolls of toilet paper?
There are two parallel universes here — one in which people stumble into crowded emergency rooms and lie down on stretchers in the corridors to die. And another where toilet paper brawls break out in grocery stores.
The headlines march steadily along like an army over conquered territory.
Shutdowns spread across Europe as Spain and France impose broad restrictions (New York Times, March 14).
‘At War With No Ammo’: Doctors say Shortage of Protective Gear is Dire (New York Times, March 20).
Astronomical Covid Surge in New York Leads to Quarantine Warnings For Those Passing Through (March 24, New York Times).
Modi Orders Three Week Total Lockdown For All 1.3 Billion Indians (New York Times, March 24).
No Longer Asking: The Nation’s Capital on Lockdown as Covid Deaths Mount (Washington Post, March 30).
The city is ghost like and has the transient look of a set in a movie before the actors check in for work. I keep worrying about the last thing I had touched and whether I have enough sanitizer stocked up (I have four small bottles, and Amazon is sold out). I comfort myself with the thought that alcohol, with its handy disinfectant qualities, is easily available.
And all this while, a twinge at the back of my teeth has been morphing into a full blown, unbearably painful, infection.
After one sleepless night, I call my dentist, and leave a desperate message on his voice mail.
My fear of contracting Covid-19 has been totally nullified by the sharp, stabbing pain in my mouth which feels like a bunch of mini piranhas are having a bachelor party below my jawline
He opens the office, only for me.
I am greeted at the door by his masked assistant who takes my temperature and hands me hand sanitizer. Six weeks ago, I had sauntered into the same office, blithely touching everything, helping myself to the coffee vending machine, and leaning in close to chat and cough innocuously on the receptionist.
My dentist is masked and unnaturally cheerful. He pronounces that the troublesome wisdom tooth will have to be extracted.
“Don’t worry,” he tells me, “just don’t stress. It’ll be over before you know it. I’ll try not to lean too close to you.”
While I’m being numbed, we discuss Covid-19 and he narrates a zoom call he had with a friend who is an emergency room doctor in New Jersey.
He has 16 patients on ventilators and he’s afraid they are all going to die.
While I ponder this frightening factoid, which does absolutely nothing to relieve my stress, he uses extractors to tug and twist the tooth embedded deep in my jaw bone and then stitches up the wound. When I finally stumble out into the sunlight I’m thinking, do I quarantine for 14 days from my family? Oh God, I forgot to ask if they had sanitized the chair I sat on — I had touched its arms. My clothes? They touched the chair. Do I wash them? Should I shower when I get home? Was his mask on properly? Was his assistant’s mask on properly? How close did he get? Oh God, I’m too young to die, yet.
April 20-May 18
Life settles into a strange, twilight-zone routine. We wake up, we look at the latest body count on TV and we check on the curve of new infections, which is rising steadily in our area. Zoom meetings with colleagues can be conducted in our pajama bottoms. Trips to the grocery store feel like a visit to a hazardous waste disposable unit.
We count our blessings. We actually sit down as a family for dinner together. We spend time together without bickering or arguments. There are no alternatives to home and family now, and it’s a good thing.
I’m devouring Covid-19 news and I come upon a report of many patients reporting conjunctivitis like symptoms — eyes that turn red but are not infected.
A memory stirs, and I sit down in shock. My daughter and I had traveled to India in December to see family. We came back on January 8, and a few days later my daughter came down with a dry cough and fever. She also developed a strange redness in both eyes.
“It’s not conjunctivitis. You don’t have flu,” her doctor told her.” Maybe it’s Dengue. You just came back from India. If it doesn’t go away or you feel worse, come back”.
I remember my daughter saying this was the worst she had ever felt. She finally got better, and the red eyes went away.
In the middle of January, Covid-19 was still believed to be out there somewhere, beyond the American shoreline, a “foreign” disease, and Dr. Fauci had just told us the risk of infection in the U.S. was low. Now we know it may have been spreading as far back as December.
My safe southern haven just imploded — my daughter may have had Covid-19, and we may already have been exposed! I’ll only know if I take her for an antibody test.
That’s when the meaning of the March 11 headlines in the New York Times truly sinks in — It’s Just Everywhere Already!
Jyoti Minocha is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C. She’s a graduate of Johns Hopkins Masters in Creative Writing program and loves to write, meet people, travel, blog, hike and spin stories, real and imagined. She’s working on her first novel about the Partition of India.