You don’t care about this story, but I am writing it anyway. It is unedited, unplanned, whispered itself into words.
We bought mango sticky rice in the street, from a cart, not even a dollar each. We sat outside a McDonald’s and ate it, plastic forks sliding against the wobbling plastic container, sweet coconut covered rice made crunchy, mango slices sliding along our tongues, the night air cooling, the traffic finally lessened, the darkness shimmering with neon, language a bridge between us.
It was January. A new year. Against the blind feeling in my gut, I wanted to feel hope. In the faded embers of last year, was I a phoenix rising? Was I not invisible? Could I conjure my future?
There’s a new virus.
My parents send me articles. It’s in China. In a city named Wuhan that I’ve never heard of but where millions of people live. Millions of people are now trapped inside their homes. It’s a flu, but worse. I don’t need to tell you. You’ve heard about it by now.
I am used to worry from a distance. I move into places bodies like mine weren’t expected to be — female, white, alone. I am careful. I am watchful. I take only calculated risks.
The math begins to add up.
The tourists around me all wear masks, but this is normal in Asia. The State Department begins to issue warnings. My itinerary becomes sullied with red flags.
I have a flight to Taipei, an apartment with pink and blue chairs, a mini fridge, a private bathroom, another apartment in Kyoto, temples bookmarked on google maps, my sister’s flight, cherry blossoms waiting to bloom.
The scales shift, tipping away from me.
I sit in a cafe in Thailand, looking at options on a zoomed out flight map, from Chiang Mai to anywhere not in Asia, not the USA. The tickets under $1000 are Berlin, Cape Town, and London. I find an airbnb in Berlin. I think of him, tell myself he’s not a reason to choose it. He has told me it won’t work. My friends are there. I know the city. I wanted to move there this year anyway.
I am running from a virus that is airborne. It will go everywhere.
Two days later, I go to the airport as planned. Instead of Taiwan, I am flying to Qatar. I have a long layover, go to my five star hotel on the corniche, eat hummus on the cold windy beach, walk with falsified confidence, as I often do when I wade through new waters in my pink flamingo body. I take a warm shower and sink into a bed of pillows for my midnight work calls. I sleep.
I pack my carryon and return to the airport. I fly to Berlin, get an uber to my airbnb. I meet the host and her cat, who loves me aggressively, biting me with the fury of her affection. Her face reminds me of the cat I had throughout my childhood. I will cry into her fur several times in the coming weeks, like I did before. The room is big, with both a bed and a couch, where I will work and paint and watch movies and eat meals and laugh emptily about the virus that is coming, the virus that my clients and friends in the USA do not believe will touch their golden shores.
I call my parents, ask them if I should go to Japan. It will be safer, I know, than the states, than a place where science and facts are enemies, where the president is a threat, but will I get stuck abroad? I book a flight.
I go back to the airport, I board the plane. I arrive in Doha, again. How many hours have I spent in that city that I never heard of, and when can I go back? I have four days to myself, a five star hotel, booked with a stopover package for $30 a night. I stand at the floor to ceiling windows as dust blows heavy in the hot day. I walk with my covered shoulders thrown back through the medina. I eat warm hummus with meat while hookah smoke swirls around me. I cry in the Qatar Airways office. I think about how I have flown hundreds of times and never sat in an airline office before. It feels like I am in an alternate reality.
I don’t know what to do.
My sister tells me to come to her house and stay in her guest room. I know it only from photos. I am so tired. I am running from the virus, and now I know it will spare nowhere on earth. It is February, and the people on earth have refused to accept this truth.
I call my parents, sitting in the hall couch while room service cleans my room. I am crying on video, their faces in the palm of my hand. Thousands of dollars have been spent, but what is my money in exchange for health and a safe haven? They do not tell me what to do. They have learned better. They are an echo of my own words. I book a flight to Miami for March 2nd.
My sister picks me up from the airport. I have spent the past two days shaking and sick, nauseous, shitting, feverish. I am convinced that I am the one who will bring the virus to America, that I will kill my family, that I have made a horrible mistake. I will be known as a murderer, not an artist, as a plague upon the country.
During a zoom call with a client, I begin to quiver and rock and cry. I tell him the virus is coming. He tells me in NYC, no one is buying supplies, laughs at the stubborn insistence of New Yorkers. I don’t know how to tell him that he is wrong. When I can breathe again, we laugh it off, gently, and talk about click rates and launch dates.
My sister doesn’t know how to handle me. I am being absurd. No one we know is dead. The virus is not here yet. I continue to shake and cry at inappropriate intervals.
During a zoom workout with my trainer in Mexico, I go weak. I tell her, in my broken Spanish, that I cannot continue, and she counts my breaths, slowly, until I am calmer, a soothed infant. Then we stretch, thousands of miles apart, bodies squeezed into flat screens.
I am already remote from everything. Nothing has changed from my life except that I no longer feel free to go anywhere. I am now afraid of the outside world, of people. It is mid-March and anyone who is paying attention knows the next 18 months of our lives are ruined, but no one seems to be paying attention.
My brain is screaming, and I am told that I am too intense, I am insufferable, that I am hard to watch. I cannot understand how this compares to death.
I lay in bed at night and count my breaths. I think of my asthma attacks. Is that what COVID will feel like? Is it worse? I realize that most people do not know what it is to struggle to breathe, to feel your lungs fail. If I can keep breathing slowly and deeply, will I live?
Dust blows in from the Sahara desert and clogs my chest in Florida. I cough for three weeks. I try to get tested for COVID, but I am not allowed because I’m not a resident. The virus doesn’t care who lives where, but our systems can’t process that because my ID card is from another state.
I meet a doctor over a video call after five weeks of hacking so hard I gag and retch constantly. My sister and her boyfriend can hear me through the walls at night. The doctor prescribes me a mess of medication. He tells me it can’t be COVID because it’s lasted so long. I wear blue rubber gloves and a camo printed neck gaiter and walk to Walgreens to pick them up.
Monitoring our household’s interactions with the outside world, wiping down the light switches and sink handles, I think about commuting in New York City, how I knew I had to live in that city and travel the world and encounter the dirtiness of it all and survive it to prove that it wouldn’t kill me, that I could touch the subway pole and eat street meat, that absolute cleanliness wasn’t always required.
Later, when I tell my therapist about this, she will confirm that I probably have mild OCD. In light of this, some of my habits reveal themselves as compulsions. Phone, wallet, laptop, passport, touching them again and again in my purse in taxis and airports, whispering lists to myself on repeat of what I need not forget. She tells me that I found my way into the correct coping behavior — to confront it, over and over. But I can no longer leave germs alone. I can’t be near other people. I cannot know that I will survive it. I do not believe in this exceptionalism.
She also told me that these feelings now are anxiety, that the breakdowns are panic attacks. They felt exactly how they look in the movies, a caricature of a person spiraling out of control. I think about how that almost never happens, how cinema is usually more absurd than reality.
It has been 9 months since I came back to the United States, the germination period of a human life. I have born nothing in this time. I have practiced patience and breathing. I have gained and lost hope in humanity, in my family, in myself, a thousand times.
In January, I walked on the dusty streets of Thailand and thought I might not be invisible anymore. I thought maybe I could find it in myself again to kiss someone in a nightclub, to finally find a love that didn’t hurt, to open myself up in a safe space. I painted flowers in my sketchbook and watched movies at the mall and drank perfect cappuccinos on a wooden bench and ate mango sticky rice on the street and felt something like hope.
In February, I met my friend in a parking lot of a German grocery store and we went to the spa for the day. I took off work and we spent hours between saunas and sofas. We ate in bathrobes at dining tables as we evaluated the unexpected upheaval of her marriage just days before. Naked with strangers in a steaming tub at twilight, we whispered about surviving life, and I remembered being there with his body next to mine, distorted by the water, as he told me stories about his parents and Egypt.
In March, on my last day abroad, my last day of freedom and independence, I visited a mosque and a museum. I listened to the call to prayer echo through the streets. I painted the skyscrapers across the water. The next morning, I boarded a plane for 17 hours and arrived to a place with different palm trees. “Welcome home,” the border agent told me. It felt like defeat.
Nine days later, the virus was declared a global pandemic.
We retreated further into the house. I haven’t seen another person’s face without a mask and not felt it wasn’t a weapon since then. I wonder when I will be able to kiss someone, when I will allow the threat of another person’s breath to mix with mine.
This is not the whole story. This is a sliver. This is one thread woven with others. I have not told you many things. I have not given you all the moments of beauty, of pain, of connection, of loss.
I have confessed very little.
Here’s what I have told you: in January, I ate mango sticky rice in Thailand, and I told myself that maybe what I felt was hope. I don’t feel hope anymore. I only feel patience, because I have to. Because the alternative to restraint is someone’s death, and I cannot be a murderer.
One day, I will sit outside and eat street food from a cart and bridge a gap with strangers through language, and mouths will look less like weapons to me. Then, I will perhaps feel hope.