The other day, my mom read some articles about how people have been putting stuffed bears in their windows so that other people can go on “bear hunts,” walking around and looking for them. Yesterday, I think it was, there was an article in our local newspaper about it, and we put all the stuffed bears we could find in our house (we have quite a few) in our window. She also taped some paper hearts up that were left over from Valentines Day. Yesterday my brothers and I went with my dad to the high school where he is the principal. Because the mascot of the high school is the Bears, they have a carved wooden bear, maybe five feet tall, as you walk in the door. We loaded it on to a handcart we found in the hallway, and put it in the back of our car. When we got back to the house, we hauled it up onto the porch over our front steps, and mom put a mortarboard on its head. My dad made a sign, “We ❤️ the class of 2020!” They won’t get to walk when they graduate. School is closed for the rest of the semester. I hadn’t thought about that before. Today, I think he’s getting another bear from the high school, this one stuffed, to put in the window of Mom’s elementary library. I like the bears in the window. It’s like the videos you see of people singing with each other from their balconies in Italy. People supporting each other. People acknowledging that this is hard and new for everybody else. Maybe if we keep being decent to each other, if we keep the awareness that we all matter, maybe we might come out of this better. Maybe this pandemic will bring us together.
Shards of Ginger
In my house, women shred words like ginger, grating till flaky flesh meets raw bone. Amma’s words are calloused and rough, a subtle infusion of nighttime, waning moons, and rolling tides etched into each phrase she whispers.
“Stay home. Don’t go outside.” Her tongue ejects sound at me. The sounds are slit and restitched behind vowels; it’s far too aggressive. She shreds the ginger faster into the boiling pot of chai tea. Her damp words are slicing my skin and biting into my neck. “Inside is safer.” Her words are lodged in my scratched throat — a silent bullet that rings alarmingly inside of me.
Today, I’m responsible for the ginger shredding ritual Amma does each morning. She left early for work, leaving me with a metal pot in one hand and precise directions for making chai in the other. I think that Baba is up now — his quick feet abruptly beat the ceiling above me as he paces towards the bathroom to rinse his face. I take the cue to pick up the pace and get the water boiling on the stove. My flakes of ginger are more like thin, rolled sheets rather than jagged shards. I watch them roll off the metal grater and curl up as they hit the water.
Baba brings his pouted lips closer to the rim of the mug cautiously. I stand in front of him with my tray, squinting to read his slightly grim expression as he slurps the chai. A weak smile takes over his face, but it’s only temporary, I know. It’s not Amma’s chai, but it’s all he will taste for an indefinite number of days while she’s working longer hours at the hospital.
Staying at home all day, I become a stranger among those of my own blood. Baba’s glossy eyes stare back at me, anxious and hungry to know about Amma’s whereabouts. He doesn’t notice my fingers tapping against our granite counter at seven o’clock — when she’s expected to come home. He doesn’t budge when I neatly fold what’s left of our facemasks next to him. His gaze is fixed and transfixed on something beyond my fingers, our house, and our stagnant town.
“Don’t close curr-tains.” Baba finally says to me at eight o’clock. His words are a kind of messy which comforts me. His tongue is intertwined with his vines which lay rooted in his homeland; his words are bathed in India’s blazing sun alongside men whose charcoal faces remind me of purity. They radiate warmth even in the emptiness of a March evening in the land of the free.
It is eleven o’clock when Amma returns. Baba is the first to notice her petite structure scramble towards the front door. His faded grin slowly returns as he paces towards the door. I grab her coat and disinfect my hands right after. She rushes towards the sink and holds her crumbling hands under the stream of warm water. As I see the way her eyes light up when she stares at Baba and me, I realize the plight of this global pandemic that we are facing. I understand that she’s venturing into white America to be the nurse who puts patients before herself, who sacrifices in the name of health. Each day she hurriedly rushes through New York’s flea markets and Koreatown, where hunchbacked men butcher the remains of meat, and whitened knuckles pull garage doors down, unsure of whether she’ll be back that evening. Her body sways rhythmically through the city’s hazy pulse while her mouth is sealed shut by the mask.
She gently peels her mask off and places it on the counter to clean for the next morning.
“Did you stay inside?” Her words are still rough — unbudging and gnawing at my skin. They’re spiked at the edges, though her face and lips are round and pillowed. Her jagged, messy language is a soothing sound I yearn to hear each night. I think that a sound becomes more savoured by the ear; more treasured by the senses when one realizes that it’s fleeting. There’s no telling when it will play its tunes again.
It was the first of February.
We were on the way back from an athletics competition. My first one of the season.
Edging onto the long stretch of the road’s belly, we drove the long way back to town, our stomachs grumbling in their emptiness. Slapping our noses, the smell of the familiar fresh seafood and soup-based dishes demanded to be noticed. My mother and I turned to the local Chinese takeaway. The faulting fridge tripping the electric had left home foodless. As we walked up to the entrance there was shame in my brief hesitation. Freaked out by the eerie emptiness of the once people-packed establishment, my mind flooded to the daily news.
Coronavirus: The China, Wuhan outbreak.
Coronavirus: China’s death rate soars.
Coronavirus: Is it really just China’s problem?
And then, it all clicked. For the first time I saw just how the sound of its name had impacted a particular group of people, in addition to the pain and destruction that it had already caused. The once booming businesses and towns that had invited and served the British people of all faces were now being shunned. The same as other marginalised groups —now settled citizens had been before. But this was a new kind of aversion. Like Covid
D into cells, and empathy had quietly been
dashed to the wayside.
Yet I still remember the kind smile of the man as he passed over our order in a white plastic bag, slipping his work-break chocolate bar in for good measure.
“See you soon,” his voice echoed as we passed through the exit.
We haven’t been back since.
After training each day I would peer through the glass walls, hoping to see the number of customers rise like before. Week by week the restaurant grew dimmer. Conserving electricity to keep the rent afloat, only one side of the establishment remained lit. I would see the man standing still in the same spot. Looking out for non-existent customers. Day after day. Until I didn’t see him anymore. Was it around early March that I stopped peering in? I couldn’t bear to see the sight. Until I wasn’t allowed to look away.
A guy at training’s flatmate had been out with a later confirmed case. His absence soon followed.
“If you continue to progress, you might be able to trail for Nationals,” I remember the coach saying.
On the way to a session, I overheard a man on the tube talking about Covid-19 and how he was going to travel to Kenya. He coughed in my face as I exited the train, his mouth uncovered.
I lost my sense of smell, thinking nothing much of it at the time. The panic hadn’t plagued London yet.
The toilet paper and hand gel hoarding started.
My mother coughed.
My athletic training waned to a stop. Goals now crushed.
Food stockpiling ensued.
It’s Covid chaos now.
The Weight of a History Book
I recently printed out dozens of photographs documenting my entire senior year. Taped up unevenly on my wall, they bear a certain intangible heaviness I didn’t expect them to. It is the weight, I think, of what’s missing: a graduation or prom or senior day or state championships picture.
I entered senior year well aware that it was to be a year filled with some things out of my control. I just didn’t realize it’d be everything.
Even still, I know I am lucky. I’m living in one of the most COVID-19 devastated areas in the United States, yet I am still physically and mentally well, home with the rest of my family. My dad is fortunate to have his job, my brother and I fortunate to have online education. The hardest part is still difficult to articulate. It is not that there is something to fight, but rather something that’s been lost. It is the promise of closure, a final conclusion I’d felt I was entitled to, whether that was a final debate round or a last day of classes.
Every minute, hour, day feels predictable and repetitive. Yet, once I begin thinking on the scale of weeks and months, it is not even close to that which I can predict. I wish I knew if my summer job was still happening—and if so, where and how. I wish I could find out if I’d still be attending college in the fall, and if I’d ever be able to walk across the stage in my graduation gown. In the meantime, I spend my days on my bed, half-paying attention to my Zoom classes. I’ve cut my own bangs out of the impulsive need to take control over the rhythm of my day (all it did was make me look like I was back in middle school). This strange juxtaposition of feeling bored yet uneasy, complacent yet desperate—it’s settled on my shoulders and bears that same intangible heaviness on me.
I keep hearing about how this world-stopping event will be left in our history books, and how exciting of a story it will be for our future generations. But I am tired of being part of history—I simply want to live.
I stop reading the news. Time, usually circular, has gone flat—an old ribbon unraveling against the horizon, or a paper brochure unfolding without end. If this were a movie, the repetition would give way to meaning. Instead it’s just wooden floors, seven hundred square feet, a large glass window glinting like a closed portal. My bookshelves stand patiently, unaware that their library counterparts have been frozen in ice. I think of my grandmother, who stayed home for sixty years to clean and cook and wait, and wonder what songs she hummed while mopping the floors.
I watch Orange is the New Black, where time is also flat—the inmates’ sentences passing episode after episode in a straight, single-file line—and think, at least this isn’t prison. It’s not prison and it’s not transcendentalism (note: I am paying far more than Thoreau’s $28.12 for a solitude I didn’t really want). It’s something in between, if in between meant infinite. It’s waiting in a time capsule, watching dust bunnies skitter along perpendicular edges, alternating between books and dirty dishes and animal crackers in a French braid that goes on forever. I don’t teach myself how to French braid; I don’t finally solve a Rubik’s cube or sign up for online classes or hum while mopping the floor. I am jobless, aimless, motionless: floating like a dust girl along a Mobius strip inside of a dream. The piano basks in the light as if hibernating, or praying. I wonder what will happen when my pen runs out of ink, when my Netflix queue runs out of shows, when my brain runs out of words.
The words come and go, like ice patches in winter. I emerge from bed, either mid-day or mid-night, and swallow poems whole, dive headfirst into old plots, shuffle sheet music and set off to create. There’s the bullet journal that keeps collapsing into chaos, the novel I’ll never finish, the letters in my head that I’ll never put to paper. Still, I keep trying. I type until the clacking keys drive me to nausea, trace melodies on piano keys, call old friends and ask about their lives. Time rolls slowly and I skate along, sometimes gliding, sometimes catching my balance and wondering how much farther there is to go.
In the end it’s a waiting game: waiting to see if anyone will walk past your window, or wave, or cough; waiting to hear bad news about your coworker, your neighbor, your friend. In books and movies there’s always a plunge—the ice cracks and the world slips in a single splash and time lurches, like a rollercoaster going down. There is normalcy and there is disarray but there is never the in between, the indefinite mopping of floors, the inevitable slipping between smooth ice and stale patches. I’ve been waiting for forever and it’s only just begun. The clock strikes something o’clock, and I dust off my Rubik’s cube and twist one face forward, not quite sure what will happen next.
Voluntary Solitary Confinement
As an essential grocery store employee in these strange times, I feel a unique connection to the chaos brought on by COVID-19. I’ve had two weeks now of watching fights over hand sanitizer, checking out lines of customers, their baskets full of cleaning supplies and non-perishable food items, and answering phone calls from frantic voices begging for toilet paper from our shelves (we’re always out). Some folks are coming in, fresh off day-long shifts, looking with tired eyes, for essentials that were sold out a week ago and yet to be restocked. Others rushed in before government word started coming down and are now sitting at home amidst a sea of unopened Charmin packages, their pantries brimming with canned goods. My coworkers and customers alike are shaken by the sudden shift in life, something I’m going through as well, but I had the ill luck of moving to Tampa, Florida in the summer of 2017, which placed me smack dab in the path of Hurricane Irma in the fall of that year.
I haven’t been able to help myself noticing the similarities between hurricane preparation and prep for COVID-19. At both times, the world around me was preparing to hunker down for an unknown amount of time, scrounging up as much food as possible like bears approaching hibernation. There’s a familiarity to the madness because of my experience with Irma, and I believe that’s made life under the threat of COVID less jarring so far. The one thing causing me some anxiety is that with a hurricane on the horizon, there are two choices: prepare for impact or avoid the impact by skipping town. I was able to pack up irreplaceable belongings, sandbag doors and windows, and head to my aunt’s house in central Florida. We were still battered by the storm and thought, even that far inland, that it may tear the house down around us. In this pandemic, there is no running, no guaranteed escape except to stay inside our homes for as many hours of the day as possible. Our only option is placing ourselves in voluntary solitary confinement. There is no ETA for when things will die down, when the storm will run dry and dissipate, when the waters will recede and we can all leave our homes and see the sunshine and cease being afraid. When I compare this time to living through a hurricane, my conclusion seems to be that at least with Irma there was an end in sight. It would run out of juice or move along eventually, and we would know when it did because the winds and rain would no longer roar against our homes. Now, as this pandemic is striking down thousands around the world and chaos is taking the reins, I think the biggest difference between this and Irma is that it’s much scarier waiting for a storm you can’t see coming.