The New York Review of Books - 24.04.2020

(Axel Boer) #1

10 The New York Review

turned out, who, caught by the neigh-
bors, were subsequently deported.)
One source of comfort—and para-
doxical disquiet—has been the videos
showing shoals of tiny fish repopulat-
ing the Venice canals; curious foxes
and peccaries trotting through empty
streets in unidentified cities, dolphins
patroling the docks of an Italian seaside
town, trying to understand where all
the traffic and people and noise went.
It looks good, the world without us!
I live on the edge of a park traversed
by a tiny trickle of water that turns into
a proper stream when it rains, as it has
been doing nearly every day for the
past few weeks. Even with the windows
shut tightly, I can still make out the
sound of rushing water. Today, I turned
the radio on—and turned it off again
almost immediately, because the sound
of water coursing through all that clean
silence is more beautiful, even though
it bodes disaster.
—Alma Guillermoprieto

24—Today we’re locked in our apart-
ments and mad. If, like me, you have a
spouse and kids and a dog, any space
or time to think will be hard to come
by. Still, we tell ourselves, we are lucky:
our suffering so far is limited to argu-
ing with relatives over FaceTime that
they really should stay inside.
Last Wednesday night I met my
friend Eddy and we sat six feet apart
on the bench in the middle of Hous-
ton Street—between the two traffic
lanes—and drank: him a half- bottle of
Woodford Reserve bourbon, and me
a children’s thermos filled with Pinot
Grigio. A bearded man dressed in rags

and trimmed with lit- up Christmas
lights wandered the empty sidewalk,
shouting at the occasional car pass-
ing, “I feel you, I feel you brother.”
An upscale couple in face masks and
leather gloves trailed their prim and
glossy dachshund. It felt like bad sci- fi,
a melodrama of dystopic inequity, of
pre- apocalyptic desolation. Eddy, a
builder, is renovating an apartment in
Soho and trying to keep his nine em-
ployees on the site as long as he can.
They have nine families to feed, he
I’d found flights to get back to Ireland
but couldn’t persuade anyone to keep
our dog, an old and rickety pug, so we
stayed in our university flat in Green-
wich Village until yesterday, when I
rented a car and we came upstate. Up-
state is very different. It’s almost possi-
ble to pretend things are okay, which is
what I’m doing with the kids.
Today on a walk I was thinking of
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “Re-
nascence”: “All I could see from where
I stood/was three long mountains and a
wood.” This afternoon my seven- year-
old son and I caught a red- spotted newt
in the pond, and then let him crawl—
alternating limbs—across my hand,
then watched him swim in an old tin
bath we’d filled with pondwater. Those
limbs, so ungainly on land, turned fleet
in the water.
My wife is taking it all personally.
My daughter is singing even more than
usual, every few minutes. My son and
I play T- ball in the grass. My daughter
shouts at my son, my son shouts at my
daughter, and then I shout at both of
them. There is a manic quality to the
time. It is like being on acid or crazed

from lack of sleep. Everything is a
frenzy of information.
Spain, Germany, France, and the US
all have more cases than Italy when it
ordered the lockdown. The federal gov-
ernment is bidding against Massachu-
setts state for medical supplies. They
are building barricades in front of the
posh shops in Soho, Eddy says, to stop
the looting.
The prophecies arrive: hundreds of
thousands of dead, trillions of dollars
spent, millions and millions losing their
jobs, their health care, their homes. Sol-
diers on the streets. Each graph, each
blank statistic. Each talking head. Stick
a fork in the ass of civilization, it’s done.
Don’t be silly, this is a blip. I don’t think
so. In the stream of news the poems sit
like stones, lambent under the surface.
Auden’s “Gare du Midi,” where the
man with his little case alights from the
train, and steps out “briskly to infect
a city/Whose terrible future may have
just arrived.”
—Nick Laird

There aren’t many cars on the road,
but the proportion of Amazon delivery
vehicles feels ominous, my husband
says. “If there’s going to be a junta,”
he jokes, “it will probably be led by
Amazon.” This is our first week under
the Stay at Home order, and our sec-
ond week staying at home with our son.
Today he and I jog a couple of blocks
to the high school to run sprints on the
track, but the chain-link fence around
the track is locked with a padlock, so
we run sprints on the empty parking
lot. My son was born in 2009, a month
before the first novel H1N1 influenza
infections were reported to the CDC.
The possibility of hospitals becoming
overwhelmed and essential medical
supplies becoming scarce—the pos-
sibility that has now become a real-
ity—is what made those early reports
of a novel H1N1 virus, the subtype that
caused the 1918 pandemic, so alarming
to experts in infectious disease.
“Pest houses,” I thought when I read
the first reports of the temporary facil-
ities in China where people with symp-
toms of Covid-19 were being held. In
nineteenth-century America, a pest
house was where people with small-
pox were forcibly isolated. The histo-
rian Michael Willrich writes in Pox:
An American History of children who
were dragged away from their mothers
to be taken to pest houses, where they
most often died.
The playground two blocks from our
house is almost always full of children,
even on a cold March day like today.
I’ve seen them in freezing rain, in polar
vortexes, and in searing heatwaves. But
today it’s empty. My stepmother tells
me about a summer during her child-
hood in the Bronx when she wasn’t al-
lowed to play in the sprinklers in the
public parks because of the polio epi-
demic. What polio has in common with
Covid-19 is that people can carry and
transmit it without showing symptoms.
One in two hundred infections leads to
paralysis. My stepmother knew a boy
across the street who was in a wheel-
chair and a girl at school who walked
with a limp.
Eventually, she stood in line in the
gymnasium of her school, where some-
thing that looked like a gun was used to
give every child a shot in the arm. That
was the Salk vaccine. Later, she would
line up again to receive a sugar cube

on her tongue. That was the Sabin vac-
cine. We now use only the Salk vaccine
in the US, but the Sabin vaccine, which
is less expensive and easier to adminis-
ter, is used in other countries. “You got
both?” I ask her. “Oh yes,” she says, “I
got both.”
—Eula Biss

26—The only person I have touched
in a week is my two-year-old daughter.
Every selfie I take of us is a photograph
of me trying to inhale her. The streets
outside are empty, the ambulance sirens
constant, the sunshine an insult. The
city is running out of ventilators. She
and I haven’t left the apartment in four
days, ever since I became symptomatic.
That’s a lie. I left once, to take the
trash down. I couldn’t smell it, because
I can’t smell anything—the ability van-
ished suddenly, along with my sense of
taste; the newest symptom in the news—
but when the pile of banana peels and
mashed zucchini pieces became impos-
sible to push back into the bin, I knew
it was time. I saw a man in the mail ves-
tibule who’d come to pick up someone’s
laundry. When he pulled the mask from
his mouth to speak, I shrank away. I’m
sure he thought I was afraid of what I’d
get from him, when really I was afraid of
what he’d get from me.
The virus. Its sinewy, intimate name.
What does it feel like in my body
today? Shivering under blankets. A hot
itch behind the eyes. Three sweatshirts
in the middle of the day. My daughter
trying to pull another blanket over my
body with her tiny arms. An ache in the
muscles that somehow makes it hard to
lie still. This loss of taste has become
a kind of sensory quarantine, inching
closer and closer to my insides.
The quarantine. As if it weren’t plu-
ral. As if we weren’t all living our own.
Being a single parent is like being a par-
ent except you’re always alone. Being a
single parent in quarantine is like being
a parent except the inside of your mind
has become an insane asylum echoing
with the sound of your own voice read-
ing the same picture books over and
over again: Mr. Rabbit, I want help.
When I wake with my heart pound-
ing in the middle of the night, my
sheets are soaked with sweat that must
be full of virus. The virus is my new
partner. There is something beautifully
grotesque about that phrase, shedding
virus, as if with a black light you could
see the sloughed-off sickness like curl-
ing snakeskins all over my apartment,
crumbling to dust.
These days I usually dream about
nice dinner parties I wasn’t invited to.
Romanticizing other peoples’ quaran-
tines is just the latest update of an an-
cient habit. So what if I signed divorce
papers a month before the city went on
lockdown? Sure, I sometimes wish my
quarantine was another quarantine,
and I sometimes wish my marriage had
been another marriage, but when have
I ever lived inside my own life without
that restlessness?
We spend our days spearing Internet-
delivered raspberries with the baby
fork. “Mama help,” she says, plain-
tively. She needs something but she
doesn’t know exactly what it is. I know
exactly what I need: another human
body. I press my cheek against my
daughter’s belly, just to feel something
that is still there.
—Leslie Jamison

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