Mar. 17, 2020, 7:30 a.m.
In the weak light of early morning I wonder what kind of world I am waking up to.
I strap on a heavy-duty mask and take an Uber to my first post-operative appointment in Midtown Manhattan. The subway is out of the question. “Yours was one of the last elective surgeries I did,” says my doctor. My surgery was on Wednesday, and the U.S. Surgeon General ordered all elective surgeries to cease on Saturday.
I show my doctor my mask and ask if maybe I am overreacting. His response: “Put that mask on when you’re in a room with more that five people and don’t take it off.”
I procured the mask from a resident of my building. I saw her wearing one and chased her through the hallway, asking pleadingly if she had another. She is Chinese-Italian and has seen the worst of the virus firsthand, on two fronts.
“I’ll give it to you,” she said, “but only because you just had surgery.” She handed me a white duck-bill with an actual respirator, which I now strap onto my face as I leave the doctor’s office.
Back at home, I watch a news conference where New York Governor Cuomo promises there will be no quarantine. A few hours later, the city-wide quarantine is back on the table. Like a pendulum, decisions come and go. We should know within 48 hours whether there will be a shelter in place.
“Do you think we will be able to leave? If the shelter in whatever?” asks my friend Pouya. He had planned to drive back to Canada in his car and had even offered me a space, but I reluctantly declined.
“I would bet my money on being stuck,” I say. “You may want to leave sooner rather than later.”
“Grim,” he intones.
With a city-wide quarantine on the horizon, residents of my building pack their things within a matter of hours and buy next-day flights. An acquaintance stands in the middle of the dining hall by her suitcases and backpack, ready to vacate the residence. “I just sold all my things.” She looks at me. “And they just cancelled my flight.”
I receive several calls in quick succession, the first from Maggie, who is teaching abroad in Spain and trapped in her new home because of the nationwide quarantine. She and a friend took over the apartment after two other friends fled the country, leaving vacant rooms. She rushed to buy a ticket back to Canada with a layover in Cairo—“Flights were disappearing right in front of me”—then the Spanish border slammed shut, and she was stuck. “I feel like I’ve lived 6 months in a day.”
Cassandra and Maria call. Things seem calmer in small-town Canada; they are baking banana bread. I follow suit and bake banana bread on my end, as well. Cassandra messages me two startling articles that claim the world will never be the same.
I get a call from Zoe. In a lilting South African accent, she notes: “It’s just interesting to be living in a time like this.”
Lily calls. The sun streams through her window in North Carolina, where she has chosen to live out her quarantine.
My mother calls and vows to support me in a way only mothers can: “I’ll call you every day. Whenever you feel panicked” — she smacks her chest three times — “I’ll bring you right back down.”
Exhausted from my recovery and speaking and everything, I lie in bed and close my eyes.
Zoom meetings and group chats crop up everywhere: groups for fun, groups for people who want to play piano even though the practice rooms are closed, groups for virtual happy hours, groups to discuss Corona, groups to discuss anything but Corona.
A virtual town hall is held for the Columbia Journalism School. Our career expo is now online. Naturally, twenty or so employers have dropped out, leaving 130. Someone asks about graduation and the dean says that a virtual ceremony or event would most certainly be crap but it must be done. What about partial tuition refunds, the students hiss.
The administration has shifted all of our coursework and reporting to focus, now, on the Coronavirus and have even built a website to display our work. Someone coins the term Coronavirus Class, which I don’t find funny at all. Instead I wonder how it is that dreams can turn to ash before your very eyes.
I grapple with this new virtual classroom. The tinny voices that echo from the laptop that now houses my entire costly graduate program; the abrupt finality of the call, once it has been ended by the host; the completeness of the silence.