March 24, 2020, 3:02 p.m.
I arrive in New Jersey under the cover of night. Around two days in, I realize I don’t know exactly where I am. How far am I from Manhattan?
I open Google Maps and realize that I am much further from the city than I thought, well into the heart of New Jersey. It dawns on me that I have crossed state lines. Different rules, different leadership, different quarantine.
My Uncle is a tall man with soft eyes and an unmistakable Southern accent. He grew up on a ranch in North Florida. When he laughs, it comes from deep in his belly.
He shows me a pallet with several rustic swatches. “What color should I paint my father’s barn?” he asks me. We go back and forth between Colonial Crimson and Patriot Red. Later, we eat grits and sausage.
Phillip sets a whirring box on the ground, a sort of robot vacuum, which travels along the tile in straight lines and 90 degree angles. It leaves a thin layer of soapy water along the ground. Every so often it will collide with a wall and buzz in protest.
My Aunt grew up alongside my father in Mandeville, a city high in Jamaica’s mountains, where the air is cool and young boys trek through ruddy grasses, hunting birds.
Those hailing from the area, my father included, share some commonalities: a love for nature, and an unusual familiarity with animals that to me, seem exotic, like doves and mongooses. Mandevillians are, in large part, above-average cooks and gardeners. Allison is no different.
She has all the charming quirks of country folk. She brews pungent ginger tea with garlic to ward off illness. (Phillip gapes. “Can’t you make it a little less strong, Al?” he begs. “No,” Allison says in her Jamaican accent, “That would dilute the power.”) She has a designated tree stump with a view, which she calls her “thinking stone,” where she sits to contemplate the issues of the day.
In amusing contrast to their rural upbringings, my quarantine counterparts work for large firms in Manhattan: Phillip is a finance executive for a top pharmaceutical company and Allison is a corporate lawyer. She spends the quarantine poring over dense legal literature, hair caught in an immaculate topknot with not a single flyaway.
I enjoy watching them interact with each other and with their colleagues in virtual settings, assuming slightly different identities as the moment requires. I did not know them very well before the quarantine. Just a few days in and I like them already.
Allison enters my room. “I got some bad news for you.” I look up. “We’re not going back for your stuff,” she says.
She’s talking about the eight boxes I left behind in International House, and planned to go back for. “Why?” I struggle to keep the distress out of my voice.
“If they’re saying there’s a confirmed case in that building, and we’re trying to limit out exposure… it’s too dangerous to go back.”
She’s right. Manhattan is, quite literally, teeming with disease. As a lawyer, Allison works with facts, not feelings. She compares options carefully and selects one.
“But—” I sputter. “My books.”
“What else do you have there?”
“My books, pots and pans, jackets and shoes…”
“How much were they?” she asks. “You have to consider whether the cost of replacing them outweighs the cost of getting them back.”
I say nothing. Then: “Maybe I can get it into storage. I think there are companies that will pick stuff up and store it.”
Allison considers this. “Could work.”
We create a list of storage companies in the area. I make several calls. Some will pick up and store for exorbitant prices, others can’t pick up at all. I finally land on a storage company that will pick up and store my stuff for $100/month—not ideal, but workable.
Manhattan Mini Storage (“We help New Yorkers live BIG lives in LITTLE spaces,” trills the answering machine) are overwhelmed with calls. They can’t pick up my belongings ASAP; I will have to wait three days. I-House is experiencing a mass exodus. I am worried that all my friends will have left and there will be nobody available to meet the movers and hand off the boxes.
On the day of the pick-up, I call to confirm. This thing has to go off without a hitch. I only have one chance.
The lady on the other end says yes, the movers will be there between 12 and 2, but she is surprised my appointment was still happening. All future pick-ups have been cancelled due to the virus.
I take an ambling, “socially-distanced” walk around my new neighborhood, squinting against the sun, which I have not seen in days. The weather is warm.
Compared to New York City—which, at the time of writing, has 25,000 cases of the virus—Maplewood, New Jersey is truly an idyllic place to quarantine. The area has character. No single house is the same, or even similar. They are connected by winding, uneven sidewalks that are cracked and upended with age, overgrown with moss. From somewhere comes the pleasant tinkling of wind-chimes.
My thoughts drift to New York. How was I to know, last Fall, that I was moving to what would become the epicenter of a global pandemic?
There are spiky, red-orange burrs everywhere in the neighborhood; as I walk, I kick at them absently with the toe of my running shoe. In my turtleneck and patterned scarf, I figure I look like a transplant. A Manhattanite posing as a suburbanite, probably.
One family, presumably self-isolating, has put up a chalkboard sign on their lawn. It reads: “53 total board games, 24 played, 19 keep, 5 toss – stay tuned for exciting updates.” When I come across passersby, we navigate awkwardly around one another, keeping a safe distance of six feet in the age of Corona. We give each other apologetic smiles. I walk until I get lost, and use my phone to guide me home.
On the evening news, Governor Cuomo demands masks and ventilators; the Olympics are postponed for the first time in modern history; the Dow Jones Index plummets 3000 points; Spain converts an Olympic-sized ice rink into a morgue.
I try to do schoolwork. Reading articles on my laptop is painful, as though I have stapled my eyelids to the screen. I try to read a book for class, but tire of the complicated structure after a mere four pages. Why should I read a fragmented book when the world itself is fragmented?
The I-House residents are in a frenzy. Some truly have nowhere to go, as the borders to their countries have closed. Many of them are dangerously low on funds. Governor Cuomo issues a 90-day moratorium on evictions, but International House claims not to be a “landlord” in the traditional sense. The residents mount a campaign against the House. They call lawyers, they draft petitions. Some relent, scrambling for boxes and tape. Others take over apartments whose occupants have fled New York City, the new epicenter of the virus.
They fan out across the city and the world, many of them possibly carrying the virus.
Feeling helpless, I try to connect my stranded friends with their respective consulates. I spend the day on the phone with the Bahraini consulate, the Indian consulate, the Ugandan permanent mission to New York. I did International Relations as my bachelor’s degree, so I turn to international organizations and structures for support—it’s a knee-jerk response.
As relatively privileged residents of the first world, my friends hesitate to use qualifiers generally employed in international law. They will never say they “fled” the city, but instead say they “left New York.” Instead of “displaced,” they say they’ve “been kicked out.” They will not call themselves Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs, but that is what they are. That is what we are.
A friend from International House texts me out of the blue, asking if I am okay, encouraging me to stay safe. I assure her I am fine. I ask how she is, and she says, “Scared. The world is falling apart.” I am reeling at the steep downward trajectory of this conversation. Her response is disproportionate. Something has happened.
A screenshot from an email sent by the administration: “It is with tremendous sadness that I write to inform you that an I-House resident has passed away from complications from the COVID-19 virus.”
In moments of distress or longing, I travel great distances in my mind.
I am in my grandmother’s backyard in Jamaica, freeing a mango from a tree. I eat it, the juices running down my fingers. I can almost feel the sun browning my shoulders. Other times, I’m back in France, and I’m on a terrace in the city center of Aix-en-Provence, sipping a café au lait with a friend. The vision dissolves and fear bleeds into the image, like a polaroid immersed in ink.
The reality: just a week ago I was a student at a university I had dreamed of attending since I was a teenager. I took my classes at Pulitzer Hall. (Yes, that Pulitzer.) I was assigned readings that moved me, that I forwarded immediately to friends, saying, “You’ve got to read this.” I was beginning to love, truly love, journalism.
My classes ended. My friendships, carefully cultivated over teas and coffees, suddenly became long distance. Everyone left and they will not come back. Most I will never see again. There were no goodbyes.
Now one of us is dead and they won’t tell us who.