March 19, 2020, 2:27 p.m.
There are whispers that International House will close. But they are only rumours.
I slide out of bed and try unsuccessfully to work on an assignment. It is only a single paragraph. We have to come up with a digital media idea, but I have no ideas. I have only fear. My mind is clouded by fear.
I write “Media project brainstorm” on a piece of paper and nothing else.
“The House will not close,” the residence administration had written in an email. They had promised. But what are promises amid a pandemic? The building houses hundreds of international students with nowhere to go. They cannot rent; they have no American guarantors. Flights are grounded, everywhere, and the city-wide shelter-in-place is impending. They will be marooned.
I eat bits and pieces of breakfast, three pieces of cubed fruit here, a tangerine there, a piece of bread. I pace around in my apartment, still hungry, casting furtive glances at my roommate’s bedroom, which stands empty.
I sit down to a conference call with my boss. “We’ll need you to forward all your materials to us by March 31.”
“Yes,” I say, and write this down. “What?” In my dense brain fog, I am struggling to grasp what she is saying.
“It’s been a pleasure working with you,” she says. “If we have ever have any other work, you’ll be the first I call.”
It takes me several minutes to realize she is firing me.
My contract was initially meant to last until May 15. When I ask for a reason for the early termination, they say they are not required to offer one. May 15 was a typo on your contract, my boss offers. Then: we didn’t get funding, that’s why.
But I know the reason. The virus.
The call ends. I pace, slippers smacking against the tile, staring around at the apartment I can no longer afford. An apartment in a building that might, just might, close. And if it doesn’t close, I will be quarantined, alone, in a pricey room with no income, for an unknown period of time, and no way to get out.
I move quickly.
My aunt lives in New Jersey. I had previously floated the idea of riding out the pandemic with her, and now I will do it. “How fast can you be ready?” she asks.
“Uh,” I say. “A few hours.”
“I’ll schedule the Uber.”
I dash downstairs to the front desk. “Don’t run,” the doctor had said. “No exercise.”
I ask for my rent. In these uncertain times, International House is taking unprecedented measures, giving residents full rent and dining hall refunds.
The front desk staff accept my Visa with gloved hands. We stand away from one another, fearing contagion. My bank account explodes.
“Cut and run, cut and run,” I mutter under my breath. I check my phone: five hours until the Uber.
Back in the apartment, I pack up my life. I yank magnets off the fridge; I roll jackets into bins; I tear the sheets off my bed.
I attempt to make a list—“pantry, jackets, shoes”—then abandon it. I empty the closet, then the bookshelf, then my drawers, trying to proceed in some logical order so I don’t forget anything. “Gotta go gotta go,” I mutter. Boxes begin to pile up, until I run out entirely.
I ask a maintenance worker for boxes and am taken into a dark, cold storage room that I have never been in before. I stand there, shivering, as he empties and hands me two large boxes. Three hours until the Uber.
I am heaving, panting with the exhaustion of this sudden move. I want to ask for help but I am racing against time, and the impending shelter-in-place in New York City. I don’t want to pack my things and find myself trapped.
For several hours straight, I lift and bend and pack, doing almost everything the doctor had instructed me not to do after the surgery. “Take it easy,” he had said. “Don’t lift anything over 20 pounds.” I work through lunch and dinner.
Guitar, printer, big suitcase, small suitcase—I have so many things, because I moved to New York by car, not by plane. I leave half of my belongings in the apartment because the building said in an email they would store them. The rest I throw in garbage bags.
I check my watch: an hour until the Uber.
I haul two moving carts up to my room. On my way out, I bump into a friend, David.
“You’re leaving?” he asks, bewildered; just yesterday we had dinner in the dining hall, and I had assured him I would stay. Together we push a big, clunky cart into the elevator, navigating walls and sharp corners. With his help, I get two carts down to the lobby.
I bump into yet another friend, who tells me she is going back to Germany. “You’re leaving the country?” I ask her. “What about your work visa?”
“I feel like there will be exemptions made,” she says. “They’ll let us back in the country, won’t they? They’ll know there are extenuating circumstances.”
I’m not so sure.
At the front desk, I hand over my keys. I inquire about storage. “I left a few things upstairs. You guys will store them, right?”
They say they don’t know anything about that.
“What?” I check my phone. The Uber is scheduled to arrive in five minutes, and my phone is about to die. I pull out my charging cable and it tangles around my wrists—I’ve handcuffed myself.
“What do you mean you can’t store them?” I show them the email.
“You are… misinterpreting it,” they say.
A terse argument follows. Voices are raised. David paces. The Uber arrives.
Outside, the Uber driver takes one look at my belongings and shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
“It will fit!” I nearly scream, heaving my things into the back of the car. “It will fit.”
One of the front desk managers follows me outside, thrusting a piece of paper in my direction. It crumples in mid-air with the sheer force of the motion. “You need to fill this out if you’re going to give him access to your room!”
“You’re holding an identical form to the one I just filled out,” I say. “It’s the same form.”
He shouts at me for another five minutes until he realizes that yes, I have already filled out that form, and apologizes.
“It’s okay,” I say, but it isn’t. I am rattled and tired. And I am not wearing my mask. “Everyone is on edge.”
He helps load my things into the Uber like a jigsaw puzzle. Miraculously, it all fits. I promise David I will come back for my things. “Come soon,” he says. “I may have to leave the building.”
As the Uber pulls away, I take in a shuddering breath. For a moment I think I might cry, but I don’t. I crack the window and lean away, trying to put as much space between myself and the driver as possible. Just in case.
He puts on jazz, which seems to suit the New York cityscape that stretches out ahead of us. The lights from the George Washington bridge glow like little pearls strung out across the night sky.
The next day, I am sitting in my temporary room in my Aunt’s place in New Jersey, trying to change my mailing address for my pending work visa. My belongings are strewn around the room, haphazardly.
I remember touring International House what seems like a lifetime ago now, marvelling at the marble floors and white Greco-Roman columns. Things had degenerated fast. I had fled the building, and I hadn’t fled just anything—I had fled the pandemic.
The International House group chat suddenly explodes with messages.
“Fight it out? Or leave?”
“Fight it out. The measures they are taking are extremely irresponsible.”
“Where do we go?”
“They’ll be releasing 300 people into the world that were in contact with the virus.”
“Regardless of what that contract says, legally, under an impending shelter in place, they cannot do this.”
“I left all my stuff in I-House and now they’re closing…”
David forwards me an email from the residence administration. It states that:
(1) A member of the International House staff has tested positive for COVID-19, and has likely exposed us to the virus over several weeks;
(2) This is now a high risk building;
(3) All residents will be required to vacate the premises within a week.