The Pursuit of Clarity in a Time of Plague




A STRANGER WITH CHILD came to our door and we were afraid. It was the night before the last flight out of Tobago, and my mother, my wife, and I were lounging on the portico of our hotel room, calming ourselves with the breezes off the Caribbean and big gulps of random pink wine. Then a woman and her daughter sat down on our steps. The span of a few days had rendered that most natural gesture of fellowship a shocking transgression. By then, most of the guests were loping around the shared spaces of the hotel in bubbles of half-acknowledgment, little dances of surreptitious nods and abbreviated eye contact. Maybe this woman was on a different knowledge schedule than ours. If her sources were even a few days behind, she might still think it was okay to come so close to strangers. But it wasn’t that. The woman was desperate. She needed to talk. She needed to tell her story, if only for a little clarity.

Her name was Miranda, and she was far from home, and she looked exhausted, dishwashed, just barely keeping herself together for her daughter, Agnes, two years old, squirming in her arms. They had been supposed to fly home for England on Friday, five days earlier, but little Agnes had contracted the chicken pox on Thursday. And indeed if you looked closely at the soppy lovely milkiness of her English innocence, the jaffa cake smile that stamped itself on her face, Agnes was spotty. International regulations mandate, for travel with chicken pox, a note from a doctor declaring the patient is no longer contagious, which typically takes a week after the appearance of the first symptoms. Miranda was in the middle of trying to find a local doctor to write the note so that her travel insurance could book her a ticket so that she could get home before Trinidad closed its airspace or the UK locked down London. It was entirely possible that she couldn’t get the note, that she wouldn’t be booked on a flight home, that she couldn’t return to London before they locked the city down, that she would be away from home until …

In the time of plague, timing is everything. There are two great tribes: those who are early and those who are late. The WhatsApp messages were crazing Miranda. Her friends in London were panicking on her behalf because they were safe enough to panic. We were not safe. We had happened to find ourselves on the very edge of our networks when the world spun off-kilter, on a remote and prolific island 10 degrees from the equator. Miranda, with sticky Agnes fidgeting on her lap, wasn’t asking for our help when she sat down on the steps. She wanted to shade herself, for a while, under our shared confusion and helplessness.

Our situation was not as dire as Miranda’s or Agnes’s. My mother, my wife, my son and daughter, and myself had all left for Tobago half an hour before the Canadian government warned citizens not to travel. By Saturday, they told everyone to return as soon as possible. Since then we’d been trying to figure out a way to get home. I am Canadian. If the government tells me to do something, I do it. There’s an old joke. “How do you get 10 Canadians out of the swimming pool?” “Say, ‘Hey guys, can you get out of the pool?’” Well, there were about 300,000 Canadians in the Caribbean and we all wanted to get out of the pool at the same time. On Monday, the Trinidadian government announced it would be closing down airspace as soon as possible. Here is a question that has become more pressing than it once was: What does “as soon as possible” mean? Specifically. On Tuesday, Trudeau declared that Canadians would be stranded if they could not find commercial flights home. Airlines kept canceling. Our not particularly relevant future hung on the whims of a company called Sunwing, and its one last flight out of Tobago, which, a local customs agent told me, possesses the second smallest international airport in the world. There were no earlier flights for us.

We listened to Miranda’s story, a tapering tree of limiting ifs, and we told her it would all be fine, that the doctor would sign the note, that everybody wanted her home, the Trinidadian government, the UK government, the insurance company. We told her that she would find a way home. What else could we say?

Garrulous bananaquits and melancholy copperback hummingbirds drifted in and out of the feeders near our heads. None of us noticed. Time had thinned to a flavorless gruel; even the dread was already boring, a note held too long without resolution. One of these statements will appear ludicrous in the near future. It was genuinely difficult to perceive whether we were incommoded tourists or incipient refugees.

¤

The plague has always been the story of the plague. The Black Plague spread so quickly and its effects were so deadly that it overtook whole villages before anyone could come to tell villagers the plague was coming, and it would devastate the population so thoroughly, destroying literally everyone, that there was not a single person left to pass on the news of what had overtaken them.

The premise of Boccaccio’s Decameron is that a group of seven women and three men gather to tell each other stories during an outbreak. They remove themselves from society in the Tuscan countryside:

The spot in question was some distance away from any road, on a small hill that was agreeable to behold for its abundance of shrubs and trees, all bedecked in green leaves. Perched on its summit was a palace, built round a fine, spacious courtyard, and containing loggias, halls, and sleeping apartments, which were not only excellently proportioned but richly embellished with paintings depicting scenes of gaiety. Delectable gardens and meadows lay all around, and there were wells of cool, refreshing water.

They separate themselves from other people’s stories as much as from other people’s bodies. Pampinea, the woman in charge of the retreat, refuses to allow any bad news from the outside world. She instructs the servants:

[U]nless they wish to incur our royal displeasure, we desire and command that each and every one of the servants should take good care, no matter what they should hear or observe in their comings and goings, to bring us no tidings of the world outside these walls unless they are tidings of happiness.

During a time of plague, there is narrative hygiene as much as physical hygiene. The sickness is airborne. The story of the plague may be as toxic as the plague.

In the case of COVID-19, the arrival of the plague was identical with the arrival of the story, the moment for each of us when the general cloud of rumors about a faraway sickness hardened into the recognition that the ordinary courses of events had been suspended to avoid mass death. For me, that recognition came while I sat by the pool under the shade of an old plantation sugar mill, repurposed into a resort restaurant, posed over a coralline beach like a quaint stone mushroom. The resort had been purchased a few decades earlier by a Trinidadian of African descent, who as a child had been kicked off the property because of the color of his skin, had subsequently grown rich and bought the property once denied him. His daughter ran the place now. And now I sat knocking back papaya rum punches under the shadow of an icon of human degradation, a building where slaves would have died cruelly and gruesomely. Would I have eaten at a Jewish restaurant with a view of Bergen-Belsen? A plague had ended the sugar mill several centuries earlier: an implacable mercy of ants had overrun the place.

There were disorientations of several varieties on hand even as the plague arrived. Tobagonian English is the most beautiful form of English speech I have ever heard, crisp and aristocratic, like a splurge of lime over a salt-sticky mouth, so when the Chief Public Health Officer, on the radio over the pool bar, declared “those with immunodeficiencies are most at risk” her voice rolled out like a phrase from Schubert. The sheer beauty of the landscape warped the ugly information.

At that moment of recognition, unbidden, a strange sense of relief suffused me. I cannot have been alone in that relief. A strain in myself slackened. The real-time maps over China and Northern Italy that charted the decline of pollution were a kind of cartographical analogue for my own ridiculous calm. In a way, it made sense as an initial reaction: the first feature of this plague was the basic fact that the children weren’t going to die and we probably weren’t either. The world was going to close, like a flower in rain. And the world closing, while terrifying, didn’t seem all that lousy an idea. This was before I read that the best estimates of death in the United States was 2.2 million and that, according to Goldman Sachs, the economy might contract by 25 percent. The truth is that the world is already full of plagues that weren’t going to happen to me, to you. Thousands of people die every day from tuberculosis.

The relief — the relief that overwhelmed me — was the sense that we were all going to stop competing for a while, that we were going to stop the madness of our busyness. I made the mistake of checking my bank accounts. I had lost four years of savings in a week. The money didn’t bother me so much as the fact that I wasn’t sure what money was going to mean anymore. An editor canceled a trip to England, where I was supposed to write about the declining fortunes of the Royals. That wasn’t happening, obviously. I went over my notebook of plans and I knew I was fucked. Almost everything I do involves going somewhere, seeing something, writing it down. That’s the whole idea: to look at a fascinating thing clearly. I just finished an audio series with Audible. Is that, like, happening? I’m supposed to publish a book this year. I’ve written the book. Will people be publishing books and buying them and reading them and talking about them?

It was a bit like that old story about the master cellist Pablo Casals out climbing Mount Tamalpais, near San Francisco. Some rocks dislodged and crushed the fingers of his left hand, and his first thought was not “I’m fucked” but “I’m free.” Although maybe if this plague has a lesson, it’s that “I’m fucked” and “I’m free” are sometimes the same thing.

My being in time made no sense. I sat on the shore, doomsurfing the Johns Hopkins real-time coronavirus updates, while ruddy turnstones, in amenable groups of eight or 10, needled their way through the ochre sargassum. The world has too much in it. The world cannot be comprehended. The world is an overbrimming cup, but the man keeps pouring. It would be so easy to pretend none of it was happening. At a roadside shack down the shore, the young women were still Instagramming themselves on the beach at sunset, with a storm strafing out of the ocean, a crow-black pillar behind them.

¤

Then, on the Monday before the Thursday we were supposed to leave, my mother developed a small cough, faint, barely there, a mouse scratching at the wainscotting in the next room where she slept with my daughter. The Canadian government had provided a vague directive that the airlines were to prevent anyone with any symptoms of COVID-19 from boarding any plane returning to Canada. The airlines and the unions had asked for clarification. Everyone needed clarification. I saw no reason why the airlines would get it when nobody else would. Would they turn her back for a cough?

My mother has anxiety the way a leaf has chlorophyll. It goes all the way through her and it is the source of her power. But her cough never worried her. She’s a retired physician, and she’s fit, and she knew she just had a cold. Anxiety is an inheritance so I understood why she was calm. The feverish doubt that can nearly cripple me in times of ease and plenty and happiness didn’t apply here and now. My anxiety, and my mother’s, is about making the wrong decision. It is a fear of regret. And there were no decisions to be made. Either the authorities would let us on the plane or we would be living in a hotel in Port of Spain for the foreseeable future. I hadn’t made an error. Nothing was my fault. So I didn’t worry.

Instead I took the family birdwatching. I mean, we’d already booked the trip. Newton George, a legendary bird guide, the man who had seen the last of the birds-of-paradise on Little Tobago, drove us into the rainforest on the half-road half-rollercoaster that twisted along the island’s edges, to see the blue-backed manakins — the reason I had come to Tobago in the first place.

The Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago, by Richard ffrench, describes the rare joint display of the blue-backed manakin. Two males “use for a display perch a bare stick, horizontal or sloping, 1 or 2 m above ground in the forest. These perches are traditional and may be in small groups; the birds clear the leaves from the branches in vicinity of the perches.” Newton knew these traditional perches as well as the birds. The gatherings areas are known as leks. Leks are sort of the piazzas of manakins. “After the synchronized calling, the 2 males jump up and down alternately on the display perch, uttering the buzzing note.” When a female comes the perch, “the joint movement becomes circular as the perching bird moves forward under the jumping bird, which moves backwards in flight before landing.” When the female chooses one of the two males, she flies off. The male follows, “his wings apparently making a soft, mechanical click, but it it not known how this is done.”

Through the thick brush of the palms and evergreens, Newton pushed us, the whole family, into a rich quarter of original jungle. First growth forest has a purer oxygen, a higher intensity of being. And there they were, two small sparrow-sized birds with radical plumage sitting on a bare stick. They jumped up, buzzing ludicrously. Then a female appeared, and they started jumping one over the other, a black and blue spinning wheel. The blue-backed manakins still have society. We don’t.

¤

The family man is always a ludicrous figure, tawdry, a patchwork thing. It can’t be any other way. He must maintain a smiling fraud that everyone sees through. “Everything will be quite all right if we make good decisions.” So my son would come to me with the latest circulating figures, the frightful connections, and I would tell him that I’d seen it all before and it wasn’t anything to worry about, and he would snort. I couldn’t tell him what I knew, and he knew I couldn’t tell him what I knew. What right do you have to tell the people you love that the world is fundamentally unstable, that everything meaningful is cracked, that all paths are crooked, that nobody knows? The family man is responsible to the impression that things are manageable. Therefore he always ends up looking like a moron. To be dad is to be the necessary idiot.

As my wife panted with worry in the early hours, subject for the first time in her life to panic attacks, I brushed her hair with my fingers, let her cry. As the week continued, as her optimism crept up, with sleep, with the return of stasis, my anxiety rippled out of me, raw on my bones. Every marriage, I believe, has an established level of mutual anxiety. If one starts worrying, the other stops, and when one stops, the other starts. Optimism and pessimism sloshed between my wife and me drunkenly, and to no purpose. There were no decisions to be made. We were outside of the realm of decisions. Events were happening so rapidly that what we thought was true at any given moment would almost certainly be false within 48 hours. Our brains had become quite useless. The panic that interceded in our lives was like what a leaping gecko must feel being dropped out of a plane. It must keep reaching for the next leaf and the leaf after that and the leaf after that all the way down.

For my son, coronavirus was the first experience with history. He was realizing, with sickening speed, that the very filament and skein of his life was tossed out casually by people just like his mother and his father and himself. Under the bushy overgrowth of his eye-sheltering blonde mop — when will he be able to have his hair cut again? — he took off his headphones and looked up at me as we sat at the bar waiting for our orders of foiled fish and plantain-sweet potato bake to take back to the room. “Hey dad, when do you think things will return to normal?” I told him I’d been asking myself that same question. I did not find the courage to tell him, though I doubted he needed any telling, that this was how it was going to be, from here on. That’s what history is: things not going back to normal.

My seven-year old daughter developed a small comic routine over the course of the week. She would walk along with her head held high, shouting into a fake phone she held up with an empty hand, “It’s a matter of life and death,” and on the word “death” she would trip and fall over. Adulthood appeared to her a series of self-inflated pratfalls. A perceptive girl. We laughed every time she did it.

¤

That first thought, my unbidden thought, my initial sense of relief, of reprieve, kept returning without my having anything to do with it. I would be sopping up banana-colored beer in a beachside shack, or swimming among cuttlefish. Radical volatility, utter unpredictability — the loss of all our little plans had begun. This is the season for the shattering of dreams, and for the littlest and grandest hopes to cower in the corner. This is the time for films that will play only in their makers’ minds. The seeds fall on hard ground. This is the disease we have been thrusting ourselves into. This is the disease of the way we live now. COVID-19 pushed the completion of a project already underway. The world had already been drifting toward social distancing and self-isolation. We were all living in our houses behind screens anyway. The grand finale of a whole string of cancellations. A culture defined by virality undone by a virus. And we’re all fucked. Fucked are the bartenders in the beachside shacks. Fucked are the directors of commercial banking. Fucked are the peanut vendors of the NBA and the promoters of holiday package tours. Fucked are the kid actors making a living catering gala dinners. Fucked are the teachers and the nurses and the grocers. Fucked are the flyers. Fucked are those who stay in place. Fucked are those on land and fucked are those by sea. Fucked is Newton George. Fucked am I. Fucked are you. Fucked is he and she. Fucked are we. Fucked are they. In the volatility of the plague, in the mist of our unknowing, that sensation of relief had been almost religious. “Look, we’re all fucked. All of us. Act accordingly.” It is going to become clear, over the next few years, that some are more fucked than others. The possibilities of a revolution, an underlying change to the way we conceive of our economic life, will emerge from the indisputable fact — it is indisputable now at any rate — that this time the fucked didn’t fuck themselves.

There were magnificent frigate birds and red-billed tropicbirds on Little Tobago. Magnificent frigate birds hover over the sea, sometimes for days, sleeping on the wing, but they cannot touch sea water. That is the tension of their lives. They skim the ocean surface for flying fish mostly. They also grab the red-billed tropicbirds by their hind-streaming tails and shake them until they throw up, nabbing their victim’s vomited fish out of the middle of the air. Things find all manner of ways to live.

¤

The moment of departure arrived, and we left the hotel for the airport. Miranda and Agnes were bathing in the sea. The salt water helps poxmarks heal more quickly. We had our papers in order: money, passports, tickets. Miranda and Agnes were missing papers. The world is full of people without papers. Meanwhile, the hotel was busy closing down. As our van pulled away, my daughter looked at the beach with envy. “I can’t wait to come back here,” she said.

It all worked out. Nobody asked about my mother’s cough. No check-in agent wanted to refuse anyone travel. Six hours later, in Toronto, the customs agent, informing us of our need to self-quarantine as a family, joked, “I guess you’ll find out if you like each other.” He seemed giddy, with none of the usual bored dourness of the job. He wasn’t asking tourists if they’d forgotten that they’d packed an orange. He was bringing citizens home.

I could see that he shared my relief, that absurd, even cruel, reaction to the plague. He had been reprieved from the pointlessness of the machinery.

¤

We are in quarantine now for 14 days. Our life is like a leg in a cast. All you can do is try to ignore the itching. I feel most for my son. After a week stranded on an island with his parents, he now has to endure another fortnight with no escape from his family. When I sympathized, he shrugged. “If you describe what’s happened,” he said, “every year of my life is like the title sequence of a horror movie.”

In our squat Toronto house, snug as an old ship, the adrenal emergency is only now draining. In its sea-sickened wake, a new instability is rising out of my guts. I am like a man who has swum to shore after a shipwreck only to find an earthquake is underway. The tumult of problems about to be stalks the house — dreadful something-nothings, catastrophes both far-fetched and highly likely, the economic coma, the stalled education of the children, what we’re all going to do for money, how we’re going to live without dreams for a while, how we’re going to restart our dreams after. Now that the unpredictability of the next hour, the next day, had passed, there is the unpredictability of the next month, the next year. The mist grows thicker the farther you peer ahead.

The afternoon of our first day home, an old editor of mine from New York called to ask me about the Canadian situation. The Americans I know are operating on fumes of medical rumors, like they do about schools, like they do about where to buy the best chocolate chip cookies, and she had heard from a surgeon friend that the New York hospital system was three days from collapsing. If she crossed the border, would it make sense to rent a place in the Toronto suburbs? I told her what I knew, that the border was already closed, and she burst into tears. I do not know what that conversation signifies. I know I need to write it down for the reason people began writing things down in the first place, so that, in the future, we all know it happened.

I may never know what happens to Miranda and Agnes, stranded in beauty or safe in lockdown. The story of the plague is a bunch of missing stories, stories nobody can tell, stories nobody wants to hear. The plague is a general manifestation of the human vulnerability we usually shrug off or justify away. But the confusion, the panic, the mud and fog, the uncertainty, they come with a dose of clarity too, a clarity that doesn’t need to be pursued, a clarity that rises up of its own accord. We see, all of us, what it means to be uninsured, undocumented, without papers. To be a worker is to be in danger. Las Vegas spray-painted a parking lot with social distancing squares for the homeless to sleep in while all its hotels lay empty. The cruel stupidity and stupid cruelty is exposed. Humanity is a collection of fragilities struggling to be home and desperate to go out.

There is a graveyard in Burlington, an hour drive away, where a red morph Eastern screech-owl watches the living and the dead with equal indifference from the hollowed knot of a dying oak. That’s for another day.

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Stephen Marche is a novelist and an essayist.

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Featured image: “COVID-19 Outbreak World Map” by Pharexia is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been slightly altered.

Banner image: “Chiroxiphia pareola-Grafton Estate, Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago” by Steve Garvie is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

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