I give in and download the New York Times app so that I can be closer to the headlines each morning. This is late January, and the warning signs are clear that a virus is rushing across the globe. I feel compelled to watch, to study the photos, to glean some sort of meaning from the faraway fear. Even now, before everything to come, I can feel the tidal pull of something vaguely sinister and unstoppable. With the app, I figure, I can dunk my head into the slipstream of news while still in bed.
I wake up on Jan. 31: “U.S. Issues ‘Red Alert’ After Week of Skyrocketing Infections.”
Then: March. We’re getting by, and it’s just a series of dislocating conversations and paranoid exchanges about the pandemic. The word itself feels large and jagged in our mouths. “Pandemic,” like something out of a Don DeLillo novel or a memory from Pangaea. The onset time of this moment is astonishing.
I spend most of the month pacing around the bedroom in our apartment in downtown Cleveland, tied up on the phone while staring into the middle distance of the closet and discussing financial markets, epidemiological research, conspiracy theories, Italian geography, protein spikes. I express doubts. I offer uncertain empathies. Between conversations, I stumble into the kitchen and cross paths with Bridget, herself finishing a long talk with her sister or her friend in Boston. We swap the latest information, reading stray tweets to confirm our distress, shaking our heads in disbelief again. Then we walk our dog around the block and return to a glowing list of missed calls. Ding, ding, ding.
Another notification from the New York Times.
I wake up on March 11: “‘Almost Without Precedent’: Airlines Hit Hard by Coronavirus.”
There is a quiet terror in even the regular stuff like getting into the elevator each morning. Grocery shopping. Cash handling. I wrap a bandana around my face and feel the whole of society tilting as I pick up dog food one afternoon.
I tell Bridget that it’s coming our way. This compelling force. The people in Milan or Tehran or Wuhan are living in our future. Doesn’t it seem like that? What we see in the northern reaches of Italy is what will happen to us in two weeks. We’re moving along a curve now, and the curve is moving through us.
I show Bridget a photo of a burial site outside a hospital in rural Iran. “Is this what’s going to happen here? Bodies piled up in a parking lot outside the Clinic?” I pick apart line graphs, projections of a possible world. I read blog posts by Italian doctors urging us in America to act. It’s hard not to leap frightfully to conclusions, not to tie the grim exaggerations on social media into some reasoned perspective on the matter.
The future runs headlong into the present, and it’s always going to be that way.
We walk our dog, we answer the phone. We cook dinner, we work late in the dull blue glimmer of the screen.
Lockdown is imminent. “Lockdown.” Another new term, something cased in concrete and rebar, the sound of hazard alarms. We tune into the governor’s daily address—another bizarre ritual from somewhere else—and listen for clues about what this means. Begin to make new plans for your daily lived-in life.
I wake up on March 12: “U.S. to Suspend Most Travel From Europe as World Scrambles to Fight Pandemic.”
That night, I drive to a 24-hour supermarket for—what? Partly, I want to see what’s happening. I want to be involved in whatever momentum is gathering in American cities. But is there a shopping list that might help out here? Canned goods? Rice? Should I be buying jugs of water?
The parking lot is a mess. Cars idle at odd angles, and broken glass peppers the asphalt. It is midnight. But inside, the store is only half-frenzied. Toilet paper is in short supply, and milk is all but gone. I wander almost aimlessly, more like a tourist than I intended.
I get in line at checkout behind a woman who’d come for a single bottle of ketchup. She seems unsettled by the crowd, looking askance, hurrying the purchase along, but we are all a part of the same thing now. We are fusing into the future together.