A short story — written inside five hundred square feet of misery — which hints at what will unfortunately happen to many if science is ignored…
by: Jamie Valentino
It’s been a hell of a couple of months for you. Counting down the days until the end of quarantine and considering quitting Zoloft, your depression will at least make the required social distancing more desirable. At the beginning of the era of Covid-19, so much was changing; every morning came with the possibility of a new “normal.” But now, the pandemic has lost its mystique.
For months it seemed as if a different crisis held the twenty-four-hour news cycle hostage. Deadly fires destroyed celebrity properties in California in December and then scorched land and wildlife in Australia in January. A burgeoning virus was taking lives in Wuhan, China, in February, moving on to other parts of the world in March. Soon, there was only the death toll to keep up with. The total confirmed cases doubled every three days. Reported deaths spiked across the country, with it feeling as if half of them were occurring in New York. You are locked in, left to drink and eat your feelings. That one pair of pants that always needed a belt now fits like skinny jeans. You swear this will be the last time you order dessert to help the economy.
Boredom is not an accurate description of what the quarantine is like. You’re used to feeling bored. You’ve felt bored at work, dinners, and parties, even during sex. Now you’re even yawning during masturbation. Porn can be so monotonous, but that’s not the issue. It’s your tiny apartment and the four walls that feel like they’re closing in. It’s the constant presence of your roommate and the dirty plates that he piles in the sink. At least when life just sucked normally, it possessed some kind of meaning — simple pleasures. You don’t care much for a routine, but you wish you wouldn’t have taken bar hopping and fucking for granted.
Of course, the shittiness comes in tantrums. You’re smart enough to understand what’s going on around you. You’re beginning to read all the marketing emails that you would previously have unsubscribed from. Multi-million dollar corporations are bragging they’re not disposing of their employees like recyclables, offering those suffering some “support” with an extra 10% off.
Your friends tell you to be less cynical. They grasp at straws for hope in the news. Another day passes, and you read online that only six-hundred people died yesterday in the city. “Staying at home is working!”
“A decline from yesterday. We can beat this!” They say.
You think again, only? You don’t understand how six-hundred people dying in twenty-four hours can be extrapolated to look positive in a graph.
“Well, they’re mostly old.”
Your mom nags you to leave the city. “Until this is over,” she insists.
You decline in order to protect her, and for your sanity.
She’ll use anything as an excuse to spend more time with you. Still, the city being labeled as the epicenter of a deadly disease doesn’t change your desire to have your own bathroom or sleep in a queen-size bed. The twin mattress from your childhood is only bearable for a weekend. Also, your roommate booked a trip back home for next week — there’s no convincing you to leave now.
Like the rest of the world, your mom thinks New York is on fire. Yet, it’s never been more peaceful. The weather is much warmer than this time last year. You change your morning run along the Westside Highway to the evening. It’s not like you’re ever working late anymore, and you prefer sunsets over a sunrise. A cool breeze brushes against your cheek. You wonder if it could be someone’s last breath.
Wearing a mask in public is mandatory, which you totally understand. Your comprehensiveness of why it’s essential to stay at home is nauseating. People don’t shut the fuck up about it on social media. Hordes of bodies are loaded into make-shift mortuary trailers each day.
The purpose of wearing masks is to “flatten the curve” of the virus. Throughout the lockdown, you can’t help wondering if it’s vital to wear one while exercising with all the panting and sweating. You used to have a hard time breathing when running with a bandana. You notice in time that other joggers aren’t wearing masks or face protection either. Well, some are, but others aren’t. That must mean it’s okay. The truth is, Governor Cuomo should really be more specific.
“New York on Pause” is extended another two weeks for the fourth, or maybe, the fifth time. Who really knows? No one seems to know what date it is. You find this unusual because the date is clearly displayed on the lock screen of every iPhone. Influencers must be desperate for content. Celebrities continue to urge social distancing with selfies of their famous friends standing six feet away. They’re all lifestyle experts, sharing secret tips to survive, like fun exercises to do in personal gyms, or what shows to binge-watch in home theaters. You wish someone would share the trick to deal with five hundred square feet of misery.
New Yorkers, for the most part, are doing their part. You’ve had slight contact with a couple of friends, but you’re doing the best you can. Besides, this is New York City, where most people can’t even practice social distancing at home. You doubt a peaceful walk in Central Park is going to hurt anyone. It will help your mental health to enjoy some wine in the sun. For this, you wear a mask. Plus, you’re young and healthy. It’s possible to leave the house without worrying about a sneeze of death at every corner.
President Trump brags incessantly about how badly America is beating the world under his command. The highest number of cases. The highest number of hospitalizations. The highest number of deaths. The lowest amount of available tests, but you can’t win at everything.
Hundreds of people cease to exist within miles of you today. However, the war zone in the news is not emulated throughout the streets. There’s overbearing loneliness that presses like a gun against your head for company. You browse through options on various apps until your standards finally compromise with availability. With public spaces closed, it dawns on you: it’s impossible to make plans without directly asking for sex. It’s not like you haven’t done it before, but usually, it starts with the promise of a drink as a placeholder. Your roommate is finally gone. Now you can experience one moment of release without being shamed. It’ll be harmless. An orgasm isn’t going to hurt anyone anyway. When they knock on your door, you instantly remember proper grooming. It’s too late now, but who cares. It’s not like you want to end up dating someone you had a one night stand with during a pandemic. They leave immediately when it’s over, and you feel lonelier than before, but, at least, less horny.
The next day you attend a small gathering and instantly cheer up. Your allergies are acting up, and it feels like being kicked while your down. Fortunately, it’s nothing that a cocktail of Ibuprofen and Claritin can’t cure. You don’t want to be ridiculed for mucus.
The company of your closest friends is what you needed. Now that the shutdown is indefinite, you all agree to quarantine together. When the cough arrives three days later, it comes with everyone’s excuses.
“It’s probably just your smoker’s cough,” your best friend says over a glass of Merlot. The comment feeds on you, and her wine-stained teeth seem drenched in your blood. You don’t mention you quit smoking before the pandemic hit, before a Manhattan attorney infecting more than 50 people, which is where the conversation has steered. You remember being surprised the media was allowed to publish his identity. He must have been mortified in the ICU.
“His family must have been so embarrassed,” you mention to change the subject.
“They probably cared more that he was in a coma,” your friend points out.
You take a big gulp of red wine and try to push those horrible thoughts to the back of your mind. If you had it, you would know. You feel fine, and the cough is probably a mild cold. But it’s not like monsters under the bed that you can run off by simply turning on the light.
You nod at whatever your friend is saying and chug more wine. You usually would choose something less bitter, like a Pinot Grigio, but this one is okay enough. There’s no bitterness at all. The liquid slides down your throat smoothly, like water. You don’t remember when you lost your sense of taste or smell.
The world continues to happen around you. You’re charged a late payment fee on your credit card. Your landlord passive-aggressively emails you about rent. You knew the risks. You were okay with them. You prayed for the families affected while simultaneously praying it remains their problem.
You wonder what you could have done differently. Probably everything. But even if someone specifically warned you — a divine intervention — would you have listened? Society has always been better at “learning” from mistakes than preventing them. Perhaps, you should have taken Mom’s word that the stove is hot, that the virus is dangerous.
You wake up one day, and it’s like your lungs forgot how to function, how much air they require to walk to the bathroom. Your friends are blaming each other. They blame you. The group has been inconvenienced, but you’re the one dying. Governor Cuomo is still there for comfort in the news. He’s a constant reminder that you’re not alone. An incalculable amount of New Yorkers will die with you. So many, in fact, that you will share a coffin.
When you finally compromise that dying is worse than the humiliation of being carried out of your building on a stretcher, you dial 911. At this point, you’re unconscious. You can feel the paramedics try to find your heartbeat. Not because they’re concerned if you live, but to make sure that the hospital will admit you. You hear your mom saying, “I told you so.” Even in your subconsciousness, she’s always right.
They say a vaccine is in the works, maybe even a cure. Progress is being made in trial treatments. The future looks promising for future Coronavirus patients. But right now is the present and you’re about to cross the finish line. The future cannot help you. The doctors and nurses are encouraging. They say you’re doing great. All you’re doing is lying in bed, unable to sit up without losing breath.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way — if only anything were ever as it should be. As the nurse connects you to the ventilator, she assures you that it will be fine. As 80% of the ventilator patients will tell you, all is, in fact, fine when you’re dead.
Jamie Valentino is a Colombian-born columnist regularly featured in POP Style TV and W42ST Magazine. His writing has been published in Google Arts & Culture, VULKAN Magazine, LUXE Magazine, Betches, ArtSugar, and more. His subject matter previously explored the idiosyncrasies of everyday life, but after the shutdown, he found himself dabbling with fiction and writing across the margin.